I didn’t expect that a visit to “Little Portugal”, Petersham, Sydney would mean so much to me.
I must have been infected by the condition of the Portuguese diaspora – that special form of saudades-homesickness where the sight of a proper pastel de nata induces tears.
Of course, the Chinatowns and Little Italies of any major city do not exist just for visitors, local or native. They are founded by the populations of emigrantes, who, finding themselves crowded out by language and strangeness, and a social life devoid of shared history. Apart from being useful, familiarity is comforting.
In Sydney, however, Little Countries are something of an attraction. We do multiculturalism so well that it’s not nearly enough just to go out for Korean BBQ – it has to be on a Korean street, run by Koreans for Koreans speaking Korean. Sydneysiders don’t just want an exotic meal, they want to get their passports stamped.
So, when I tell people I’m from Portugal and they ask me if I’ve been to Oporto Portuguese Chicken Chain That Sells Mostly Burgers, well, I worried about the authenticity of the Aussie-Luso relationship. You might say Oporto and their ilk are about as Portuguese as the hat-with-dangling-corks is to Australia. It’s a stupid image, and that’s it.
The Portuguese colonised Petersham during the late 1970’s. Australia had had an immigration policy that courted Europeans since WW2, and following the Italians of the 60’s, a Portuguese community sprang up in inner city Paddington. As house prices there began to rise, the Italians moved out further west to the suburb of Leichhardt and the Portuguese to nearby Petersham. Just as it happened in Central Portugal with Brits, it was a Portuguese-owned real estate agency in Petersham that guided a steady stream of new arrivals to settle there.
Meanwhile Gloria Belinha was not happy in post-Salazar Portugal. Democracy in chaos, economic upheaval and a people damaged by poverty, isolation and fascism. Liberty had not brought enlightenment or kindness to the small-minded Portuguese who judged you for your second hand clothes and from whose prying eyes you couldn’t hide. In 1983, with their shoe factory business failing, Gloria and her husband decided to get out.
When I asked Gloria what Portuguese quality she wished Australians had more of, her answer was ‘none’. She recalled instead how welcome she felt in Australia, how happy and unfettered her kids were at school and how people here summed you up by what kind of person you were and not what you were worth. And when, after the death of her husband she was left alone with four kids and little means, how her shame and despair was met with understanding and dignity and she was given support without being belittled further.
Gloria worked for Peter Doyle Snr at Doyles, an iconic seafood restaurant in Sydney. She must have learnt the trade very quickly because in 1988 she opened the first café in Petersham. And today it’s still the best.
Gloria’s restaurant is, like the person, completely authentic. Nothing pretentious, no cork hats. Yet nor is it a flag waving, fado-filled lament to the homeland. It just champions big Portuguese flavour and hospitality, with that European family-run works- like-clockwork style. This is the Portugal I want to remember. Everyone probably feels that way about it.
Gloria’s story is the story of both countries still today. Of a Portugal which fails the Portuguese, losing its brightest and best who deserve a fair go. And Australia, which is made great, not because of its cuisines of the world, but because those migrants are motivated, hardworking and come with the learned perspective of harder times. That Gloria doesn’t romanticise Portugal is a particular lesson for me.
If Gloria’s is Petersham’s biggest drawcard, Sweet Belém café-pastelaria is the other. What more can I say except that it’s a real Portuguese cake shop. It has tarts so good they are trademarked. Only a Portugal insider would appreciate the reverence.
The bottle shop is also pretty outstanding. I don’t want to say it felt just like modelo in there, but it did feel good. Vinho verde is something I would definitely miss.
And of course there is the chicken. Both churrasqueiras were heaving with takeaway customers when I was there. The Portuguese have got these aussies hooked, well and truly.
Petersham NSW Australia
Tel: (612) 9568 3966