For a relatively small country, Portugal has a surprising variety of gastronomical delights. This is in no small way due to the fact it has been influenced by the foods of Portugal’s former colonies such as Goa and Macau.When Vasco da Gama dicovered the sea route to India in the 16th century the Portugese’ desire for exotic foods and spices brought in many new varieties from Asia, China, Africa and South America, spices such as ‘piri piri’ (small fiery chili peppers), black pepper,cinnamon, vanilla and saffron feature in many Portuguese dishes making a marked difference to the cuisine of Spain and the Mediterranean countries although some of the Portugese dishes are closely related to the Mediterranean cuisine.
Portugal has long been a sea-faring nation thus fish and sea-foods feature widely in it’s dishes. Portugal has the highest fish consumption per capita in Europe. Fish is cooked in every way possible, and it is said that they have 365 ways to cook cod, one for every day of the year! Portugese fishermen have been fishing and trading cod since the 15th century and as they have a tradition of fishing in the North Atlantic even before the invention of refrigeration, they had to find ways of preserving the fish, Cod is almost always dried and salted, and this way is still in use to this day. The most consumed fish in Portugal is ‘Bacalhau’ (salted cod)’ (in Spain–Bacalao, Norway–Klippfisk) this stock fish is used in a wide range of recipes, such as ‘Bacalhau a gomes de sa’ which is cod, potato, egg and olives. Portugal is famous for it’s sardines, simply grilled over coals, fresh from the sea is the most popular way to serve them. There are many varieties of fish and seafoods to sample in Portugal such as octopus , squid, cuttlefish, crabs, prawns, lobster, musels clams, oysters and scallops, and the list goes on. These days you will find that the freshness stands out and they are definatly the food to eat in Portugal, in times gone by most of the fish was preserved in brine for transportation inland. Another good way to sample fish in Portugal is one of their fish soups or stews, such as ‘Caldeirada’, with a variety of fish, seafood, potatoes, tomatoes and onions or ‘Massada de Peixe’ with fish, prawns, pasta and tomatoes, or ‘sopa mariscos’ seafood bisque. There are many speciality seafod restaurants all over the country displaying their array of lobsters, oysters, crabs and prawns, if you cann’t decide which one too choose then try the ‘arroz de marisco’ a seafood and rice dish. In the Algarve the local dishes are centred around shellfish and along the northern coastline, Costa Verde, you will find whiting, shad, lamprey and many others along with the ever present cod.
Further inland you will find more meat dishes than there are along the coast. Historically meat was only for the priviledged, wealthy people, nowadays it is more widely available, although good use is made of many of the cheaper cuts of meat in long slow cooked stews and broths, a popular Portugese dish ‘cozido a portuguesa’, similar to the French ‘pot au feu‘, includes whatever the cook pleases to include, maybe pork, beef, a variety of sausages, ham, even pig’s feet go into the pan alongside potatoes, turnips, carrots, chickpeas, cabbage and rice, this dish will also appear on many restaurant menus as traditional portugese fare. From Porto come tripe dishes, ‘Tipas a moda do Porto’ being tripe with white beans, in fact they have so many tripe dishes that in Porto they are often referred to as ‘tripeiros’-‘tripe eaters’. Other meat dishes featured in portugese cuisine are ‘Alcatra’ beef marinated in red wine and garlic before roasting and ‘Carne de porco a alentejana’ pork with clams. On the whole Portugese cuisine relies on fresh produce, prepared simply and whether it is vegetables, meat or fish it has to be fresh not frozen or pre-prepared, they say that the best food eaten is that which is prepared at home. Tomatoes, cabbage and onions are the most popular of the vegetables in Portugal and salads of tomato and letttuce accompany many meals, as do potatoes and rice. Mealtimes are strictly observed in Portugal and lunch is normally a three course event with soup as a starter, the Portugese love their soups which are mainly vegetable based, although there are also meat and fish soups, the best known Potugese soup is ‘caldo verde’ made from potato, kale and ‘chouriço’.
Cheese (queijo) is not commonly used in Portugese dishes but it is served at the end of a meal, there is quite a large selection of cheeses and what they do have are of top quality and are equal to many of the world’s best. Most cheeses are made from goat’s or sheep’s milk or a mixture of both and are mainly still hand-made. The ‘king’ of Portugese cheese is ‘Serra de Estrela’ which is a traditional shepherd’s cheese, made from the milk of sheep that have grazed on the wild mountain herbs and flowers. It has a creamy texture and can be used as a spreadable cheese, resulting from the manufacture of the ‘Serra de Estrela’ comes the cheese-curd of the same name which is widely used in cooking and baking. A crumbly sheep’s milk cheese from the Estramadura area of Portugal is ‘Azeitão’ cheese, this is made in a similar fashion to the ‘Serra de Estrela’ but uses milk from sheep grazing on grass from a different region, this makes a big difference in the flavour of the finished cheese, and with this cheese produces an earthy and creamy flavour. Another delicious Portugese cheese is ‘Queijo da Ilha’ a cow’s milk cheese with a strong smell and a slightly spicy flavour, and there are also fresh cheeses (queijo fresco) which are used to make some delicious regional recipes such as cheese cakes.
The Portugese have quite a sweet tooth and although there are many regional desserts and varieties of recipes the most popular desserts are ‘leite-creme’ a sort of set egg custard and ‘arroz doce’ rice pudding, most towns will have their own local speciality, they love their rich egg-based desserts and spices, such as cinnamon and vanilla are used to flavour them. There are numerous cakes and pastries, again often including creams and custards in the fillings. Some mouth-watering cakes to look out for are ‘Pasteis de nata’ small custard flans, ‘Palha’ made from egg yolks and sugar, ‘ovo moles’ sweet eggs, ‘tigeladas’ small cakes flavoured with cinnamon and ‘Bolo-Rei’ which is the traditional Christmas cake , decorated with nuts, dried and candied fruits.
Wine has been produced in Portugal for centuries after being introduced by ancient civilizations but mainly by the Romans. The two major wine producing regions of Portugal are the ‘Douro Valley‘ and ‘Pico Island‘ wine region, these are protected by UNESCO as World Heritage. The Douro region created the appellation system nearly two hundred years before France, this was to protect it’s superior wines from the more inferior wines of the region. ‘Vinho Verde’ wines are not as the name suggests ‘green’ but are white, red or rose, it refers to the fact that they do not need a long ageing process and come from the Vinho Verde region. Other terms to look out for are ‘Espumante’ sparkling, ‘Seco’ dry, ‘Reserva’ superior quality wine, ‘Garrafeira’a reserva red wine aged at least 2 years in a barrel and 1 year in the bottle or a white wine aged at least 6 months in the barrel and 6 months in the bottle. ‘Maduro ‘Mature, ‘Quinta’ vineyard. Of course Portugal is most famous for it’s Port Wine. The grapes for the port come from the Douro Valley region and is exported from the city of Porto, from which it gets it’s name. Fortifying wine by the addition of spirits came about as a result of transporting the wine on long sea voyages. There are a few styles of port, ‘Vintage Port’ often blended port from more than one vineyard and the grapes being grown in a ‘declared vintage year’, it then has to be aged in oak for two years before being bottled and left to mature for generally another 15 years, some even longer-‘single-quinta vintage port’, this port is made from grapes grown in a good year but not good enough to be a declared year, also the grapes will be from a single vineyard-‘late bottle vintage’ are blended from various years wines then aged for up to 10 years in oak-‘Ruby Port’is a sweet port that has only a short ageing time-‘Tawny Port’ this has been aged for a longer time than the ruby port normally between 10-20 years – ‘White Port’ Usually taken as an aperitif. ‘Madeira’ comes from the island of Madeira and is made in a similar method to the Port wine, although they deliberatly over heat the wine to give it it’s traditional caramel flavour.