Simple Is Best
I think when people travel, they tend to get more attuned to their senses. Or at least I do. It makes sense that turning off the autopilot routine while in a foreign place would turn up the volume on your ears, eyes, and nose. For me though, the most noticeable sensual enhancement comes to my taste buds. Everything tastes better when I’m traveling. Walking and hiking around all day to work up a monstrous appetite certainly accentuates the enjoyment of a tasty dinner.
Now, with my disinterest in carnivorous dishes, some might think there would be slim pickings for me in Portugal, land of fish and meat. I didn’t find that to be the case at all. Thanks to my Lonely Planet Guidebook and the blog, In Love with Lisbon, I had several fine dining experiences, the two most notable being a long leisurely lunch at quirky Chapito in Lisbon and a much-needed peaceful dinner at sexy Malagueta Afrodisiaca in Leiria. I had the best (both looks and taste) cocktail ever at Malagueta Afrodisiaca – it was freshly squeezed bright green kiwi juice, little seeds and all, mixed with some high quality gin. I only wish I’d had the foresight to bring my camera to dinner.
Wonderful vegetarian meals eaten at hidden gems aside, I really took the most delight in sampling local food that I bought at markets or small shops. One of my favorite finds was the most delicate-tasting creamy honey gathered from wild beehives in the Tras-os-Montes region. I now slowly nibble one small teaspoon of it a day, never mixing it with anything else for the sake of retaining its purity…
Then there were the pastries and the cheeses. Oh gosh, how can I begin to describe how much I enjoyed some of each of these? Let’s begin by saying I ate several pastries a day and still managed to loose 10 pounds over the course of the trip. Illogical, I know, but true. I also ate ridiculous amounts of cheese too. I couldn’t help myself. There was fresh local cheese and pastries everywhere! Instead of dragging you into all the details about each and every one, the smattering of pictures in this post should serve to whet your appetite. If not, go here to see the full collection of my pictures from Portugal.
I will go into detail about my favorite pastry and my favorite cheese. First is the pastry, pictured above. I don’t know what it was called since I bought it from a very busy stand at the Mercado do Bolhao in Porto and there was only time to shove my 10 cents across the counter and grab the pastry and run to escape the press of bodies desperate to do the same. My good friend, Gintoino, who’s a native of Portugal, tells me it looks like it is a type of “folhado” made with a special traditional flaky pastry. All I know what it was heaven, and I want more!! Gintoino has been kind enough to provide the pastry base recipe and I’ll see what I can do to duplicate this wondrous slice. Oh, you want to know what it tasted like? Why, of course you do! The flaky, slightly sweet pastry base was topped with a very creamy coconut custard and, while it didn’t look like it, the whole thing was covered in crunchy toasted coconut slivers that contrasted perfectly with the creaminess of the custard. It was like coconut cream pie x10. I need a minute…..
Okay, so, I’ve regained my composure enough to move on to my best Portuguese cheese experience. Ironically, I didn’t like this particular cheese, a hard “cured” goat cheese, the first time I had it. I’d used it in a pasta dish one evening at the cottage and found it rather dull, sort of a weak cousin to feta. The next day I needed a quick lunch and thought I’d try the cheese in a sandwich instead, using one of the airy rolls I’d gotten from a bakery stall at the Barcelos market. I also had a plum on hand, ripe but still firm, and thought slices of it might offer a nice contrast to the salty hard quality of the cheese. I wanted to toast the roll, but had not toaster, so decided to brush it with oil and grill it in the frying pan on the stove.
That got me thinking about how the cheese might be good for frying, something that very few cheeses can withstand without creating quite a mess. But this cheese hadn’t melted in the slightest in the previous night’s hot pasta so I thought I’d take a chance. I sliced it thin and put it in the hot skillet. WOW. All I can say is god bless the synapse in my brain that came up with this idea! What a world of difference the frying made! It got a beautiful nutty flavor, a crunchy golden crust and a soft gooey (but not melted) inside. Sandwiched between the toasted roll halves that now carried a hint of olive flavor from the oil and resting next to the sweet firm slices of plum, this cheese took wings and carried me up to heaven.
Sadly, I have no idea how to get more of this cheese here in the States. Perhaps we can have a grand exchange once a year with Portuguese friends: bags of our cranberries for rounds of their Bilores cheese? In the meantime, you can use haloumi, a hard cheese from Cyprus carried by most Whole Foods Markets. Thoughts of unusual foreign exchanges aside, this sandwich reinforced a little lesson I’d been learning all along my trip up the Portuguese coast: simple is best. Their food isn’t fussy and it almost always takes in local ingredients and quickly transforms them into something tasty. I can only hope I can replicate some of these wonderful culinary creations here at home.
Now, who wants to help me master folhado dough?