DINING IN THE ALGARVE

by Giovanni PereiraClick on the SEARCH icon and enter his ID number (22763) to be taken to his personal page

First published in the UMA News Bulletin under the title Impressions of the Algarve Part II, with the pen-name "Caramba"
("Hovering" the cursor over a Portuguese word will often reveal the English translation.)

"Muito bom dia" said the waitress, greeting us as we entered what was purported to be the best chicken piri-piri house in the Algarve, high up in the Monchique mountains, a must-do vantage point which sees snow only every 60 years or so."Is it true", we asked, "we are in for a grand treat?"."Pois" came the reply. "Our wonderful, crispy, spicy frango is hard to beat and it comes with delicious chips (french fries) and salada mista (tomatoes, lettuce and onions). And so it was, specially when washed down with well chilled vinho verde.

When Vasco da Gama and his mates rounded the Cabo de Boa Esperança late in the 15th century on their way to India, not only did they make history, they forever changed the course of Portuguese cooking. He and his followers brought back cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, pepper, curry, coffee, tea (cha, almost identical to the Cantonese ch'a) and other savoury foods to the Portuguese larder. Their aim had been to break the Venetian stranglehold of the spice trade in Europe by seeking the alternative sea route to its source in the East.

The foundation of Portuguese cooking consists of olive oil, garlic, onions, salt and pepper, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, beans and rice, its basic ingredients whilst coriander (coentro), cumin (cominhos) and paprika the more commonly used spices. Parsley (salsa) is used for both flavour and decoration.

The Portuguese love affair with the sea is legendary and the bounty from it plentiful, particularly the sardine. Wherever one goes to the coast, the aroma of sardinhas assadas hits one's nasal passages. Best had during the summer months when they are at their sweetest and fattest with pão caseiro, the firm, crusty country-style bread made from unbleached flour and baked in stone ovens, and to complement the rich flavour of the sardines, remember vinho tinto not branco, because sardines are an oily fish.

However the cod takes top billing as the most popular fish. The Portuguese were believed to be fishing Newfoundland's Great Banks within a few years of Columbus's discovery of America. Unfortunately, the Great Banks have become so over fished that dried, salted cod or bacalhau has to be imported from Norway to meet demand. It is said there are 365 ways to prepare bacalhau, one for every day of the year but the most popular ways are Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá (cooked in a casserole with thinly-sliced potatoes, onions and garnished with hard-boiled eggs and black olives) and Bacalhau à Brás, made with scrambled eggs, onions and shoestring potatoes. Bolinhos de Bacalhau, better known to us, filhos de Macau, as Bolo Bacalhau, are a popular hors d'oeuvre.

Click to see full picture
Ruins in Alentejo

So too the essence of Algarve food is fish – grelhado, frito, cozido, assado à carvão as well as its shellfish. From its lagoons come clams (amêijoas) razor clams (lingueirões), mussels (mexilhões, shrimps (camarões), prawns (gambas), crabs (caranguejos), lobsters (lagostas) are all readily available as are squid (lulas), cuttlefish (chocos) and octopus (polvo).

The Moors left many indelible marks in the Algarve like the azulejos and artful chimneys. Their contribution to the culinary art is equally enduring – the omnipresent cataplana is a good example. It is actually a utensil, looking like a lidded wok and is made from copper but sometimes nowadays stainless steel. So if you have ordered amêijos e porco na cataplana, you will find clams, pork, chouriço, garlic, onions, tomatoes, peppers and herbs which will be borne to the table and then the lid unfastened to reveal a gently steaming, colourfully appetising brew that's guaranteed to get you to corre babo.

Another popular concoction is caldeirada – literally kettle of fish which fishermen brewed on the praias (beaches) of Nazaré or Sesimbra or closer to home, Sagres, beginning sometimes with sea water, and adding tomatoes, onions and garlic, then roughly equal proportions of lean and oily fish and if the catch has been good, squid and octopus too. No two caldeiradas are alike because they depend upon what the nets bring up.

Alentejo
Alentejo

So it was as well, with farmers' soups and stews, ever changing because the country women in days gone by, constantly had to improvise – a bit of chicken from Sunday's dinner, a dab of rice, a few favas (beans) left over from lunch, a handful of carrots, some left-over bread and maybe some freshly minced mint or coriander was included. This is how many of Portugal's great classic recipes were created. The soups and stews are frugal but filling, nourishing and soul-satisfying like the widely beloved caldo verde and feijoadas, made from white beans and sausages. All that is needed for accompaniment are a bottle of wine and a loaf of bread.

The Algarve also shows its Moorish tradition in its sweet puddings (doces) usually made from prodigious quantities of egg yolks and sugar, bearing such amusing names as Toucinhos do Céu (bacon from heaven) and colourfully foil-wrapped Dom Rodrigos – better known to us as Cabelo de Noiva. And how about Pudim Molotov (source of name unknown) a snowy, poached meringue made from all those surplus egg whites! Then there is the universal Pasteis de Nata – the Portuguese daan tart. Another favourite is Pudim Flan, like creme caramel. Nothing complements an egg sweet as a nice silky, syrupy wine such as a good vintage port. And naturally figs and almonds feature in many delicious sweetmeats and tit-bits.

The regional wines here are not remarkable. The Adega Cooperativa de Lagoa produces a dry, fortified wine akin to fino sherry. Most restaurants tend to use wines from the neighbouring province of Alentejo as their house wines as they are good value.

Up in the hills of the Algarve, one will come across Medronho – a veritable firewater distilled from miniature berries from the arbutus tree – much appreciated by older Algarvios to keep them from winter chills!

Some of us raised in the Far East but mostly from Hong Kong – the culinary centre of Asia – tend to be somewhat blasé about food, unless its Cantonese. For indeed, if Chinese cooking is the world's finest, then judging by worldwide demand, Cantonese cuisine has to be surely China's premier regional food. There is a well known Chinese proverb "Live in Soochow – noted for its refined ways and beautiful women – but eat in Guangzhou (Canton)". So, lucky are those, who having moved on, still have ready access to a standard of Cantonese fare in North America that is every bit as good, if not better, some say, than its home country.

Here in the Algarve, apart from one or two Cantonese restaurants in the whole of the region as the majority appear to be set up by northern Chinese and they are springing up like wild mushrooms in a rainy season. But imagine trying to engage in a serious dialogue about one's selection in Portuguese. How do you put across something like "Ngo yiu ngau yuk chow mien, nung nung teh, ho ma". And invariably at the end of a muttering, stuttering exchange, the waiter will end his order-taking by asking "Os senholes quelemos alloz blanco ou flito?"