It’s safe to say that “Caldo Verde” (Kale Soup) is likely the most famous of Portuguese soups. Its garlicky puree and toothy kale, finished with “Chourico” (smoked sausage), is a delight. But despite the popularity and ubiquity of Caldo Verde, the three Portuguese soups that are dearest to my heart and ideal meals for the cold months ahead, are the “Sopa de Feijao” (Bean Soup), “Sopa de Feijao Verde” (String Bean Soup) and “Sopa de Abobora” (Pumpkin Soup).
I associate these three hearty soups with three people and a place—my mother (Maria do Ceu) and my two aunts (Tia Lucinda and Tia Benvinda). The place is Bemposta do Campo, the village where my maternal family hails from in the southern-central region of Portugal, the Beira Baixa. Here is where my grandmother Isaura cooked her soups inside a black iron pot nestled in the fireplace. The iron pot, and I imagine the fireplace, imparted a non-replicable smokiness into each soup. Or maybe, it was into the air. Whatever it was, I have since then never had a similar soup experience or that kind of comfort in a bowl. The closest I can get to it is through these three soups, made effortlessly by three women who hardly ever start a meal without a bowl of their soups—or, when I visit the region’s restaurants. In these traditional restaurants, it’s customary for the waitstaff to plop a silvery soup terrine on the table that everyone serves themselves from. You can get a waft of the soup even before it gets to your table, usually thanks to the commonly-used fragrant “Segurelha” (Savory) herb—that has a thyme and oregano quality to it, but I would say sweeter, like rosemary. The region also boasts one—if not the largest—soup festivals in the country. In May, the annual Festa das Sopas Tradicionais is held in the village of Proenca-a-Velha, featuring nearly 90 different soup recipes for sampling.
In America, there are Portuguese restaurants that sometimes nail these soups, but it’s a rarity. I’m lucky that the folks in the kitchen of my local Portuguese Cultural Center have a bit of a knack for making these comforting soups, but they’re not quite there yet either. So as the red and golden leaves slowly sway off the trees in my backyard, the days get shorter and the air crisper, I turned to my source for comfort soups: my mother. Her trademark would have to be the Bean Soup; Tia Lucinda’s the String Bean Soup and Tia Benvinda the Pumpkin Soup. But, my mother can pretty much pull them all off brilliantly. As a tribute to pumpkin season, I kick our recipes off with the Pumpkin Soup. I also include wine-pairing suggestions for each soup. Though, I will confess, I rarely drink wine with soup. This experiment, however, may have influenced me to keep playing with this pairing in the future.
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