Jo and I, along with several squillion other tourists, have just spent a few days in the handsome, hospitable city of Porto on the River Douro. The only disquieting aspect of this trip was the fact that the city’s major product, or rather, the product which it most energetically pushes at its tourists, is a drink that neither of us remotely likes. (Though it’s useful for making Cumberland Sauce, of course.) Amongst the beautiful tile-roofed warehouses on the south side of the river, where we were staying, you couldn’t move for port offers – with your cable car trip, with your boat trip, with your visit to the cathedral. (Think I must have invented the last one.) We finally caved in and went to a port-tasting. We lasted one sip.
And we found it easy to resist the temptation of several port+fado combination offers. Oh dear: port, a profoundly establishment drink, gets yoked with fado, the rebellious music of the urban underclass, and this dubious arranged marriage is presented as a tourist attraction. But perhaps in Portugal the ethos of port is different. Certainly, we saw port and motorcycling in tandem: as we sat eating breakfast in a café at about 10am one morning, a group of twenty or so bikers arrived and downed a large round of white port before moving on. Heck.
It’s a strange sight, knowing you’re in a foreign city, but being confronted with a forest of signs with British names – Taylor, Croft, Offley, Graham, Sandeman, Cockburn. Port was not invented by the Brits, but it was British shippers who got the trade rolling. Imports of Portuguese wine to Britain in the 17th century were given a boost by our fractious relationship with France, but the Portuguese wine was considered inferior to French. Then an adventurous British entrepreneur, travelling in the Douro valley, happened on a vineyard where brandy was added to the wine during fermentation - the brandy stops the fermentation, fortifying the wine, and preserving some of the natural sweetness of the grapes. This suited British palates, and incidentally made the drink easier to ship, as well as, of course, more lightly to give you gout. Does anyone in Britain drink port any longer? I haven’t caught anyone at it for years. For that matter, does anyone smoke cigars? Is there anything left to do in those gentlemen’s clubs?
What was on the menu in Porto? The cooking in most of the restaurants is militantly local, ranging, even in the few meals we had, from the slightly-enhanced-school-dinner to the excellent (Camafeu, Traça). I’m ashamed to say that we funked the francesinha, an alarming concoction involving several different pork products, a lump of steak, a couple of litres of melted cheese and a sea of a mysterious sauce made of beer and tomatoes. It is allegedly a take on the Croque Monsieur. It must have taken a fiendish imagination to make the leap from one to the other.
More alluring, though still mildly disquieting, is bacalhao – salt cod. It smells scarily feral before soaking and looks scarily gelatinous after, but it’s a brilliant invention. The original idea was to preserve the fish, which came from the shores of North America, but the effect, as with so many salted products, is to intensify the taste. A complete salt cod is a beautiful object, looking like a cross between a fossil, a snow covered landscape and an archaic musical instrument. We bought one from a deli in the centre of the city. The owner couldn’t stop laughing. A tourist buying a whole salt cod! Hilarious!
Salt cod is not so easy to find in Blighty, particularly if you live outside London. (Isn’t London irritating these days when you don’t live there?) So.....try making it yourself. This process can be as simple or as sophisticated as you want. Ultra-simple version: buy a piece of cod, weighing say 500g. Cut off the skin. Sprinkle both sides with salt, about one tablespoonful in all. Leave for 4 hours. Rinse off the salt and pat dry.
Yes, this is entry-level bacalao. You don’t get the amazing gelatinous texture, but what you do get is fresh cod with a friskier taste. For a more complex version, see for example George Mendes’ excellent cookbook My Portugal.
If you buy bacalao, you’ll need to soak it for at least 24 hours. Apparently back in the day the soaking was done under running water. Don’t try this at home.
Once you have some salt cod in your hands, try it with chick peas, a surprisingly satisfying combination (serves 4):
a medium onion
a handful of parsley leaves
3 cloves garlic
6 tbsp olive oil
400g tinned chick peas
500g salt cod fillet, skin off, cut into chunks
1 tsp white wine vinegar
75g rocket leaves
Chop the onion, parsley and garlic very finely, and mix.
Heat the oil in a saucepan, add the chick peas and the salt cod, season with pepper (no salt!), cover, and cook gently for 12 minutes.
Stir in the onion-parsley-garlic mixture, the vinegar and the rocket leaves.
And then, featuring heavily amongst the very very yellow patisserie of Porto, that most brilliant of Portuguese culinary inventions, the custard tart, or pastel de nata, invented in Lisbon (or rather Belem, a suburb of Lisbon), but alive and well all over the country. How do the Portuguese make that amazing pastry? It’s puff and yet it’s filo. Genius!
Words by Orlando Gough
Top Right image credit: Photograph by Rumulo Yanes for 'My Portugal' by George Mendes.