My grandparents used to have a flat in the Algarve which my parents would borrow every summer. We would fly armed with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label to give to the manager of the Penina Hotel so that we could use his pool. Whereas some people had their introduction to exotic food via France or Spain, mine was through Portugal. I loved the restaurants by the harbour in Portimão with their lobster tanks and trays of clams spitting water at passers-by. I remember the yearly festival in celebration of the sardine and trips into the mountains near Monchique to eat spicy chicken. Before I had heard the word ‘wine’ I knew the words vinho verde. It all seemed so alien and exciting though by the early 80s when my memories start it was already very touristy with most restaurant menus in English*. There must be many people like me who were raised in a similar way and yet Portuguese food hasn’t spread like French or Italian (apart from Nando’s.) It’s the same story with Portuguese wine (port excepted.) It seems that people are prepared to make the effort with obscure grape varieties when they are Italian but not with Portuguese. Perhaps it’s the pronunciation, like Spanish spoken by a particularly melancholic Russian.
I was very pleased therefore to be invited to an evening of Portuguese wine and food at Viajante in Bethnal Green courtesy of Wines of Portugal. Not least because it’s about four minutes walk from our flat. I won’t talk too much about the cook Nuno Mendes as much has been written about him and this place. He normally cooks more cosmopolitan food but on our visit was inspired by his home country.
Actually the first dish, a very fresh piece of mackerel with sweet roasted peppers tasted a bit Japanese, perhaps a legacy of Portugal’s great seafaring past when they were the first Europeans to visit Japan. With this dish we drank a vinho verde which I imagine is immeasurably superior to the sort of things my parents drank in the 80s. It was called Aphros Loureiro 2011, Loureiro being the grape variety. It smelt of lemons and lemon rind with something floral. It was light and sharp with a distinct tang of minerals – a deceptively serious wine.
After the Vinho Verde was a wine that was in some ways its opposite. It was rich and spicy, opulent with oak, a wine that teetered on the brink of too much but actually became more delicious with each sip. It was called the Julia Kemper Branco 2010 from Dão. Before the meal we were asked if there was anything we wouldn’t eat. I didn’t pipe up but the only thing I really don’t like is tripe. So of course with the Julia Kemper we had tripe with cod. They were mashed up into a grey, slightly fishy paste which tasted a lot nicer than it sounds. Maybe the tripe was from the cod. I should have asked.
My favourite dish was the presa iberica, on my menu I’d written the words PIG HAM in block capital, (I was quite drunk by this point.) I think what I meant is this was like a sweet tender piece of Iberico ham but uncured. It was possibly the most beautiful single piece of pig I’ve ever eaten – so tender, so sweet, so piggy. It made me thank my parents that I’m not subject to Jewish dietary laws. In fact all Portuguese food makes me grateful of that as what they do better than anyone is mix shellfish and pork – definitely not kosher. This piece of heavenly pork came with a broth of jaw dropping depth and intensity. The lovely pig was served with a dense rather modern red from Bairrada called ‘Preto e Branco’ 2008 produced by Quinta do Encontro.
There were other wines, I could still taste the finish on the Nierpoort 20 year old tawny before falling asleep, and other dishes, the rendered chorizo fat with crispy chicken skin still gets me hot under the collar at the thought. There was one, however, a dish of spicy prawns that was served in a stock that took me right back to Portimão harbour on a hot August night in 1984. In a world of frozen seafood, it was a reminder of just how pungent shellfish can be. They were even served on the sort of rough earthenware dish that my grandparents used to collect and since their deaths I now use. I even have the painting that they commissioned of sardine fishermen (see above). Depth of flavour is what Nuno Mendes does. You can get a taste of this from visiting his cheaper restaurant, the Corner Room, but if you want a country distilled into a sauce, then Viajante is peerless.
* My father writes in:
“When mum and I first went to Portugal not only were there no menus in English but often there were no menus at all so we often had no idea what we had ordered. I remember that our first meal in Portimao cost ten shillings for a three course meal with a carafe of local wine.”