It’s probably all the Portuguese language classes, but I’m reminded on a fairly regular basis — OK, daily — how quickly my memory is eroding now that I’m in my 40s. I look at the columns of grammar-related matrices, the scores of Portuguese vocabulary words that haven’t found their way to a permanent spot in my brain’s filing system, and I wonder how long it will take me to remember them all. And then, once memorized, how and when to use these words, in the correct order.
However, when it comes to food I never forget a flavour or a smell. If I could somehow bottle that powerful association, I would apply it to grammar and vocabulary. Maybe I should write verb conjugations in my food?? Until I figure it out, I know I should write more about these stages in my expat life so I can read these lists five years down the road and laugh at myself. I also fully expect that my list of favourite Portuguese foods will change as I discover new things. For now, one year in, these are the Portuguese dishes that tickle my fancy the most, in no particular order:
My love for bolo de bolacha (cookie cake) is well-documented, because the variations to this dessert are endless. I’ve had some excellent ones, and I’ve had some forgettable ones. It’s a rather complicated cake, and easy to mess up: some are too dry, too sweet, the cookies don’t have the right texture, the cream tastes artificial, or someone had the bright idea to put sprinkles on top instead of nuts. I’ve tried so many different bolo de bolachas I’ve stopped taking photos of them all, because that just gets boring. Now, I just photograph the ones I really like or are unique in some way, and the one above fit both criteria — the hit of cherry sauce on top was better than any icing! We passed by Régua since then, and all I could think about was that bolo de bolacha!
I’ve had a thing for alheiras since the first time I tried them, and my favourite is still the picante (spicy) version — no surprise there. I also had an excellent vegetarian one with the main ingredient being mushrooms, but I found it in a small supermarket in Penedono and haven’t seen it since. Next time I spot it, I’ll buy a few packages and freeze them.
I first had carne de porco à alentejana from a local takeaway about a year ago around the time Paulo was shipped off to the U.S. for work. I had no idea I would like it as much as I did — for one thing, I don’t get excited over clams. But there’s something about the tangy combination of clams and pork in a white wine broth that calls out my name on the rare occasion I see it on a menu here in the north. It’s a regional dish, and the name alentejana (“from Alentejo”) refers to Portugal’s largest region, which covers much of the lower half of the country except the southern beaches. Another reason I’m a fan of carne de porco à alentejana is the coriander, which isn’t used much in the north but used liberally in the Alentejo.
The photo above was taken on our road trip to the south in September, in a restaurant in coastal Alentejo (Costa Vicentina), by a tiny island called Ilha do Pessegueiro (“Peachtree Island”). It’s an isolated little beach restaurant that is a perfect example of how Portugal’s treasures seem to be hidden away, as if to reward only the most adventurous or persistent. In North America we’re accustomed to eyesore signage and “Best Of” lists and glowing reviews in the papers to lead the gastronomic way, but here in Portugal there is really nothing of the sort. The best way to find a place to eat is to show up and ask someone, or just roll up and go with your gut…
Perhaps it goes without saying that I’d find the best carne de porco à alentejana in the Alentejo, but I ordered this dish twice before on the trip, once in the eastern Alentejo and later in the Algarve, and neither held a candle to this one — every ingredient was superior. You’d think I would’ve given up on this dish after two tries in less than a week, but maybe the third time’s a charm, or just maybe I’m proving my theory about Portugal’s treasures being hidden away, in this case on a beach with nothing else around.
You can’t tell from this low-grade picture from my phone, but this was the best bacalhau com natas I’ve ever made. It took several attempts, but I finally tweaked the nutmeg-enriched creamy cod flavour to my satisfaction, and my only complaint was not making enough of it. Bacalhau (dried codfish) is one of those foods I want to experiment with, because it’s such a big part of the gastronomy in Portugal and if I’m going to eat a lot of it, I want to make it my own way… that said, bacalhau com natas is a dish that is consistently good in any Portuguese restaurant, so if you would like an introduction to bacalhau, I would recommend it com natas, except for the lactose-intolerant.
Bacalhau à brás was my introduction to bacalhau in 2011, when Paulo made it for a group dinner of couchsurfers (including me) and friends. Once the cod is soaked, it is incredibly simple to cook and FAR less labour-intensive than bacalhau com natas, but the only reason I don’t recommend this as the introduction bacalhau dish to newcomers is that it’s rarely on the restaurant menus. However, if you are lactose-intolerant, this would be the bacalhau dish to try, because the only ingredients other than codfish are onions, eggs, potato sticks, and parsley. Compared to com natas, bacalhau à brás is so easy and quick I think it’s much more of a home dish than a restaurant dish, but try both and see for yourself!
And last but not least, since I consume this more than anything else in Portugal…
I know this isn’t food, but I have to give a shout out to the Portuguese for their high standards of coffee. I have never had a bad cup of coffee in Portugal yet. Extra points for serving it up on the beach!
I mostly Instagram my food: http://instagram.com/gailatlarge
My Portuguese Food & Drink Pinterest board: