Editor’s Note: In our two-part series, Sonia travels through the seaside town of Setubal for sumptuous red snapper and then head to the historic hilltop village of Monsanto to chomp on succulent veal. In Part II, we take it to the capital of “saudade,” Lisbon.
In late May, I left for Portugal on vacation. I hadn’t been back in almost three years. That’s usually just about how much time I can stand without going there. I call it the two-year itch. As soon as I hit that mark, I begin to wither like a flower that’s been away from the sun for too long, and the “saudades” get stronger. There is no exact translation of “saudade” to English. The best I can come up with is “yearning.”
We Portuguese people are always yearning (some appreciate that, some don’t. I feel like I don’t have a choice. It’s who I am. I’m okay with that). It’s likely an inheritance from our nautical past, which left many mothers, wives and children yearning for the return of their sons, husbands and fathers that set out onto uncharted seas to discover new worlds during the Age of Exploration. Or, the ongoing fear of losing the fisherman that brave the elements each day to bring in the freshest catch to satisfy the insatiable appetite Portuguese people (and those around the world that love our fish, such as Greek restaurant Thalassa have for sea creatures.) It’s in the stories that grandfathers tell of their journeys into the night on foot, crossing rivers and mountains through Spain to reach France in search of work, which caused families years ago to spend a lifetime apart from one another. It’s for me memories of a recent past, more precisely the late-80s when my family braved not the seas but the skies in search of the American dream during one of the waves of immigration from Portugal to the U.S.
It’s in our music, our Fado (it’s our Fate, our Portuguese blues, as some call it), which is sung in a kind of cheerful melancholy that spills onto the cobblestoned narrow streets of Lisbon’s historic neighborhoods each night where Fado houses open their doors to all who wish to listen.
We may own the word “saudade,” but it’s indeed a universal feeling, and on a warm spring night in Lisbon over a plate of tomato-infused rice and cod fish fritters and a bottle of the house red at Clube de Fado in Alfama district, my husband Paulo and I shared our saudades with faces from all over the world—American, Brazilian, Japanese, Spanish and those I could not identify—who partook in that sentiment of saudades that the Portuguese so sincerely evoke through our national song, which last winter was voted into the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage.
I visited many places during my month in Portugal. Some were grand like the Clube de Fado, and others were gems hidden deep into the countryside. Each imprinting in my mind unique moments: the kind, which two years from now I will be yearning for once again. In my home in America, I hold on to those moments by recreating some of the dishes I tasted along the way. After all, food can transport us back to a place and time. For me it does. This summer I will be firing up my grill, butterflying whole fish and charring it like they do in the seaside town of Setubal where fish grilled on charcoal is king. I will grace my grill with veal chops sweetened by freshly-squeezed orange juice, so I can travel to the interior of Portugal, the Beira Baixa region, where the hilltop village of Monsanto is home to one of the most inspiring restaurants I have ever visited. I will cheer to the shellfish that is so flavorful and fresh in the Atlantic Ocean-lined Portugal, with beer-boiled shrimp that need nothing more than a splash of lemon to perfect a laidback afternoon of peeling and eating.
Let’s start with a sumptuous red snapper in Setubal.
There are many picturesque cities in Portugal to visit—some livened by the sea and others at the foothills of majestic mountains. I have a hard time picking between these two scenarios, and that’s why Setubal is one of my favorite cities in Portugal. Here fisherman come and go on the traditional, colorful fishing boats of Setubal while the Arrabida hills stand in the distance. The main thoroughfare, Avenida Luisa Todi, is lined with restaurants grilling that day’s sumptuous catches on charcoal. It’s a piscatorial paradise! On the waterfront, there’s more of the same. That’s where we found Tasca da Fatinha, a quaint and sunlit restaurant cooled by the Sado River breeze that zipped on through from time to time. We ordered clams (I can’t get enough of Portuguese clams “ameijoas” and practically ordered them at every seaside restaurant on my trip) and “Camarao a Guilho” (shrimp in garlic sauce). I have had many a garlicky shrimp in Portuguese restaurants in America and in Portugal, but these were by far the best I have ever had anywhere. They were large shrimp with the body peeled but the head left on for my sucking pleasure—the sauce permeated the head mixed with its shrimpy gooeyness that I just couldn’t resist and continue to savor in memory. We also shared a whole red snapper which we picked from the fish display refrigerator (these display refrigerators packed with fish are ubiquitous outside Setubal restaurants). The butterflied fish was firm yet buttery and perfectly seasoned with coarse salt.
When I got back to the U.S., the cravings kicked in, so I rolled up my sleeves and got down to business. Though whole fish is a rarity at my local supermarket in Connecticut, they do often have whole red snapper. I selected a fairly large one, and asked to have it gutted and scaled. At home, I pulled out my sharpest knife (this is key to butterflying) and cut from the mouth along the belly down to the tail (I have to be honest, it was a tad tricky around the cartilage-gy part of the mouth, so maybe asking your local fish monger to do it, might be wiser. I’m still perfecting this myself). Then I seasoned all of it with a generous amount of coarse salt and placed it in a grilling basket, which I brushed with grape seed oil (or a light olive oil). Names of Portuguese Fish. In the meantime, I set my grill to high and on my stovetop boiled baby Yukon potatoes, which are the kind that come closest to the potatoes in Portugal, often yellow and firm. Once the grill was nice and hot, I placed my butterflied fish (in the basket) skin down and let it char for 12 minutes. Then I turned it and let it grill again for about another 8-10 minutes, about 20 minutes in total. I also brushed a bit more oil on it to keep the fish moist. You’ll know it’s done when parts of the fish are crispy. Not too difficult, right? And you can pretty much follow this process for any type of fish. Then I took it out of the basket, squeezed some lemon on it and drizzled a bit of extra virgin olive oil over it, added my potatoes—and pronto! Chances are that if all goes well, fillets in the future will leave you wanting.
For as much as I cherish the Lisbon area (it’s my beloved birth city) and many of the spots South of it—and this spring also enjoyed a lovely trip to the North where I cruised down the Douro River and sipped Port wine in Vila Nova de Gaia where the famous Porto houses hold tastings in cellars—it truly irks me when folks from these more touristy and marketed areas of Portugal downplay some of the still generally overlooked parts of this small, but diverse country. Some of these hidden gems I speak of have made a few inroads the last decade or so, doing a better job of promoting their wines and cheese by entering competitions that get their names in the press, but it still seems that more has to be done to change mentalities (though I do understand that the mood of the country, suffering from the ongoing Euro Zone economic saga, puts a damper on innovation and risk taking).
But, I digress. In Central Portugal (the Beira Baixa region, which is sandwiched between the Beira Alta and Alentejo regions) there is a village unlike any other I have ever visited. It’s nestled on a hilltop peppered with moss-covered boulders that natives for years have carved homes into. This fairytale-like place is called Monsanto and has been named the “Most Portuguese Village,” which has thankfully garnered it some press and attention. This is where you can find the restaurant Petiscos & Granitos, a geological restaurant built amid granite boulders, that follows the gastronomy calendar of the area and highlights traditional tastes. You can choose to eat on the terrace with a breathtaking view of the Beira Baixa landscape or inside a grotto. It’s so freaking cool! It’s also very inspiring with Portuguese writers’ quotes scribbled on the walls inside and its charming owner/chef who greeted us on our way to our table, as he peeled potatoes in his kitchen—it’s that personal.
Chef Joao (I hope I got that right. But honestly it wasn’t his name that stuck with me, it was his hospitable smile that when he stepped on the terrace to check on us, made a wide appearance between his silvery beard). I have to admit I was taken aback by the whole thing, almost as if under a spell. Next time, I hope to chat more with Chef Joao whose food is delightful. Despite a lengthy menu, he worked only with what he had on-hand that day, making our choices limited but so worthwhile (it’s important to make a reservation to eat here, especially off-season, so they can prepare). There was another table with a group speaking French that seemed chummy with the chef—as if one of them had been there before and set out to share this hidden gem with friends. The meal started with a charcuterie plate, Portuguese cheese and bread. Followed by roasted octopus and potatoes topped with local cheese. Octopus and cheese, sound odd? I know, but it wasn’t. The saltiness of each complemented the other and melded with the sweetness of the warmed olive oil. Then came a large veal chop, “Vitelao.” It was slightly charred and very tender—there are quality cattle in this region.
If Setubal makes my mouth water for fish, the Beira Baixa, makes me foam for meat. Hunters abound here and gamey meat, such as wild boar, hare, partridge and the like are commonplace.
So, it was no surprise that the meat was so succulent. What did surprise me was the chef’s choice of finishing it with an orange wedge instead of a lemon wedge. Doesn’t sound significant, but it was a first for me (maybe just one of those things I missed somehow). Sure, the Bairrada region serves its famous suckling pig with orange wedges. I kept thinking about this…. What was the correlation between veal and orange and pig? Though in hind-sight a no-brainer, I suddenly had my “aha” moment: I recalled the rumor that Italian-American restaurants pound pork and serve it as veal, or how due to price or ethical reasons people substitute veal with pork in their recipes.
When I got to America, I picked up some veal chops, seasoned them with coarse salt and freshly cracked black pepper (add to your liking, but I dig both sides covered in the stuff) and let them sit in the fridge with chucks of garlic and some light olive oil for a couple of hours to marinate. Then I set my grill to high, sprinkled each side of the chops with some garlic powder and plopped them on the fire. I let them grill for about 4 minutes each side for a medium-rarish result. I prepared both orange and lemon wedges. Then grabbed the chops and cut a piece and squeezed lemon on it. Fine, lemon as always worked for me. Then I tried it with the orange. Magic: it still offered the similar acidity that marries so well with beef, but it was more subtle and, in my opinion, much more appropriate for the delicate veal. It all made sense and for a split second I was back in Monsanto.
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