For the past two years, I haven’t been able to return home for Thanksgiving. It was difficult enough that I couldn’t share the experience with my family, but adding to my despair, Thanksgiving doesn’t exist in Portugal. Well, that is until now. I decided with gusto last year, that I was going to have Thanksgiving one way or the other, even if I had to cook the whole meal myself. So I started telling some friends about the holiday, and it’s amazing food culture, suggesting that they might be interested in sharing in this holiday with me. Many Portuguese have hardly ever heard about Thanksgiving, but from the delicious displays they’ve gawked at in movies, they gladly accepted the invitation to dinner. Before I knew it, I was faced with preparing my first Thanksgiving dinner for 12 in my tiny little apartment with an even tinier kitchen! And when I say tiny, I mean that my kitchen was undoubtedly built for a Hobbit.
Thankfully, with my professional culinary training, I was confident that I could pull this off without a problem; until I went to my local supermarket and realized that the basic Thanksgiving ingredients were nonexistent. TakeÂ cranberries, for example. Not only are they lacking in Portugal, but there is no official name in Portuguese! Invented names ranged from Uva dos Montes “Grape of the Hillsâ€ and Mirtilos Vermelhos “Red Blueberriesâ€. Try using these random words to describe what cranberries are to a supermarket employee here! Trust me, I’ve received plenty of strange looks. When deciding to make both a pecan pie and pumpkin pie, I came to the harsh realization that pecans are also unheard of, as well as the corn syrup used in the mix. I again had the same experience trying to explain what a pecan was and why would I ever want to eat syrup made from corn. Supermarkets began to post my picture on the front window as the eccentric neighborhood lady who “invents” words for food items.
At my wits end, I finally had a revelation, El Corte Ingles supermarket: the expatriates dream supermarket containing almost every random ingredient from every country in the world. The downside is that a small bag of pecans ran me 6 euros and approximately 8 euros for a small bottle of corn syrup, which was sold in their gourmet store of all places! Since when was corn syrup ever gourmet?? As for the cranberries, I was lucky to come across dried ones. Fresh cranberries were absolutely out of the question, and I don’t even think you’ll come across the good ol’ canned cranberry sauce, which I admittedly adore so much. Hence, dried would just have to do in a pinch.
My Thanksgiving dinner in Portugal was proving to be rather challenging, much like McGyver must had felt using a matchstick, a doorknob and a can of spam to open a bank safe. But I had faith. I had managed to find all of my “gourmetâ€ dessert ingredients, but I lacked the convenient help of measuring cups. Much to my surprise, I was comfortable approximating a cup or a tablespoon, and avoided imminent disaster to produce some tasty Thanksgiving pies for dessert. My first ever pumpkin pie had to be made from fresh pumpkin, since canned pumpkin definitely didn’t exist here and even the typical pumpkin used in Portuguese cooking is a variety of squash and is better for soups. I lucked out, however, and found a small, “jack-o-lanternâ€ pumpkin leftover from the very small Halloween sale at my local supermarket. And for the record, Halloween is another “borrowed” holiday and doesn’t exist in Portugal.
With the pies aside, I slowly discovered some of the rare advantages in making Thanksgiving dinner in Portugal. How many of you are able to get a whole, fresh turkey that was killed and cleaned the night before you bought it? With an open market just down the street from me, I was able to pick it up still warm. And how many of you can make a classical chestnut stuffing? I certainly could with all the street vendors around selling fire-roasted chestnuts during this time of the year! I threw a bags worth of piping hot chestnuts into my stuffing, which also contained: a loaf of crusty, fresh Portuguese bread and some smoky, house-made chouriço from the local butcher. I also had the opportunity to add fresh wild mushrooms and leeks, both of which are grown locally as well. In short, this was an incredible stuffing! As for the cranberry sauce, I decided to do a cranberry-apple sauce cooked down in what else but Port! Which of course I had plenty to choose from here but I decided on a simple ruby port from Ferreira. Don’t forget I also had the pleasure of exploring all the Portuguese wines to find what paired well with Thanksgiving dinner (that will have to be another post!).
But the best part of all, was having my Portuguese friends all gathered in my tiny living room, curious and fascinated as I brough out numerous dishes onto the table (buffet style). The biggest question was, “Andrea, what’s that?” Followed by, “I don’t know what this is either, but it looks and smells so good!â€ When everything was out and ready, I held a toast. I shared a short, traditional explanation of the holiday, as many had assumed it was part of Christmas. I further explained the special types of food we eat as a culture, and how each family prepares them differently. Most importantly, I thanked them for coming to share a holiday that is so very special; and that if I couldn’t be with my family, I was honored to share the evening with them.
The dinner was fantastic. So much so that they asked for an encore the following year, which I humbly accepted. After two very successful Thanksgiving dinners in Portugal, I think I’ve started a new tradition and maybe another holiday to add onto their calendar.
To My Portuguese Buddies, I Am Thankful For Having Them Make Me Feel At Home Away From Home!
Cheers and Happy Thanksgiving!
My Portuguese Cranberry Stuffing:
5 cups dried cranberries
4 Grannie Smith apples, chopped
3 cinnamon sticks
1 tbsp ground cloves
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 bottle Ferreira Ruby Port
hint of water
Combine all ingredients and simmer until reduced by half.Â Remove cinnamon sticks and cool completely. Can be made a day or two before.