My boyfriend Rodrigo and I spent a fortnight driving through Portugal on holiday a couple of years ago, and I have fond memories of the landscapes, the architecture and the food from that time. One of my favourite places in Portugal (and in the world, perhaps), is the city of Sintra. Sintra is relatively small, and almost completely green. There are breathtaking gardens, plants and trees absolutely everywhere, and anyone who has been to my house knows that I have a bit of a “thing” about plants, so I was in heaven. There are many historic manors and castles, and even the architecture of the day-to-day houses is old and beautiful. Suffice to say, of all the places on earth that I have visited, that place was the most “me”. We also had a surreal experience in a small beach town called Lagos, which has some of the most beautiful coastal rock formations and landscapes I’ve ever seen. On entering Lagos, we both commented on how much it reminded us of Australian coastal landscapes and beach towns. Then, as I walked through the city centre on the first day, I thought I was surely having some sort of neurological malfunction, because I kept hearing Australian accents everywhere. It all reached a terrifying pinnacle when I saw a shop selling boomerangs and didgeridoos: I turned back to find Rodrigo, and desperately tried to confirm that I was, indeed, not hallucinating. It turns out that I was perfectly lucid, and that Aussies just naturally flock to this town, which has some of the best surfing in the northern hemisphere, and is purportedly the best Byron-Bay-away-from-Byron-Bay. I had already been travelling for a few weeks by this point, so it was nice to hear a few Aussie accents… until it wasn’t anymore.
Polvo a lagareiro
“Polvo” means octopus, and “lagareiro” means a person who works in an olive oil mill. You can therefore be sure that there is a reasonable amount of octopus and olive oil in this dish. Indeed “a lagareiro” is a general style with which to cook fish with various preparations of whole smashed potatoes and olive oil, most traditionally bacalhau (salted cod), which is an integral part of Portguese cuisine that we will come to later. However, the beauty of the large sea creature nestled among the potatoes was too bewitching for me to resist, and I’ve always been a sucker for the taste of octopus (pun intended). I made my dish by first boiling a large whole octopus along with a whole onion (but no salt, which apparently toughens the flesh) for half an hour or more until tender. The octopus can then be grilled or baked (I baked it) in the same dish as baby potatoes, chopped coriander and garlic, seasoning, and frankly obscene amounts of olive oil. There are many ways to tenderise large octopus (not so necessary for baby octopus) prior to grilling/baking, including freeze-thawing, beating and hanging out to dry in the sun: a quintessentially Mediterranean outdoor furnishing, This was the first time I had tried the boiling-then-baking method and found the flesh perfectly tender, with a sensuous contrast of crispiness in the end tentacles versus soft and succulent meat nearer the head. The end result of this dish is a truly shocking complexity of merging flavours that far exceeds the simple list of ingredients.
Bacalhau à brás
Rather than having a specific national dish, Portugal has more of a national ingredient: bacalhau. Bacalhau is dried and salted cod, and despite the fact that Portugal is a renowned lover of fresh fish, with their fish consumption per capita the highest in the European union, so it may seem a bit strange that this coastal country would have such a deep affection for a preserved fish, generally primarily necessary for landlocked regions. The beginnings of bacalhau date back to around 500 years ago, and may have arisen due to the low oil content of cod flesh, making it particularly amenable to the salting and drying process, as well as the utility of this ingredient for long sea voyages without refrigeration at a time when Portugal was centrally involved in the discovery and colonisation of the New world. Salted cod is now undoubtedly the most iconic Portuguese ingredient, with the honorary nickname of “fiel amigo” meaning “loyal friend”, and the number of Portuguese dishes that include the beloved fish are often said to number in the hundreds. Bacalhau was therefore a must to cook for Portuguese week, but it was difficult to pick just one dish, with classics in the running such as bacalhau com natas (a casserole of salted cod with cream), bolinhos de bacalhau (salted cod croquettes), bacalhau à zé do pipo (salted cold baked with mashed potato and mayonnaise), and bacalhau com todos (salted cod tossed together with boiled vegetables, garlic and hardboiled egg). Bacalhau à Brás, however, was my ultimate choice, with the “Brás” portion of the name legendarily referring to the name of its creator, a tavern owner in the Lisbon neighbourhood of Bairro Alto. To make it, I first soaked the salted cod overnight in cold water, subsequently boiling it and flaking the flesh off from the bones. I then caramelised slices of onion, then stirring the salted cod pieces and finally a few beaten eggs and fried matchsticks of potato. I topped off the dish with some chopped parsley and black olives. Potatoes and eggs are frequent accompaniments to salted cod in the long lists of recipes, and, as I found, for good reason. The starch and creamy protein combination perfectly offsets the salty flesh off the cod and creates the ultimate comfort food. Upon trying the salted cod I began to understand the love of the ingredient surpassing even fresh fish: the flesh stays fantastically firm, without being rubbery or gelatinous, and has a great salty flavour. I suspect that picky eaters who usually turn their nose up at any seafood might even be tempted by this relatively mild flavour and texture.
Frango Português with chips, corn, rice and migas
Of course, I had to make frango Português – Portuguese chicken. This is probably the best-known culinary export from Portugal, first and foremost because of the fast food chain “Nando’s”, which is actually a South African-based chain that specialises in Portuguese chicken. In Australia and other English-speaking countries, it’s a running joke that to order your chicken with the least spicy “lemon and herb” marinade at Nando’s is tantamount to social suicide, with Nando’s employees revealing that numerous gentlemen on dates secretly ask them to pretend their lemon and herb order is “medium” so that they might appear more macho. What a world. Portuguese chicken is usually large pieces of chicken, cooked over hot coals and basted with a piri piri marinade. Piri piri translates to “pepper pepper” in Swahili, and refers to a variety of chilli endemic to southern Africa that was adopted by the Portuguese and spread across the world via the Portuguese colonies. The most famous use of this pepper is piri piri sauce, which is Portuguese in origin and made with chillies, onion, lemon, paprika, basil, oregano, and pepper. The sauce is a nice mix between salty, sweet and acidic, and perfectly complements roasted or grilled chicken. I served the chicken with chips because, really, what goes better together than chicken and chips? Also on my (at this point, frankly overloaded) plate was grilled corn, rice and migas, the latter being a salad made with kale, garlic, black beans, pine nuts and fresh bread crumbs. Such simple ingredients truly produced a powerhouse of a salad – I particularly liked the contrasting textures of the soft beans and crunchy breadcrumbs. I can see this easily slotting into my regular salad rotation as it would effortlessly complement almost any main dish I can think of.
Arroz de pato
Those of you paying close attention may remember that the beginning of my culinary journey marked my discovery of the wonders of duck and instant passionate love affair. I don’t speak Portuguese, but I know enough Spanish to recognise that “arroz” means “rice” and “pato” means “duck”. I needed no further convincing. Arroz de pato is sort of like the Portuguese version of a paella, using the same variety of rice, called Calasparra. I first made the rice base, with chicken stock, onions, carrots, leeks, celery, garlic, tomato, saffron, bay leaves, cloves, parsley, pepper and lots of thyme. I’ve noticed that people from the mediterranean and latin America prepare rice differently from those in Asia and Australia. My Chilean boyfriend Rodrigo calls plain steamed white rice “hospital rice”, because only those on their death bed would eat something so bland. Over there, even plain rice is prepared by frying up a bit of onion, garlic, salt and pepper, then frying the raw rice in the same oil, which apparently imparts flavour to it and also helps to make the grains separate and not glue together in the final product. They then add water or stock to the pan and put the lid on, and wait until the rice is just cooked before serving. I agree that it is definitely a much tastier way to prepare rice. I cooked the rice for this dish in a similar way, except that there were many more vegetables to begin with. I then added confit duck leg and crispy duck skin throughout the rice, and layered fried chorizo and medium-rare duck breast on top. I once heard a comedian make a comment to the effect of “if you eat chicken undercooked, you die, but duck? Delicious. What’s up with that?”. I have to say, I quite agree, it’s very confusing when you first realise that medium-rare is the only acceptable way to cook duck. Nevertheless, it renders the duck very tender and juicy, and nobody who ate it got sick, so I’m more than willing to comply. I tried a secret technique for cooking the duck skin that I had heard furtively whispered in dark corridors, but never truly believed. Once I’d finished cooking the breasts in a hot pan, and then a medium oven (which is purportedly the “right” way), I pulled off the mildly-crispy skin and put it on a paper towel in the microwave. I then pulsed it for 10 second intervals, checking and turning the skin in between. What resulted was perfectly crispy skin, crunchy but still a bit juicy, and not at all burned. I was so impressed, I will always use this technique, and I have a feeling it would also work the same for chicken skin, pork crackling and bacon, although don’t quote me on that… I’m a little afraid of what this knowledge might do to the world.