Last fall I took a trip to Portugal with my husband and a few friends. My husband had a meeting in Lisbon, and the low cost of accommodations (and food!) meant we could stay a little longer and take some time to enjoy this beautiful country. I was deeply inspired by the food there; here are a few snapshots from one meal, and some thoughts on how it inspired me. Classic, rustic Portuguese food relies heavily on the freshness of ingredients. At this meal in Sintra, a small town west of Lisbon, we ate fresh fish that tasted like it had just been plucked from the ocean, along with potatoes that were so creamy and sweet. The potatoes served with nearly every traditional-style meal we ate in Portugal were invariably delicious — truly the best potatoes I've ever eaten. They were a simple dish, just boiled or steamed, but with a mild sweetness and not a hint of the green grittiness that afflicts so many potatoes here.
Traditional Portuguese cooking is also modest with its technique. Few dishes had complicated sauces or preparation; the octopus pictured above had been cleaned and thrown on the grill. Nothing more. It was tender inside, and crisp and crackling outside. A bit of salt and pepper was all it needed.
We also had a dish of fava beans in olive oil, cold mussels, and green caldo verde soup with kale and onions. And, as always in Portugal, the wine was liberally poured, and cheap. This is why I travel, when I can, I thought. The food was perfectly fresh and unfussy — it gave me a little window into the tastes and textures of another culture.
In the world of food-lovers, the cult of fresh, local, seasonal food can feel oppressive at times, fetishizing fresh at all costs (literally). But traveling and eating food that is truly fresh in that part of the world, and fresh for its own sake — simply because that is what is available and what is good — reminds me to stick to the basics in my own part of the world. Looking for fresh, local, seasonal food doesn't have to be a burden; it is an opportunity to know my own town and my own backyard even better.
But believe me, the second I can go back to Portugal I will. Look for more about Portugal this week and next; I have a couple of recipes I picked up in my travels there.
Have you ever visited Portugal? What do you remember most about the food there?
(Images: Faith Durand)