Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Wandering Gourmand. Portugal. (Part 1).

Somehow I wound up spending two weeks in January and February driving around Portugal and Spain with three members of my family. It was insane. Essentially we were eating our way around the two countries, starting from Lisbon, heading north up the coast, over the border into Spain, and then back into Portugal. Much presunto (Portugal) and jamon (Spain) was consumed, darkly rosy slices of ham, slightly thicker than the tissue-thin prosciutto of Italy, salty-sweet, intense, and totally addictive. Inhuman (or perhaps I mean inhumane) amounts of cod were eaten, prepared in more ways than I thought possible.

I am not very familiar with Spanish cuisine, and Portuguese cuisine is even more of a mystery. As far as I could tell the latter involved huge amounts of beans, kale, chorizo, and seafood (mainly the inveitable bacalhau). In Portugal we ate at various Pousadas along the way. Pousadas are a chain of forty or so hotels all over Portugal, organized into several categories - historical, charm, nature, and, I think, architecture, and they all have restaurants that serve dishes of that particular region, so that while all the Pousadas have menus that are somewhat similar, each of them vary according to the local cuisine. The historical Pousadas are the most interesting, as they are housed in historical monuments - monastaries, convents, castles, that have been remodeled into hotels. The cooking was unfailingly elegant, refined, and absolutely delicious.

Looking over my notes from those two weeks, it is hard to find a single meal that stands out particularly clearly. I see only an endless parade of delicious things (and, again, an inhumane amount of bacalhau), with only the occasional slightly indifferent stew or rice dish. It was a completely different kind of cooking from anything I had experienced before. Portuguese cooking is earthy, hearty, simple, even when done lightly and elegantly. A combination of flavors and textures totally new to me. I cannot wait to go back.

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