18 March 2011

Cooking and Reading in a foreign country

On my first ever visit to Lisbon, my eye was caught by a paperback in a bookshop window in the Rossio.  It stood out because a) it was English and b) because it was about food.  This little paperback has become one of my favourite sources of recipes for portuguese food.

An old photo but this was the shop and it was in the right hand window round the corner of the shop

Portuguese Cookery by Ursula Bourne

First published in 1973 it gives an overview of the country, the ingredients, flavours and suggestions for alternatives to items that would not have been available in those days.  How times have changed in the culinary world.  She gives a potted history of the link between the English and the port wine industry which is very interesting for those who know nothing about the long standing friendship between our two countries.  She gives hints at the life of the poorer portuguese and how they make the best of what is available to them to make nutritious soups and meals.  She talks about the legendary 'varinas' of Lisbon - the lady fish porters - I wish I could have seen them in action in the old days - must have been quite a sight.  Where there is a story to a receipe, Ursula tells it.  Some are quite amusing, especially in the 'Cakes, Sweetmeats and Conserves' section.  Apparently there is a famous cake in the Douro region shaped like a rude part of a gentleman's anatomy, which is given by young men to their girl friends during the June and September festivals for Sao Goncalo, the patron saint of marriage.  It is a leftover from the fertility rites in the past. 

I have no idea whether the book is still in print, but if it is, it is a good, simple introduction to portuguese cuisine as is another excellent book is by Carol Wright, simply titled 'Portuguese Food'.  This was actually printed in 1969 and is more of a guide book with recipes than a cookery book.  Sadly, a lot of restaurants she refers to in this area of Cascais and Sintra, are no more, but it is still very interesting to see what was around and how much a meal would have cost. The guide book element is also worth reading to see what the country was like in 1969 under the control of the dictator Salazar, and still a few years away from the revolution.

Both books cover the portuguese love of salt cod.  I know it sounds vile, but it is not as it sounds.  The cod is soaked in water overnight or longer and when cooked, has a lovely creamy texture.  The British have the standing joke of '101 Ways with Mince', the portuguese have '365 receipes for salt cod'.  I can't say I 'love' it, but cooked well, it is delicious. 

Balcalhau a Gomes de Sa

My favourite dishes are quite simple.  'Iscas' or Lisbon liver is my all time favourite.  Nothing like the old liver done under a grill until you could sole your shoes with it, this is marinated with wine and vinegar and garlic and served with either boiled or fried sliced potatoes and is beautiful. 


Another one is something that is about to hit the restaurants about now.  'Favas' is a dish made with broad beans, garlic, bacon and other ingredients.  Now broad beans and me have never gone together.  Remember those disgusting grey, wrinkled things with a parsley sauce that were always with a bit of tired, white fish? Well this dish converted me and now I am a born-again broad bean fan.  It might not look very pretty, but the taste is something else. Try boiling them, then strip off the skin and you are left with a beautiful green bean that is a wonderful addition to salads or soup.  I find that the simplest of receipes are the most flavoursome here, probably because of the amounts of garlic added to them!  Our garlic bulbs are huge!

Favas com chourico

Portuguese olive oil is also a well kept secret.  I buy mine from the market and the smell when the heat hits it, is glorious.  The best smell in the world is onions and garlic stewing in good olive oil.  You can't beat it.  Well I suppose fresh bread and roasted coffee come close.

A lovely old tin of olive oil

Not having access to Waterstones means that my reading list has been influenced by what I have been able to find in the British Library on Wednesdays and the odd buy in a second hand bookshop or the big FNAC shop in the Cascais shopping centre.  This was how I discovered the portuguese writer, Eca de Queiroz.  He was born in 1845 in the north of Portugal and although he studied law at Coimbra University, he went into the diplomatic service and was a Consul in Havana, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Bristol and finally, Paris.  The first book I read was, in fact, his last and partially unfinished - "The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers".  I enjoyed this and actively searched out the other ones.  The next one, and the one that the portuguese regard as his finest, is "The Maias"- my thoughts on this book were that there were a lot of similarities still around today!  I then read "The Crime of Father Amaro", which was very powerful and was made into a film in the early 2000s.  I recently read "Cousin Basilio", which again, could have been set in today's world.  A wonderful writer - to me in the same category as Zola. 

The hardest part about trying to read genuine portuguese works is the fact you have to rely on it having been translated well and sometimes this does not happen and you lose certain elements because of it.  However "Equator" by Miguel Sousa Tavares was a recent find and a very moving book.  I had heard about this a few years ago as it was made into a mini series for television but I never saw it.  The story is set at the beginning of the 1900s and follows the life of a man asked by the King to become governor of Portugal's smallest colony, the island of Sao Tome e Principe.  I learnt so much about the cocoa plantation trade, much of it not very pleasant and the English do not come out of it very well.  The ending is truly shocking but I would recommend it wholeheartedly.

The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers by Eca de Queiroz and Equator by Miguel Sousa Tavares

If you are interested in history, "The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon" by Richard Zimler, is a rollercoaster of a book set against the background of the auto de fe (the portuguese equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition) and the horrendous time that the people went through.  A modern book is Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier, which is also very good. 

The Last Kabblist of Lisbon by Richard Zimler

Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier

For serious students, why not try this one?  Written in the days when Sintra was spelt with a 'C' as in Cintra, it is a wonderful piece of writing about life in the 1700s.  William Beckford  -rumoured to have been the richest commoner in England  - having been a rather naughty boy in England, had to leave the country hastily after a scandal.  After going to Italy he eventually came to Portugal and rented Monserrate Palace.  He also built Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire and the Landsdown Tower in Bath but he is best known for his gothic novel, Vathek.  There is a rumour that he brought sheep from Fonthill to Monserrate, but I am not sure whether that is true or not. 

The Journal of William Beckford in Portugal and Spain 1787-1788

Another writer to look out for if you have not ready anything by him, is Robert Wilson.  He has written two books about the Lisbon/Cascais area and are both very good reads.  The first one 'A Small Death in Lisbon' is set during the present and flashes back to 1941 and the second, 'The Company of Strangers' is about a female spy caught up in the brutal fascist regime of 1944 Portugal.

A Small Death in Lisbon by Robert Wilson

The Company of Strangers by Robert Wilson

He also has a series of books set in Spain which are equally brilliant and on that theme I have to recommend, because it would be naughty not to mention it, a Spanish novel - 'The Shadow of the Wind' by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.  An absolutely brilliant read.  The sort of book you cannot put down and read into the early hours of the morning.

1 comment:

  1. The Shadow of the Wind... yes, a truly spell-binding book. I have read it twice and I'll probably read it again. Pure magic.