FOODS AND CULTURE OF PORTUGAL
Why are the Portuguese so similar to the Spanish and yet so distinctly different? Portugal and Spain share the Iberian Peninsula, and the Portuguese themselves are an ethnic mix of Iberian and Moorish (Moroccan) elements, as are the Spanish. Yet a range of jagged mountains isolates Portugal and causes her to turn inward on herself.
The Portuguese express their difference in many ways. There is the exuberant burst of song and dance that seems to be a part of any group of working Portuguese. Many writers describe the favorite Portuguese foods and drinks not merely as “favorites” but as “obsessions,” “passions,” or even “manias.” This innate intensity of feeling is a pan of every Portuguese. A cup of coffee or a glass of wine can become that obsession. Any one of the several hundred dishes made with salt cod (bacalao) may well be described as a passion. And the Portuguese delight in rich sweets does indeed border on a mania.
The same intensity of feelings appears again and again. The Portuguese ability to lose oneself temporarily in melancholia is called saudade and periodically surfaces, especially when in the atmosphere of a candlelit cafe and the soulful fado songs. The national love for artifice, ornament, and color satisfies itself in the Portuguese bullfight, religious parades, and festivities and even in architecture, especially that of the Manueline period.
On only two subjects does a Portuguese ever show the slightest signs of nonchalance or vagueness. These are the subjects of time and distance. After all, what does time matter, or even distance, so long as one is enjoying oneself?
Until the Middle Ages, Portugal and Spain did indeed share their destiny as part of the Iberian Peninsula. So it is not surprising that the Portuguese language hears many similarities to the Spanish and this is especially noted in the Spanish dialect in the provinces of Galicia and Asturias. Portuguese foods bear a distinct resemblance to many Spanish ones but veer off in combinations that the Spaniards would never dare.
The Portuguese are still influenced daily by Spanish customs such as the formalities observed in addressing strangers, the tendency to flamboyancy in the use of adjectives, and the rigid codes involving the dating and chaperoning of daughters. In Portugal as in Spain the main festivities of the year center around family and church, with each locale devoting special festivities and rites to local legends and saints.
Probably the earliest traders to touch and influence Portugal were the Phoenicians who brought with them the roots and twigs that stand to this day as craggy olive trees and rows upon rows of sprawling vineyards over the entire Iberian Peninsula. In the eighth century C.E. the Moorish Muslims swept northward from Morocco introducing rice culture, sugar plantations, and groves of lemon, almond, and fig trees as well as the persistent “mania” for rich sweet desserts. For the next several hundred years the land of Portugal was so often a part of Spain in many seesaw battles, that Spanish tastes, traditions, and customs melted into Portuguese.
Portugal’s Golden Age of the 1400s and 1500s was preceded by a period of calamities. In 1346 a massive earthquake occurred in Lisbon. Two years later plague ravaged the country and it was said that “six bodies were buried in every grave.” A heat wave in 1354 scorched crops and killed cattle. About the same time, Spain was gripped with the evils of the Inquisition while tales of monsters in the seas and the flatness of the world were told and retold.
Yet from the calamities, evils, and superstitions of the times, one man dared to set a different pace and launched Portugal as one of the great world powers. With the intensity so typical of his people, Prince Henry son of King Joao I, and later known simply as Henry the Navigator, set up a planned system of navigation, dispelled the fantasies of the times with scientific facts, and launched a sailing craft called the caravel.
The caravel won such a reputation for reliability that for several hundred years it was believed only a Portuguese-built ship could navigate African waters successfully. Inspired and encouraged by Henry the Navigator, Portuguese adventurers and explorers relentlessly searched for new routes and discovered the Madeiras and the Azores, acquired parts of Morocco and Africa, and under Bartholomew Dias opened a sea route to the Orient in 1487.
Portuguese daring and expertise of the seas shine in names that are legends today: Vasco da Gama, Pedro Alvarez Cabral, Ferdinand Magellan. The Portuguese were among the first to visit Labrador (which they mistook for a part of Greenland) and named it alter a captain who was called “Lavrador,” meaning “farmer.” It was they who brought back tales of seas so laden with fish that the ships could scarcely move. To this day the “beef of the sea” are the great catches of fresh cod later to be salted and dried in Portugal and cooked in hundreds of dishes. The bacalao, one of Portugal’s passions, is still found, but in diminishing quantities, in the North Atlantic seas.
Portuguese explorers revolutionized the taste buds and markets of Europe. They brought back gold and diamonds from Brazil as well as pineapples, corn, potatoes, squash, pumpkin, tomatoes, tiny fiery chilies, and beans of many types. From African ports they loaded their ships with yams, cocoa, and vanilla pods. Vasco da Gama’s crews – at least those who survived the scourge of scurvy – became rich beyond dreams. The black pepper they brought back from India is said to have alone financed churches, monasteries, and street widening, and made Manuel I one of Portugal’s richest kings. With the pepper selling at more than sixty times its cost, Lisbon became a commercial center, one that could well afford the flamboyant ornate architecture that came to be called “Manueline.”
The audacity of Portugal’s seafaring adventurers and the merchandising skills of the Jews who had fled to Portugal to escape the Spanish Inquisition were factors that quickly led Lisbon to the title of the world’s leading commercial capital. But the Inquisition spilled over Portugal’s borders and Manuel was forced to threaten expulsion of the Jews unless they were willing to change their faith and become conversos.
Portugal lost much of its vital merchandising middle class when many Jews left Lisbon. Portugal was further weakened in the 1500s with the growth of French, Danish, Dutch, Swedish, and English fleets, who “cut their slices of East India cake and New World pie,” effectively breaking the Portuguese monopoly of the seas.
Only the areas of Africa and Brazil were left open to Portuguese traders who once again revolutionized European tastes and social life with the gradual introduction of a new beverage called coffee and a new institution called the coffeehouse.
Despite Portugal’s decline as a world power in the late 1500s, her successful diplomatic trade with China cannot be overlooked. Of all the world sea powers, the Portuguese were the first to reach China, to settle in Macao, and to set up a viable volume of trade that lasted unchallenged for more than 300 years. Elegant Chinese goods of porcelain, lacquer, and silks were traded for silver and furs from North America and sandalwood from the Hawaiian Islands. From China came oranges, limes, peaches, walnuts, and coriander. And, while the Portuguese passion for wine and coffee continues unabated to this day, there is still a place for tea on the Portuguese menu. Originating from her trade with China, the Portuguese call tea cha, a name hauntingly reminiscent of its origin, for the Chinese call their tea ch’a.
Portugal may have declined as a world power in the annals of history but the products she brought back and the instigation of sea adventure that she nurtured still deeply affect the tables of the world and are still reflected in the agriculture and cuisine of her own land. Today Portugal is almost self-sufficient in grains, fruits, and vegetables.
But despite a rich harvest of fresh fish and seafood, the Portuguese still passionately manage to consume salted and dried cod at the rate of 100 pounds per person per year. Northern Portugal’s cuisine and language still reflect the tastes and ties of Brazil, from crusty white bread and fine coffee, to piri-piri, that fiery little hot pepper that becomes a favored seasoning for fowl or seafood when ground and blended with oil. And southern Portugal’s Algarve district still leans heavily on Moorish cuisine: almonds in so many dishes and as a sweetmeat, and crusty whole wheat bread to mop up sauces in the Moroccan style.
Said to be prepared in at least 365 different ways (one for each day of the year), bacalao was introduced into Portugal in the early 1400s as a result of barter with the English.
English fishermen gathered huge catches of cod off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, salting and drying the fish for preservation. With little market for the cod in Great Britain, the English tried elsewhere and so began to barter with the Portuguese – a coarse red Portuguese wine for dried salted cod. The English called the wine “Red Portugal.” This early trade formed the basis for strong English-Portuguese ties and is known to this day, some 500 years later, as the Port Wine trade.
There is a story of the sons of a Liverpool wine merchant who journeyed to Portugal to select wines firsthand and decided to add a “dollop of brandy” to the kegs to fortify the wine for its journey to England. The fortified wine is said to be the origin of port wine. There may be some debate about the story but there is no debating the English taste for port wine. The Methuen government in 1703 agreed to allow Portuguese wine to enter England at a lower tariff than French wines in exchange for Portuguese importation of English wools.
In 1756, Prime Minister Pombal laid down strict rules in regard to the growth and production policies of port wine. These policies form the basis of the rules today. During the next 200 years, Portugal was to suffer through the Napoleonic Wars, which left the Portuguese with a taste for French furniture and French silver; through Brazil’s formation of an autonomous republic in 1889, but with no diminution of the Portuguese passion for coffee; and through the grim years between 1910 and 1926 when it is said that the Portuguese “averaged one revolution and three governments a year.” The Portuguese port wine trade was still so important after 200 years that it was considered Portugal’s sole stable institution when Dr. Antonio de Oliviera Salazar took the job of prime minister in 1932 and ruled for 36 years.
Beneath the rumblings and political upheavals, the Portuguese people have remained steadfastly absorbed in the intensity of life itself and with their passions, obsessions, and manias for food and drink, and for work and play.