Location: Western Europe
Population: 10.3 million
Geography: A mainland of mountains and rolling plains on the Iberian Peninsula, and two Atlantic archipelagos (the Azores and Madeira)
Signature flavours: Seafood, potato, tomato, egg, piri piri, olives and olive oil, pork, pastry
Eric and I went to Portugal and the Azores in late fall 2018, and were enchanted by the landscape, culture, and FOOD. I venture to say that we ate better on our Portuguese holiday than any before it, filling our plates with olives, soft cheeses, roasted local seafood (a dozen different kinds of fish and shellfish), and melt-in-your-mouth custard-y pastries. In Lisbon, in particular, we fell in love with Forninho Saloio, a little restaurant that served up thick fillets of fish alongside plump roasted potatoes. I was thrilled to be assigned Portugal for the blog, but knew it would be hard to deviate from those dishes we tried and loved. So I didn’t. I got two of my recipes from the internet, and the other two from a Portuguese cookbook we picked up at the world-famous Livraria Lello bookstore in Porto.
Caldo Verde: Thick potato-and-kale (or cabbage) soup with slices of peppery chorizo (I used soy-based sausage).
Prep and cooking time: 45 min
Portuguese Cornbread: A soft, crumbly bread perfect with cheese, butter, or soup. I served mine with a selection of olives and a slab of hard Azorean cheese.
Prep and cooking time: 3.5 hours
Faial Stewed Octopus: Tender chunks of octopus stewed in olive oil with garlic, onions, and white and red wine, served alongside boiled potatoes and spiced with piri piri. This particular recipe hails from the Azorean island of Faial, but Eric and I enjoyed octopus all over Portugal.
Prep and cooking time: 25 min
Bispo: Meaning “bishop,” this sweet has a puff pastry base and is striped with lines of custard and coconut cream.
Prep and cooking time: 30 min
The Shopping List
I was a bit daunted by taking on Portuguese cuisine for one main reason: I expected part of what made our culinary experience in the Azores and mainland Portugal so outstanding was the quality of seafood, and I was sure Toronto seafood would be no match for it. Maybe for that reason alone, I shied away from the kind of simple fish and olive oil dishes that defined many of our meals. That said, I still needed good seafood for the stewed octopus, and I headed to St Lawrence Market in search of a tentacle-y treasure that would compare somewhat to the tender, juicy octopus we ate in Portugal. At Seafront Market, I found a beautiful specimen. St Lawrence also provided olives and a cheese from the island of São Jorge.
I really got lost in the cooking during this assignment, often forgetting to take pictures for posterity. I reminisced about Portugal while I kneaded cornbread, squeezed custard stripes onto puff pastry, and chopped legs off an octopus. All in all, I just really enjoyed the process of this assignment.
Eric was visibly enthused when he saw my Portuguese feast all laid out. We started with bread, olives, and the sharp Azorean cheese, then moved onto soup. Caldo verde prepared without chorizo is a little milder in flavour than the traditional stuff, but to me, anything potato-and-onion is comfort food. The vegetarian sausage that I put on top was a very nice substitute for real chorizo, and the kale added colour and crunch to an otherwise simple broth.
The octopus was a beautiful deep red after the wine boiled off, and the flavour was intense — I loved every bite. Admittedly, our Toronto-sourced octopus was not quite as tender as one plucked out of the sea six hours before mealtime, but it soaked up the flavours of garlic, onion, and two kinds of wine perfectly.
Bispo was my favourite pastry in Portugal. We discovered it at Nandinha Bakery in Porto — a recommendation from our AirBnB hostess — and ate it for breakfast more than a couple of times during our trip. I realize that custard tarts are the epitome of Portuguese baking, but having had the real thing from a bakery outside Lisbon, I didn’t even want to try. (Besides, in my probably-unpopular opinion, bispo is better.)
My bispo turned out really well. It was far easier to make than I expected, with the custard coming together in no time with just a little heat and stirring, and the stripes easy to lay down using a pastry bag. The bispo is a perfect marriage of butteriness and nuttiness, softness and crunch, and in fact, it was even tastier the next day.
Disclaimer: I’m not a professional chef. I’m just a passionate cook with a curiosity for flavours I’ve never tried. For great recipes from gifted local cooks, follow the links above.