Sharing my Portugal food journey
I’d never eaten octopus before. It was the tentacles… the tentacles unnerved me. Unworldly coils of rubbery flesh speckled with suction caps. I believe in eating as a full sensory experience that goes beyond mere taste: there’s much to be said for touch, smell, and sight.
And yet here I was, sitting at a rustic wooden table bathed by glorious sun, in the white-washed village of Odeceixe in Portugal’s Algarve region. A bowl of octopus salad had been placed before me.
I eyed the bowl defiantly and the bowl eyed me back. In this form its contents didn’t look quite so intimidating: round chunks of white octopus flesh flecked with parsley and coriander, topped with diced onion and bathed in olive oil, salt, and pepper. Putting my trepidation aside, I tore off a chunk of crusty Alentejo bread and scooped up a courageous portion of the salad.
As the cliche goes, it was love at first bite.
In the coming months of living in Portugal my diet changed progressively yet considerably. Seafood – the one thing I rarely ate before – became a staple part of my diet. My carnivorous tendencies fell away (despite the lardaceous glory that is Portuguese black pig, grilled outside over hot coals to emerge crispy and salty and unlike any meat I’d ever tasted before), replaced by a pescetarian diet of grilled fish, salad, red wine and bread.
And soup. In Lisbon you can sit in a quiet corner of any traditional Tasca and sup on a bowl of homemade soup for a euro or two. Fish soup, vegetable soup, caldo verde… the latter being a typical soup made of cabbage and potato and garnished with a few slices of tasty chorizo sausage. It’s a fast, easy, cheap way to have a meal.
Every Tasca has furnishings that lie, aesthetically, between the markers of unfussy and completely dated, with a mandatory T.V. set perched somewhere overhead. Dining alone is not frowned upon at all. Mains invariably include dishes of fish, meat, meat, or fish. Variety isn’t a strong point where tradition is, but there’s something reliably beautiful – or at least beautifully reliable – in that.
Culinary inventiveness and innovation can certainly be found in the Portuguese capital, more so than the smaller villages and towns across the country, but it’s appropriately left to the star chefs and hip new establishments. I enjoy experiencing both the traditional and the new, even if I still prepare a large portion of my meals at home.
Sometimes the biggest change when moving countries comes not in the practices you adopt but in the ones you leave behind. British friends visiting Portugal once asked me how I go about life without easy access to baked beans and bacon and packs of garden-variety English sausages. I shrugged and mumbled something about how I’d learned to live without them, but the truth was I hadn’t given them a thought. Until that moment, my brain hadn’t even registered that the supermarket shelves were devoid of those things. I’d slipped happily into a mediterranean-style diet without looking back.
I’d eaten fresh sardines grilled in the street, their skins crisp and their flesh white and soft. I’d eaten golden loaves of crusty bread straight from the wood-fired oven of a village baker’s house, broken into still-warm chunks and dipped in olive oil. I’d eaten octopus salad in a sunbathed fishing town by the sea.
What need had I for bacon?