You can take your snow and pretty lights, your Glühwein and hot puddings and you can stick it. Really, I’ve tried your northern hemisphere christmas and I’m not convinced.
Australian Christmas rules.
After all, it is an insufferable season wherever you are. Obscene commercialism, nonsensical symbolism and forced frivolity all wrapped up in the vapid myth of a little baby jesus who apparently brings a little hope, peace and love – except that the location for his story is one of the sorriest and hateful places on the planet.
So if you’ve gotta do this Christmas thing, let it at least be sunny.
In Sydney, Christmas starts on December 1, the first day of summer, or whenever the temperature reaches 28 degrees and the sun beats down so hard that you have to wear a hat or otherwise your nose will melt off your face.
At this early part of The Silly Season (as it is known in scientific circles) all the folk start lighting up their barbeques, rush the bottle shop for cases of beer and invite the mates around. Office Christmas parties also erupt in a frenzy of regretful boozing and wearing of embarrassing hats. Suddenly it’s ok to wear thongs (flip flops, dear, the undies are called g-strings), shorts and dirty little dresses to the office because it’s too bloody hot and too bloody busy and no one could give a stuff anyway because of the way the boss behaved at the aforementioned firm’s function.
Around this time beer and wine sales are reported as a news item. Sales go particularly ballistic sparkling wine/champagne sector. You will not attend any gathering between December and January without the frothy gear unless it’s an AA meeting.
And there’s no better cure for a hangover than blobbing on the beach and splashing in the sea. While average air temperatures are around 25, which for us is a bit average, the sea makes its way from 17 (bit chilly) to 21 or 22 (lovely). In Sydney the water never gets too warm, unlike Northern Queensland where it’s nothing more than a warm bath seething with lethal marine life. No, not here. At the right beaches in Sydney there are dolphins, a penguin or two, and whales within sight from shore, not forgetting swimming labradors and kelpies on longboards. Get yourself a snorkel and you can visit the blue gropers and a million other smaller fish in the optimum visibility that is Sydney’s coastline.
Christmas proper starts with the friends’ backyard lunch, a convivial and culinary affair where the French champagne and the freshly shucked oysters are a irrefutable sign that everything is right in the universe. Kiddlies frolic in fancy dress and someone always passes out.
Next we have the family festivities. My family is enormous and despite 40 years of experience I can never seem to stay out of the mayhem of it (unless I’m 10 thousand miles away, that is). It always takes 20 emails, a few squabbles, a bit of hassle and a day or two of cooking. And then the day itself, which can only be approached with a glass of champagne and a valium. Anyway, this year was a bit special. It’s the first time the family have been all together for 6 years and it was a very cheerful and relaxing day. Of course, it was outside. Kids went swimming in the lake. It was hot. We had to wear hats.
If there is a traditional Australian Christmas menu (and in my experience the tradition is to be non-traditional) it goes something like this. Prawns. Tiger Prawns. More prawns. Oysters; mangoes; cold ham & turkey; salads; green, asian and italian. Avocados. Fish. Beer. Champagne. Prawns.
Oh, and in my family we always have a home-made, hand-made ice cream, of multiple flavours.
On Christmas day itself a few family leftovers came over to our place. We had oysters: sydney rock and boffin bay. Sashimi; salmon and kingfish. Garlic prawns. Turkey leftovers. Rocket, bocconcini and grape tomatoes. Pavlova, passionfruit. And there was a bolo de bolacha but we were too stuffed by then. It was raining; we played Cluedo and Trivial Pursuit. The sun came out; we went to the beach. Gloat.
Posting about bacalhau on your Portugal blog1 is about as original a subject as beaches of the Algarve. It’s lame. It’s beginner’s guide. But I’m not going to tell you how great cod is, I’m not going to write about how we should stop eating this vulnerable fish, nor attempt to explain the Portuguese obsession with it. Except to say, in case you don’t know, bacalhau is an fundamental ingredient of the Portuguese condition.
Bacalhau is not fish, my friend Isabel says. It’s altogether another food group.
And because this dried cod beast is so in your face – stinking out the supermarket, on every single restaurant menu, huge flanks of it at the Saturday market, plain boiled, served with cabbage and put in front of you to eat at Christmas – it rather polarises people.
The One hates bacalhau.
But I don’t mind it. I like how you can use it as kitchen decoration for a month while working up an appetite for it.
So I decided to see if I could change The One‘s mind. He has a few food foibles that he carries with him from childhood, as you do, but if I ignore his claims against aubergine (for example) and do something tasty and discreet he scoffs it down like he never really knew what an aubergine was.
A riskier mission with bacalhau. It looks like a big flaky white fish. It tastes like a big salty flaky white fish.
Plan One. I’ll call it fish and chips! His favourite!
Comments? “I hate Bacalhau”.
So in the next recipe I disguised it better. Shredded, mixed in a bowl with mash potato, rice, lemon, garlic & herbs, and then rolled into balls and fried. Fish cakes, we call them. But more like arancini than patansicas.
Comments? “Salty. Have they got bacalhau in them?”
Next I went for a radical cultural departure and made a Thai style soup. A tom yam soup base, with red chillies, lemongrass, lime and coriander, then loads of garlic, shredded carrot & red pepper, onion, chunks of fish, vermicelli noodles, bean shoots and topped with sliced cabbage.
Comment? “I like the soup, as always. But the fish totally spoils it.”
Perhaps bacalhau shouldn’t be used out of context then? Maybe the Portuguese like it so much because they’ve mastered it? Fancy that?
My friend Eric spontaneously announced his latest favourite weekly staple – bacalhau a bras! I’d heard of this thing but never known what it was, and by Eric’s reckoning, it’s an easy, yummy, one pan meal that a bloke would like. A couple of days of fish soaking later and I’m onto it.
Make French fries, as thin as you can, and violently deep fry them while trying to keep them from turning into hash cakes. Drain most of the oil from the pan and throw in onion and garlic and chunks or shreds of fish – however boneless – then beat up some eggs with cream, pepper and parsley, turn down the heat and throw them in the pan, followed by half of the fries. Turn it over once or twice then dish it up with more fries, some lemon wedges and, if you have an English husband to convince, one with a dubious culinary history, a splodge of tomato sauce on the side.
Comments: “Mmmmm this is goooood!”
I wait until he has cleaned the plate before telling him about the bacalhau element.
“I liked it anyway.”
“So it’s a pass?”
“Is there any more?”
Yay… it can be done! I decide I should cement this victory with another attempt. This time I go back to the English (where I started and failed) and select a recipe from Jamie Oliver.
It’s just a simple pan fried fillet in butter, with garlic, capers, coriander, parsley and dill.
Comment? “Yum. You can do that again.”
“It was bacalhau”.
“I know. It’s ok. I like it like that.”
1 The Bacalhau Chronicles is completely exempt from these comments. This is a blog only about bacalhau. And that makes it ok
The spring rolls were wrapped, the fish cakes prepared, the squid and chicken marinated. It was time to start the summer 2012 vinho verde tasting.
For the uninitiated, vinho verde – literally green wine but more correctly it means young wine – is a national treasure. It’s a very old wine style unique to Portugal and only produced in the North (cold, wet) where it has its very own little DOC. The Minho is a spectacular region with a different look to the rest of Portugal. Granite is the predominant stone there – unlike the dark grey/clay schist colours of the Beira Litoral, where I am, the North’s houses are built with massive pale grey granite slabs – as are the roads, town squares, and pillars and posts that provide structures in the vineyards. There the grapes are grown very high off the ground on tall vertical pergolas. Originally these structures were designed to solve boundary disputes - aided by their high visibility and clear and permanent demarcation lines – but like the espigeiros they are now just a part of the grand Northern landscape.
Although vinho verde can come in red and rosé it is most commonly white, pale, fruity, acidic and with a light bubbliness which is a key part of its charm. Broadly speaking it has a lowish alcohol content which further adds to its conviviality. I first drank vinho verde on a cold November night in a small bar in Viana do Castelo where they serve it in little blue and white bowls. Like most novices I drank far too much and ended up with a wicked hangover. Bubbles, quaffability and a headache – that’s vinho verde.
It should have been obvious to me that as a party drink, the greens to not apply themselves well to a properly conscientious judging. I regret to say that the results make us look like a bunch of drunken buffoons, which we were, or else the pursuit of excellence in the vinho verde denomination is a total sham.
Here’s a list of things we did that you shouldn’t do at a serious wine tasting.
1. eat, although cheese is permitted, but only with reds
2. use the same glass, plastic ones
3. get drunk
4. tell hilarious stories and distract everyone from the job at hand
5. mix the wines with sticky Mississippi mud pie, a tart apricot flan and a spongy, gooey chocolate torte
6. forget to drink any water
I planned well, really. But it got out of hand. It’s not my fault. It just all went terribly wrong.
We started with a Casal Garcia. Medium priced, highly exportable, ubiquitous, Casal Garcia is a crowd pleaser of a vinho verde and a decent benchmark to sort the grass from the weeds.
Three or five glasses of that later we started on wine number two, which came out all red and was unanimously rejected. Vinho Verde Tinto, tautology in a cup, is an acquired taste. Revolting, I mean.
So with some anticipation came wine number three, named “Veronica do Lenço” for the occasion*, and she was all frothy which was generally thought of as a bad thing. The commentarios, yet earnest and legible, were unanimous – thin, sweet and low scoring.
The fourth wine, “Sangue” was a rosé and it delighted the punters with its pinky colour, raspberry-floral nose and its surprisingly well-balanced palate and dry finish. This wine defeated the reputation of rosés being sickly lolly-water. “Interesting, curious and very good” and with very high scores all round.
The next wine “Pedro” was generally well liked but received average scores. A guest named Jean Batiste Porquelin commented that it was good with seafood (perhaps the salt and pepper squid had been served) but Gary Busey thought it was too sour.
The entrance of “Agonia” caused somewhat of a stir and the bottle was finished on the first round. Perhaps that’s why the comments are rather thin and difficult to read. Muito vinho and very drinkable perhaps describe the moment best. Very high scores were given and while the rosé was already assumed to be Casal Garcia, this one got everyone guessing. Or showing off. Acting like wino afficionados. It was very Sydney for a moment.
I think this was when the lemon chicken was brought out, which I considered to be the best dish of the night. Everyone was happy, and the next wine was also a winner. “Os Ladrões” was described as perfect, light and sweet by Oscar Wilde and cheap shit but nice by Jason Donovan. High scores, although it was recognised as a cheapie.
From then on we were on a downhill slope. The next three wines lived true to their given names. “Madelena” was a whore of a wine and scores went plummeting. “A Queda” did indeed and “Gethsemane” was depressing.
All this coincided with the fried spring rolls and their exquisite sweet chilli sauce, sending many guests into eulogies of sloppy rapture. Was it a major food/wine faux pas?
Fortunately the next wine saved the night. “Sireneu” was described by Matt Damon as inspiring, Pussy McVibie liked the nice bubbles, Gargantua thought it was leve and muito euti havel and Penelope Keith was under the table. Kyle (Broflovski I presume, going by the handwriting) called it sweet and sour, which was good, but Molière said it was like formaldehyde. Nevertheless, high scores.
Then disaster struck.
The biggest fattest Mississippi mud pie arrived. A chocolate marshmallow sludge bath of decadence and mortal sin. The One and I had two gross helpings and then sat back looking like Jabba the Hut twins. Not to be easily satiated though, we then went all healthy and had a whopping section of awesome Apricot pie, the acid perfectly cutting the rich mousse of the mudster. And then came the chocolate torte, quite light and spongy on top but moist and dense underneath. It was like a quality mattress that I wanted to spend the rest of the night lolling about on.
The next two, final wines, made everyone pull ugly faces, gesticulate, gag and some guests even rushed to use the neighbours’ spittoon/garden ornament. Horrivél, antifreeze, nasty, poisonous, acid, vile and a whole lot of portuguese bad words peppered the commentary with neither wine beating a score of 2 out of 10. Total. From 15 judges.
Luckily it was all over then. Or so I thought. In the morning I found one bottle that was left behind. Label-less. Even with a murderous hangover I instinctively felt that this was the one that got away, the rightful champion of the night. But how would we ever know?
the wines the scores the prices
crucifixocasal garcia41 €3.29
pilatesponte de barca tinto19 €2.29
veronica de lençovia latina22 €2.29
o sanguecasal garcia rosé44 €3.29 FIRST
agoníacampo de gruta (lidl)43 €1.69 SECOND
os ladrõesaldeia do sol40 €1.29 FOURTH
madalenaarinto quinta de santa maria30 €3.60
a quedatorre de menagem21 €2.99
sireneucoop agricola de felgueiras41 €1.59 THIRD
chicotearloureiro muros antigos20
mariaadega de monçao14 €2.59
Frankly I’m shocked, appalled and horrified that, outside of the respectable Casal Garcia we chose the very cheapest as our favourites. I had no such pretensions about the how-low-can-you-go whites or reds, and the co-op felguerias is even The One and my own Wednesday wowser. But, but, I drink a lot of vinho verde and I’ve come to think that there is a difference between the cheap and the noble and price being no object I’d choose to drink an alvarinho Deu la Deu over a cooperativo any day. I’ve become a vinho verde snob, you see. I should’ve made the tasting rule to be only expensive vinho verde. But how would the results be skewed if there were more alvarinhos on the list?
You see there are vinho verdes and vinhos verde. The grapes permitted in the denominação are Loureiro, Azal, Trajadura, Arinto (Pederña) and Avesso, which are most commonly blended – nearly everything on our list was blended.
Then there’s the alvarinho grape, which is only grown in the sub-region of Monçao and Melgaço. Alvarinho grapes are never included in a blend and vintage has more importance, making these wines more expensive. Of the other grapes only Loureiro and Arinto are used as varietals.
This makes finding your own vinho verde easier. Just find out which grape you prefer – some labels, like Via Latina, make a blended, a loureiro and an alvarinho, which would make for a fair night’s testing, more or less. The Aveleda label has the same range.
In final tippage, vinho verde is green wine. It is meant to be drunk young. Unless you really know your label and vintage, don’t bother choosing anything more than 2 years old. Age is no friend to this drink and nor is serving it anything other than very, very cold. After opening a bottle, chill it, or by the end of the bottle you’ll be wondering where all the charm has gone.
*shall I explain why all the wines have new testament names? Actually no I don’t think so, because in the end they were not necessary because everyone arrived at the same time and therefore the stations of the wine idea never eventuated. A decent party is an organic beast.
Making my aquaintance with Portuguese bread has been similar to discovering Portuguese cheese. At first I thought the Portuguese had got it all wrong, what with the tasteless mass-produced fresh cheese offered on every restaurant table. Totally boring, I thought. But these first impressions were wrong. There is a world of decadence out there, of both cheese and bread, if you know where to look.
So here it is. The Papo Seco, or white roll, is the family staple of Portuguese bread. It is breakfast to the suburbs and not called dry throat for nothing. It is ordinary. And stale the next day. I prefer the smaller, cuter, Bico, or beak. Straight from the oven with butter and vegemite. Yum.
The bread truck’s horn is our alarm clock. I’ve given strict instructions to Bruno the Bread Man to start honking as soon as the village is in sight as waking up, getting up, pulling on coat, finding money, finding shoes and running down to the road takes much longer than the brief window of opportunity he normally allows on a stop. If I was organised then I’d hang out a bag with the next day’s order but I have an ingrained habit of breakfast spontaneity. I can’t decide the night before what I’ll want the next morning. And unlike the bread truck at our previous village, this one has more than the usual to choose from. It has cakes.
After the white rolls, the next most popular bread in our village is the Cacete. It too is white and no different in recipe than the rolls, but that’s like saying there’s no difference between spaghetti and spirale. They have different functions. The Cacete’s job is to make a good sandwich. The One is a sandwich enthusiast and he rates the Cacete for this purpose. It’s light and fluffy with a crunchy crust. Excellent with just tuna or ham, also good with jam. But rubbish as toast.
Other whites include the baguette, which can be the same shape as the French but not the same, and pão forma – a square loaf, sometimes twice as long as a loaf of sliced white death. It’s used in cafes for tosta mista, (ham and cheese toasted sandwich) and torradas (toast) cut an inch thick with lashings of butter. Bring your own home made jam and order up a galão and breakfast bliss is yours.
Moving on to where there are more variables and opportunity for baker’s creativity. The Mistura is the Portuguese light brown bread, it also comes in rolls and loaves. At about 37% wholemeal, it is as I say, light brown, not brown. Pão de Mistura is mostly ordinary, but if you shop around you can find exceptional loaves in this class. Anyone near Vila Facaia (Pedrogão Grande territory) should try their mistura, now available from the small supermarket rather than from a bearded woman in a shoe in the wall shop with “depósito de pão” handwritten above the door. I always wondered if she was the baker too and I suspect so, if only to drawn a line between a curious old woman and a curiously delicious kind of bread. Ultra spongey, moist and elastic. I have been known to eat an entire loaf in one sitting. And it seems bakers around here have started copying the Vila Facaia style… I suspect it’s doubling the yeast or something. The bread truck’s mistura is pretty good.
Better though is the Pão de Agua. Note the irregular shape of the loaf, signalling its slightly rustic and artesenal character. I think it’s made with white flour but it’s not especially white in colour. The best way to describe the flavour is watery. I’ve no idea why it’s better than the mistura but it is. The bread’s texture however can be very holey and therefore renders it unacceptable for sandwiches according to The One (who goes a little overboard with mayonnaise). I don’t mind a bit of oozing with toast, and toasted, the Pão de Agua is unreal.
The same can be said for a Pão da Avó, which has a similarly rustic and home made personality: grandmother-style to be sure. It’s made from a stronger dough with more wholemeal flour. Then there’s something called Pão Rustico, which I’d say is the name given to something that is not a Mistura, Agua or Avó.
This here is a Broa de Milho. I suppose one might say this is the traditional Portuguese bread. Very dense, with a tightly woven texture, quite dry. Has a much longer shelf life than the others. Makes excellent toast. It is not corn bread as the name suggests, but half cornflour (maizena, cornstarch) and half wheat flour. Always keep your eye our for a real Broa de Milho which looks just the same except yellow because it’s made with corn meal. Quite special.
That’s it for the basic range, all you can expect really from a bread truck. Next stop is your local pastelaria or dedicated padaria where you’ll find more interesting shapes and flavours, of infinite regional variety. My favourite regional bread is Pão de Alentejana, a cojoined-twin looking white loaf that a local café makes even though we are not in the Alentejo. Portuguese will argue it’s not authentic – if you want to be sure it’s the genuine article, you’ll have to go to the very region to find out. I’m not so pendantic about the names, just grateful that the baker is doing something slightly different.
Darker wholewheat and black breads are hard to find in Portugal. Try organic markets where expat Germans and Dutch supply genuine home made artesanal breads, made with love and good health.
Surprisingly a good place to look for bread is in the freshly baked bread bread department of chain supermarkets. Maybe high turnover raises the quality, but perhaps breakmaking is an art and it’s all up to the individual baker and their oven. In Lousã, if you’re passing, the Lidl has great fresh bread and the baguettes and croissants at the Intermarché are an excellent imitation of the real thing. Really, nothing much beats the white stick of France, or for that matter, the black breads of Germany. And who doesn’t miss sourdough? If you have major longing for the bread of your origin you can of course, bake your own, or even buy a breadmaker and bread mixes from better supermarkets.
There are many sweet breads too if we are not being too precious about what is bread and what is not. Pão de Leite is like brioche. Pão de Deus is not like anything but is good with ham and cheese. Pão de Ló is like a sponge cake, so, not bread. Broainhos cannot be found on the internet so maybe they are an invention of Figueiró Dos Vinhos. They appear at Christmas and Easter and are small dark fruit breads which I insist on being toasted and buttered despite it being against Portuguese law. Broa Doce is a generic name given to another sweet bread but not Little Sweet Corn Bread.
Also to consider is this. The Bolo de Berlim. Not a bread. A cake. But not to be ignored.
No posts since 30 September? I think it was around that time I stupidly thought we would move into the house before going to Oz for 3 weeks in November. Ha ha. October was a month of bedlam: frantic house building like the umpteenth coat of interior render, intense fiddling with the windows, watching the painfully slow progress of the plumbers, cars breaking down, friends I haven’t seen for 15 years visiting… My random lists of to do things ran roughshod over genuine priorities with the delusions of a stressed out mess head: finish first window, change banks, vacuum sofa, make door frames, fix washing machine, cut doors, get cat food, clean mattress, buy tracksuit, paint bath ceiling, die.
Thus somehow we arrived at Coimbra train station with 60 kilos of luggage and The One desperate for a pee. Train arrives, train departs, husband returns from men’s room. We buy new tickets for the next train which might get us to the check-in in the nick of time, with the kind cooperation of a taxi driver on speed. Once this feat was accomplished, Emma discovers she has no passport. Of the hundreds and hundreds of flights I have caught in my little life and it has to be this one: a great gorgeously generous gift from my sister-in-law to surprise my brother on his 50th birthday. This flight could not be missed. This could not be happening.
I’ll spare you the next half hour of head exploding panic in its gruesome detail. The passport was located, a new seat found for me on the next flight (lucky, lucky) and husband sent forward to Frankfurt on the existing ticket. Good friends, who will drive your passport to you two and a half hours away, are the most important thing in the world. And yes, I am your slave for life. Anyway, a couple of valium and several hundred kilometres later and The One and I were boarding our Qantas flight for Sydney only to discover we’d been downgraded.
Two more valium later and we arrived in Old Sydney Town and to husband’s delight we were picked up in a caramel butter-coloured Maserati. Even I had to restrain myself from licking the upholstery. It set the tone really for what would be three weeks of luxy decadent bliss, oh except for the sanding painting cleaning & repairing part. Let’s skip that story for now and start with the champagne-museum-of-contemporary-art-party-overlooking-sydneyharbourbridge-and-opera-house… in full jetlag, it was quite surreal.
The first thing The One did on his holiday was get a new girlfriend. Every time I turned my back they were in bed together. It got a bit embarrassing when our dear hostess would wonder where the hell her cat was and would search all the usual hiding places like sock drawers, lumps of washing and inside the hi-fi speakers, only to find that the guest was bed-hogging her, like, again. The thing with the Burmese is they have a supersonic sense of who is most likely to get horizontal regularly, and The Onesmells like an immanent lie-down.
So then we spent a week of surveying the damage to my other property asset abroad. Tenants, mate. Can’t pay mortgage without them, can’t kill ‘em. Broken leg on coffee table, sofa, and dining table, filth smeared from aft to fore, damage to this and that and a charming hole punched into a wardrobe door. So we filled sanded painted repaired and cleaned in sensational 37º heat, when we should have been at the beach, hanging out with friends, visiting mom, or lying around with the cat. Sorry darling. Nice holiday. Not.
Fortunately our hosts (oh let’s be frank. You remember tinyartdirector? Well she’s my sister and we are staying with her) had some sense and whisked us away for an enviable long weekend which looked like this:
Some whales dropped by for our appreciation. And hung around for three days smashing their tails on the water and mucking about. Priceless. I know it sounds coy but whales really are something special. They are so damn big and out of our league, you can’t help but gobblesmacked by them. We certainly were. Better than tele.
The One insisted on seeing kangaroos in the wild. We got dressed, packed our hats and sunscreen and even locked the door of the timber shack holiday house such was the anticipation of the hunt. An extremely short drive later, there were half a dozen roos posing for our photos, racing the Volvo and just staring us out as if to say yeah, take the pictures and bugger off, would ya?
There’s no doubt about it, kangaroos are funny animals. Firstly they look funny. And like camels, they have attitude. A sort of, what do you want, yeah come as close as you want I couldn’t give a toss and now I’m bored of you, type attitude. They are one of those rare animals who is firmly in control of the situation. Piss me off and I’ll kick your arse. They are cool.
So. Whales, tick. Kangaroos, tick. Savage sunburn on pommy skin, tick. Prawns on the barbie, naturally.
But then as some people have to work, we returned to Sydney and yet another week of culinary sensations. Thai, Japanese, quality beef, real lamb, Pacific Ocean fish and even bacon and eggs on damper breakfast at 3pm. My superfluous sister-in-law had also remembered our wedding anniversary (who is this woman and why can’t we all marry her) and sent us off to The Best Restaurant in The World, Tetsuyas. Extraordinary. Unforgettable. Quite difficult to find the words for its awesomeness, other than, say, perfect.
Somewhat staggered by everyone’s generosity towards us we loaded up our trunks and headed, sadly, for the airport. We did not want to come home, not one little bit. Not to winter, not to house building, not to the pressing need to make a living out of an oily rag.
And we wouldn’t be flying if they wasn’t some sort of industrial action impeding our trip. Qantas on the way over (CEO of which is a dipshit) and now a Portuguese general strike on the return trip. I am a card carrying socialist but I reckon the strike cost me way more than it cost Paulo Passos Coelho. Not to mention my sister-in-law. I’m sure the general strike in Portugal really changed her mind on a few policies.
Thus a day or two were endured in the most boring city on Earth, Frankfurt. And jetlag and minus 1º centigrade do not agree with me. Christmas Markets still do not charm me. The German language does not charm me. Sausages and Gluhwein make me puke. Just get me home, oh god, where there are some little fur-people waiting for me.
After a day of septic tank construction there’s nothing better than fixing up a batch of jam. I’m part Lara Croft and part Betty Draper.
We have been showered with plums lately.
The first ones came from of our hard working woofer Samuel. They were blood plums and I just scoffed them straight up. Fabulous with yoghurt and a bit of muesli for breakfast.
Next a small bag of the same type arrived on the doorstep so I made those into jam, and very nice it is. My jam recipe is like this: I don’t bother removing the stones (who has the time?). Wash them, chuck them in with half (or less) the quantity of fruit of white sugar, one finely chopped apple and a third of a cup of water. Let it rage on boiling point and then cool slightly so you don’t need a trip to hospital after mashing them with a potato masher. Cool some more then pour into sterilised jars. To sterilise them I boil the kettle and fill them all up and then dry them in a low oven.
yellow plum jam on the outside and blood plum in the middle
Again, not only good on toast but mixed with yoghurt for dessert or breakfast and I even get into the Portuguese thing of fresh cheese and jam as a snack.
Then the neighbours brought a massive bag of yellow plums around. A whole shopping bag bursting at the seams, about 5 kilos. Drastic action had to taken.
I can’t seem to find Hoi Sin Sauce in the country. It’s a very handy chinese plum sauce – its primary function being to make pork less boring.
Hoi Sin (sort of… I made this up.)
Wash plums and stick them in a pan along with:
a motherload of garlic
half cup white wine vinegar (or rice wine vinegar if you are not in Cú de Judas)
few good splashes of soy
finely chopped red chilli as you like
half cup sugar – you could use a golden or white
As with jam, boil it up relentlessly (20 minutes say) and then mash with potato masher. Then I strain the mush through a colander and into a sauce bottle. By this stage it might be cool enough to taste. Think to yourself HOT SOUR SALTY SWEET as you taste it and if you think you can taste all four (and still it tastes like plums) then you’ve got it right. Keep in mind that it can be very strong, but because you use it as a marinade the flavour will be diluted somewhat.
Slap it on any type of pork cut before baking, grilling, BBQing. My mother grilled entremeadas this way in the days before cholesterol, delicious!
So that sorted out a bag or so, and if wasn’t so busy I could actually see some friends and share my jam/sauce/overflowing fridge abundance. The obvious thing of course is to give the stuff back in sauce form to the people who gave us the plums, but I did that already with the jam and the dear neighbour said ”I don’t eat sweet stuff”… and now I’m a bit shy on foisting any more wacky foreign jars her way. She appreciated the lettuce, though.
But then another bag of plums arrives. These ones are green – unripe yellows. This time I turn to my one and only cookbook, Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion. It was a mighty tough choice picking just one cookbook to take to Portugal, them books being so heavy `n all… but Stephanie Alexander’s bible is like a desert island item. It’s the only cookbook you need. So go off to amazon or dymocks or wherever and buy it now (this should cover the following copyright issue).
Directly from page 551:
And would you believe, there’s still another bag of plums in the fridge…
After the overwhelming response to my last post I have decided to write only about serious issues from now on. That’s why I’ve chosen the subject Doce da Casa for this week’s take-no-prisoners-alert-the-pope controversial post with a moral and a message.
IS DOCE DA CASA REALLY “THE HOUSE SPECIALTY” OR IS IT, ACTUALLY, A RECIPE?
When I first came to Portugal I ate in restaurants for three months for breakfast lunch and tea and during this time became fully acquainted with the dessert menus of Portugal. Invariably they contain an item named Doce da Casa which as any self respecting phrase book will tell you means, in the literal sense, Sweet of the House, i.e., vis-à-vis, chef’s specialty. Anyone who has worked in a restaurant or not worked in a restaurant knows that this is also code for whatever we need to get rid of tonight because it’s going in the bin tomorrow. At least where I come from. You’ll never get a bad dessert in Portugal. I’ve certainly never had a bad Doce da Casa, whatever a Doce da Casa really is.
I was in those days, innocent. I never thought that the whole Doce da Casa name might be a cover-up for a hotly guarded secret. Like the secret Lucia had to keep after the visions at Fatima. Something worth hiding from the people for their own safety.
Exhibit One: Detail
The second time I came to Portugal I ate in restaurants for breakfast lunch and tea for five months and it was during this time that I began to suspect Doce da Casa was in fact the name of a recipe with defined ingredients, with which a cook may be creative, resulting in variations on-a-theme.
Over the last few years I have further intensified my belief that Doce das Casas, or Doces da Casa or Doces das Casas ARE BASICALLY ALL THE SAME.
The One, however, thinks otherwise. He says he’s been given chocolate things and even baked apple things when ordering Doce da Casa. I say it’s just because he’s English that the restaurant seizes the opportunity to give him the sell it now before anyone sees the maggots dessert. No one would try that on an Australian. We have dangerous spiders and snakes.
So then: we tested the question on google. Just 9 and-a-half million hits of recipes all containing the essential ingredients of Doce da Casa: condensed milk, maria biscuits, chocolate and cream. Emma: one, The One: zero.
Left, Exhibit Two. Right, Exhibit Three.
Next I email Elvira of Elvira’s Bistro. It’s obviously a subject too controversial to comment upon because I receive no response. Or maybe she’s busy running a restaurant.
So I ring Isabel, she of Encyclopaedia of Portugal fame. She said,
“Excellent question. Important, relevant, pressing. It’s something we’ve all been asking ourselves but need the leadership of someone brave and unflinching to investigate and resolve for us”.
Actually I made that up. What she really said was that traditionally, Doce da Casa would mean ‘specialty of the house’, but has in recent times has become bastardised into this thing with condensed milk and cream. Shit. Emma: one, The One: one.
Not content to leave it at that, I took the question onto the streets and into the kitchens. Nothing proves a point better than pure, creamy evidence. Let me present Exhibit One, if it pleases Your Honour.
Exhibit One is a perfect example of what I have come to expect from ordering Doce da Casa. Biscuit at the bottom, custardy condensed milk layer next, chocolate layer and then lashings of cream on top.
A closer inspection reveals a layer of intact biscuits between one of the layers. This evidence was found at our local churrasqueira and is under copyright control by the cook, Anabella who was very suspicious of my enquiry. Understandably she doesn’t want her recipe stolen, because it was I must say, a very superior Doce da Casa.
Which leads us to speak of Exhibit Two. Some fishy restaurant in Cantanhede served this up after we had demolished an enormous pile of assorted crustaceans. Very elegantly presented and while the omission of biscuit should be noted, it has nonetheless the regulation chocolate, custard and cream layers.
Exhibit Three was from a humble Lousanense establishment called Adega Vila. Biscuit, certainly, cream, absolutely and more than a whiff of condensed milk. But no chocolate and no layering. This, while delicious, fails to satisfy the requirements of a Doce da Casa. One might surmise that it is the specialty of the house. Someone clever reading this will know what its real name is, I’m sure.
Exhibit Four shows an interesting variation in that the crushed biscuit and chocolate layers have been mixed together. The condensed milk/custard layer is there and the cream is there, although the cream was not exactly of bovine origin.
With Exhibit Five, from the local pizzeria, we return to the text book style of the Doce da Casa, dessert flute and all. Let’s not quibble about the absence of chocolate. It is what it is.
And there I rest my case. Doce da Casa is mostly a recipe and more rarely a house specialty. Where have all the specialties of the house gone?
If your local restaurant is serving a true house specialty then, please, we need to know. It’s in the public service.
On my return journey from Figueira da Foz on the N111 a while back I caught a fleeting glimpse of the words Doces Conventuais which made me hit the brakes and for the Wookie to bash his head on the dashboard. Where I’m from, Doces Conventuais means Emergency Stop.
One might be forgiven for mistaking the cafés on the roadside of the N111 at Tentúgal for ordinary truckie stops. There are about 5 or 6 altogether on a strip of about 500m. A few are plain ordinary looking cafés and the others have slightly fancier facades. All sell the famous Pastéis de Tentúgal but there are two that offer rather more than just that.
For a start, the first one, A Pousadinha, has 5 different flavours of empada. Wha? An empada is a little pie, and we of Australian-Kiwi-English ancestry love pies. Normally empadas come in chicken flavour only, so to find a variety is really something in itself. None of the flavours is beef, or beef and kidney, or beef and onion, or beef onion bacon and cheese, but let’s not quibble. Let’s be happy there are duck pies, and piglet pies, and seafood pies. Tentúgal discovery number one.
A bit further up the road towards Coimbra there’s a fancier sign with a large parking area for O Afonso, and this place is a revelation. Are we in Greenwich Village? Covent Garden? Double Bay? There is gourmet stuff everywhere: teas, cheeses, local wines, sweet exotica in nice bags with gold labels. The displays, photographic wallpaper and furniture are like, groovy and expensive. Lo and behold, interior design, right here, in the middle of nowhere.
And then, OMG look what’s on offer to eat. I myself am obliged to a Pastel de Tentúgal, but The One has to pace up and down the counter several times umming and ahhing as everything here seems new and original and extraordinarily delicious. Our yummies are served with a proper tea pot and a gorgeous coffee cup and saucer á la Caldas da Rainha.
And THEN the empresaria, Dona Margarida, invites me back-stage, to the kitchen. Ya. For the uninitiated, doces conventuais are pastries invented and created by nuns (and brothers) in convents (or monastries), often centuries-old recipes (the Tentúgals come originally from a closed Carmelite convent of the 16th Century). Frequently these recipes are kept secret (in this case because the convent is not open to outsiders, the nuns speak with no one) and they were given as welcoming gifts in honour of visiting bishopry or benefactors, as well as being stashed in the secret cavity of the nun’s bibles for midnight snackage.
The Tentúgals came to prominence in the 19th century, as the convent was running out of money they sold their goodies at the convent gates. They became popular with students at nearby Coimbra university, and I suppose, as the convent closed, the sweets then became commercialised. Pastéis de Tentúgal can be found around the country at the more serious fabrico proprio pastelarias, but for the real experience you have to come here.
The village of Tentúgal is a turn off the N111, and what a little treasure it is. It’s so cute that it made The One angry. “I want to live here” he said, tearfully. It’s the way little villages should be. What makes it so is that it’s really old, first referred to in print in 980 but then taken under the wing and developed in the 11th century by a dude named Dom Sesnando. A lot of old buildings have stayed. This Sesnando Davides, by the way, built castles at Coimbra, Lousã, Montemor-o-Velho, Penacova and Penela. He’s a guy that got things happening.
I was trying to find the 16th century Carmelite convent – which is tucked away in a little square and distinguishable by a checked hat on its roof. (If you do want to see inside the convent, hot tip, the Dona of Casa Armenio is good to call upon, or else start with Margarida at O Afonso, or even there’s an office opposite the Igreja Misericórdia. Actually it’s hard to find someone who will not want to oblige in Tentúgal). But en route to the convent there are a few very impressive little churches worth looking in at. The first is the Igreja da Misericórdia, built in 1583. The Casa da Misericórdia in Tentúgal, I was told by the local historian, was the second to be established after Lisbon. The Casa is one of the longest running charitable institutions in the world, establish by Queen Leonor in 1498 who recognised the need for someone to look after Lisbon’s orphans, widows, druggies and useless. And they also run Portugal’s national lottery and have a special place in our hearts for the hope they give to all of us.
The church is very simple and the reredos is carved from wood – the figures are quite unsophisticated but still hold some colour: each scene depicts a story from the bible for the illiterate masses.
Similarly simple and decorated in wood is the Capela Nossa Senhora dos Olivais. It is very cute indeed with naïve and humble statuary.
Now it’s time for dinner. Casa Armenio has something of a reputation for its roast duck and I’m not sure that anyone orders anything else when they come here. The One, who is something of a connoisseur of rissóis de leitão (piglet rissoles, mate) was almost in tears again because Casa Armenio’s are that good. This is a damn fine restaurant. It has atmosphere and conviviality, it’s not pretentious but it feels a bit special, the food is excellent and we had to have three desserts. I’m tempted to say it’s my second favourite restaurant in Portugal (for the first favourite, see Braga). Tentúgal discovery number five.
leite creme at casa armenio
But where’s the gorgeous guesthouse? Anyone?
with thanks to emma and loz for making it all possible
Nothing says climate change more bluntly than a chat with my neighbours about the harvest. The potatoes at half a crop, rotten, the grapes at mixed maturity, acidic wine at best and no olives to speak of at all this year. Muito estranho. What exactly has been so strange about the weather? It’s just different, they say. The cold too long, the hot too hot, no rain during the summer, too much rain over the winter. “Aquecimento Global”, I offer, this larger context neither providing any comfort or perspective.
For them, the increasingly unreliable weather conditions brutally translates into harder living conditions. With already a ridiculously paltry cash income, no olives on their trees means another €15 euros a month spent at the supermarket: oil of a poorer quality, not organic and less healthy. For a community where health really is everything.
Generations of accumulated knowledge about their environment and how to prosper from it (or just simply survive), is going to ruin in this little village while bureaucrats, politicians and sceptics negotiate themselves into a bottomless intray of bullshit. And my neighbours still bring home their flour and rice in plastic bags from a supermarket which encourages them to do so, and they don’t recycle a thing. And it occurs to me that for farmers and peasants the world over it’s a similar story: the first to feel the earth’s slow but irreparable immolation, and the last to understand it or have the power to control it. Capitalist democracy, isn’t it great?
Meanwhile we of the adopted rural life can still rejoice in the treasures that the land and our hard work have brought for us this year. In my case, my fantasy of being a still sexy woman in an apron making sauce in a foreign language from my very own tomatoes has been indulged somewhat relentlessly this summer, to the extent that The One has said he doesn’t want to see another tomato on the table until Christmas. (What cold revenge! That mediocre nothing in a tomato skin impostor of mid winter – how he will mourn for the sweet fruit of my summer!). And exotic herbs we have had in wasteful quantities. There has been the odd beetroot surprise (spontaneous beetroots are a lesser known Portuguese miracle), prompting much Aussie style hamburger happiness. But everything else - the couve, potatoes, onions, strawberries, carrots, garlic, leeks, capsicum – very little results if anything at all. The lettuce and rocket lasted about a month, a bitter disappointment to someone who must have been a rabbit in a past life.
I have brought over the mountain a few bags of grapes, (for juicing and drying rather than wine-ing this time) a box of figs and small stash of blackberries, for my favourite jam.
Over hill, over dale the results of the harvest are fortunately different, which is why our villages are joined in parishes and our parishes into councils who raise rooves over marketplaces. Other expaters to the north and south report not only splendid tomatoes but riches of onions, potatoes, carrots, garlic, marrows of all manner. While strawberries are a disaster in one corner they flourish in another. And herein lies the lesson: diversify or die. Build communities and live with them in peace. Globalisation is going too far, but the League of Nations were once on the right scale. Think Participatory Economics. Communication. Cooperation. We have the technology, but the power cable is not in the right hands.
Diversify and flourish. It bothers me how my neighbours don’t trade with their neighbours to vary their diet. Following their old school academy they grow the same things year after year while the world’s weather changes around them. Thank god as usual for the Asians and Italians who brought their weird foods to Australian plates, and now thank the Anglo-Saxon migrants here who grow pak choi, Japanese tomatoes, artichokes, dill and asparagus peas. May climate change makes us change. Adapt. Accept. Harvest and feast.
As we discussed in my previous paper on this subject, the secret to making the best chicken in the world is Piri Piri. If you don’t know by now, Piri Piri sauce is to Portuguese Chicken what Cagney is to Lacey. B1 is to B2. The Tardis is to Doctor Who. Without a great Piri Piri, chicken is just chicken. It has no mojo.
The origins of the sauce come from Angola and Mozambique, who both have ancient versions of chilli sauce and who customarily use chillies in their cooking. You could almost say that chilli occurs no where else in Portuguese cooking, at least only as an exotic ingredient and certainly not in any other national, fundamental dish.
In trying to crack the recipe par excellence I’ve gone to neighbours, to friends, their parents and grandparents, to restaurants and to the internet. All recipes for Molho Piri Piri have as their basis malagueta chillies, olive oil and whisky. The most common variations are using a different alcohol or vinegar, and adding lemon, garlic, bay and other spices.
I’ve tried a few now and I was happy with my own lemony brew which I shared before. But now I have turned to the master (or mistress if you prefer), Elvira, and it is her recipe which I will declare the perfect piri piri sauce.
It is just goddam delish. Not too hot, thick enough to stick, and mighty tasty. Note however that Elvira refers to her chillies as piri-piris, and most other recipes refer to malaguetas as the variety to use for this sauce, so here I have specified malaguetas too. I’ve had too many different explanations about whether malaguetas are piri piris and whether or not piri piri is just the correct translation of the english word chilli, which we spell in a variety of ways further illustrating the elasticity of language. Blah-de-blah-blah. Maybe Elvira herself will drop by and give us the final word on this piri piri / malagueta lingistic phenomenon. Ditto Isabel.
8 red malaguetas (about 8-10 cms long, finger width, but not sweet like Thai chillies) 3 green malaguetas teaspoon of sweet paprika zest of one lemon clove of garlic 200ml extra virgin olive oil pinch of rock salt wine glass of either balsamic vinegar, port, brandy or scotch.
Even in this situation I will still only use recipes as a guide. Not because I don’t think Elvira’s is perfect, but because I know how I like it. I can never see the point in only one clove of garlic, for example. I used three. My lemon zest seemed a bit skimpy so I added some more, and I chose a nice bottle of scotch for the punch, giving a small glass to the sauce and the rest to me. But one day I will try the balsamic version. Balsamic & chicken sounds wild and amazing.
You put all the ingredients into a blender or a food processor or a bamix thingy and grind it up until it looks good. I marinated my chicken in it for a few hours before barbequing.
Super seriously yummo, and it also makes a boring pork chop very worthy.