Hail to the chef !

After some 18 months of eating and drinking in Portugal, you would expect our taste buds to have adapted to the by now familiar local cuisine. Well, to be honest: yes and no. There is much to say in favor of the Portuguese dining table and its customs, sure; I will come to this later. But what we “miss terribly” is what we had learned to appreciate so much during our twenty-something years in America: the availability of Hatch chile. There is nothing like Hatch red and green not to just fire up any dish (their average heat level being from a mild 1,500 SHU to a more hurting 10,000 heat units), but to add a distinct flavor and wonderful taste to the feistiness as well. Not that the Portuguese do not know about spicy. From their African colonies came piri-piri, the small, sharp, red Angolan pepper, which they often mix with olive oil, vinegar and course sea salt to add taste; but its heat isn’t in the same league as Hatch and its taste is, whatever they add, less singular. All things considered, after 18 long months, man, are we ready to eat some Mexican cuisine, and preferably its feistiest and tastiest relative: New Mexican cuisine. In short, we are dreaming of El Farolito in El Rito, Gabriel’s near Santa Fe, El Bruno’s in Cuba and El Paragua in Española, all in New Mexico…

Between a rock and…

Shame on us: we start Googling to see if we can find something like hot and tasty dining in Portugal. We discover six restaurants that declare they serve Mexican meals, three in Lisbon, one in each of three other towns, Porto, Coimbra and Braga. The menus, descriptions and client comments do not really get us running to our car and drive faster than the speed limits allow to their locations—there appear to be quite a few watered-down margaritas in Portugal. But then the sun breaks through (not that this isn’t the case on most days in Portugal): we discover three Hard Rock Cafés in Portugal, one in Lisbon, one in Porto and one somewhere on the Algarve’s south coast, and all three promote “the real Mexican cuisine” and promise the use of real hot chile peppers. Coming Saturday we’ll sneak into Lisbon’s Hard Rock hoping no one we know will notice us; we may have been in a Hard Rock place once in the U.S., but cannot remember; if so, it must have been in Las Vegas, that sin city in the Nevada desert where, just as all serious Muslims go to Mekka to do the haj, all good Americans go at least once in their lifetime to drink up the cheapest and noisiest of glitters and glamours and to religiously pray to Mammon. I will report on our findings—it’s a sort of a dare or die mission.

No plunk

The best of Portugal is their wine. It is sold wherever you go, in specialty shops, in winetasting bars, in supermarkets, at market stalls, in cheese or bread shops, at the butcher’s, even by the bottle to take home from cafés and restaurants, everywhere. It is sold cheaply: each week we get offers in our mailbox of now this, then that label for as little as 1.99/bottle (!) and really good ones already starting at 2.45/bottle; it is not often that we see a 15 or 20 dollar bottle for sale and we have learned to avoid them; why spend that kind of money if so many good quality wines are available for less. There are hundreds, many hundreds of labels to choose from. Portugal (seventh largest wine grower in the world) boasts eight wine growing areas and if you look at the country’s map you will first learn that the country’s whole land area measures less than half of the state of Kansas or just over one-third of New Mexico; and you will be surprised to see that the winegrowing areas together cover over half of this total land area (this half being as large as the Netherlands…) and carry the names of 45 different regions including our own Tomar in the Ribatejo. And that’s not all: there are many different Port wines, too, some rather good ones already for sale at 6.50/bottle, others of course at 60/bottle or up and up; and the Portuguese island of Madeira in the Atlantic Ocean produces, yes, Madeiras of exceptional quality. The country also produces aguardientes, the Portuguese versions of cognac and eau de vie with some even resembling tequila, the blue agavedrink that goes so well before, with or after Hatch chile-spiced meals. We can get the original Jose Cuervo Especial in Tomar and, I am happy to say, for a few bucks less than in Kansas. While living on the prairie we were “only” an eleven-hour drive away from our Hatch chile source; there was a guy who happened to be the mayor of nearby Cottonwood Falls, Kansas who we delivered Hatch chile to, which he desperately needed to spice up his Budweiser beers with… so, there is at least one American who honestly misses us.

“Back at three”

Breakfast isn’t as important in Portugal as in the U.S. and a lot sweeter, too. No eggs and bacon and sausage and hash browns and piles of pancakes and so on. No Le Peep or IHOP in Portugal. Yet. Whether at home or at a restaurant, you are content with eating a delicious pastel de nata, a light and flaky pastry filled with a pudding made of eggs, cream and sugar; they are baked fresh every morning and each seller creates his own just a little different from the competition. Natas are to get addicted to. You pay 80 cents and add an espresso or two, of course, the Portuguese national drink that doesn’t cost more than 60 or 65 cents at a (sidewalk) café. But lunch… lunch is different business or, as the so proudly multilingual Dutch say: “Different koek”. Many Portuguese take a hearty lunch; between say 12 noon and 2:30 pm you have to fight for a table at most restaurants and cafés. It’s not just a rich person’s custom to lunch well and long. I have watched construction workers take their customary two-plus-hour break and sit together to enjoy plate after plate of sardines and share a few bottles of wine amongst them; and I have seen shopkeepers lock their store’s doors and hang the sign saying “Back at three” and no one is shocked to find them gone for hours. Portuguese dinners don’t start before 7 pm or even 9 pm; to accommodate late diners, many theater performances, movies, or festivals do not begin before 9:30 pm or 10 pm—and don’t end until way after midnight, which is something to get accustomed to after living long years in the boondocks of New Mexico and Kansas where, as the saying goes, “if the lights are not out after eight, one wonders if they play Scrabble or fornicate.”

Hamburguerias

Where wine grows one also discovers slopes full of olive and fig trees and fields full of cork oaks, for the wines and the olive oils have to be bottled, of course; and beneath the trees graze the cattle, the sheep, the goats and the pigs. Pork and lamb are delicious in Portugal as is, especially for the weak of heart, leitão assado antes de nascer, suckling pig butchered and roasted a week before birth…). The beef-on-the-hoof is as gracious as their bros and sisters on the prairie in Kansas and we have discovered magnificent beef in specialized stores or at butcher’s market stalls, too, but ordering beef in a Portuguese restaurant often ends with a disappointment. There is no steak like the steak grilled in Kansas or in the American Southwest—and we get teary-eyed from thinking of the steaks our Abiquiu, New Mexico friend Brian Bondy managed to put on the table after firing up his rocky barbecue pit with wood and maybe a little mesquite. It is the preparation that differs and this includes maintaining a different standard of “rare” (saillant being my personal favorite, and the more red the better). Only in a very expensive restaurant frequented by business people with expense accounts I had a steak I considered well-prepared, to my taste. This said, we discover we can get spectacular hamburgers served not just in the big cities of Portugal but also in Tomar or even the nearby smaller riverside town of Constância. Hamburguerias grow like mushrooms and don’t copy McDonald’s, no, they are the creators of thick fantasy gourmet burgers with prime beef topped with mushrooms, goat cheese, caramelized unions, figs, anything—and many of these burger places do know how to treat beef well. So, we, these utterly happy new residents of Portugal who are really not homesick for America–we now look forward anxiously to visit the dining room at Lisbon’s Hard Rock Café and to revisit our local hamburgueria at the corner of our Tomar plaza, opposite the side door to the magnificent church. Who would have thought…

Hot cod

The local/national dish anywhere in Portugal is bacalhau or cod. All restaurants serve it in traditional ways and most households put the dried and salted kind on the table more than once a week, if I make the correct conclusions from measuring with my eyes the sizes of sales tables and counters in supermarkets and at seafood sellers. Well, cod doesn’t do much for us, but it is cheap, which is why Ans creates a camouflage version of cod with the disguise being an Indonesian-style spiced sauce that even proved to make the ugliest catfish from Oklahoma taste delicious and exotic. What I personally prefer is the shellfish of Portugal, small clams drenched in a spicy olive oil, or mussels; but also that variety of shrimp you can get here, especially the small camaroes de costa and the big gambas; and the polvo, octopus that is often so very tender, so different from the tough ones I remembered from the past. There is lobster and crayfish and calamari and crab—and many catches I have never heard of such as cação or shark; or espadarte, a sword fish. There are sea breams, lampreys, gildhead breams, sea saiblings, sea eels, goose barnacles… but I, no serious fish eater, am content with any fresh catch as long as it is marinated in and dominated by any Asian-style sauce. Am I a barbarian or what?

Ah, those tapas

Dining out for us is often having tapas — a variety of small yet surprisingly delicious bites. Presunto–the rough Portuguese hams that are to die for, as are some from the enormous assortment of different sausages they manage to put on the plate; if we eat them only now and then, it is because they have a tendency to be extremely fat and fattening. The Portuguese cheeses are excellent especially if you appreciate their differences: sheep’s and goat’s milk cheeses are abundant, if you like them, and the cow’s milk cheeses (which I prefer) can compete with any hard cheese from Holland (well, not really, there’s nothing like Old Amsterdam or a boerenbelegen or a Gouda met komijn, is there?). Funny, of the American cheeses we hesitantly learned to eat over the years we miss nothing, but we do dream of Pepper Jack, that cheap block of factory-made cheese I loved to nibble on with my beer and Ans used to spice up dishes. Can’t get anything like it in Portugal although we looked everywhere. The tapas: each restaurant presents its own selection. We have a favorite place in Tomar with an inviting curbside café under shadowy trees called Amor Lusitano where the tapas are amazing and the service is even better; they add steamed mushrooms, gambas, special breads, salmon gravlax, olives in many more tastes that I was aware of existed, ever; veggie and/or meat filled bell peppers, small but tasty egg dishes, fried Brussels sprouts, deep-fried squid; and combinations of all of the above. We add a few glasses (or rather bottles) of their great wines, or a specialty brew, and we wish the evening to never end.

The world’s cuisine

Yet, we find ourselves having dinner at home often. I am in the lucky position of having married a woman who loves to be an experimenting chef and who is interested in all cuisines of the world. So, if one evening I am facing Italian cuisine, the following evening it will be Thai. A Spanish paella-like dish comes next. Or an old-fashioned heavy-sauced French meal. A grand Indonesian “rice table”. Belgian endives or Brussels sprouts—from salads to casseroles with prosciutto and cheese or oven-baked vegetables. A hamburger not unlike the top of the hamburger line such as we were served at Ad Astra’s in Strong City, Kansas. An exquisite East-Indian meal and individual “deeply moving” curry dishes. A German brat. Just for a change: a Dutch uitsmijter—a very traditional ham, cheese and egg sandwich. A deep dark meaty and delicious Dutch-style pea soup. A New Mexican (Bodie’s!) breakfast burrito. A spiced-up cod dish. A surprisingly tasty fritata or leek vegetable quiche, and more goodies, all based on what our magnificent farmers’ market, imbedded in local life, has to offer. And… and this goes on and on. Now you can understand why life isn’t always easy for a retired expat like me, living in far-away Portugal. You do get it, don’t you? Anyway, Hail to the chef !

Ton Haak,
Tomar, Portugal, December 2017

PS: We just returned from Lisbon. Met a Dutch great friend from way back. Saw magnificent art and architecture. Had our American “fix” by sneaking into Hard Rock Café to have truly good margaritas. The food, though, was as loud as the music. Sister Sledge and Boney M but also Lady Gaga on eight huge flat-screens around us. The nachos: hm. The fajitas: wouldn’t have made it past U.S. Border Patrol in New Mexico. No Hatch chile in sight. The bill: exorbitant. Adiós amigos… nunca más.

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