The backbone of Portuguese cuisine is the quality of its ingredients. The Alentejo black pig, fish and seafood from its long Atlantic coast; the wide varieties of local cheeses, nuts from the far North, complex floral honeys from throughout the country and, of course, the wonderful grape varieties that give rise to the world famous fortified wines of the Douro, the earthy wines of the South and the wonderful vinho verde. The list could easily become endless.
These quality ingredients are simply prepared to preserve and enhance their distinctive flavours. When Vasco Da Gama discovered the maritime way to India, the old world was lightened up with spices that now flavour the chouriços and dishes found throughout the Iberian Peninsula. In fact the Portuguese were amongst the first people in Europe to include cinnamon, pepper, cloves and nutmeg in their cooking and, with the discovery of the new world, led predominantly by their Spanish neighbours, tomatoes, bell peppers, chillies of all types, potatoes and pulses were also introduced.
From the vast plains of Alentejo down to the Algarve coast and across the mountains of Beira Alta, the passion and spirit for the regional dishes flourishes. I found meat, often pork, is the central ingredient in most recipes, though chicken is also frequently used, whilst other meats such as beef, veal, lamb or goat are reserved to certain areas or for special occasions. Portugal’s long Atlantic coast also allows for a rich diversity of fish and seafood in its cuisine: tuna, sardines, swordfish, cod, sea perch, shrimp, crab, clams, octopus and eel are all enjoyed. However, the most famous fish in Portugal is bacalhau (salt cod), which is usually imported from Norway or Iceland. It is regarded as “the national ingredient” and you would struggle to find a Portuguese citizen who does not like it! In fact the Portuguese love it so much they sought special protection for the salt cure used in the cod they import, preserving the traditional method used for centuries.
Meat and fish are served with a host of vegetables and fruits and, before every meal, soup is invariably served. Stews containing bread and vegetables are common throughout Portugal and these feature meats, seafood and fish. Wheat, rice, potatoes, tomatoes, onions, squash, cabbage, kale, lemons, oranges, grapefruit, beans, olives, figs, apricots, plums and grapes are abundant, with cherries, strawberries, quince, chestnuts and almonds also prominent. Rich local cheeses, typically made with goat or ewe's milk, are ubiquitous and eaten any time of the day!
My girlfriend frequently starts almost any dish with the ‘the holy trinity’ of Portuguese cooking: wonderful dark green flavoursome olive oil (azeite), garlic (alho) and bay (louro). It is this last herb that gives our deli its name. The Portuguese express love and friendship through food, portions are large and guests are always welcome at the invariably full table. As for me, over the next few months and years I wish to share with you some of the many recipes I am collecting from friends and family back in Portugal.