Ode to an ugly fish
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and here at the Salty Cod we all abide by the same truth that the bacalhau is a fish of personality, and perhaps taste second. Personality and power, the little bugger has weaseled into this writers life enough to in one way or another lead her on a trip to a land where it is consumed like candy. The fish and blue tiles were my quest, one physical beauty and the other the beauty of notion. We wrap up the Portugal series with a note on this pivotal poisson; its importance to the Portuguese, to history, and to this crazy fish follower. 8 nights, 8 different dishes. Salty Cod readers, for the first time, I finally give you the cod fish.
For fear of fatuguiging you, my frail friends, 8 dishes will not be explained. I lie--you are my scapegoat, I merely cannot remember the names of all that I ate. But let us attempt. My first night in Porto I recall somewhat of a haze, alright I am here, I can do this, what am I doing what am I doing...dinner. Go find cod. The first bacalhau of Portugal was bacalhau com nada, meaning cod in a cream and cheese cassolette. Yes cheese and cream. Screw macaroni & cheese you have not tried this dish. Stew may appear filling, but this puts you in a coma. The half bottle of wine may have helped.
Day two: after accumulating two fellow solo travelers, Georgetown and Donut, we pass a rainy Porto evening at a port wine tasting bar tous ensembles, where believe it or not the language of the day was German. Donut, a Portland, Oregon native (go P. Northwest go!) is passing a year in Germany with a family as a stage year between high school and college, not that I have been looking for a surrogate sibling to replace my baby sister of the same age, but I now have a little brother in Porkland town, and a fellow jesu-what student at Georgetown. Pork, pork, the charming bar tender and wine expert (he is shortly off to a wine training school) was kind enough to not only give us free tapas (chouette!) for my eccentricity (I can not stay seated long when I have questions), but also a direction to his favorite restaurant of vrai Oporto cuisine--the Grémio doe Leitões, or what I rename the Couchonerie.
Reading the explication blurb on the menu (in French of course as I am a language snob) of the restaurant whose omnipresent decor is indeed a cute bubbling little bouncing pig (mmmm) in the form of statuettes, paintings, assiettes, and what have you, I become familiarized with the house specialty without too much effort: whole roasted suckling pig. The specialty, reads the menu, of the Mealhada in the Bairrada, the central region of Portugal. Well, I think to myself, perhaps cod can wait until another night, i should try the pig. But then I read farther down...comme quoi, la morue n'est pas la seule spécialité gastronomique Portugaise...as you can see, the cod fish isn't the only thing to Portuguese cuisine. Oh no you didn't. Waiter, I'll take the cod.
Good choice after the appetizer of octopus, tripe with butter beans, pig ears, gizzards, and mussels, all quite good accept the pig ears which resembled the act of chewing on a rubber bouncing ball. The bacalhau dish of the house: bacalhau com broa, cod with bread, which I had made special just for me. Excuse me senor, I can't eat wheat, can you make this bread dish without bread? I ask as i hand him my handy little yellow printout of Portuguese phrases to express such sentiments, kindly edited to perfection by bq. Hmmm, doente. That is my word. Of course he replies. What I received then, I am sure, was not bacalhau with bread, but an oven roasted hunk of cod, crisped potatoes (you thought the Irish liked potatoes) broccoli, and myriad other greens all floating in a little puddle of olive oil. Excellent. I suppose after all is said and done i did win over the waiter in the end, for my questions on food, geography, Portuguese language, the music playing in the background, etc kept him coming back for more, even once with a pile of CD's. Until my food grew cold. We the three are the very last of the evening to leave the restaurant, and before I depart i am given a little pink piggy jouette. How kind.
Day 3: lunch in villa nova de Gaia. Walking, walking, stop! This restaurant is named the Bacalhoeiro. Shall we. So many different bacalhaus to choose from! I'll take the Bacalhau à gomes de sá. Well, it was quite good. Next night! At the Restaurante Boa Nova, Georgetown takes bacalhau fritters and I the grilled cod. The waiter, who yet again i discern life story from (i'm not really a waiter, I'm in the Portugeuese airforce, I'm just helping my friend out here. It gives me something to do. alright.) informs me that I chose the most popular house dish. Shuetãu. Potatos, hard boiled eggs, olives, onions and broccoli seem to be making their appearance as accompanying ingredients to almost all bacalhau dishes. I begin to unravel Portuguese preference here. This one is one of those I believe I will prepare on my own.
How much more bacalhau can you take? How many times can I type the word is the question. let us break on our train ride for a detour to azulejos. Azulejo: blue tile. Porto, Lisbon, and all the cities in between are covered in blue tiles; some depicting stories and history, and others, just for the beauty of a blue tile. Found on building facades, government and historic structures, apartments, restaurants, toilets, clock towers, sidewalks, drains, street signs, train stations, churches, anywhere a tile can be placed, it will be. Not to mention dish ware and china. It is breathtakingly beautiful and calming. Blue and white, the characteristic color of calm and coolness. Bed sheets and blankets should be blue and white, curtains, couches, dishes, clothing--i am wearing a blue and white bathrobe as we speak (too much information? I apologize) I have been won by azulejos. Look for them surrounding the doorway of the Salty Cod, and bien sur all over my house that I will someday own.
Now, my souvenir if any from Portugal, would be (I premeditated) an Azulejo. Easy as pie you say, but you don't know the kind of pies i make. There are tiles, then there are tiles. Every crowded gaudy tourist shop carries the same cookie cutter formula stamped piece of crap. My word to you: don't buy them. Anything that comes with a hook for easy wall mounting is a clear sign of a no-no. There are many "upscale" tourist shops that peddle their reproduction hand painted azulejos for a pretty penny, these are do-able, unlike their made-in China cousins. However, it is not impossible to find a real azulejo. A real one? Yes. A real one chipped, battered, and merely just a random piece to the puzzle of the mural it has been disjointed from. A piece of a flower, a leg, a corner of a hat, these pieces are disoriented. Find them a home. Where can you find a tile from the 18th century as well? Look around, if you walk, you will find what you are looking for. Two tiles from the 1750's, and one silly depiction of the 1986 grape harvest. A good year I must say. I have my tiles. Don't touch.
For the bacalhau in Lisbon we will mention two dishes. The first, a treasure hunt for a hostel dinner not my own, and the second a gracious meal with a fellow food blogger and Lisbon native. Make a long story short: met some Australians in Porto, when they invariably became introduced to my cod quest, they invited me to a dinner at the hostel one works at in Lisbon cooked by the "best chef in Lisbon" alright, who can pass that up. Saturday at 5. Do you think they expected me to come? Well they don't know me. Saturday at 4 I ask João at the front desk of my hostel if he knew how to get to this other one. I dunno, let me skype them. (imagine that magical little skype sound) ok go straight up the hill, then down past that thing, then righta at the fnac, then take a left at rua st nicolas and it should be somewhere there. Obrgada João. An hour later im still walking in a circle around rua st nicolas. Where the hell is this place! I find the entrance to yet another hostel and decide to pop in. Hmm this one is nice, oh look theres a computer, I sit down and look up the address myself. Chouette! I smile at the man at the reception desk, no body questions blonds in white skirts. Hmm, i wonder how many hostels i can sneak into. One block down--here it is!
Hi, I am not staying at this hostel, I am just meeting a friend for dinner. What is his name? His name--I don't know. You don't know you're friends name? Well, no, but--look around doorway--he's right over there. Ah ok then! Were they surprised to see me? Probably, bacalhau girl no way! But the dinner truly was amazing. Bacalhau a bras, a dish which I will say in the end is my favorite bacalhau dish so far in life. Thinly sliced potatoes almost hash brown size (Americans call them match stick) , thin strips of bacalhau, strips of onions, olives and their oil, salt pepper, and i'm sure of a bay leaf all in a hash together and bound with egg. Pair that with a cucumber tomato gespacho and yet another fruit salad (this time with bananas though. ooh how i love bananas) and you have a well rounded home cooked meal seated around a bubbling table of many many foreigners.
For our last meal together in portugal, I save the best for last. I must now introduce you to Isabel, a fellow food blogger and Lisban native. I will plug her blog for her--she is the author, photographer, and chef of Cinco Quartos de Laranja, and now my foodie friend in Lisbon. I suggest you all take a peak at her blog (right now you'll catch a bit on pineapples) however it is written in Portuguese. But mallory, you say, you cannot read Portuguese. No,but I pretend and I am learning. Here is my advice: learning a language? Practice on something that is actually interesting to you. Isabel graciously offered to rendez vous with me for a dinner and discussion on all that is Portuguese cuisine.
How lucky in life I have become, I think to myself as I sit with Isabel at João do Grão Restaurante eating the house specialty of boiled cod and chickpeas along with the bubbly sweet vinho verde all followed by a baked apple in a sauce made from none other than port wine. It is quite a relief after many days of travel to finally be with someone who can speak to the waiter for you. After a conversation on food vocabulary, and a language lesson, we take a nigh time stroll of Lisbon and I am treated to a bit of history and explanation of the city from the eyes of a resident. Muito obrigada Isabel for everything, for the first time I feel like i am maybe doing something right. Am I a food writer?Am I really now part of the foodie blog group? Perhaps. As we part I am given a little present, a book on Portuguese cuisine to add to my 1000 receitas dos bacalhau I purchased at the fnac. I really do think I am one of the luckiest Americans living in Paris eating up Portugal. Thank you everyone who helped me on the trip, before, during, and after. Life, food, words are nothing without you.
It is necessary to understand that bacalhau is not a fish, not a dish, not a food to the Portuguese--I extend this to the Portuguese speakers of the world, ok I mean Brasil whose national dish is also bacalhau-- it is not that it is the most tasty thing one can make a thousand things from, it is hideously ugly, odorous, and a pill to hydrate from its dry state as all dishes are derived from, but what is important to the Portuguese is what bacalhau means. Ideas, stories, reasons behind food is what elevates food from being merely food. This food writer now tries to provide you with an equivalent analogy to this concept of bacalhau, perhaps the baguette? no. rice? no. pasta noodle? no. nothing. There is no equivalent to the bacalhau anywhere in the world, do not scoff, i do not deny that there are many foods important to cultures and creeds around the world, but not like this. The fish stands alone, still now I cannot remove its mystery shroud. How is it that this dried beastie found me? Luck I suppose, or chance. Things happen for reasons. This cod, I like to think, will take me somewhere someday. until then-
Até à pròxima & A bientôt