Friday, July 22, 2011

Eat Portugal



I was fortunate enough to attend a book-launch for “Eat Portugal – The Essential Guide to Portuguese Food” by Lucy Pepper and Célia Pedroso.

As a foreigner living in Portugal for many years one would imagine that I’d know all there is to know about our cuisine. But this book is a gem. It is divided into sections: Recipes, Glossary, Useful information and English/Portuguese, Portuguese/English dictionary.
The recipes are surprisingly simple but delicious and written in a style that makes the reader want to head for the kitchen: “Broad Bean Stew (Favas à portuguesa) Broad beans become interesting when cooked with mint and meat juices”. 
The glossary is sometimes laugh out loud amusing, but straight to the point and honest: “feijão: bean. Beans are very common in Portuguese cookery…Tinned baked beans (in tomato sauce) are thought quite horrible in Portugal and the idea of eating them for breakfast or with chips is ludicicrous.”

In 2005, a well-known restaurant critic writing for the Sunday Times wrote this about Portugal:


Portugal is Belgium for golfers, a place so forgettable that the rest of us haven’t even bothered to think up a rude nickname for it. …there is a theory that the Portuguese only got an empire as a desperate attempt to get laid…In gallant little Portugal, the food is well meaning and pretty dreadful…I’m sure if you’re born to it, it reminds you of your grandmother’s beard and your mother’s mop bucket. Portuguese food is heaven — if you’re Portuguese…

And so on and so forth. The article, rightly, provoked a storm of protests not only from the Portuguese but also from foreigners. 

Lucy and Célia can explain why the writer got it completely wrong.

Questions:

Sue: What would you say to the restaurant critic who wrote the above?

Lucy: I remember that review.  First, I’d just say “grow up, Adrian, and stop showing off”. 
At the time he hadn’t been to Portugal, so I’ve never understood how he had such strong feelings about the place.  If he HAD been here and said them, I’d have forgiven him; everyone has an opinion.  Of course, you can find bad food in Portugal, but I must say that it is a lot harder to do here than, say, in Britain, which, although she has changed her foodmap forever and is now one of the greatest places to find amazing food, it’s also too easy to find utter rubbish, from the horrible generic frozen pub food to plasticky bakery food and some dreadful restaurants.  
Poor Adrian wasn’t blessed with a Portuguese mother-in-law.  I acquired one 13 years ago, and I’ve been her experimental guinea pig ever since... she, like many Portuguese, is of the opinion that the British are a bunch of sissies who need to learn to appreciate Cozido à Portuguesa (lit. Boil-up, à la Portugaise) ... and I learned.  
I would also forgive Adrian for what he said if he had ever been presented with a great ugly plateful of Cozido à Portuguesa, with its fair share of ears and noses poking out, and boiled flour and blood sausages sitting mushily at the edges, or with an evil looking dish of Feijoada (Bean Stew, with meat and often with cured sausages) with so many ingredients in it that you imagine it can’t taste of any of them.  I would forgive him because I took my time to appreciate them.  However, once you can get past the looks, the flavours are interesting, deep and lodge themselves into your new found “this is what Portugal tastes like” area of your brain.  
I am pleased that Adrian will be denied that pleasure.

Célia: I had forgotten about that review. Glad you point it out because many people feel some kind of fear or even repulsed just based on what their eyes see on the table. Once you get over that visual first impression you'll find a tasty cuisine. Sometimes simple, sometimes rich, but very different from our neighbour, Spain, which surprises most visitors. As one important British restaurant critic (Marina O'Loughlin) says, Portuguese cuisine is still very underrated. I suppose if Adrian had tried the Migas à Moda do Alentejo (a bread and pork dish from Alentejo) cooked by Lucy he would never have written that nonsense. 

Sue: “Eat Portugal – The Essential Guide to Portuguese Food” is aimed at foreign residents, tourists and the Portuguese themselves. How did you manage to create a book that would satisfy all three? 

Lucy: We initially aimed the book at tourists and foreign residents.  The fact that it resonates with the Portuguese is a huge added bonus and a lovely surprise.  When we started working on it, I wasn’t at all sure how it would go down with my Portuguese friends, this “bifa” writing about their food. 
We wrote it in a casual, chatty way, so that it was easy to pick up and easy to read.  Maybe that has also helped to appeal to everyone. 

Célia: The non-Portuguese were our first target and the reason why we wrote the book in the first place. Somehow, now that the book is published, many Portuguese also love it and ask for a Portuguese translation, which was a happy surprise. Apparently traditional dishes are not as cooked as often as they used to be in many households, and people don' t feel confident in doing it anymore without a recipe; this could explain this warm reaction. Also, Lucy's design is very appealing and makes the book easy to read and use.

Sue: I’ve always been curious about cookery-book writing. How do you choose the recipes, and did you actually try them yourselves? 

Lucy: The recipes are ones that one or other of us already makes from time to time or that a friend or relative makes and was happy to give us the recipe. We tried all the recipes (and photographed most) as we wrote the book, with a great deal of help from Célia’s mother.
  
Célia: We chose the recipes based on our knowledge and experience, thinking of what non-Portuguese would like to cook at home, after a visit to Portugal. A selection of recipes that could represent most of the country, including Madeira and Azores islands. Yes, we tried, taste and photograph them, with a hand from my mother, a great cook and expert in Portuguese cuisine. During the writing and cooking process I was very moved to see how Lucy's love for our food is as passionate as mine. I'm convinced she eventually will get over her baba de camelo (camel's spit) and lampreia de ovos (egg lamprey)  disgust.

Sue: Which is your favorite recipe?

Lucy: This week, it’s Milho Frito (fried corn), a side dish from Madeira. It’s something I only discovered a couple of years ago and it is fiendishly good... and extremely simple to make.  Simply cook up a thick batch of fine grain cornmeal/polenta (well salted, add garlic and a little shredded kale if you like), cooked until it’s well cooked and rubbery, let it cool, refrigerate for a few hours to enhance the rubberyness.  Slice into 1” cubes or sticks and deep fry, until golden and crispy on the outside.  I didn’t say it was good for you.

Célia: That is a difficult question as I love most of the recipes in the book, but I would say Migas à Moda do Alentejo and Bacalhau à Braz (cod with eggs and chips). The desserts are also a matter of perdition. I recommend them all.

Sue: Where can people buy “Eat Portugal”?

Lucy:  We’re currently looking into getting it to Amazon.
It’s available in Lisbon, Porto and Faro airports and many bookshops across Portugal.
Also it’s available online:
where it is also available as an e-book: http://www.mediabooks.com/catalogo/detalhes_produto.php?id=52553

Sue: Do you have any plans for a follow-up book? 

Lucy: We’re thinking of extending it a little, but we’re going to see how it goes for now. 

** Here's a video of Lucy talking about the book. She's in a very famous café in Belém (near Lisbon) which makes the BEST (and only - because they're original) pastéis de Belém (custard tarts). Yum.


** There's also a video here 
which shows the book launch. Take a look - and you might spot ME :)