welcome to emmas housethought

in transit

I have a serious problem with missing flights. Even though The One can make me get to the airport on time, I can still manage not to get on the plane. One theory could be that because I’ve flown a lot, I’m lackadaisical. But I think it’s more serious than that. Firstly I think I might have a pathological fear of waiting at the gate, and secondly, in this case, missing the flight rather obtusely expressed the fact that I didn’t want to go.


I’m off to Sydney for work. My Portuguese neighbours see it as the sad but necessary eventuality of a peasant’s life, where one member of the family leaves the bosom to find work in the New World. I find their point of view comforting. Far better than the grim admission that something has gone terribly wrong with the status quo, with Portugal and with my whole entire life which has led to this drastic upheaval and my new identity as an economic refugee.

No, The One isn’t coming too. No, I don’t know how long I’ll be away. No, I don’t have a job lined up yet.

Lest we forget this is the plight of hundreds of thousands of people across the world today. Only most of them are prevented by immigration laws that discriminate against people leaving home to just to improve their lot. To compare mine with theirs just makes me look greedy. All I want is to be free from worry, not from hunger. Boatloads of people are drowning off the coast of Australia because of the extremes they are forced to take to feed their families. And I complain about economy class.


Indeed with one last brave flash of the credit card I made it out alive, reassured in my physical fitness as I made the 22km sprint from one end of Heathrow to the other in half the advertised time. I am now privy to the lesser known fact that gate 43a at Lisbon is actually located in the Algarve somewhere. I know that the people at the Vueling desk are helpful and the British Airways not. Sensible shoes and a backpack is my advice to anyone susceptible to flight tardiness. These simple props can stop a big problem from becoming a catastrophe. And watching a lot of action movies the day before you fly so you can channel some stunt girl energy and attitude – better to look like you are an undercover ag chasing bad guys than a teary middle-aged tragic who just fucked up final call by hanging around the MAC counter too long.

Don’t expect me to talk up Sydney like it’s a joyride. It could be raining money here (of course it’s not raining anything. It’s winter and 22 degrees and gorgeously sunny) and I’d still be miserable because where I want to be is at home, curled up with The One.


There are some amusements, I admit. The biggest of which is choking on the extraordinary cost of things, for instance. Coffee $4.50. So, a coffee, cake and loaf of bread? That’ll be $16.00. I was looking forward to eating some quality beef and lamb but at $45 a kilo I think I’ll become a vegetarian. And let’s not talk about wine, which I have most definitely given up.

Of course what I am here for are the higher wages. Minimum wage is about $21/hr and the average wage is around $1200 a week. That’s (at least) four times higher than in Portugal. So it’s no wonder then the coffee cups are lined with gold.

On other visits I’ve felt like the dark side to all this affluence was apparent in how stressed out everyone was, but this time I’m impressed by the friendliness of the place. Everyone is polite, cheery and overtly respectful of your personal space (which I’ve always thought of as a uniquely Australian character, given the vastness of this land).

I am delighted to be surrounded by noodles and bok choy. To have ten cuisines of the world clustered together on the same street corner and to hear a different language being spoken at every cafe table. Sydney is multiculturalism at its best.


Still, the noise and traffic and technology have my head spinning. I’m awkward in the unfamiliarity of urban life. I can’t work an ipad, I struggle to figure out the train ticket machines. I’m a country bumpkin, so messy and unstylish. I’m a fish out of water.

So no matter how intoxicating Sydney might become, I know I’ll always be on the lookout for nice flights to Portugal. As they say, home is where the heart is.

In the meantime, I’ll settle into being Aunty Emsy-Poo-Poo again. And a daughter, and the youngest sister. Family. And old friends. Again, I should feel blessed that this is the refuge for this refugee. Imagine being unwelcome?




the bacalhau conversion

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”.

Result? Fail.

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?”

Result? Fail.

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.”

Result? Fail.

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?”

Result? Pass!

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.”

Result? Converted!


The Bacalhau Chronicles is completely exempt from these comments. This is a blog only about bacalhau. And that makes it ok :)





the grand opening of the hallway


Since I’ve just spent 6 months holed up in a four-square-metre passage, I think you all owe me 6 minutes to read all about it in its painstaking detail.

Oh yes this blog has arrived at help-me-pick-my-tiles and let-me-talk-you-through-the-completely-boring-minutiae-of-my-DIY-renovation-fix-up-dream-home wank.

Excellent! Let’s go!


First, I’ll disappoint the reader by saying it’s actually not finished yet. That’s right, because DIY Dream Home House Project Fantasies never are. I was saving a bit of the budget for a big fat shiny new digital TV, me being news deprived for four years now, but dang world events! the hallway comes first! Useful ikea cupboard instead. Haven’t bought it yet so here’s some dodgy photoshop work. Time to phone in with your votes!


The Floor. Fabulous darlings isn’t it? This floor was first laid by our dear woofers, with flagstones found under the cement floor in a lean-to which houses the stone oven. But then we ripped it up again because the grading wasn’t right and laid it anew and in doing so stuffed up the entrance to the bathroom, and now The One can’t fit through the door without using his hands and knees. Yay.


Just so you know everything, beneath the floor is some hideous blue board and a chunky layer of limecrete with maltesers. Oh and probably a damp proof course. It was so long ago I can’t remember. Anyway, after being laid the floor subsequently endured splashes of cement render, lime render, limewash, plaster, paint, cat vomit, a smashed jar of pesto and a whole lot of dirty doggy footprints. So last week I spent three days and two bottles of ácido muriático (which doesn’t sound nearly as bad as hydrochloric acid) scrubbing it all off.


Also during those wire brush days I cleaned up this nice bit above the door which got roughed up when Penfold replaced the roof, last year sometime. So it’s been re-pointed in lime and the stone faces revealed using the Michelle Obama / Linda Hamilton arm workout video. While high on hydro gases I cleaned the timber with acid too and made the new pointing all dirty. The One didn’t know this was actually a mistake, and he complimented this accidental aging patina effect. And he’s right, it’s bloody lovely.


The Walls. I quite realise that six months seems a rather long time to spend on 4m2 (extrapolated this means the house will take another 5 years to finish) but there were these problems with the walls not being straight. This wall on the right is a brick wall I built myself, leaving me mystified why one face can be perfectly flush and the other not. Some time in the early months of year were dedicated to cement rendering both sides, the top bit being a bit fiddly as it been broken down and re-mortared a few times in the pursuit of electricity. I love rendering almost as much as plastering, although it does something weird to your brain. So fixated you become on smoothness that even one tiny rumple possesses me to do another coat. It’s not a job that manic perfectionists should be doing. It’s a bit like crack. Almost as soon as you’ve downed your tools you get the urge for more.

The entranceway needed radical rendering. It’s the doorway to the oldest part of the house, built in rough stone, a bit settled and as wavy as praia das rocas. It wasn’t working well for my obsessive compulsive need for straight lines and geometry. But after four weeks and 17 coats of lime render she’s lovely. Not sharp, but vertical and with all the nougat-ness that lime brings. Limewash over lime render looks dense and soft. I love it.


The entrance also needed a step so I knocked that up with leftover floorboards. Something went wrong with our new floor. We decided on oiling it with linseed but it never sealed properly and now we have a very dirty floor, which going by the 4:6 formula it will take three weeks to clean. So we’ve decided to stain and varnish it. Controversial, certainly, but one dog two cats building site practical. And this is the colour. No, there’s nothing to vote on here. Don’t phone in. It’s done.


The other wall wasn’t a big deal. So in between blogging, feeding the people, putting out the washing and taking pictures of cake I put up a timber frame, insulation and plasterboard and then plastered my way to bliss.

Picked up a dandy shoe cupboard from the Swedes and knocked that up in world record time, another thing I totally love. These days budget ikea may be as disposable as ever but the middle class stuff is superb. It fits, it works and in outback Portugal no one has seen it before.

The ceiling had been put up last year but still needed several weeks of plastering sanding painting filling sanding and painting. Bloody ceilings, we should just dispense with them altogether. Only where would the possums live, possums?


Bathroom door. The magnificent bathroom door has been covered in earlier publications but I still had to frame it up and hang the bitch. Never have I had so much agony as I have hanging every door and window in this house. It’s primarily the fault of the age of the doors and not being perfectly straight but I swear there is something wrong with the hinges I’m buying. Finally, after umpteen minor adjustments she swings and shuts. Mao just can’t get enough of it. He cries to be let in and then cries to be let out. I think he thinks there’s a very handsome burmese on the other side.


And finally, the front door. This was the original internal door from the hall to the living area. Fortunately protected from the elements and the neighbour’s pissing dog, it’s heavy and straight and not too eaten by woodworm. While sanding through layers of paint, including an insane turquoise, I found something written on the door in pencil. The words were illegible but the markings were obviously that of child’s height.

Old houses are so like people, don’t you think? So full of surprises.

chasing roman rocks

I can’t resist a brown sign. Especially the ones with the arch, symbolising an historic monument. The ones with the pillory symbol I can pass on, along with the beach ones and the water ones. If you followed all of those then you might end up at Praia das Rocas (beach), and that would be disappointing. On the other hand a brown sign saying Osso da Baleia(beach) – well that’s intriguing.

Thus, when I’m let out by myself I spend hours chasing brown signs. The One will not stand for my random turn-off adventures, and who can blame him when the monument in question might be 28 kilometres from the signpost and if you can actually find it it may only be a small rock covered in duck poo.

I’ve spent years chasing small rocks around the world. Greek and Roman rocks mostly, from Palmyra (Syria), Nemausus (France) to Bulla Regia (Tunisia). And now, just down the road.


Indeed the great city of Conimbriga is not far from here. But more interesting are the smaller ancient fragments scattered around, hiding under the stones of Portugal’s not-so-modern villages.


Take Condeixa-A-Velha, which sits in a deep gorge in the shadow of Conimbriga. It’s a classic Portuguese village with more than the usual dose of oldness. No doubt that the houses here would have been built with stone from Conimbriga. Indeed if you are renovating in Condeixa Velha an archeological team come around and dig a hole in your foundations. In an inaccessible alley crowded in by rough little houses and built upon by a large unused barn, are three roman arches, their purpose buried by time.


A few kilometers away another brown sign lured me to the village of Alcabedique, surely one of the best place names in Portugal. There, without a shred of indication are the remains of the Roman reservoir which supplied water to Conimbriga.

All around this area the landscape looks ancient, biblical. Especially in the dry heat of summer with crickets singing and vines heavy with fruit. The villa romana in Rabaçal sits in an olive grove with trunks as old and wide boababs. There’s really nothing left of this Roman house-complex except the shapes of the walls. Although under the sand which covers the internal spaces there are some fading mosaics.


Antiquity is best kept in the dark. The brutal exposure that most ancient ruins have to endure makes their deterioration inevitable. The older the ruin, the more it gets subjected to terrible restoration. Especially in the 20th century when tour buses and cement trucks collided.


The Residência Senhorial dos Condes de Castelo Melhor is a monument of the 21st century. A grand 16th century Manueline castle and villa of aristocracy was acquired by the council last century and left to rot until being made state heritage in 1978. Subsequently it slowly began to be restored and in 2002 Roman ruins were officially discovered in the foundations. Fortunately no one had listened to the plumber who worked on the tavern built in a part of the villa back in 1975. He discovered the mosaics entombed in the foundations, in rooms in which a family lived until 2002.


Had they been discovered in 1975, their rescue and preservation would not have been so sensitively managed, such was the politic and science of the time. Today, despite the imperative to preserve the 16th century building on top, these mosaic carpets might be exactly as they looked to 5th century Romans.


This Roman house was massive. It far exceeds the boundaries of the castle, where excavations continue. The foundations show that the Roman house was occupied over a few generations, with higher levels and differing styles of mosaic works showing renovations. Apart from the mosaics in the small subterranean houses in Tunisia, these are the most beautiful floors I’ve ever seen.


Between the Italian city of Herculaneum, the underground Bulla Regia and this single house in Santiago da Guarda, it’s obvious to me that the Romans built the most beautiful homes in history.

It makes renovating a place first built in 1937 somewhat bemusing.


the great green gargle

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.


laap bo

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

crucifixo casal garcia 41 €3.29

pilates ponte de barca tinto 19 €2.29

veronica de lenço via latina 22 €2.29

o sangue casal garcia rosé 44 €3.29 FIRST

agonía campo de gruta (lidl) 43 €1.69 SECOND

pedro gazela 37 €2.99

os ladrões aldeia do sol 40 €1.29 FOURTH

madalena arinto quinta de santa maria 30 €3.60

a queda torre de menagem 21 €2.99

gethsemane campelo 33

sireneu coop agricola de felgueiras 41 €1.59 THIRD

chicotear loureiro muros antigos 20

maria adega de monçao 14 €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.
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