Travel Guide to Portugal

Thanksgiving in Iberia: An Ode to Port Wine and Stuffed Fowl!

By Guest Author

Thanksgiving is a famed holiday in the European community. Non-American friends and co-workers repeatedly ask when this epic meal occurs (hinting for an invite), and nearly all Americans living here agree that the best part of having an authentic Thanksgiving meal on foreign soil is sharing the experience with at least one first-timer every year.

In Spain, not all of the staple ingredients of a true Thanksgiving meal are readily available nor affordable. Aside from the task of searching Barcelona high and low for fresh cranberries (found at the Boqueria market for around €9.00 for a medium-sized bag) and pumpkin pie filling (found at A Taste of Home expat food store in Barcelona’s Sant Antoni district for under €5.00/can), another challenge is simply procuring (and cooking) the turkey. Finding a turkey isn’t the difficult part in Barcelona; however, ordering it at least a week ahead is a must.

Interestingly, one major obstacle that one might not immediately consider is the challenge of roasting a large, whole bird in the small ovens so common in city kitchens. In fact, many of the simple flats that expats and students call home have no oven to speak of! Although turkey is available year-round in Spain in one capacity or another (like frozen “jamoncitos” — or “little hams”—the Spanish supermarket’s playful term for turkey drumsticks), chicken, as well as wild game birds, are far more common in not only the market, but subsequently, in the kitchen, too.

With origins mainly in Asia, North Africa, and Western Europe, wild birds such as wood pigeon, quail, pheasant, goose, duck, and partridge are found in numerous and varied preparations throughout the Iberian peninsula, influenced by traditions of Europe (present in the use of alcohol, patés, pine nuts, and truffles, of which Spain boasts nearly 100 varieties), as well as those of the once-glorious Moorish rule (with ingredients like saffron, sugar, pistachios, almonds, apricots, citrus, and spices). While game birds in Spain are very often stewed, confited, turned into rillettes and patés, or quartered and grilled, the tradition of the whole-roasted bird is still evident in the home-style dishes of many Spanish regions.

In Andalucía and Extremadura, upon the same mountainous oak forest dehesas that feed and fatten the famous jamón-producing acorn and wild grass-fed, free-range Black Iberian Pigs, wild Iberian Geese graze. Most often turned into cured products, patés, rillettes, and sausages, choice traditional preparations call for these geese to be roasted whole (frequently in the typical sweet-and-salty style). One stand-out Andaluz recipe features a stuffing of apples, golden raisins (soaked in Spanish brandy), lemon zest, pistachios, cashews, and cubed bread. The goose is roasted until golden, then served with a flour-thickened gravy of chicken broth and brandy prepared in the roasting pan.

Unless you are cooking a larger bird like a chicken, turkey, or goose, most whole birds are roasted in cazuelas (clay dishes) with a sauce to keep smaller, leaner birds like partridge, quail, and pheasant moist. One old Castilian recipe for partridge calls for sauce of onions sauteed in lard with white wine and bay leaf to be spiked with a hefty nub of dark chocolate to finish. Delicious.

A favorite holiday recipe from the Alcántara (Extremadura) that can be applied to pheasant or quail includes a luxurious stuffing of duck liver paté and black truffles poached in Port wine. Once the bird is stuffed, it marinates for three whole days in Port wine, and then is roasted. To top it all off, the marinating wine is reduced and finished with chunks of fresh truffles and almonds.

In Catalunya, though game birds are popular in the realm of classic cuisine, the humble rotisserie chicken (pollastre a l’ast) is deeply revered. Salty, crunchy, and incredibly moist, these whole-roasted chickens (a l’ast roughly translates to “spit-roasted” in Catalan) are synonymous with Sunday family gatherings and classic restaurants throughout Barcelona. As far as game birds are concerned, Catalan gastronomy has had a place for these little woodland delicacies since the Middle Ages; some of the oldest recipes in Catalan revolve around wild game (some with wild birds, rabbits, and pork all cooked together) and very often call for a sweet, salty, and sour flavor profile with either sugar or honey in a potent vinegar sauce.

A very common Catalan preparation, most often found as a third or fourth course in the typical, marathon-length Christmas Day lunch, is quail with a stuffing of prunes, raisins, and pine nuts, sautéed in butter and thyme, then simmered slow and low in a cooking liquid of cognac, brown sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, and clove. The small birds are gently cooked while submerged in the cooking liquid, which is then reduced and thickened with a touch of cornstarch slurry.

With American Thanksgiving just days away, I leave you with a new and delicious way to prepare your turkey this year with an Andalusian-style Roasted Turkey Recipe. Feel free to pair this with a Casa de Mouraz, Encruzado (white) 2012 from Dao or a Monte da Ravasqueira, Vinha das Romãs (red) 2010 from the Alentejo. Any wine with some body and richness in white or reds would work. Just make sure to end the day with a nice nutty Tawny port, preferably a 30 year tawny like one of our favorites Ramos Pinto’s 30 year Tawny.

Feed those you care about with love and gratitude, and put a flourish of Spain in your celebration! But if you need some help with the heaping mounds of leftovers, it just might be time to switch countries and break out a Portuguese Acorda!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sam Zucker

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