With a five-day window in our upcoming trip to UK, we’re trying to think of somewhere in Europe to visit; a cheap, quick flight to an intriguing destination, where we’ve never been, and with an opportunity to sample the local cuisine.
Even though I personally believe the corona virus scare has been blown out of all proportion, we have to take note of the fact that much of northern Italy is in lockdown. Venice, for once, is deserted. Cruises have been abandoned by the score: who wants to be locked up in a floating condo with sick people, as my esteemed cruising colleague David Moorcroft writes in Zombie Ships?
And Turkey and Greece, where we might have gone to Istanbul or the islands, look as though they are being swamped by hordes of economic migrants and refugees from the east. I had promised my beloved Diane April in Paris for her birthday, but it looks dismal, with lines of disgruntled tourists being turned away from a locked-down Louvre.
Several discussions with well-traveled friends offer another solution: Portugal.
David and his charming wife Gail visited Lisbon on a cruise and wrote of their day trip in Iberia’s Golden City, but we’re looking for a longer visit. We settle on the Riviera Portuguesa, the affluent region to the west of Lisbon, centered on the coastal cities of Cascais, Estoril and Sintra. We book an ocean view hotel in Cascais (pronounced, I discover, Kash-kaesh). With a full day devoted to the rigors of travelling, we still have four full days to experience our destination. When Diane writes to a friend that we’re thinking of visiting Portugal, she replies that she’s actually staying in Cascais for a couple of weeks and having a marvellous time. Mentioning this coincidence in the local coffee shop, the chap at the next table chips in that his Portuguese girl friend is from Cascais and they’re going back there shortly for a visit. All the stars seem to align for a memorable visit.
Being a foodie, the first thing I start researching is the favourite foods of Portugal, of which I have zero experience. At the end of a couple of hours of reading, I’m drooling at the thought of so many delicious treats yet to come, although Diane has her doubts about the contents of some of the top dishes. Be assured that I will not mention pig’s trotters, ears or snouts, whole octopi, veal or tripe and other offal, although these are apparently all used frequently in Portuguese cooking. Instead, I will only mention dishes that metaphorically pass my sniff test.
Every source agrees that Portuguese custard tarts, pastéis de nata, are irresistible, so they go to the top of my list. Toronto has a large Portuguese community, so that’s where we’ll go to start taste testing, one pastel de nata at a time.
The same sources reveal that the original tarts came from a Belém pastry shop in 1837, where they were made by monks who had been expelled from their monastery and began baking pastries to make money. Pastéis de Belém still uses the secret recipe and bakes over 10,000 tarts per day. Even with this volume, visitors have to get there early to buy some of their delicious offerings. We can get to Belém easily by train, one stop before Lisbon, on our short journey from Cascais. Ironically, the shop is opposite a McDonalds and next door to a Starbucks.
In Toronto we buy pastéis at a bakery in the historic St. Lawrence Market. They arrive warm from the oven as we order. Several do not survive the walk back to the car. Clearly more research is required!
My next foray into Portuguese cuisine is at Toronto’s Via Norte Restaurant where owner and chef Jose Alves rules the kitchen. He started cooking in Portugal at the age of 13 and hasn’t stopped since. As the place wasn’t too busy the night we dined, he stepped away from his culinary duties to greet us personally and wish us well on our journey through cozinha Portugesa.
To start, we sampled the famous green soup, caldo verde, with potato, onion, thinly sliced kale and a drizzle of olive oil. It can also be served with spicy sausage, but we are glad of the vegetarian version.
In Lisbon, the smell of grilled sardines apparently infuses the streets for the whole month of June, when locals host a festival dedicated to the tiny fish. The Festas de Santo António, honoring the city’s patron saint, is celebrated on my birthday, 12 June. I’m touched. As an appetiser, I try sardinhas grelhadas, grilled fillet of sardines with charred peppers, grilled pineapple, mushrooms, topped with onion confit.
We ordered wine by the glass, as I was unsure whether I would have any. But Diane’s glass of Alvarinho Deu la Due vinho verdé was so perfect an accompaniment that I stepped away from my usual wineless regime and indulged in not one but two glasses, noting the floral and citrus notes. For complete authenticity, we drank Luso, a Portuguese mineral water.
Our mains were traditional; grilled monkfish, or tamboril, for one and grilled cod, or bacalhau grelhado, for the other, both served with broccoli, rapini and potatoes. Packed like a suitcase, I had to try the natas do céu or ‘heavenly cream,’ a version of tiramisu, topped with more cream than was good for me. A strong cup of café expresso, or bica, acted as a digestive, along with a glass of very fine port, sent with chef’s compliments.
Our culinary journey was well launched. There will be more, much more, to come, but for now I’ll offer my take on caldo verde, served with crusty Portuguese yellow corn bread for dipping, milho amarelo also called broa de milho.
- 1 large onion, peeled and chopped finely
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped finely
- 4 large white fleshed potatoes, peeled and diced
- 1 L/4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
- ½ L/2 cups water
- 1 bay leaf
- Sea salt and ground black pepper to taste
- 1 bunch dark kale, such as Lacinato, washed, de-stalked and shredded (about 100 g/3.5 oz when shredded)
- OPTIONAL: chouriço (chorizo sausage) or linguica (traditional smoked pork sausage)
- OPTIONAL: broa de milho (Portuguese yellow cornbread with a crusty exterior and soft interior)
Preparation and cooking
- Peel a large onion and chop very finely. Peel a clove of garlic and chop finely. Wash, peel and dice 4 large white fleshed potatoes. Wash a whole bunch of dark kale, remove the stems and chop the leaves into fine shreds.
- Pour a little EVOO (extra virgin olive oil) into a cooking pot and heat. Add the onion and fry until transparent. Add the garlic and stir in. Add the potatoes and fry for about 2 mins. Pour in the stock and water and bring to a boil. Add a bay leaf. Add a pinch of sea salt. Turn down the heat and simmer for about 20 mins, until the potatoes are starting to disintegrate. Remove bay leaf and discard.
- Put the mixture into a blender and purée. Do it in several batches, if necessary. Return to the pot and bring back to a bubble. Check for seasoning and add sea salt and ground black pepper to taste.
- Stir in the shredded kale and cook until the greens are soft, about 5 mins.
- Ladle into an earthenware bowl (if you want to be really authentic) and garnish with a drizzle of Portuguese EVOO on top. Serve with a chunk of broa de milho, crusty yellow corn bread.
- OPTION: If you wish to add a meat component, which is quite traditional, and you have a Portuguese butcher available, slice a spicy sausage, such as chouriço (chorizo) or linguiça de porco (pork sausage) into rounds, and fry them along with the onions at step 2. Remove the sausage and set aside on a kitchen towel, leaving the fat behind for additional flavour. Add two or three slices of sausage to each bowl before serving.
NOTE: Toronto readers should note that as always I shopped at the St. Lawrence Market. The vegetables were purchased from Urban Fresh Produce, owned by Anthony Pronesti and Luis Soares, both Portuguese. The custard tarts were purchased from Eve’s Temptations, where the delivery man assured me they were fresh out of the oven at a nearby Portuguese commercial bakery.
Elsewhere, a good source for broa de milho is Nova Era Bakery, with seven locations in the city, including one on Dundas Street West in Little Portugal. They too have outstanding pastéis de nata, many other baked Portuguese specialties, and serve coffee and snacks at café tables to one side.
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Categories: Simply food