welcome to emmas housethought

an australian in portugal

If I had a euro for every time someone asked me “Why are you in Portugal?” I wouldn’t be so far up the financial creek as I am now.

You have to imagine the incredulity in the way the Portuguese say it. “You’re Australian? What are you doing here?” And I really don’t know how to answer, as it’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately. You see, after 18 months of living in a ruined old house in the Portuguese countryside, I’m beginning to feel that the honeymoon is over.



1. The weather

When you decide to chuck in your career, sell up and run away to your “Place in the Sun”, first make sure there is some sun. Your personal utopia should have weather at least as good as you have at home. For an Australian this is a tricky proposition. I have no gripes with summer in Portugal: this summer was relentlessly sunny and hot enough to fry an egg on the car bonnet, just as it should be.…but the winter is tragic. OK, the snow was pretty for a second but six months of cold and it getting dark at 4pm… it’s just not acceptable. When my sister in Sydney starts complaining because it’s 14 degrees and freezing, well I just want to book a flight home immediately.



2. Multiculturalism

The Poms who live here whinge (all 50 thousand of them, all at once, it gets quite noisy sometimes) about how much they miss a decent curry. Poor chaps. I miss Indian food too, and Thai, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Greek, Italian, Japanese, North-Western Chinese, Turkish, Indonesian, Spanish… and hamburgers with beetroot. There’s nothing wrong with Portuguese food, but SBS Food Safari it ain’t. Speaking of which, I miss World News. I miss any news. The only two Australian news items to reach us recently were the thirsty bushfire koala (may she rest in peace), and an election poll that claimed that more Australian women would prefer to have sex with Kevin Rudd than John Howard. Wow, hmmm…press releases with legs…



3. Modernity

I never properly credited Australia for having a civilized, advanced society before. Honestly, sometimes Portugal makes Australia seem positively Swedish in it’s modernity. It’s like the seventies here. They are still trying to encourage people to wear seatbelts in Portugal. Recycling is new. Pregnant women smoke. Cholesterol? Would you like some butter with that? This wild & crazy lifestyle is, of course, killing them. Portugal has twice the road toll of Australia although they haven’t yet figured out that speeding is to blame. After all, if you run over a dog or a sheep here it’s not your fault. No, it’s the sheep’s fault. Of course.


Palácio do Buçaco

4. Beaurocracy

The next time the bank puts you on hold, you should thank them. Maybe they will keep you waiting for a couple of minutes but you will have a new credit card in the mail by the end of the phone call. When I was trying to get my home phone connected, I had to walk up the mountain to use my mobile (contracted to the rival company) and Portugal Telecom would keep me on hold for 25 minutes or more. I had to call them a few times a week, as they had clearly informed me on many occasions that they were not permitted to call their clients. Fancy that!?! A telecommunications company who cannot call their clients! As a strategy for any business, one might think that the inability to call clients would be a significant handicap… Anyway, after several months I had made progress. They sent me a letter to say that they would think about connecting my phone, but had no idea how long it might take. It took a year. A long year.

tiles at Pasteis De Belem

tiles at Pasteis de Belém, Lisboa

5. Friends, family and other non-transferable prizes.

The Portuguese are very nice, but they haven’t known me for 25 years. The neighbours have me over for dinner and we swap health complaints, but they are not my family. Children grow up so fast, and if you miss a year or two, you might miss the critical transition period between child and 6-foot-giant-with-muscles-and-a-deep-voice. Some Sunday mornings I just think it’s not worth eating breakfast at all if it can’t be with Jem&Kate or Lucy&Adrian or Mary&Fred. The Portuguese just don’t get going out for breakfast anyway.


Lookout at O Sitio, Nazaré

So what’s a girl to do? Maybe I just need to go back for a holiday? The last time I did that, I went straight from the airport to my favourite old café. I was lost in dreamy heaven with my skim-latte-bowl when someone started shouting at the waiting staff. “This is the worst service and the worst coffee I’ve ever had!” he screamed (hasn’t been in Berlin recently then, I thought). He went on, “and I’m going to tell all my friends not to come here!” The waiter just stood there, speechless. “If your friends are anything like you,” I said, “I’m sure the staff here are very pleased to hear that”.


Nazaré Beach, view from O Sitio

Only in Sydney, I thought. In two years in Portugal I have never heard anyone make such an egotistical, pretentious and rude spectacle of themselves. The Portuguese would find this incredible. Over a coffee? Just who does he think he is? The Pope? I immediately remembered what drove me away in the first place. Australia is up-itself.

São Simão

Portugal on the other hand, has so much to be proud about, but sits quietly being creative, charming and delicious on the far edge of the world, like the New Zealand of Europe. It has a rich and romantic history, full of kings, queens and knights, of exploration and discovery. Portugal has been quietly appreciated by foreigners since Roman times, for its fertile lands, natural beauty and its (pre-global-warming) weather. But for the most part, the pleasures of Portugal have been kept fairly secret. The pastries of Portugal, for example, are absolutely mind blowing. The pastel de nata (or Portuguese tart as it’s known in Australia) is just the first of 1000 Portuguese sweets you must eat before you die.



And that’s not all. The cities have strikingly sumptuous baroque architecture, a sign of the great wealth and power of Portugal’s golden era. The people are friendly and down to earth and never see themselves as superior to anyone. There’s no posing here as there is in Spain and Italy. Waiters here don’t have attitude, unlike elsewhere. The Portuguese will never scoff at your attempts at their language and what a beautiful and refreshingly unfamiliar lingua it is.


Their food is generous and tasty, the wine is plentiful and cheap. Portugal is a quiet and unrushed country. I can’t remember the last time I met anyone stressed out. There are no crowds or traffic (outside of Lisbon anyway), no horns or car alarms and no one shouting except for a kilo of onions at the market. The huge open spaces of forest throughout Portugal remind me of home, but the silence and simplicity of the Portuguese countryside is the greatest luxurious indulgence of my new life.

As you can see, I am still in love with Portugal. I couldn’t leave. For better for worse, for richer for poorer, till death us do…




pasteis de nata

vindima, vendange, vendemmia… grape picking

Obviously wine-making is far less important in english-speaking cultures – we don’t even start the season with a sexy name!

No sooner had my flesh eating visitors departed than the neighbours had roped me in to help with the grapes. Actually I volunteered in the name of PR and buying protection from the village mafia who have it in for me again because of the dog.vines3

Apparently (and I would like emphasise the speculative flavour of the word apparently) while my guests and I were casually enjoying a top class breakfast, little darling-wookie-dog went and bit one of the sheep. Funny really because I seem to recall him sitting with us and begging for choriço and presunto… and there are 6 other unleashed dogs in the village, with teeth. One of the neighbours and I have decided it was probably little ‘pulga’ (flea), the remaining puppy, who did the job… I’m sure with further DNA testing and forensic processing my precious will be cleared of wrong doing.


Anyway, back to the grapes. It’s not hard work, and there’s no great rush on, but by the end of the day one is knackered nonetheless, and extremely grateful to the flesh-eater who left a quarter bottle of serious scotch whisky behind. I quite enjoy the work, and I think my neighbours do too. Friends and family drop over to pitch in with the work and eat the food, and there’s a bit of a party atmosphere. They make the work a bit of fun – On day one there was singing, the highlight being a 70 yr old husband and wife love duet.


Day two was mostly farting, but there was a dirty joke which had the old girls weeping with laughter. On day three, we’ve had a great deal of discussion about her (that’s me): my unorthodox picking technique which involves ascending the dodgy vine pergola (we were short of ladders), my dog situation and how the 10m long loose leash method is not fooling anyone, and how cool my board shorts are (thanks to australian surfer  brother nick). And there was a whole lot more farting, for which my dog got the blame.


Today we achieved a record 1500 kilos of grapes (the other two days we could only manage about 500-750) and now Tia Maria’s vat is full of squashed fermenting grapes, stems and bits of dirt. As I’m trying to learn a bit before I do my own, I’ll pass on the following notes:


  • The predominant grape here is Morangeira, there’s a bluer grape they call Tinta and there are white grapes they call Branco. (Imaginative names (not) and are probably in village language not real portuguese). They mix everything in together.
  • They don’t wash the grapes and they don’t even remove the bigger stems, let alone the little ones. Some dividing of the white grapes happened because they are being picked quite late and a lot were either eaten by bees or rotten already.
  • Although foot mashing is still widely practised in Portugal as a method for making must (I was pretty keen to zip home and put on a skirt until I saw the size and depth of the vat, and realised it was more a wetsuit and snorkel situation) and they do say it lends a certain flavour to the wine, (ahem). Tia Maria has gone slightly modern and is using an electrically-powered crusher that looks like an old-fashioned laundry squeezer.
  • The musty grapes will ferment for 3 more days (but six days since the first batch went in). They then listen to hear if the fermenting has gone quiet (yes, that’s what they said). If it has then the wine will be drained from the bottom of the tank into stainless steel vats (although she has some oak barrels that she got from me that she might use this year, she says). Then they’ll test it after a month but it’s meant to wait for 3 months…they’ll try not to start drinking it, but then again, there’s a lot to get through, so why wait?


I’ve asked about chemicals, I’ve asked about yeast, I’ve asked about sugar. No to all. It’s just 100% dirty grape juice. (I must say that it tastes a lot like dirty grape juice too, but it’s free and in Portugal wine is just something you drink, not eulogise, so who’s complaining?) ‘Organic’ one of the smarter neighbours said with a wink, because no one has the time, energy or money for spraying.grapes_0

After the wine has been drained off, the pomace will be used to make aguardente (portuguese grappa) in a process of heating and distilling.

Then the grandchild-who-inherits-everything will be given the nasty task of removing 500 kilos of filthy mush from the 2 metre high tank, (this I would like to see) whereupon it will be dumped in the street and will flow like the rivers of blood in the streets of mafia-ruled Sicily…

home grown antidepressant

Injuries: 0. Houses Built: 0

I’m a subscriber to John Irving‘s idea that if you’ve had a crap day, cooking dinner is your last opportunity to accomplish something worthwhile, and redeem yourself.

For an overacheiver, it’s inevitable that most days are a disappointment, unless you’ve managed to get Warren Buffet on the phone discussing your plan for relieving world poverty. Even when I’ve suceeded in laying a few stones in a new wall, I usually arrive at dinnertime with more than a just a hunger in my stomach. I have a hunger of the soul as well.

I thought I’d be wacking up a couple of thick stone walls this week, but I need to find two old gorgeous gates before I start them. I’ve been searching for months for the gates and now it’s really holding me up. The delay has given me the time to have three days of migraines, and a whole lot more to complain about. So instead of writing about how the building is going, I’m writing, again, about cooking, and complaining. There it is.


Anyway… dinner. Half the battle for some people is in deciding what to make. It’s not just that you want the result to be delicious and satisfying. Dinner should also should pay lip service (at least) to healthiness AND be new and thrilling, either because you have an audience to please, or just because when things are new, life brightens up a bit.

I’m writing about it because I have just made another great dinner that met the three essential criteria; Yummy, Healthy and New. And I’ve had a mild revelation.

It was basically a pile of blanched green beans with a bunch of small tomatoes, a small tin of emblemic portuguese tuna, olives, a poached egg and a mean lemony herby mayonnaise. The recipe is not the revelation – it’s about where the meal originated from.

home grown salad

Most of it came from my garden. The beans, tomatoes, the herbs, and the olives were mine, the lemon & egg was from my neighbour and the tuna was from… a tin.

Home grown. Food that has come from your own garden almost automatically satifies all the soul food requirements. You’re relieved of the decision of what to make, because you have to make whatever is ready to eat.

Food from you own garden is different from the boring paid for-kind. Garden direct vegies have the power to convert you to food you always hated. Cabbage for example. I never voluntarily ate cabbage until picking it myself. After all, if you’ve gone to the trouble of watering it for months, you do feel obliged to try it at least once. Trying = New. And now I’m addicted.

And fresher is certainly yummier, and healthier. But there’s something of an added cosmic extra about a great meal made with your own gear. It’s an accomplishment of the human animal’s positive interaction with nature. It’s redeeming. It’s soulful.

Growing your own is of course an essential component in the “dump your job and get a life” program. Simplify. Skip the supermarket bullshit. Skip the packaging and the petrol and the spending. Just like a vista of olive trees and the sound of silence, home grown food makes us happier humans.

home grown tomatoes

But because I’m just a city girl in recovery, I want to ride the high higher. I’m going out for dessert. Yay for that other non-farma antidepressant. Cake.

All my love to Anthony. We learn as we go.

portuguese chicken is the best in the world

After exhaustive research on the ground and in the hammock I have discovered nearly nothing to explain why Portuguese chicken is the best in the world. But it is. You just have to take my word for it. Portuguese chicken, bought from the supermarket, or the neighbours, or eaten in a restaurant, it is invariably juicy and flavoursome. But why?


I was hoping to discover that Portuguese chooks are not reared in cages or fed hormornes or antibiotics. Alas it would seem that actually nor are australian meat-chickens kept in cages and the hormorne thing is just a myth. The widespread use of  antibiotics appears to be under control in the english-speaking-web-friendly world at least, (it’s not discussed in portuguese) if only in the sense that the antibiotics (used to control disease in the animals and linked to the rise of antibiotic resistent infection among humans) in poultry production are limited and controlled by legislation and overseen by industry bodies. There was a specific outbreak of antibiotic contamination in Portugal earlier this year, but it was rapidly stomped upon by conscientious EU-fearing government ministers.

Nor are the local fowl a special and unique breed, as I was anticipating.


When the world-wide-web fails me, I turn to empirical study. Let me say that the Portuguese birds do not look very impressive. Compared with your standard production line woolworths frozen inghams style jobbie they look rather puny. Apparently the average life expectancy for aussie-henny-penny is six weeks. But my favourite lecherous butcher tells me that here, felipe-frango might get as little as three weeks to make his mark on the world. So maybe that’s it. They are the suckling pigs of the chicken industry.


Tia Maria (she’s my neighbour and the fonte of all wisdom) has one word to say on the subject and it is “tempero” (seasoning). I don’t dispute the idea that the Portuguese are world leaders in chicken culinaria, but this theory leaves out the one significant control factor in the research. Me. I am the control. I’ve bought the raw product and cooked chook for myself, my way, in various locales across the globe from Titicaca to Toulouse and my Portuguese bbq chicken is by far the best I’ve ever made.

But: one remaining variable: Piri-Piri. Ingredient unique to Portugal.

So, either my cooking has overtaken my tastebuds’ expectations or Piri-Piri has magical powers. Or Portugal has the best chicken in the world. If you are working on your own theories then I would love to hear them.

My Portuguese BBQ Chicken.

I cook this over hot coals under the gargantuan chimney in my kitchen. I get favouritelecherousbutcher to butterfly the bird or halve it, or maybe quarter, whatever. I wash it, throw some salt at it and give it a few stabs with a small knife especially in the thickest flesh. The quantities of everything are, as usual, completely arbitrary, although for a whole chicken I aim for about a cup of marinade because I like to throw it around.

Lots of garlic
zest and juice of a big lemon
olive oil
piri piri – either a few shakes of the fierce Calvé sauce one, or a lot of dried stuff.

Whip this together and spoon it over the pieces after they’ve had an initial colouring on the grill. I use the “juices run clear” test for doneness, although the Portuguese chook pieces shrink slightly when they are done. Anyway I’m usually too hungry to wait for more than 45 minutes and too paranoid to cook it for less. Whatever, it’s fantastic every time.


Saudades for Yen’s. (Vietnamese-Portuguese Chicken Salad).

In Sydney, I lived above a vietnamese restaurant called Yen’s. The food was so good, inexpensive and fresh that I’d eat there about four times a week. Many friends became addicted to it too, to the point where Yen’s became not just a place to eat, but a part of my life. I named my cat Mao, for example, because it’s Vietnamese for cat  (way before I knew it sounds like bad in Portuguese).

The problem is that in central portugal it is impossible to get the right ingredients. So this is a recipe of careful substitution, and I think it’s a success because eating this helps to calm the beast when I get savage cravings, or saudades, for Yen’s.


Cooked chicken leftovers, ripped into shreds
a pile of shredded cabbage – Couve Lombarda in Portugal
a small finely sliced onion
two handfuls mint
small handful of toasted peanuts
vermicelli rice noodles, if you can find them, soaked in boiling water

Nuoc Cham (a vietnamese sauce, based on fish sauce and chilli)

Shake the ingredients in a jar and adjust according to your taste. Pour it over the salad just before eating.

equal quantities brown/yellow sugar (dissolved in equal parts hot water), fish sauce, white/rice wine vinegar.
2 small seeded chillies and 2 cloves garlic, juice of half a lime/lemon
dash of vegetable oil.

If you can’t get the fish sauce, I have used a mix of one part white or apple vinegar, 1 part oyster sauce, a dash of soy and a dash of water.


pelo amor das amoras

‘For the love of wild blackberries’ does not have the same ring to it, does it? I’m not even sure that they are blackberries, as the dictionary calls them mulberries but they are nothing like the mulberry tree that I used used to climb and pick the fruit of when I was a kid in Sydney.

So please advise, horticulturists, what are these called in English?


This is the time of year in my village when this plant, all year round a painful and invasive nuisance, finally pays back. It’s luscious and intense fruit makes fantastic jam, and I love jam. The amoras season also marks the start of several months of picking, being followed by the grapes, then the olives, oranges and then finally in November it will rain figs. When the figs stop, the rain will start, and it wont stop raining until may.


I really like making jam, but I only recently discovered that other people like my jam too. It makes me especially happy when my jars of stuff are enjoyed by portuguese friends. Normally my giveaways are just too weird for them, but jam seems to fit in with a normal portuguese jam-freshcheese-biscuits afternoon snack or dessert. And I’m only too happy to find a new way to eat jam.

cake and jam

Amoras Jam

For 1 jar of jam, I use approximately;

1 jar fruit
1/2 jar white sugar
juice of half lemon
1/3 jar rosé wine

I like my jams a bit runny, full of chunky fruit and not too sweet. The wine gives the jam a bit more complexity and depth.

I boil it up ferociously until a mass of bubbles have collected high above the surface of the fruit – it looks like boiling toffee. It usually takes about half an hour and I could let it go for an hour, but no more. I don’t bother to skim or even test for setting, but I do wash and boil the jars, dry them, fill them warm and then boil them again.

Apart from having jam on toast (especially good on portuguese breads), I also eat it with plain yoghurt for dessert, pile it on ice cream and serve it with fresh cheese, portuguese style. It would also be unforgettable with pannacotta (similar to leite creme in portugal) or on a cheesecake. Or a pavlova! Oh meu amor!

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