There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Eating the Algarve

After our Algarve holiday last October I posted The Algarve: Depredations and Delights about the changes we have seen in the region over the last thirty years. As we have just returned from our eighteenth visit, the delights must outweigh the depredations, so this year I have decided to be positive and concentrate on one particular delight. Being who I am, it is hardly surprising that the delight I have chosen is the food.

Despite having no Mediterranean coast, Portugal is often thought of as a Mediterranean country. Portuguese is a Latin language, the climate, particularly in the Algarve is Mediterranean and the diet is Mediterranean. Tomatoes, garlic and sweet peppers are important, olive oil, used as a cooking medium, condiment and salad dressing, is essential.

Warm & blue, but definitely not the Mediterranean

Portuguese food inevitably bears some resemblance to that of their bigger neighbour (though the locals would, doubtless, protest at any comparison). Meal times, though, are undeniably different. The Spanish like their lunch at 2 or 3 in the afternoon, and in the evening nobody eats before 10 o’clock. Portuguese restaurants expect customers to arrive for their almoços around 1 o’clock and for their jantares between 7 and 8 - which suits us far better.

Carvoeiro, where we have stayed each of the last seven years, may be only a village, but it has enough restaurants to last a fortnight without repetition, deviation or hesitation. There is at least one English restaurant and two or three that advertise all-day English breakfast, which is a sad reflection on some British tourists. There are also Chinese and Indian restaurants, which we have never visited - with so many local goodies on offer, it seems foolish to eat food we can get at home*. Most restaurants, though, could be classified as Portuguese. Their menus do not differ greatly, nor do their prices and the cooking is essentially simple. At its best, it involves using the freshest ingredients and treating them with respect; this is not fine dining (though the Algarve has its Michelin starred restaurants) this is good food at everyday prices – something the Portuguese do supremely well.

Until very recently, no sooner had you sat down than you would be brought bread, olives, sliced carrots in olive oil with crushed garlic, sardine paté, maybe even a small cheese. You were never asked, they were not written on the menu but they appeared in the bill as a modest ‘cover charge’. That has changed; everything is now individually priced and offered to you rather than plonked on the table. Sometimes you even have to ask for them. I do not know if the change is Portuguese inspired or a reaction to tourist’s perceived needs, either way I feel something has been lost.

If dining in, we start with three great Algarve staples, almonds, olives and Port (all right Port is not Algarvean, but it is essentially Portuguese.) Port before dinner? Yes, but not vintage port, this is cheap-as-you-like port, €4 a bottle port - less if possible. Tawny is ideal, earthier and less sweet that ruby. Among many varieties of olives, we prefer the small, black and shiny. English bought olives are usually pre-stoned, even though punching out the stone knocks out half the flavour; Portuguese olives are always sold intact. Port, black olives and salted almonds is a combination made in heaven or, at least, Portugal.

Port, olives & almonds
The Algarve is roughly rectangular, about 100 km long by 50 wide. As two sides of this rectangle are Atlantic coastline it is hardly surprising that fish is pre-eminent in Algarve cuisine. Several types of bass, bream and mackerel which always sound better in Portuguese (Dourado, Robledo, Carapau) are simply grilled and served whole, with a salad and maybe a few boiled potatoes. Cuts from larger fish like haddock or hake are served ‘Portuguese style’ - hidden in an earthenware dish beneath a blanket of garlicky tomatoes and sweet green peppers . Sole is generally filleted while tuna, swordfish and cuts across the strange scabbard fish are served as steaks.

Scabbard fish
Olhão market

The cataplana – a pair of hinged copper shells that can be sealed together - is a peculiarly Algarvean piece of cookware. It allows complete retention of flavour and can be placed on the heat either way up. A cataplana, usually serving two, will contain several pieces of fish - whatever is available - and, typically, prawns and mussels. The smell when a cataplana is opened is wonderful, though sadly the mussels are now often large green-lip mussels imported from New Zealand rather than local fruits de mer.

Restaurant Vimar, Carvoeiro

The Portuguese love affair with Bacalhau (salt cod) dates from the days before refrigeration. It was once the major source of protein and there are, allegedly, 365 ways of cooking it, so it can be eaten every day. It is sold as dry sheets in shops and markets everywhere, but is an acquired taste and has found less favour with tourist orientated restaurants. Bacalhau à Brás, flakes of salt cod, onion and fried potatoes mixed with scrambled egg, is an undemanding introduction to this delicacy.

Dona Barca
Sardines are typically Algarvean and appear on most menus. Like all fish they are best eaten as close as possible to where they are landed. Since 1982 we have been making what has become a pilgrimage to the Algarve’s second city of Portimão to eat sardines. The scruffy trestle tables on the dock have long been tidied up, but ducking under an arch from where they used to be brings you to a small square where Dona Barca, an old style restaurant with communal tables, has set up its grill. They have a full fishy menu, but their sardines, at €4.50 for half a dozen, are as fine and cheap a feast as could be wished for.

A man who is never afraid to put his fork where his mouth is
Squid, too, is a delight. Served whole (it is a crime to cut them into rings and cover them with batter) they are best simply grilled. We like to eat squid at Maria’s on the beach at Quinta do Largo. The combination of food and setting make this about as good as it gets. I ought to say a word here, too, for the squid’s uglier cousin, the cuttlefish. With a fishier flavour and a softer texture, cuttlefish might look like a huge yolkless poached egg, but Lynne regards them highly.

Lynne and a squid
Maria's, Quinta do Largo

Arroz de Mariscos (rice and shellfish) is, like a cataplana, usually a dish for two. A large bowl of fragrant stock is placed on the table from which you spoon out the rice, langoustine, prawns, mussels and anything else that might have been in the market that day. Mariscos without their shells are like olives without their stones, so fingers are required to liberate the tasty morsels. It all gets wonderfully messy.

Small scale clamming has always been important, but the last decade or so has seen serious over-fishing. Amêijoas à Bulhão Pato, clams in a garlicky broth, still appears on most menus, but the cheapest I saw this year was €12, which hardly makes it the cheap starter it once was. Pork with clams is a common main course and remains reasonably priced. It is sometimes cooked in a cataplana, sometimes not, when it is called Carne de Porco à Alentejano (Alentejo is the next province to the north). Both are good. In China standard practice is to dump your clam shells on the table and  someone will come along later with a greasy rag and sweep them onto the floor. The Portuguese, however, provide you with a tidy bowl for your emptied shells.

One pork and clams, one goat chop
Dois Imão Restuarant, Faro

Portugal and the chilli: a small digression. We think of the Mediterranean diet as being largely chilli-free. This is not true of the south coast; the Egyptians and Moroccans like their chillies, but to the north, in Italy, France and Spain, the chilli is absent from traditional cuisine. The same is broadly true in Portugal – but not entirely.

The African birdseye chilli, known in Portugal as piri-piri, can be bought strung into necklaces or as piri-piri sauce. Chicken piri-piri is not only ubiquitous but every restaurant’s cheapest dish. Given the quality of Portuguese chickens (not to mention my own chilli habit) it would be a poor holiday that did not involve at least one lunchtime chicken piri-piri.

I had always assumed that piri-piris came from Portugal’s former African colonies, and indeed they are much appreciated  in Mozambique, but that is not the whole story: it was the Portuguese who first took chillies to India. Vindaloo, the ultimate test of British diner's machismo, includes vinegar (the ‘vin’ in the vindaloo) and, often, pork - distinctly un-Indian ingredients. Vindaloo, originally from Goa, is a product of Portuguese/Indian fusion cuisine. Digression over

Piri-piri chicken apart, we rarely eat meat in Portuguese restaurants although Lynne enjoyed some goat chops this year – goat meat, though excellent, is difficult to find in England. We always buy a chicken to cook ‘at home’. They look scrawny - carcases are not routinely injected with water - but what you get is more meat than you would imagine possible, a wonderful texture and the flavour that chicken used to have before it became an industrial product. Quails, too, are good. They rarely appear on menus but are available, very cheaply, in all butchers. We like them pot-roasted with the usual Portuguese suspects.

Lunches at home are also often meat based. The air-dried ham, presunto, is similar to Italian prosciutto or Spanish jamon. Chouriçãos (Sausages),  are perfect with a salad and may contain some piri-piri, as may the ubiquitous but moreish sardine paté. Cheeses come in a variety of styles and an even bigger variety of prices. They are generally mild; the best have richly subtle flavours, the cheapest are bland and factory produced. The milk of cows, goats and sheep are used, unusually they are sometimes mixed in one cheese.
Lunch, chourição a salad and a small cheese

Dessert menus usually involve a large glossy folded card produced by a manufacturer of synthetic desserts and ice creams. Stuck somewhere on the card there will always be a small, often hand-written, list of the real desserts, many of which will have been made in-house. Ever present is Pudim Flan, a rich eggy caramel custard, which is perfect when you have too little room for anything heavier. Sometimes it is just perfect. Other residents of the dessert menu are also suitable for morning cake and coffee - another reason why a trip to Portugal is traditional followed by a diet. There will be an assortment of bolos (cakes) and tartes (translation unnecessary) made from local produce including (but not limited to) almonds, figs, carobs, oranges and apples. The cakes will always be made with one egg more than would be normal elsewhere and they are universally wonderful.

Coffee & cakes, Ferragudo

The queen of the coffee and cakes treats is the pastel de nata, a custard cream, but so much more than the name suggests. The fine people of Macao think they have turned the pastel de nata into their speciality, and have even exported it to Hong Kong. They are good, but the Portuguese original is better. The pastry flakes perfectly, the filling has flavour not just sweetness, and if they look a little burned on top, the more of that colouring the better.

Dois pasteis de nata

By the time you have eaten all that you are stuffed, but happy - and I have not even mentioned shaped marzipan sweets! Algarve regulars will probably have favourites I have omitted - put a comment in the box and I will try to put that right.

With all that food, you will need a drink – and that will be the next post.

* Were we expats rather than holidaymakers my attitude might be different – when living in America I once drove 130 miles for a pound of British sausages and a bottle of HP sauce, and thought the time well spent.

Other Algarve posts

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