Brigadeiros: from a Brazilian presidential candidate to Portuguese cafés, Food and drink

Brigadeiros: from a Brazilian presidential candidate to Portuguese cafés

As any self-respecting Brazilian will tell you, brigadeiros do not originate in Portugal; they were created in Brazil and are one of their most recognised sweets. However, knowing what a sweet tooth the Portuguese have, it is not surprising that this soft, rather gooey and very sweet version of a chocolate truffle has made its way across the Atlantic and is now a very popular sweet in Portugal. In fact, in Portugal the brigadeiros recipe is often used to make a chocolate cake (bolo brigadeiro) and can be found on the dessert menu in many a Portuguese restaurant, which is where I first discovered it.

The unusual name of the brigadeiro (which means ‘brigadier’ in English) is said to come from Brigadier Eduardo Gomes who ran as a presidential candidate in the Brazilian elections of 1945. He was a handsome bachelor and was popular with his female supporters, who organised fundraising events for his campaign at which sweets made of condensed milk, cocoa powder and butter were sold with the name ‘brigadeiros’. Although the brigadeiro recipe is associated with a Rio de Janeiro confectioner, Heloisa Nabuco de Oliveira, it is likely that a version of these sweets existed before 1945, as sweetened condensed milk was widely used in Brazilian sweets and desserts during the war and post-war years when sugar was rationed. However, it was the association with Gomes’ (unsuccessful) presidential campaign that gave brigadeiros their name and place in history.

The basic recipe usually contains condensed milk, cocoa powder, butter and chocolate vermicelli, but I prefer to follow the luxury recipe shared by the Portuguese chef Nuno Mendes, which contains dark chocolate (with a minimum of 70% cocoa solids), double cream and caramelised condensed milk. The chocolate balls are rolled in the grated dark chocolate rather than in chocolate vermicelli making them a proper grown-up version of the brigadeiro.

Food and drink, Jesuíta: Portugal's answer to a custard slice

Jesuíta: Portugal’s answer to a custard slice

One of the many popular Portuguese sweet pastries is made of puff pastry in the shape of an isosceles trapezium (I never thought I would be typing that in a blog!) filled with a sweet creamy mixture of egg yolk and sugar and topped with a crunchy layer of icing. It has the intriguing name of jesuíta (Jesuit) and, like many Portuguese sweet pastries, there is a story behind it. Its origins in Portugal date back to 1892, when the Confeitaria Moura in Santo Tirso (a city between Porto and Braga) was started by Joaquim Ferreira de Moura. He employed a Spanish pastry chef who had previously worked for a community of Jesuit priests in Bilbao and it is thought that he brought the recipe for jesuítas with him to Santo Tirso, hence the name. However, this is conjecture and it is possible that the name comes from the simple fact that the icing on the pastry, which is made of a mixture of icing sugar, egg white and cinnamon, is a similar colour to the light brown habits that the Jesuit monks wore. As with many Portuguese egg and sugar-filled sweet pastries, it is very likely that the recipe originated in a convent or monastery where the nuns and monks used egg whites to starch their habits and therefore had a lot of eggs yolks left over. The Confeitaria Moura is still considered the place that makes the most genuine jesuítas, as the original recipe from 1892 has been handed down through the generations of the Moura family and is a closely guarded secret. The recipe has been adapted by other pastry chefs to include other ingredients, such as adding a sprinkling of flaked or chopped almonds on top of the icing or even adding them to the filling, which is my preference. Continuing along the religious theme, there is also a bite-size version of the jesuíta, which is called a seminarista (seminarian) and a larger version called a cardeal (cardinal)!
By the way, the jesuíta isn’t really anything like a custard slice, but there are a couple of similarities; in both the egg-based filling is sandwiched between two layers of pastry and both are topped by icing, which is why I have called it Portugal’s answer to a custard slice.

Food and drink, Vinho Verde: young, crisp wine from the Minho

Vinho Verde: young, crisp wine from the Minho

Vinho Verde is a very young, crisp wine that is produced in the Minho region. Its name translates to mean ‘young wine’, referring to the fact that it should be drunk soon after it has been bottled (and is not related to its colour, despite ‘verde’ meaning ‘green’). The Vinho Verde region, which lies between the Spanish border and the Douro Valley in the north-western corner of Portugal, was demarcated in 1908 and only permitted grapes are allowed to be used in wines that carry the Vinho Verde DOC (Denominação de Origem Controlada (Controlled Denomination of Origin)) on the label, along with the seal of guarantee and an official number.

While the majority of Vinho Verde drunk outside of Portugal is white, within Portugal it is also possible to buy rosé and red Vinho Verde. The flavour of wines from the Vinho Verde region embody the cold, damp climate and granitic soil in which the vines grow, often draped over pergola trellises or even trees to keep them off the ground to prevent the grapes from rotting. The white Vinho Verdes have a characteristic light-bodied acidity with fruity and floral notes and, at around only 10% alcohol, it is the perfect drink on a hot day. The main grape varieties used in white Vinho Verdes are Alvarinho, Arinto, Avesso, Azal, Loureiro and Trajadura, usually in blends, but some wine producers are creating single-varietal Vinho Verdes with the more-complex Alvarhino and Loureiro grapes. The rosés have a freshness with flavours of strawberries, raspberries and cherries from the Espadeiro and Padeiro grapes, while the reds, made with Amaral, Borraçal and Vinhão grapes, are an acquired taste with high tannins, a deep-red colour and, let’s not beat around the bush, a sharp taste, but are still widely drunk in northern Portugal. Red Vinho Verde is often served from a cask in a traditional small terracotta or ceramic drinking bowl rather than in a wine glass.

Another characteristic of Vinho Verde is its slight fizziness, although not enough fizz to call it a sparkling wine. In the past the fizziness was a result of malolactic fermentation (in which malic acid converts to lactic acid and during this process releases carbon dioxide), but this fermentation resulted in an unappealing cloudiness which meant the wine had to be sold in an opaque container. Nowadays, producers of Vinho Verde add the carbon dioxide artificially. It is the combination of this slight sparkle combined with the light fresh acidity that makes this a perfect wine to drink on its own on a summer’s day or as an accompaniment to white meat, fish, seafood and salads.

Pictured wines (prices as of 2020):
Casal Garcia, Quinta da Aveleda, Vinho Verde DOC (blend of Trajadura, Loureiro, Arinto and Azal), NV, €4.55
Leira do Canhoto, Quinta de Melgaço, Vinho Verde DOC (blend of Alvarinho, Loureiro and Arinto), 2014, €3.35

Food and drink, In praise of the Touriga Nacional grape: the (not so) secret ingredient in Portuguese red wine

In praise of the Touriga Nacional grape: the (not so) secret ingredient in Portuguese red wine

Until recently it is probably fair to say that Portuguese wines weren’t great. Although they were enjoyed by the Portuguese, they were unpalatable to the rest of the world. Up to the mid-1980s (when Portugal joined the European Union) wines were solely produced by co-operatives (set up during the years of the dictatorship), where traditional mindsets and working methods didn’t allow the excellent varieties of grape that grow throughout the country to be used to their full potential. In recent years small vineyards and wine producing companies have turned this around by embracing new methods and technology, combined with an understanding of blending grape varieties to create wines of a quality that can compete with those of other wine-producing countries. The success of the Portuguese red wine blends is down to one grape variety in particular, the Touriga Nacional. This is the grape used to produce the best ports and can be seen growing along the length of the Douro Valley.

River Douro

Although this variety has been grown in Portugal for centuries (and has even made its way to Brazil, most probably brought over by Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century, where it is used in their wine production), its importance was only recognised 30 or so years ago. It had almost died out by the 1970s due to low yields and disease, but a decade later research was done by some of the top port houses to determine which grape varieties make the best port and, of the ones they short-listed, Touriga Nacional was named the best. As a result of this research, a hardy clone was produced and Touriga Nacional is now grown in every wine-making region of Portugal, from the Douro to the Algarve. Portuguese red wines are made up of blends of grape varieties such as Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz/Aragonez (better known as Tempranillo), Touriga Franca, Trincadeira and Jaen, but the addition of Touriga Nacional (a dark-skinned grape rich in tannins, which on its own can be a bit over-powering) gives the wine its structure with intense aromas, flavours of blackcurrant and other dark fruit and spices, with a hint of liquorice and bergamot, and a capacity for ageing well. Even a small percentage of this grape (such as the 10% Touriga Nacional blended with 60% Tinta Roriz and 30% Touriga Franca in Casca Wines’ Bote (Douro)) can turn a mediocre blend into a full-bodied wine of international quality, so it is not surprising that in the wine industry Touriga Nacional is often referred to as Portugal’s answer to Cabernet Sauvignon. Don’t be put off by the low prices (around €4 a bottle in supermarkets) which belie the quality; good wine is, thankfully, still relatively cheap in Portugal.

Pictured wines (prices as of 2020):
Adega de Vila Real (Douro – blend of Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca and Touriga Nacional), 2018, €3.14
Vale do Viso (Douro – blend of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Tinta Roriz), 2016, €3.94
Cartuxa Vinea (Alentejo – blend of Aragonez, Trincadeira, Alicante Bouschet, Touriga Nacional and Syrah), 2017, €3.05
Bote (Douro – blend of Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca and Touriga Nacional), 2016, €3.85
Cabeça d’Velho (Dão – blend of Tinta Roriz, Jaen and Touriga Nacional), 2015, €2.55

Food and drink, Understanding the 'couvert': a Portuguese take on the bread and olives course

Understanding the ‘couvert’: a Portuguese take on the bread and olives course

The word Couvert on Portuguese menus can be a bit misleading to foreign tourists, as it isn’t the typical fixed-fee cover charge which is added to the bill in some other countries. The term couvert in Portugal is used to describe the small dishes that are served as appetisers before the meal. Common appetisers include: pão (bread), manteiga (butter), manteiga de ervas (herb butter), manteiga com alho (garlic butter), patê de sardinha (sardine pâté), patê de atum (tuna pâté), azeitonas (olives), queijo (cheese), maionese de delícias do mar (mayonnaise with seafood), cenouras à Algarvia (Algarvian-style carrots), grão de bico or feijão-frade com bacalhau (chickpeas or black-eyed peas with cod), among many others.

In most Portuguese restaurants appetisers are brought to your table as soon as you have sat down, but there is no obligation to eat them. In Portugal you only pay for what you eat, so if you don’t eat anything from the selection you won’t be charged. The couvert should be listed on the menu, so if you are concerned about how much it is going to cost you can ask to see the menu before you decide to accept it, however, they aren’t usually very expensive. Some restaurants charge per person for a selection of appetisers, for example, for €2 per person you may get a variety of bread rolls, herb butter, garlic butter, olives and tuna pâté. Other restaurants charge per item, for example, bread (€1), olives (€1.50), tuna pâté (€2.50), cheese (€3), so you can just try the ones you want. One thing that tourists who haven’t been to Portugal before often complain about is the fact that the food is presented as if it is free and they feel ripped off when they see it included on the bill, but it is not a tourist scam, it is just a cultural difference. The presentation of appetisers is standard practice in restaurants throughout Portugal, with the intention that diners have something to nibble on while looking at the menu and waiting for their food. It is perfectly acceptable to ask the waiter/waitress to take it away if you don’t want it, or just ask him/her to leave certain items, such as the bread and olives. The quality of the appetisers can vary from restaurant to restaurant; in some you may get pre-packaged sardine pâté, whereas in others it may be freshly made in the restaurant. You may also get offered regional dishes that you wouldn’t normally get to try and, as the Portuguese proverb goes, ‘Quem não arrisca, não petisca’ (‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained’ or, literally, ‘He who doesn’t take a risk, doesn’t get to have a little snack’!).

Bom apetite!

Food and drink, Poejo: pennyroyal liqueur from the Alentejo

Poejo: pennyroyal liqueur from the Alentejo

Porto has port, Lisbon has ginjinha and, as I discovered on a recent trip to Evora, the Alentejo region has a liqueur little known outside of Portugal called poejo. Poejo (the Portuguese name for pennyroyal) is a slightly minty sweet liqueur made from the herb pennyroyal. It is served at the end of a meal, as it is said to be a good digestive. While the flavour reminds me of a sweet minty mouthwash, that’s not a criticism, as, when served with ice it is very refreshing, especially after a heavy meal on a hot day – perfect for those Alentejo summer nights! However, it is best drunk in small quantities, as it is made from a base spirit to which pennyroyal, water and sugar are added, resulting in a fairly high alcohol content of around 20%!


Bacalhau com natas: the ultimate Portuguese comfort food, Food and drink

Bacalhau com natas: the ultimate Portuguese comfort food

Italy has lasagne, Greece has moussaka and Portugal has bacalhau com natas (cod with cream). While the three dishes are very different, there are a few things that unite them: they are all baked in the oven, have a creamy sauce and are a comforting dish on a cold day. As cod is the national food of Portugal, it is not surprising that it features in Portugal’s main ‘comfort food’ dish and, as with all traditional dishes, everyone has their own recipe and it is hard to find a definitive one. The key ingredients are dried salted cod, onion, garlic, potato and double cream and many recipes also include a béchamel sauce, grated cheese and/or breadcrumbs, while the potatoes may be cubed or finely cut like matchsticks. All the ingredients are cooked in a frying pan, the mixture is then poured into a ovenproof dish and cooked in a hot oven. Chef Miguel Mesquita’s recipe on the Teleculinaria website shows how easy it is and (as someone who is not a big fan of salted cod) I can attest to how delicious it is!

Bom apetite!

Food and drink, Polvo à lagareiro (Octopus in olive oil)

Polvo à lagareiro (Octopus in olive oil)

I discovered how delicious octopus can be in a small restaurant in Porto. Initially I was slightly scared of the strange-looking tentacles (or arms as they should correctly be referred to) with suckers which, as a Northern European, I had never seen on a plate before, and I expected them to be rubbery. However, I had ordered polvo à lagareiro (which literally means ‘octopus à la olive presser’) in which the tentacles are boiled and then roasted in garlic and olive oil (hence the name ‘à lagareiro’) to make them very tender. They are served with batatas a murro, small potatoes baked in their skins which, at the end of the cooking time, are pressed down on to break the skin (‘murro’ literally means ‘punch’) and added to the oil that the octopus is cooking in to soak up the flavours. I have always associated this dish with summer holidays, but in the Trás-os-Montes region in the north-east of Portugal it is eaten on Christmas Eve. As with many Portuguese dishes the secret is in the freshness and quality of the ingredients and the simplicity of this recipe is testament to that fact.

Coconut cakes: surprisingly simple but utterly delicious, Food and drink

Coconut cakes: surprisingly simple but utterly delicious

Bolinhos de coco (coconut cakes) are one of the easiest cakes to make and I am grateful to my good friend Célia for sharing her recipe with me. The cakes contain only three ingredients: eggs, sugar and desiccated coconut and take only 10 minutes to bake. When cooked they should have a slight crust on the outside and be very moist on the inside.

Despite their popularity in Portuguese baking, coconuts are not native to Portugal. The fruit was introduced into Portugal during the era of the discoveries when Portuguese ships brought them back from India. The Portuguese named it ‘coco’ from their word cocuruto (crown of the head) because it resembled a head and from that we get the English word coconut.

Coconut cakes recipe
(makes 20)

3 eggs
150g caster sugar
200g desiccated coconut
Fairy cake paper cases

Preheat the oven to 200°C.
Whisk the eggs and the sugar together and then add the coconut.
Put a heaped dessert spoon of the mixture into each of the paper cases.
Bake in the top of a pre-heated oven for 10 minutes until they start to form a crust on the top.

Algarve, Cataplana: an Algarvian stew in a special pan, Food and drink

Cataplana: an Algarvian stew in a special pan

Fish and shellfish cataplana

It is tempting to dismiss the cataplana as a touristy gimmick. The globe-shaped copper (or, increasingly, stainless steel) cooking utensil with a hinged lid is sold in every gift shop in the Algarve and I wonder how many have been bought by sun-drunk tourists and are now stored at the back of cupboards unused and forgotten.

However, far from being something just for the tourists, the cataplana is still widely used in cooking in the Algarve; most Portuguese restaurants proudly include a cataplana dish on their menu and it is understandable why both the dish and cooking utensil have remained a staple in Algarvean homes since Moorish times. It is believed that the cataplana pan was used by fishermen and hunters in the past. They would fill the pan with chopped vegetables before leaving home and once they had caught some fish or killed an animal they would add the fish or meat to the pan and cook it over a fire for their lunch. Nowadays, apart from not having to hunt your own food, the principle hasn’t changed. The two most popular cataplana dishes on restaurant menus are cataplana de peixe e marisco (fish and shellfish cataplana) and cataplana de carne de porco com amêijoas (pork with clams cataplana), but any kind of fish, meat or vegetable can be cooked in the cataplana, which due to the tight fitting of the two halves, works like a pressure cooker, steam-cooking the food in a short amount of time. Most recipes recommend a cooking time of 15 to 20 minutes and the unique shape of the pan allows it to be turned over on the flame during the cooking process, ensuring everything is evenly cooked. All cataplana dishes use the same basic ingredients of onion, garlic, olive oil, tomatoes, red and green peppers, white wine, coriander, bay leaf, chilli and salt and pepper and then the fish, shellfish or meat is added. The fish and shellfish cataplana usually includes clams and prawns (and other available shellfish) added to meaty white fish such as monkfish, skate, dogfish or grouper (basically whatever fish is available that day) and sometimes potato.

Fish and shellfish cataplana

The pork with clams cataplana usually has prawns and sausage or chouriço added to it and sometimes sweet potato.

Most restaurants serve the cataplana as a meal for two or more people to share (as it would be in the family home), but I have noticed several restaurants in the tourist areas of the Algarve offering cataplanas for one person. It is often accompanied by rice, but just as often with bread. The dish is brought to the table in the cataplana pan, which is guaranteed to make everyone else in the restaurant turn and look. Then notice how your waiter or waitress serves it onto the plate with pride and delight.