A love letter to Portugal

When I was younger I was an artichoke, a big prickly head full of dangerous thoughts and a long lanky stem of a body. I was proud of the jutting hip bones and faint bumps of the boney xylophone of my ribcage stretched taught under skin. Even prouder was I considering my awful diet, anything fried, grilled or oozing in fat, burgers, pizzas, chips and chicken nuggets washed down with gallons of sugary, fizzy coke. Food for me was a necessity to survive, anything frozen was champion, that is until I went with my boyfriend and his family to Portugal. But this wasn’t the Portugal I had known, Portugal’s obnoxious bratty child ‘The Algarve’ with its lines of ‘Fish n’ Chips’ shops and ‘Full English Breakfast’ signs, with its booming nightlife and ‘bloody good’ cocktail bars, no, this was Portugal Proper.

Portugal, the country that can make you feel as though you’re treading the line between here and the rest of the world, landscapes that scream, hiss and sing to you with emerald skies, large knife-like rocks that seem to cut the world in half and a dusting of golden grass crunching beneath your feet. Portuguese food saved me from a life of spaghetti hoops, Portuguese food transformed my tiny body into a thing of wonder, a warm, rosy peach from a wispy little stem. I’m not sad about that, this body fits me better, and serves as an ode to my new relationship with food, I relish the flavours as they walk coquettishly along my taste buds, delight in the olfactory explosion of a Portuguese kitchen which indicates soon a full plate will appear in front of me, tantalisingly, expectantly, waiting to please.

‘Comidas, Vinhos, Petiscos’ reads a sign, invitingly. Don’t be afraid of the menu, because Portugal is the only country that can make something as vile-sounding as chicken stomachs taste absolutely amazing. I have my favourites, things that I wax lyrical about to my nearest and dearest, in comparison, traditional English food just doesn’t measure up anymore.

  1. Bifanas consist of joyous oaky garlicky pork stretched thin, beaten and drizzled with the pork reduction and served in ‘papo seco’, fluffy, white crispy rolls. We park the car to get them somewhere on the path towards Lisbon, in a small cafe known for it’s exceedingly good bifana repertoire, filing out of the air conditioned car and into the stifling heat of the Portuguese air for our beautiful porky reward.
  2. Patatas bravas (although Spanish, can be done in Portugal and are prepared differently) are golden crispy cubes of potato, fluffy and hot in the middle and smothered in a bright beautiful sauce that gives it a tangy, hot kick. I love potato in all it’s forms, so this beautiful crispy little dish is a winner for me.
  3. Salada de Polvo (Octopus Salad), consists of little bits of cute, dinky purple Octopus, tossed among herbs and vegetables. The tangy, vinegary sauce is cut by the hint of fish those endearing little Octopus bits add to it. It sounds scary but if you dip a hesitant chip into the sauce to try it out, you’ll discover something quite remarkable. Suddenly you like Octopus.
  4. Migas are basically bread crumbs or potatoes fried in a smorgasbord of good stuff like garlic, tomato and meat juices. Migas wrap you up in a warm hug, fill you with comfort and joy. They are garlicky, soft and somewhat like a rock and roll upgrade to our humble mashed potato, I can eat Migas out of a bowl with a spoon, filling myself until I feel fit to burst.

There’s more. Of course there’s more. I could scribble notes all up my arm of flavours, dishes I’ve tried, things I’ve appreciated. Vinho Verde is my favourite wine, if you’re buying. I’m not much of a dessert girl but I hear romantic adulations about the good ol’ Portuguese desserts. This has turned into a food appreciation post, but there’s so much more than just the food, there are Eurasian Jays wistfully perched on the gothic skeletons of trees, a twinkling concert of sheep bells on the horizon, great stoic Swallowtail butterflies fluttering around, a sense of camaraderie and community that you just don’t get in this country anymore and (of course) the glorious sunshine, reliable in so much that it actually makes an appearance in the summer.

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