To include the dinners in the Évora post would have made it over-long, but they were worth remembering, so here they are, all on their own. Neither was ‘fine dining’ – that is for special occasions – but both exemplified the affordable good food with pronounced regional character that is one of the joys of Portugal.
On the Saturday we dined at a table outside Mr Pickwick’s Restaurant (strange choice of name) near the Praça de Geraldo, the city’s main square [Update: Several Tripadvisor reviews of this restaurant are unfavourable, but we saw it differently. Maybe travelling all the way to Évora and then ordering Spagbol is asking for off-hand service and a poor meal]. Arriving around 7:15 we had our pick of the tables, but we were only just ahead of the crowd and the little courtyard soon filled up.
To accompany the inevitable bread and olives we chose a glass of white port, an old favourite, though neglected of late. At its best (and this was), the complex off-dry palate hinted at so many of the joys off Portuguese cuisine.
Pork and clams is a marriage made in heaven, or at least southern Portugal (which may be as close as you can get on this earth). Two versions are available in the Algarve, the cataplana, in which the shellfish and part cooked meat are placed in the traditional copper shell for the final cooking; the flavours and aromas remaining sealed inside until the cataplana is opened at your table. The other way involves more frying and a darker, garlicky sauce and is called (in the Algarve, at least) carne de porco Alentejano.
I am not sure if the Cataplana Alentejano is really traditional or a judicious borrowing. Inside were huge chunks of deeply flavoured stewed pork, tiger prawns (of Thai origin?), mussels, crab claws and, of course, clams. Everything was steeped in a broth of the usual Portuguese suspects, tomato, peppers, garlic and coriander with a chunks of potato boiled in the broth. [update: Clams have been over-harvested in the Algarve and become expensive. The clams in this cataplana have a yellowish shell with a distinctive black tip. Ten days later we bought and cooked some identical clams in Carvoeiro – they originated from Vietnam. In November we ate the very same clams in Hong Kong and Macau. They are good, cheap and (for the moment) plentiful.]
It was wonderfully messy – getting your hands in is the only
way to deal with prawns and crabs - and in every way delightful. Our bottle of
Reguengos branco from just down the road seemed a hard and unyielding liquid
when tasted alone - not a wine that wins prizes at blind tastings - but as a
compliment to the food it was ideal. Strong fruity flavours would have fought
with the shellfish, while this was a wine modestly fulfilling the role for
which it was born.
|Inside the cataplana, Mr Pickwick's, Evora|
It was also not the sort of food that requires a dessert. We felt well fed as we strolled back to our hotel through the now quiet Praça de Geraldo.
We dined at one of the tables lining an alley outside a restaurant not far from last night's.
Our white port arrived in a brandy glass, a couple of blocks of ice swimming in it – was this a style choice or a rescue mission after someone forgot to put the port in the chiller? Either way it was regrettable – and the port was not as good as last night’s, either.
Appetizers appeared unbidden - chicken in mayonnaise with nuts (a spoonful of curry powder and it would have been coronation chicken) and a soft fish cake coated in fried breadcrumbs. Both were pleasant if unexciting.
Lynne had a veal steak with salad and chips, all very nicely done, she said and I can vouch for the meat being top quality. I ordered black pork and migas, the Alentejo’s two distinctive contributions to Portuguese gastronomy on one plate. (The Spanish dish also called migas is different, Mexican migas is very different indeed.)
Iberian black pigs – believed to be a cross between domestic pigs introduced by the Phoenicians and wild boar - have been raised in central southern Spain and Portugal for millennia. They live a pampered life roaming in herds among the sparse oak forests feeding mainly on acorns – which tends to make black pork expensive. My two large slices, tenderloin perhaps, beaten flat and bearing the stripes of the grill, were the most flavourful pork it has ever been my privilege to eat. Discovering a usually mundane ingredient that has been taken to another level excites me more than I rationally think it should.
Migas must have originated as a way of using up stale bread and as a filling start to an otherwise meagre meal. That people still eat it suggests this mash of bread, olive oil and garlic is well-liked as well as filling. There are several varieties, I ate migas de tomate, though the tomato gave more generously of its colour than is flavour. There were other flavours I could not pick out and it reminded me very much of bread sauce, at least the bread sauce my mother used to make in Christmases long ago. I loved it, but a ladle-full as a 'trimming' would have been perfect. I had a portion the size of a house brick.
|Migas de tomate|
This was not my meal but the migas was the closest match I could find
The picture comes from the Portuguese recipe site Mytaste
With the pork and too much migas, the pile of chips was unnecessary - it certainly made a smallish plate very full. By the time I had finished (and to my shame I ate it all) I was truly stuffed. [and did not eat another full meal for 48 hours].
The accompanying bottle of Borba tinto, from the largest (in terms of production) of the Alentejo wine districts slid down nicely.
Desserts were again out of the question, but we thought a local brandy might be a pleasing complement to our coffee. I foolishly asked for conjac - conjac may be Spanish for brandy, but in Portuguese aguardente, is the appropriate word, though that covers many types of fire water. Two sizeable Brandy glasses soon appeared. To the British eye, used to a measure of 2.5cl (little more than a wet glass) almost anything appears generous, but these were vast. They were also paler than expected. I lifted a glass to my nose expecting a waft of the caramel used for colouring in all Iberian brandies but instead I sniffed the sweet woody aroma of not conjac but cognac, a sizeable step up in quality and in price. I asked the waiter what it was and he showed me the bottle, Martel Cognac. How much would two swimming pool sized cognacs cost? 'It's only money,' said Lynne, 'and it is very nice.' And indeed it was.
When the bill came I peered at it with trepidation. Two cognacs, it said, at €5 each. The whole bill, appetizers and port, two substantial meat dishes, wine, coffee and cognac came to €50. Evora is an easy city to like.