Gabriella and I are adventurous. When out with clients, or even friends, in a new city, we inevitably suggest that they choose something typical from the region that is important to the understanding of the wine or culture of the region. We, for the most part, have been fortunate and rarely end up regretting our choice. Granted, when I was in Toro two years ago, the idea of pig snout was not exactly what I had in mind, but in the end, it turned out to be decent. In fact, I loved it, though I’m not sure Gabriella would have felt the same way had she been with me.
Last week, while visiting a few wineries in the Douro, we were presented with a meal that both surprised and fascinated us. We found our way to a small restaurant in the town of Pinhao, on top of a fire station of all things. Familiar in the sense that everyone seemed to know everyone else, this was the type of place that you might find vineyard workers in, downing jars of young wine while talking of the days events.
As is our typical custom, when the group suggests a traditional dish from the menu, such as the Cozido a Portuguesa, we eagerly accept. In this case. Sipping on our wines, which conversely acted on our empty bellies, leaving us in a bit of a euphoric in mood. To counter the deep, echoing growl, we nibbled on some traditional ham and spreads that come before any Portuguese meal, hoping to ease discomfort.
With a slight rustle behind me signaling an approaching waitress, I realized the food was here. Busily moving the dishes on the table to make room for the large platter that hovered over my head, I smelled aromas that had me salivating in anticipation. But alas, as the dish made contact with the table, my eyes rolled a bit, and my mind cried out in anger as I realized I was to be disappointed with our decision, or so I thought. Before me sat wilted cabbage, plain white peeled potatoes, soggy looking carrots and pallid meats, that although gave off enticing aromas, appeared to be one of the blandest and most uninteresting things I had seen in awhile.
Attempting to keep a look of appreciation on my face, I said the mandatory, “Oh, it looks so good”, while Gabriella and I discretely passed looks of displeasure between us. Pointing out the many different ingredients, our hosts emphasized that this was VERY typical Portuguese dish. Great. A country I had fallen in love with was about to give me my first disappointment. Passing the platter to me, I took a bit of carrot, potato, and various random meats, including some pig’s ear and blood sausage. I figured I had to get a story out of this one way or another and a follow-up to our previous pig’s ear experience would be one angle to take.
While waiting for the others to fill their plates, I had images of how to make this more enjoyable, while scanning the table for a salt shaker. None to be found, though I did spot some of the good regional olive oil, which if need be, would make the potato go down easier. The time had come and with a quick toast with the table wine to seal our new friendships, we dug in.
I can’t really tell you what happened as I took the first bite. It’s like when you were a kid and tasted some candy that had been dyed one color, while flavored something else. Green suckers that might taste like cherries instead of lime or watermelon, your mind can’t seem to register the information. I think it was the potato I tried first, and as I bit into it, I knew that prejudice is truly an evil thing. Everything I had imagined was wrong. This potato literally melted in my mouth, succulent, juicy and full of flavors that made my mind race. HOW THE *&$#! could it? This was fabulous, with food still in my mouth, I quickly scooped up a piece of carrot then pork then CABBAGE! Each one an explosion of flavors that made me not want to swallow, but rather continue reaching for more. Looking to Gabriella, we both sat wide eyed, speechless, and in a small corner of culinary heaven.
It was at this point, I think our hosts began to smile wider as they realized we might be enjoying ourselves. I have to stop now and apologize to all of them, as I know that they probably heard the words, “I can’t believe how good this is, please pass me more” a few hundred times as we attempted to clean our plates, a task that I think is rarely accomplished. We had found gold. Simple food, plain food, with flavors that exploded out of empty space.
The secret is simple. Cook everything together, all at once, and only make it when you have a small army to feed. The reason this dish works is that all the food is boiled in the same pot, in different stages with the same water. First the meat at high temperature, then the potato, carrot and so on and so forth. With this method, you slowly build up layers of flavors that coat each ingredient making them all richer and better for it.
The cabbage is so full of flavor it makes sauerkraut look bland, and the potatoes, well in truth, I have no clue how they get the way they do, but they melted in my mouth like the butter that would normally adorn them. But the real surprise is that this flavor extends to all parts, including the pig’s ear, which although falls low on my list of favorites, was by no means foul or unpleasant. Granted the crunchy cartilage was a bit too much, but it was generally pretty “good”. Finally, the sausages. In Spain, we have the best Jamon, no contest. Seriously, none. If you don’t believe me, you need to come here and try a 150euro/kilo Jamon de Bellota, and I dare you to say it’s not incredible. But beyond the incredible Jamon, the Portuguese Morcilla, or blood sausage, is now rated above the Spanish version.
Sweet, rich and not overly intense like its Spanish counterpart, most likely as a result of the boiling process, but I found myself reaching for more despite the “capacity reached” alert from my stomach. Put this with the chorizo and the thick slices of lomo, and I was in pure heaven. The wine, well it was a nice table wine, simple, and by itself, something not to mention, but combined with this food, it was a revelation. Before the meal Gabriella and I would have probably not thought twice about it, but its high acidity, and somewhat rough tannins, combined to create lushes textures and flavors with the Cozido.
For the rest of the trip, whenever we mentioned our experience to other Portuguese, you’d see a smile creep across their faces. They knew. This is something special, a piece of Portugal that the average person does not see. You won’t find this as the star on a menu, nor the centerpiece of a restaurant in a tourist section of town. No, those places showcase grilled squid, roasted octopus, and other mainstream fare. If you want to fall in love with the very stuff that Portugal is built on, you need to seek out the Cozido a Portuguesa. Remember, you may think we’re crazy when you first see the plate, but don’t worry, you won’t be disappointed. I know I can’t wait to get back and have some more.