Portuguese cuisine rarely travels well.
The cooking of mainland Europe’s westernmost country is deeply rooted in the freshest local ingredients.
Superlative seafood, sun-ripened fruit, lamb raised on flower-speckled meadows, free-range pigs gorging on acorns beneath oak forests.
Without them, it just doesn’t taste the same.
So while diners worldwide crowd Italian trattorias, French bistros and Spanish tapas bars, Portuguese restaurants abroad generally cater to melancholy emigrants seeking in vain to matar saudades (kill their longing) for mom’s home-cooked food.
Things are changing.
The success of Portuguese chefs like George Mendes in New York and Nuno Mendes (no relation) in London is generating a global buzz about the cooking of their homeland.
Regular visitors have long been in on the secret, but here are 20 reasons why Portugal should be on every foodie traveler’s list.
Paul Ames for CNN 8 July 2016
The Portuguese kitchen is fantastic – and we love it!
And Paul Ames’ 20 reasons are spot on! Read them here!
The reason why we didn’t share the post when we saw it a week ago, is that we were cooking.
We had just returned from a wine and food research tour to Douro and were preparing a small BBQ for family and friends from Denmark that happened to be in town on exactly Friday the 8th 🙂
Our menu was very basic BUT made from the best ingredients available – the way we love it. 4 beautiful Farm Chickens from our local butcher, cut in pieces and marinated in our best olive oil and Rosemary
We had 2 salads. One with several kinds of lettuce mixed with watercress, parsley and very thin slices of onions. Then we made a more ‘heavy’ pasta salad for the veggies with tomatoes, red bell pepper, cubes of Portuguese goat cheese and a lot of fresh Basil.
We didn’t make starters. Instead we emptied a bottle of good white wine in a pan we had placed on the grill, added two bouquets of coriander, lots of garlic, chopped onions and dropped in the fresh mussels. When they opened people had them as snacks – finger food got a different meaning 🙂
Everything was served with slices of our home baked bread that we grilled until it was so crispy that we could grate fresh garlic on them before we soaked them in super olive oil.
The icing on the cake was the Suckling Piglet our friend and partner Ingrid bought in Mealhada for the occasion (#13 on Paul Ames’ list). When it comes to pork it doesn’t get much better – maybe only the Black Pig is as good, just very different. But that’s a subject for hours of late night discussions.
Food is an important part of our life.
We cook ourselves, try to eat healthy food, eat out a lot and have opinions about the environmental side of food. And we’re surrounded by friends who shares our interests.
If that makes us foodies – then fine with us. But to us it’s just the way we have lived for ages.
Read our opinions here
Dear reader, we know that you most probably are on the way to Portugal and read reviews and guide books -through romantic glasses. BUT PLEASE BE CRITICAL
The reason we write about our BBQ-food is because there was a lot of food talk during the night – and the menu it self had a lot in common with several of the issues in CNN’s story.
All our our friends have had super experiences and fabulous food. Still the food talk that evening was not as euphoric as Paul Ames’ and most media’s food critics are.
One of the the issues that was repeated again and again was about health. As many of our guests whispered (they were afraid to offend us): Why does the food have to be so heavy? or Isn’t it very oily or Why can’t we get a decent salad – they have so many fresh vegetables.
And that is exactly what most Portuguese food is – way too fattening to our taste. Something the food reviewers never mention unless mom’s home-cooked food or robust has the same meaning 😉
Another of our own key issues is the general quality of the ingredients you get in restaurants. It’s good – but again its far from what most guide books and food reviewers mention. Like Portugal’s fantastic and prize winning Liquid Gold (#2 on the list). So far we haven’t been to one restaurant that serves the olive oils (or similar qualities) we used at our BBQ. You always get the standard bottles from either Gallo or Oliveira da Serra (and they are very good – just not liquid gold).
Most travelers will never think about that. It’s only when they get a chance to taste Portugal’s state-of-the-art oils they find out how good it is. So we had a lot of oil talk at our BBQ.
So dear reader.
When you read a review – like Paul Ames’ for CNN – keep in mind that the reviewers most probably don’t pay for their food and most probably don’t know that a piglet in Mealhada costs 40-45 € pr kg or that a Crab for two easily costs 50 € – prices that are far from the dinner in a mid range restaurant you read about in Lonely Planet, Tripadvisor etc. (30 € for 2 for a 3 meal dinner w. wine).
And unless they cook themselves they wont know how different the quality you get in most restaurants are from what you can get in the markets or speciality shops. So far we have only been to 2-3 restaurants where they serve the meat in the quality we usually buy at our local butcher.
So what about the awakening of the Portuguese kitchen?
Most of the time we read about the new Portuguese kitchen it’s about either the super chefs at the Michelin restaurants or when a local media hyped chef opens a new restaurant in a fancy location…
It’s too easy to eat expensive – the challenge is to find places where the value exceeds the money. So we still haven’t been to any of Portugal’s Michelin restaurants. Our friends say they are good – so we look forward to our first visit.
But we have tried a lot of the fancier ones. And so far it’s only a few that have impressed us. Most of the time the quality of food just isn’t good enough – or not properly prepared – or when we find one we like and return, the food the second time is so far from what we liked the first time.
In the majority of the local restaurants guests are locals. And the average local income is too low for the quality we focus on.
The speciality category with Crafted Beers, Speciality Herbs & Spices, Mustartd and ketchup, Exotic Chocolates, tea, luxury bread etc is very hard to find. Don’t even think about organic food – (we only know about one Organic Grocery in all Lisbon).
So until the income increase, the Portuguese kitchen will be the same. Thank God/Buddha/Muhammad for that – Portugal is one of the last countries in Europe where you eat out among real local people. And that’s what we love so much. And that’s why we go to these restaurants as often as we do. And recommend others to do the same. Just don’t expect a foodie-experience.
When we’re ‘fed’ up – we go to one of our personal favorites where the chefs focus on the ingredients, season and health, and build their menu from there. Or we choose one of the few traditional Portuguese restaurants where we know the focus is on quality is growing… where we hear words like organic, health and environment.
Or we just go shopping and cook ourselves 🙂
Annette & Thomas