Portugal – A world of flavours

Tomatoes and potatoes arrived from the New World and have become staples

It’s true that many British tourists are regulars on the beaches of the Algarve and they will say they love the country. Yes, they enjoy that little corner of this amazing land but far fewer visitors travel away from the resorts to discover the real personality of Portugal.

portugal vista

The Portuguese are the product of a complex melange of different civilizations during the past thousands of years. From prehistoric peoples to its Pre-Roman civilizations, contacts with the Phoenician-Carthaginian traders, the Roman annexation, the Germanic conquest, later the Visigoths, all added to the tapestry.

The Islamic Moors (mainly Berbers with some Arabs) from North Africa invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711, destroying the Visigoth Kingdom. In 868, Count Vímara Peres reconquered the region between the rivers Minho and Douro, that area then being known as Portucale. In 1095 Portugal separated almost completely from the Kingdom of Galicia with which it had been combined. Its territory consisted mostly of mountains, wastelands and woods. By 1250 the Algarve, the southernmost region, was finally recaptured by Portugal from the Moors. In 1255 the capital was established in Lisbon where it remains. Portugal’s geographic position in Europe has allowed its borders to remain stable for centuries, being unchanged by war or conquest since the 13th century.

Portugal is on the Atlantic edge of Europe. One has an uninterrupted view of America from the coast, or at least one would if it wasn’t for 3359 miles or 5405 kilometres (yes, I looked it up) of water between. It is therefore no surprise that Portugal was a world power during the “Age of Discovery”. It accumulated an empire with footholds in South America, Africa, and Asia. Its connections in these lands are reflected in its modern population as well as its food and culture. The Portuguese Empire was the first global empire in history, and also the longest-lived of the European colonial empires, spanning almost 600 years,

portugal wine cellar
During the 15th and 16th centuries Portugal was a leading European power, ranking with England, France and its neighbour Spain. Portugal had its extensive colonial trading empire throughout the world backed by a powerful navy, but with the “Carnation Revolution” of 1974 (a bloodless left-wing military coup) broad democratic reforms were undertaken and Portugal granted independence to most of its Overseas Provinces (Províncias Ultramarinas).

In 1986 Portugal entered the European Economic Community and left the European Free Trade Association which had been founded by Portugal and its partners in 1960. The country joined the Euro in 1999. The Portuguese Empire ended de facto when Macau was returned to China, and East Timor was given independence, and many Portuguese returned from those newly established countries. The “retornados” now comprise a sizeable part of the Portuguese population.

That close association with the worldwide market and its cosmopolitan people have offered Portugal the opportunity to cultivate a unique and colourful cuisine taking advantage of its indigenous products as well as those from its colonies. Tomatoes and potatoes arrived from the New World and have become staples just as they are all over the rest of Europe. Pineapples were introduced to the Portuguese Islands of the Azores and coffee came from Africa via Brazil. But before that the Romans introduced onions, garlic, olives and grapes, and the Moors planted rice, grew figs, citrus fruit and almonds.

portugal cheese The national dish is “bacalhau”: dried, salted cod from the cold northern waters of the Atlantic. It has a distinctive flavour which can become addictive. It’s been a Portuguese favourite since the early 16th century, when their fishing boats reached Newfoundland. The catch was dried and salted to preserve it for the voyage back to Europe. There are as many recipes for this delicious fish as there are days in the year, and it’s rare to find a menu that does not feature at least one version.

The country is full of speciality seafood restaurants, many with extravagant counters of lobsters, shrimp, oysters, and crabs along with white fish such as hake. Octopus is popular and chefs turn this unpromising article into tender and flavourful preparations.

Typical of Porto is tripe and it’s a product that you will likely have avoided. It is not to everyone’s taste, admittedly, but has been Porto’s traditional dish since Henry the Navigator sent ships to conquer Ceuta in Morocco. The population of Porto sacrificed all their animals to provide the crew with meat. This left those internal organs and frilly bits for the good folks of Porto. They have been known as “tripeiros” or “tripe eaters” ever since.

portugal fish plate Breakfast is traditionally just cup of coffee and some bread or a pastry. Every street seems to boast a collection of bakeries that will entice with miniature custard tarts and yolk-yellow baked goods. Hotels provide the usual international spread of cheese, pressed meats and fruit along with croissants, but give that a miss at least once during your stay and join the locals.

Lunch is a leisurely break, at least at weekends. Office workers often only take an hour but even they will take longer if they can arrange a business lunch lasting more than a couple of hours. It is served between noon and 3 o’clock, and dinner is generally served from 8 o’clock. There are usually three courses, often including soup, the most common of which is “caldo verde” made with potato, shredded cabbage (this can be found ready-prepared in open markets), and pieces of sausage.

Porto has given its name to that fortified wine much beloved of the English. It is enjoying a revival and is now presented as not only the perfect accompaniment to strong cheeses and sweet desserts but chilled as an aperitif. White port has been appreciated as a summer drink for many years and it has recently been joined by pink port which can be served as a long cocktail with tonic.

Portugal is a food-lover’s paradise. It boasts a vibrant traditional cuisine taking advantage of the freshest of local produce from both land and sea. Wine aficionados will want to spend time in the Douro Valley where they can taste some of the best wine that the region has to offer. Porto’s restaurants will amaze with their artfully presented dishes and at prices that will assure your return.

 

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