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%!
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!
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.
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.
Method 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.
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.
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.
Portugal is famous for its seafood and of all the many seafood dishes on the menus of coastal restaurants the most popular is the enigmatically named amêijoas à Bulhão Pato (clams Bulhão Pato). For a long time I have wondered who or where Bulhão Pato was. Was he a chef who created this simple but delicious recipe or was the dish named after a place with excellent clams? In fact, it is neither of these. Raimundo António de Bulhão Pato (1828-1912) was a writer of poetry and prose who was also a bon vivant and wrote about the food he enjoyed. He lived on the south bank of the River Tejo, which at that time was said to have clams of the highest quality. The exact details of how the dish came to be named after him are lost in history, but it is believed that it was created by the chef at the Estrela de Ouro restaurant in Lisbon, of whom Bulhão Pato had written favourably, and the eponymous clams Bulhão Pato may have been a thank you from the chef. The dish has stood the test of time and continues to make a great starter to an evening meal or as a light lunch in a beachside café. The ingredients are basic, consisting of clams, olive oil, garlic, coriander, lemon juice, white wine, salt and pepper, and the dish only takes a few minutes to cook. Serve it with lemon wedges and lots of crusty bread to soak up the broth and you will almost be able to smell the sea air!
The variety of pastries on offer in Portugal is endless. Everyone knows about the ubiquitous pastel de nata (custard tart), but the pretty town of Sintra (approximately 30km from Lisbon) also boasts two sweet pastries that give the pastel de nata a run for its money: the travesseiro and the queijada de Sintra.
The travesseiro is a rectangular puff pastry shell, sprinkled with sugar, surrounding a filling of egg yolks, sugar, ground almonds and cinnamon. The name ‘travesseiro’ means ‘pillow’ and describes the shape of the pastry. The original convent recipe was revived by the owner of the Casa Piriquita bakery in Sintra
in the 1940s and the café is still famous for its travesseiros today, although they can also be found in cafés and bakeries all over Sintra.
The queijada de Sintra, which translates as ‘Sintra cheesecake’, is nothing like the cheesecake sold in the United Kingdom. It is a small tartlet with a thin, crispy pastry shell filled with a mixture of egg yolks, flour, sugar, cinnamon and queijo fresco (a Portuguese mild, white cheese with a custard-like texture; the closest cheese to it outside of Portugal is ricotta). This recipe dates back to the thirteenth century, when, it is said, the queijada was used as a form of currency. In the late-nineteenth century King Carlos I made queijadadas popular when he came to stay in the Pena Palace, his Sintra summer residence, and asked the Casa Piriquita bakery to make them for him. Like travesseiros, these little tartlets can now be found in cafés and bakeries all over Sintra. The Fábrica das Verdadeiras Queijadas da Sapa on Volta do Duche has been making queijadas since 1756 and its queijada recipe is one of the few in Sintra that is officially recognised by the town council.