Some of the best memories and experiences I had when I lived in Portugal are intrinsically linked with food. One of the most enduring memories I have is of eating the deliciously rustic and simple soup, caldo verde, served with a freshly baked big oval white loaf direct from the bakery in our street, aptly named Urb. Farinha (Flour Street).
Living the good food life – Algarve style
For a couple of years, my family and I lived in Sao Bartolomeu de Messines, a small traditional Algarvian market town with barely a trace of tourism, let alone any British residents, yet it is only 25 minutes drive inland from the busy coastal resorts. The food was therefore really part barrocal (inland) and part litoral (coastal). Rabbit and pork featured a lot and also fish like bream and sardines; seafood including clams and lobster.
The food available in Messines defined the place and living there. The daily municipal market in the town centre was open all morning selling spanking fresh local produce. I remember sardines, red mullet and bream and freshly picked fruit and vegetables from the surrounding countryside – citrus fruit, pomegranates and figs. There was also a butchers selling local meat and charcuterie such as presunto, a dried cured ham similar to proscuttio.
On the last Monday of each month, there was the added bonus of the arrival of a travelling market which moved round towns in the area each week. It always felt like an especially festive day, the town centre buzzing with locals having a day out, a good day to catch up with friends and neighbours.
The food was a real treat on these days. Barbecues were set up in the street round the town centre selling grilled chicken and barbecued polpo (octopus) tentacles (a favourite) as well as bifanas – spicy thin pork medallions marinated with chilli and paprika served in a crusty roll. Such delights would be followed with masaladas, Portuguese donuts deep-fried to order in the street, coated in sugar and handed to you in a slip of greaseproof paper.
These days usually ended by joining my friends in a pastelaria, sitting outside and drinking copious numbers of bicas (espresso), accompanied by delicious and irresistible pastel de natas before we moved on in the evening to a few imperials (draught) beers, usually the attractively named Super Bock.
Two doors up from our house, our neighbour had converted the ground floor of her house into a makeshift restaurant and served up her rustic and creative French / Portuguese food. You never quite knew what you might get, or even what you were eating, but it was usually soups, stews or roasts, always delicious and an entertaining place to take visiting friends from the UK. On special occasions, like weddings, christenings and birthdays, I remember eating suckling pig, shellfish dishes such as cataplana and drinking copious amounts of local wine as well as vinho verde from further north.
The village was surrounded by lush countryside and the gentle hills on the west side of the town were covered in regularly harvested cork oaks as well as olive groves. It was also where local people would collect fruit from the Medronho tree, Arbutus unedo (also called strawberry tree). These trees are not cultivated but are wild and form part of the natural vegetation around the area.
The Medronho fruits are collected to make the local firewater Aguardente de Medronhos. Local men usually drank a shot of this potent Medronho along with a bica first thing in the morning. Although largely unregulated and unlicensed, distilling of Medronho was tolerated as a local tradition and you could be guaranteed to be offered some if paying a social visit to friends and neighbours.
Olives, much like Medronho, are considered to be an acquired taste and I certainly developed my love of olives while living there, in fact it is almost an infatuation these days. I recall our neighbour handing over a huge bucket of olives he had just collected from a tree in his garden. They didn’t last long in our house.
Finally, there was Tia Rachel’s (Aunt Rachel’s) restaurant on the outskirts of the town, and a short walk up the hill from our house. This was the place where we regularly made a lunchtime pilgrimage to indulge in the best barbecued chicken piri-piri the Algarve had to offer (despite the claims of other piri-piri places on the tourist trail). Sitting outside in the shade, even in summer, lunch would always start with the simplest caldo verde and fresh white local bread. This was followed by a pile of spicy chicken piri-piri with fine-cut chips and a lovely fresh side salad with a simple vinaigrette. Barbecued chicken doesn’t get better than that!
Caldo verde, meaning green broth is a very simple traditional Portuguese soup that would have originally contained only a handful of the most frugal ingredients: kale (couve gallego), onion, garlic, potato and water. Many permutations can be found online which in my view unnecessarily ‘sex-up’ caldo verde, adding sausage or chorizo, beans or rice.
In fact, I never saw a piece of sausage in caldo verde in the Algarve – just the basics outlined, although I permit myself the decadence of using home-made chicken stock instead of water. I’m not a purist, and I love chorizo, but the soup wouldn’t be the same with these additions. I used home-grown Picasso potatoes and Brussels sprout tops, which needed picked just before they were burnt and blackened by another impending storm.
The way to get the most out of this soup is to use the best ingredients you can get and serve it with a traditional Portuguese-style loaf – I chose broa.
6 large potatoes (not a floury variety), diced
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 big handfuls of kale or other brassica, sliced to taste – shredded or chunky
1.5 litres of good quality chicken stock, or veg stock
olive oil, a glug
a few grinds of black pepper
salt, to taste
- Sweat the onions, garlic and potatoes in the olive oil, covered for 10-15 minutes. They should not take on any colour.
- Add the stock and simmer gently for 40 minutes, or until the potato chunks are tender.
- Blanch the brassicas for 30 seconds in boiling water and refresh in cold water, before adding them to the soup. This way, they will lose any bitterness and retain their vibrant colour. Add seasoning.
- Stir the greens through the soup and then serve with broa or other thick crusted artisan bread.
Although this is not what I would have regularly eaten with caldo verde in the Algarve, it is another traditional Portuguese bread. The daily loaf I had in Messines was more akin to a classic Italian bread, with a thick, crisp, hard crust and many air holes. It was a bit more yeasty though. Despite searching, I have been unable to pin down if this this type of loaf has a specific name and everyone just called it ‘pão’.
Broa is a hearty rustic bread made from a mixture of cornmeal, wheat and rye. There are many and varied recipes online, most of which I found less than enlightening and a bit confusing, or there were aspects of them I simply didn’t like. I therefore decided to make my version of what I considered a rustic textured broa should be.
The best technique I thought might work for this recipe was to make a sponge with water, strong white flour and yeast before combining and kneading the remaining wheat flour, rye and polenta. It worked well, producing a very even bake. The rustic loaves were not too dense or heavy (achieved by keeping the rye proportion down) and had a thick crisp crunchy crust thanks to the polenta – and bags of flavour.
500g strong white bread flour
10g dried fast action yeast
600ml warm water
Rest of the ingredients to be added when sponge is ready:
250g rye flour
20g fat – I used goose fat for extra flavour – butter or olive oil are fine
Preheat the oven to 250C
- Mix the sponge ingredients together well in a large bowl. Cover with cling film and put in a warm place to at least doubled in size (takes about 45 – 60 minutes).
- Either by hand, or using the dough hook on a food mixer, combine all the ingredients and knead for 10 minutes.
- Flour the dough lightly and place in a bowl, cover and put in a warm place until it doubles in size (1-2 hours).
- Gently knock the dough back, divide in 2, form into 2 rounds and leave to rise on a covered baking sheet or in a proving basket until it rises significantly, about 30 minutes in a warm room. Dust with rye flour.
- Place in a very hot oven for 10 minutes, adding a cup of boiling water in a tray at the bottom of the oven to give a crisp crust. After 10 minutes, reduce the temperature to about 180C and bake for 40-50 minutes more. It should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.
It has occurred to me that I would like to explore more of the Portuguese culinary repertoire and remind myself of further delights. Fun as this may be, perhaps I should just take a holiday in the Algarve and experience the real deal once again!