welcome to emmas housethought

portuguese tiramisu ice cream

The Portuguese have a version of Tiramisu called Bolo de Bolacha. It’s simple: layers of coffee-dipped biscuit and thickened cream with grated chocolate on top. Typical Portuguese – they do away with the marscapone and the savioardi biscuits in the italian tiramisu recipe and replace them with inexpensive and more readily available ingedients. So unpretentious. So cool. I love this recipe because it’s a cake you don’t bake (and I don’t have a normal oven) and it’s pathetically easy and quick to make. I know it doesn’t sound that exciting; but believe me, it adds up to much more than the sum of its parts.

Here’s my version. I make it as a semi-frio/icecream. This is so yummy that I can easily eat a whole litre in one sitting. As a result I will not be wearing a bikini this year.


A packet of Maria Biscuits (these are the most basic sweet biscuits there are.  Here they cost 35c per pack. In Australia the equivalent would be Arnott’ s Milk Arrowroot. Except Marias are round and not as thick. )
A litre of Vanilla Ice Cream
Caramel sauce: equal quantities butter and brown sugar, cooked slowly until sugar is completely dissolved and colour altered slightly. Add shot of moscatel or brandy or whatever if it’s for grown-ups.
A cupful of espresso coffee.

Dip the biscuits in the coffee briefly and make a layer of them in an ice cream or plastic container (I line the container with plastic to make serving easier) then plop on a layer of ice cream, then a drizzle of caramel sauce and repeat until you’ve filled the container. Try to freeze it for 24 hours before eating, if you can wait that long. You have to slice it to get the full effect.


neighbours and the working bee

A few weeks back we were having a heatwave and I felt the need to dip myself in the Fonte (the name of that part of the village) irrigation tank. I cannot do one thing at a time, so in this case I was combining a cool swim with medicinal hydrotherapy, teaching the dog to swim and cleaning out the tank.

(There was one thrilling moment when Wookie lauched himself into the deep end, and then, shocked by the cold, or just by all that water, swam to the edge and pulled himself out. I was so proud. Next he’ll be surfing like a proper aussie dog)

wookie swimmingbubble

Decked out in my sexy spring suit (spring wetsuit, that is, and sarcastic on the sexy), naturally I drew a crowd. Foreigners are strange. First they wear funny clothes then they swim in really cold water, and then start doing work no one asked them to do.

The cleaning of the tank became something of a topic of discussion among the boys hanging at the Fonte. One of the part-time neighbours who maintains a sweet flowery creek beside his house somehow convinced the other blokes that there should be a working bee.

And incredibly, children and their cousins turned out in force on Saturday armed with antique agricultural tools, ready for work! The tank had been emptied of water and the slush from the bottom was being driven this way and that – they were attempting to dispose of about 20 cubic metres of mud through a 10cm hole.

Fortunately the ex-film producer arrived just as anyone-of-seniority had gone off to lunch. Only one of the older teenagers was affronted by the new female Kommandant, but once he was given a vital role in the new regime he could see the wisdom in it. The girls were stoked to have me there, because now the boys had to stop bossing them around, and they started calling me Chef.


After cesta (siesta) the grown-ups arrived back on the scene. Their role was to give a running commentary and instead of interfering they cheered from the sidelines about what great work we were doing. One of them provided rounds of soft drink and refocussed distracted children. The muck was re-routed and the river end of the tank was clean in no time. The kids ran out of steam mid afternoon.

None of the adults (in particular the ones who invented the idea) actually did any work. Which further proves my theory that the world is divided between People Who Talk and People Who Do. I’m kind of a bit jealous of Talkers really, I don’t know how they get away with it. Then again, they won’t be the ones swimming in the Fonte pool. I will be.

And so I stayed on, on the verge of a stroke and/or heart attack, but nonetheless committed. There was no helping the deep end of filthy slop, so I set upon landscaping the creek and waterfall end, cutting back the nettle and tearing out grasses taller than myself! Seeing as it was the part-time neighbour who inspired the bee, I cleared the creek so that water could be seen as it flowed down to meet the waterfall, just as my part-time neighbour likes it.

The next day, someone had started refilling the tank, which was perfect, as the sludge was made less viscous and then could be shoved through the 10cm opening. It took longer than I expected, but once a few kids arrived mid afternoon we had the tank finally clean by the end of the day.


And then something strange was happening in the conversation at the sidelines. I was being credited for the whole idea. The village elder claimed that the tank had never been so clean… all because of the woman, the foreigner… how bizarre! And the compliments just keep on coming about how good it looks and what a great job done. These neighbours never cease to confound me.

And today, it’s just like our very own pool. I can see a bit more landscaping to be done (think a few of those nasty ferns which take over everything here will look great at the sides). Then of course the pool and bridge need to be tiled with azulejos and if my neighbour opened a café in his basement, added a few umbrellas, some deckchairs, a little music, a carribean-style cocktail bar…


brideshead and eurovision

Brideshead is Revisiting me! I have been making my way through the 13 heavenly hours of this classic BBC series and I’m surprised that it still stands up after all this time. It hasn’t dated, at all. Mercifully shot on 35mm film, which was a massive luxury for television at the time, (even today only a few TV shows are shot on film). It really is charming and brilliant.

brideshead / Castle Harward

I was only 10 years old when I first (and last) saw it, and so I watch it now with new eyes and a proper understanding of the complex adult behaviour and the machinations of religion, friendship and family that drive the narrative of this great story. I’m also reminded of how much the book/film impressed and influenced me as a little person.

Sebastian & charles

O Eurovision! I love you europy! How did this thing evolve into the Festival of Worstness that it is? Are there seriously no better songwriters than this in the whole of “Europe”? Is melody dead? And what’s with the dancing clowns and hip-hopping mimes? Jesus Wept! At least the semi-clad Roman gladiators doing fisting gestures succeed in distracting you entirely from the music. As for the people they call ‘Artistas’… Anna and Frida must be reaching for the Prozac.


Why the funk do they have to sing in English? “I’m in love with a fairytale/ even though it hurts/ I don’t care if I lose my mind/ cos I’m already cursed” – That was the offering from the winner. Sorry Norway: A LYRIC, IT AIN’T. Spare us your stupidity and sing it in Norwegian next time. I can just see the 2009 auditions : no singing or dancing involved, just an afternoon of smiling midriffs. It looks like every year the show’s heating budget increases, and the stylists’ budgets get cut in half. Next year the ‘Artistas’ will be performing in the nuddy. It’s got to be an improvement.

eurovision 2009

Anyway, still hobbling about with a cane, taking my powders and pills, waiting for a cure. I’m thinking I might start dressing in black just to complete the old-biddy image.

the best of portuguese architecture my top ten – part two

6. Casas do Xisto

This is what I like about travelling. Sometimes you know what a place looks like beforehand, so when you see Santorini in its postcard blue-and-whiteness, the tourist in you is satisfied that you’ve come to the right place. Portugal is a bit more obscure for simple visual snapshots, but the tourist might cling to the same blue-and-white image that is typical for the Alentejo region, just as it is for Greek Islands, the Spanish coastline, villages in Tunis and innumerable other places in the Mediterranean.


But what the traveller is looking for is authenticity, something surprising or “undiscovered”. What is the “authentic” Portugal? Of course it’s a lot of things, and it can’t be reduced to a mere one-shot postcard. The Casas (and Aldeias) do Xisto are a humble and traditional housing style that I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world. I find them curious and charming: often hidden in forest or off the beaten track, they are like little hideouts of a closed community. So simple, and essential, like little caves. I like them so much I bought one.


7. Espigueiros do Minho

They are a bit of a grand statement just for storing corn, hey? Imaging having so much granite lying around that you can use it to build a mini-barn. Cool. The crosses are there to ward off evil locusts. The Minho (far north) landscape is wonderful in itself – a bit other-worldly, windblown and spooky. And then clusters of these funereal sarcophagi appear straight out of the middle ages, or outer space…


8. Elevador de Santa Justa (Lisbon)

It’s just a fancy ironwork folly really, but isn’t she sweet? Who better to inspire a landmark-just-for-the-sake-of-it than Monsieur Gustave Eiffel, of Tower fame. Although this lift was designed by a student of his, Gustave was responsible for three bridges in Portugal, in Porto, Viana and Caminho, and very nice they are too.


Technically speaking it’s not a folly, as the Santa Justa has a practical use: it saves you from the stairs between the Baixa and Chiado districts, and there’s also a café at the top.

9. Palácio Nacional de Pena (Sintra)

The National Palace of Pena is so Disneyland it’s hard to believe it’s a UNESCO world heritage site, and a national monument. It was built in the 19th Century as a summer house for the royal family, and they were personally involved in the design, so I figure they must have been a crazy and creative bunch. The style is called European Romanticism (this castle is considered the finest example of the Romantic Style in the world, in fact) and it certainly has a Bavarian Fairytale Castle feel. Romanticism is a mixture of styles: Manueline, Renaissance, Gothic, but what stands out to me is the Islamic influence. It’s so much fun, so camp, so extraordinary.


10. Azulejos

Probably Portugal’s greatest single contribution to world architecture are Azulejos, traditional Portuguese tiles. At one time Portuguese hand-painted tiles were exported to every corner of the globe and were considered the finest in the world. Certainly the Arabs are pretty keen on tiling too, but the Portuguese design and style is unique. Tiling is prominent all over the country, from delicately painted biblical or historical scenes to graphically coloured glazed and embossed, tiling is used on exteriors and interiors, on floors, walls and ceilings. The varieties are infinite.

OH NO! Already 10?!? But what about the Bolso do Porto, Alvaro Siza’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the Prague-like grand cafés of Lisbon and Porto, the restaurant Galeto, the Palácio do Buçaco…. can we make it a Top 100?

To conclude: Of course, I understand that Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder. Sure. Except the Beholder might need glasses.


stone oven cooking – portuguese style

One fine day before I was struck down by this uselessness, I lit the old stone oven at the back of the “laundry”. Tia Maria (‘Aunty Maria’, as I call the matriarch of the village: it cracks them up every time, even though they don’t know about the drink) advised that it would take about an hour to heat up. After an hour I had to move the fire to the opposite side of the oven and give that side an half hour. Then you’re supposed to take the fire out (the stones are meant to go white), put in the food and shut the door (don’t have a door, so I’m using a stone).

the oven

But the stones didn’t go white! Even after 3 hours! By 10pm, I had to just get the food in there or I’d starve to death. I had prepared a cake with lemon and almonds, a dozen bread rolls and a pot of tandoori chicken.

And so, the cake didn’t rise and the bread rolls turned out like scones. But the chicken was heavenly. Next time I’ll have to throw a whole tree in there and keep an infernal blaze going the whole day. I realise now that my ancient oven is about ten times the size of Tia Maria’s modern one…It would be great for a party, a wedding, a bah mitzva – I could roast 20 chooks at once…


Having an outdoor ‘bread’ oven and grill, like the Aussie BBQ, is an essential Portuguese home fixture. That and the coffee machine. My neighbours don’t have dishwashers, DVD or hi-fi but they all have espresso machines… likely they are the inexpensive models… and they make really great, creamy espresso. So if you’re thinking of buying one, look for a Portuguese model and shop for coffee in Petersham or your local Little Portugal.

I have been on a diet since I got back from Paris. My sister-in-law had spent a week in Geneva where, let’s be honest, they is nothing else to do but visit chocolate shops. So not only did we have copious quantities of chocolate for immediate gratification, but I returned home loaded with an ungainly box of truffles and big fat log of nougat. And a big fat log around my middle. But what can you do? I did consider giving it all to the neighbours, but since one of them meantime had murdered my dog, it wasn’t an option unless my revenge was to clog their arteries.

So now, after several weeks of no-carbohydrates-at-night and NO PASTRIES (OMG), I have achieved no weight loss whatsoever. My only hope is that I do have four months (or four years) of physical work in the sun ahead, provided I get better sometime, so that ought to keep me from looking like mutton-dressed-as-lamb…

A diet is futile now I’m sick, anyway. The Portuguese (well, just my village people, anyway) believe that you eat your way out of illness. At home it’s vegemite toast and chicken soup and black tea, but the neighbours here are insistent that if I don’t eat at least 20,000 calories a day, I’m going to die. I read recently that the Portuguese are the only people in Europe who underestimate their weight. IE: They think they are anorexic when actually they have a healthy BMI. When they push me to eat more I feel it’s payback for all the times I hassled my super-lean friends.

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