Portuguese food is particular, its excels in simplicity, tradition and a strict set rules on how to prepare it, Recently the controversial food critic for the times, Giles Coren, took the entire Portuguese cuisine down within a few words based on a once off experience in a London based Portuguese restaurant, claiming Portuguese food ranked among the worst food in the world in the world equalled only by the Irish, English and Polish kitchens.
Now I’m sure Giles had his reasons as he ate in a bad restaurant and we have had similar experiences (maybe not this bad) even in Portugal so his article did connect to me and I understood where he was coming from but after 4 years in Portugal and understanding the Portuguese cuisine a lot better because of it, its basically not as simple or as black and white as Giles claimed, in fact if you know where to go, what to eat and to how avoid the tourism spots that bring you the popular “Portuguese” dishes, you will start to understand the nuances in Portuguese food.
Stating an opinion as bland as his without proper research, knowledge or comparisons should not have been made so lightly and this should not have been more than a bad restaurant review which is what is actually was but the first paragraph made it a review of an entire country and its culinary traditions based on one restaurant meal, notably a restaurant meal that didn’t even take place in Portugal,
I have yet to see a Portuguese ending a meal with a Bifana or Prego (meat sanchwich) and most of the other mentioned dishes sounded like the fast food you could be served in a student flat.
Food and its taste, freshness and its “Portugueseness” are in Portugal considered one of the main characteristics of Portuguese culture and to criticise it based on one wrong meal is like giving a full blown kick right in the heart of what means so much to Portuguese people,
Going to the market in Portugal, You will see each consumer checking the food, turning it around, comparing it to the rest and picking it carefully before deciding what to buy and which dish to make that day. Sadly your tourist restaurant will possible buy whatever is on his tourist menu sloppy sardines and the cheapest he can get. Food at home and in the better restaurants is taken serious, very serious.
You can to go to an Italian restaurant and have the worst pasta ever that doesn’t mean pasta cant be good or that Italian food is to be neglected, you can go to France and get food poisoning from eating the wrong runny cheese, you could possibly die from a Spanish tapa eaten in the wrong place or circumstance. Does that make Italian, French or Spanish food bad? No it doesn’t, it means you ate it in the wrong place and there are many “wrong” places where you can eat them.
First of all, you need to understand the Portuguese Cuisine, its history and basis and how it differs.
Most people when visiting a Portuguese restaurant for the first time will possible order either Sardines or Bacalhau both salty and strong tasting, especially the sardine when not fresh or the bacalhau when prepared wrongly. Both are my least favourite ingredients in dishes, if I’m not sure about the restaurant serving them. But well prepared and fresh both are great not eaten to often.
The French kitchen in Comparison
The modern French cuisine consists of much modification, sauce, extended cooking, wrappings and coverings but you need to remember that the French kitchen was originally, just like the Portuguese cuisine, based on local ingredients, vegetables, meats, fish and herbs, milk and cheese, the things that where available locally or the processed food that helped the populations make it through the winter months or served as a way to keep what could not be eaten instantly.
Southern European foods
French, Spanish and Italian cuisines where in medieval times as regional and simple as the Portuguese was. Food was regional, simple and based on what was available. Meat, grains and the veg that grew in the area, The south of France had access to olive oil and wine, whereas the North used animal fats and drank beer. Olive oil has been a main ingredient for centuries in most Southern countries including Portugal.
Import and export was a difficult matter, extremely costly and of little interest to most medieval citizens.
All the Southern countries produced cheese, ham and smoked or salted meats. All produced wine based on the locations within the countries that could.
Later as people started to travel they brought new ingredients and new ways of doing things. French cuisine was heavily influenced by the Italian, The Italian cuisine by the Romans and Turks, the Turks by the Romans and Moors, the Portuguese by the Spanish, Moors, Jews, English and French and the Spanish by all of these. All where touched by India, Africa and South America.
Iberia has the largest production of citrus fruits in Europe and many are used in a small amount of Portuguese dishes, in many desserts and pastries
Not to forget Cheese
Cheese is an important factor in French cuisine but few know that it is also a very important factor in Portuguese cuisine. Portugal has many cheeses which differ from region to region and many of them have Protected Designation of Origin labels (DOP) and vary per region from young cottage cheese styled cheeses to aged cheeses of much distinction. A lot of other cheese is produced by small producers and will never gain international status not because of their quality but because the production is small. These cheeses can only be discovered by travelling throughout the country.
Olive oil just as cheese comes in local sources, small produce from local farms and DOP versions, One Portuguese olive oil is not the next, good Portuguese olive oil is one of the best in the world and used widely in its dishes.
Petiscos are Tapas
Portugal has a large range of typically Portuguese tapas, little delicacies enjoyed as a social food, again regional and different spread throughout the country
Beans and other leguminous vegetables are used widely in the many traditional Portuguese dishes, they where introduced into Portuguese cooking during the time of colonisation and have their origins in Brazil, Macau, Angola, Mozambique and Goa (India).
Portuguese cuisine is based on a comparable history as the French, Spanish and Italian and is based on local regional food that differs very much from North to South, Inland to coast.
The Algarve tends to be more adventurous in flavour, possible because of its Moorish influences whereas the centre of Portugal, which is the actual “horta” (vegetable orchid) of Portugal due to its more damp environment and due to its grassy, large valleys also the home of beef
Central Portugal’s menu concentrates very much on the freshness of ingredients and there natural strong flavours. A Portuguese cabbage is a unique cabbage with a much more delicate flavour than its Northern family members. It is used in many winter dishes and its the only cabbage that makes me happy served boiled in its totally natural state. However its The centre is also the home of Migas and Magusto 2 dishes based on sturdy local bread and mixed with olive oil, garlic, beans, (the same) cabbage and other ingredients which could be Bacalhau, Shrimp or Bacon, A typical dish based on the reuse of bread that resembles risotto that are both wholesome and delicious when prepared in the right way.
The North and Porto districts have older roots in the Nordic countries, many Jewish influences and influences from the vast international trade that took place over the centuries based on their Port wines.
Closer to the Spanish border you will find more Spanish influences
Bacalhau didn’t enter the Portuguese cuisine before the 17th century, yet today its a much loved ingredient in the traditional kitchen, however its not always or rather seldom prepared in restaurants in a way that does it any justice, its either to salty or to tasteless. Just like the Portuguese cuisine its exceptionally specific and not easy to get right and just like French restaurants there are the good and bad.
When one thinks of Portuguese food without actually having travelled further than the tourist restaurant, you could easily imagine that the Portuguese live off sardines and bacalhau, chips and rice, salty and greasy however this is as true as claiming the Italians live of Pizza, the French eat Brie and the Spanish don’t make it beyond.a tasteless Paella.
To understand Portugal’s classic cooking styles you need to understand that it is based on freshness and availability, slow cooking and traditional preparation, influences from its former colonies, its climate and what its natural resources provide.
Its a kitchen based on many hard times mixed with the golden ages it has experienced, build around its natural produce, outside influences and its Mediterranean climate .
Portuguese cooking differs from the other other Southern European countries in its local abundance. Thanks to its climate, which is the warmest of Europe and its fertile Atlantic landscapes it has little downtime and its land produces a score of vegetables, herbs, fruits and other produce all year round, many ingredients not available in winter will be dried, conserved or salted during the hot summer months or as harvests become available.
And as happened in France, Spain and Italy before now. Portugal is also going through a gourmet revolution where Michelin starred chefs, modern innovation and young talents are reinventing traditions so natural and instinctive for this Southern European society.
The newest modern tendencies in Gourmet cooking are exciting and refer back to older principles and that is that availability on a local scale are very important aspect of good food, sustainability and the best tastes that come with regional and seasonal produce, careful preparation and complete appreciation of what the local planet provides us with.
This article is not about comparison its about understanding Portuguese food.
This is what Giles didn’t understand because he never actually discovered Portuguese food and judging by the article he wrote, the food he was served and the order in which he was served in, he didn’t really eat in a Portuguese restaurant. He ate a Diaria (cheap day dish) in a complete tourist rip off.
They made an attempt at serving Petiscos without understanding the soul of a real petisco and it was served in a place where only foreigners will eat and like any uninformed tourist he was fooled into believing it was Portuguese. I guess the sandwich at the end of the meal did really give them away for anybody in Portugal because unless you managed to get stuck in some drunk student flat, a meal of any kind will not be ended with a sandwich, ever.
The first paragraph of his article was honestly a really bad choice.
For those who didn’t catch it The original article can be found here
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