Portugal & Spain

PIGGILIOUS! A day in the Monchique mountains

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What do you do when friends and family visit from the United Staes of America? Take them to a pig farm in the remote mountains of the Serra de Monchique, of course!

These are no ordinary visitors or tourists – simply not content to idle away hours on the beautiful beaches of the Portuguese Algarve coast or meander through the cobbled streets and alleyways of the historic town of Lagos, nor browse the  tourist boutiques and bars; so we went in search of the famous Iberian black pig. And we found them, hundred and hundreds of them, wallowing contentedly in thick, gooey mud.

The drive from Lagos in the western Algarve took us away from the densely  populated coastal plain and within a few minutes the scenery changed dramatically as we weaved our way slowly up the hill side, passing cafés, restaurants, fruit sellers and pottery shops. The A266 bends and twists through areas of densely wooded pine and eucalyptus forest, then as the road turns, opens up from time to time to display magnificent valleys, lush and inviting, with small white washed buildings and quintas (farms)  scattered in random fashion. It was, for the most part, a relaxing and enjoyable drive, except for the presence of a few sun-baked drivers clearly blessed with the ability to see around blind bends otherwise I am sure they wouldn’t have been reckless enough to undertake some of the death-defying manoeuvres we witnessed!

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After fifty minutes or so, we reached the small spa town of Monchique, famous for its carbonated spring waters, rich in sodium and fluoride and known to aid respiratory, bone, muscular and digestive problems. High above sea level, yet only twenty kilometres from the coast, it has been a spa resort since Roman times. These days, however, Monchique is well-known for its handicrafts, production of Medronho, a liquor made from the fruits of the arbutus (strawberry) tree, honey and products from the black pig.

Our guests were not interested in handicrafts, nicknacks or traditional souvenirs, so we continued our journey (comfortably secured into the mini-bus they’d hired), leaving the town of Monchique behind us and took a road that climbed steeply and deeper into the lush vegetation. On previous visits to the area and being ‘foodies’ ourselves, we had recalled noticing a sign for a producer of traditional sausages and cured hams and, therefore, my husband Peter was intent on following the trail. The single track, pot-holed dusty road weaved precariously as we clung to the hillside and negotiated a couple of hairpin bends. Peter, the nominated driver, struggled in places to keep the engine engaged as he changed down into low gear to propel the heavy people-ladened vehicle slowly up the narrow incline. There was a point at which, due to mounting fear for our safety, I was going to suggest we abandon the quest (not that there were any places to make a u-turn) but thankfully I held my tongue, because as we rounded a corner, the road widened and in front of us was a welcome sign of life and the distinctive odour of pig. A proud sign proclaiming ‘Enchidos e Presuntos Tradicionais’ and a warm welcome from the owner, who by luck, was in the courtyard, confirmed that our journey would be worth it.

Climbing out of our air-conditioned wagon, the sultry heat of the mid morning sun combined with the pungent smell of the livestock caught our senses. The patron, who introduced himself as Antonio Duarte, had kindly offered to give us a tour of the farm and show us the line of production. We were all thrilled and delighted that our mission would be accomplished. Amongst our jolly party, we had three wine makers, a cheese maker and two producers of cured meats and sausages all of whom were keen to experience and learn about the traditional processes used in Portugal. Other members of the group were just happy to savour the results!  DuarteSo we began our tour with a slow walk up a dusty hillside track from which we could catch glimpses of the town below to be greeted by droves of penned black pigs languishing happily in sodden mud.

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Donning shoe protectors, hair nets and plastic aprons, we were invited into the inner sanctum of the factory as Senhor Duarte described to us how they produce their delicious fayre by adhering to age old traditions. It is a long established family business and Antonio works alongside his mother Idália and other siblings. They are enormously proud of the history and quality of their produce and it is plain to feel the joy and passion that exudes from his very being. We learn about the lengthy process of producing cured hams and how the traditional sausages are smoked. The mixture of herbs in the recipé is, of course, not divulged but we are given a clue and can taste the presence of cinnamon.

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Following a tasting of the products and a little retail therapy, the over-riding feeling I had when we left was one of great enthusiasm – Senhor Duarte loves what he does and is fiercely proud. The man radiated a passion for the product – producing the best, without compromise, is paramount. It all starts, for him, with the well-being of his animals. They are not fed with chemicals and this is evident in the taste and quality of the end product. Intelligent and poignant questions were posed from those in our party with a knowledge of the process and it was endorsed that many of the mass produced products sold more cheaply in the supermarkets and cleverly branded are simply not the same. It is the old adage – you get out what you put in and what you pay for!

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Smoking the sausages

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And then the best part – the tasting – those lovely, happy ‘plumptious’ pigs did not die in vain and all the efforts and skills of Senhor Duarte, his mother, siblings and ancestors have not be fruitless. We feasted!


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For some time now, I have been interested in the role that preparing and sharing food has played over the centuries in uniting people by providing opportunities for effective communication. We can learn a lot about other countries and their cultures through food – their methods and rituals for preparing and sharing meals. I believe that a harmonious family life often starts at the table. Taking time to prepare a meal can be an act of love or solicitude. Sharing a meal with family, friends or colleagues provides time to talk about the events of the day, school, work, worries, achievements and our relationship with others. If we learn to communicate, from an early age at home, we will communicate better at work, at school and in the wider world – if there is harmony in the home, there will be order in the nation and if there is order in the nation, there is a greater chance of peace in the world. Perhaps, some might say that I am being too simplistic or optimistic; but I reckon it’s not a bad ethos to have, or place to start, in creating a better world in which to live and bring up our children!

With this in mind, during December 2014, I was privileged to spend a few hours in the company of Aljezur International School’s Portuguese housekeeper, Dona Ilda – a vivacious lady with a wealth of stories and anecdotes to tell about Portugal’s old traditions. I asked her to talk to me about Portuguese cuisine in general and, as we were approaching the festive season, the traditional foods served at Christmas time as I wanted to write an article for my blog site. To my delight, she went a step further and suggested that, together, we prepare a typical meal to be shared with the children and staff of the school. What a treat I had in store! We set a date and then we cooked and we talked and I was enchanted by her tales of how the preparation and sharing of food was so integral to the harmony of community life, especially in poor rural regions, not only at Christmas but throughout the year.

Portuguese food is, in general, simple but flavoursome. The yields of the sea and land are plentiful and, therefore, no one has ever had to starve. Dona Ilda told us that, at the end of a hard day’s toil on the land, the workers and their families would join together (sometimes as many as fifty or sixty people), each contributing towards the meal that would be cooked communally over an open fire in large cauldron-like pots. These meals served as soups or stews, would contain a variety of regional and seasonal vegetables, chicken, pork, goat, lamb or rabbit. Fairly copious quantities of locally made wine would also accompany the meal. It was believed to invigorate the body, ward off colds, relax the mind and warm the soul! In days of very old, even the children were sent to school with a tipple of warmed red wine and a chunk of bread to help them on their journey. Christmas called for some dishes a little more special and menus, such as the one we prepared and feasted upon, would often comprise of cod fish and potato cakes, a traditional soup containing cod, a mixed meat and vegetable stew, shellfish and game, rice with black pork chorizo followed by a dessert of creamed rice made with lots of sugar, eggs and vanilla.

If we are fortunate enough to experience the traditions of another country and partake of their hostility, then we are genuinely blessed. Sharing and learning to share is so important to social development. Academic studies have shown that sharing food nurtures altruism within our society; opening the door to a more cohesive and tolerant community. Sharing food makes people think about fairness. For example – Do I get as much as everyone else at the table? Who is being served first? Sometimes, I can’t take as much as I would like to!  Perhaps, we should share meals more often, as families and communities did in days of old. Our burgeoning dependance on communication through mobile phones and social media is potentially destructive to harmonious integration within society. Most of us ‘share’ daily through social media; perhaps we could learn to communicate more effectively and share more across the table. Food for thought!

I left the school ‘family’ and Dona Ilda’s infectiously bubbly company with a warm feeling and high spirits. Aljezur International School is a truly international union of children and teachers from different countries and cultures around the world. The school instills the values of tolerance and respect which underpin harmony and an environment conducive to learning. Mobile phones are banned during the school day and the lunch break is a time for social ‘sharing’. Hallelujah! Share this joy!!


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Sweet ‘Potato’ Sensation!

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Living close to Aljezur in Portugal’s Algarve, where the townsfolk have just celebrated the annual “Festival da Batata-Doce”, I felt the need to make my own contribution. The sweet potatoes grown in the region surrounding Aljezur are of such high quality that they have been officially recognised as a product with protected designation of origin. A bit like a Bordeaux fine wine or Cheddar cheese! Don’t be fooled into thinking that all sweet potatoes are the same! The sweet potatoes of the Aljezur region owe their particularly fine attributes to the sand layers in the soil together with underlying clay and the local climatic conditions. The festival celebrates the importance of the ‘batata-doce’ to the region with a variety of ‘gourmet’ recipes being produced, using this rather ugly looking tuber with a brown and purple skin, which can be baked, boiled or grilled and served as a sweet or savoury dish.

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Sweet potato (batata-doce) baked in it’s skin. Delicious with a knob of salty butter!

My recipe is based on using 70% sweet potatoes with 30% of a waxy white potato. Scientific research shows that sweet potatoes have great health benefits. The orange flesh is a good source of beta-carotene which has been shown to raise blood levels of vitamin A. They are also a good source of vitamin B6 which is linked to the prevention of heart attacks; and vitamin C, important in warding off cold and flu viruses. I have also read that it can produce collagen which helps to maintain youthful looking skin! I need all the help I can get, therefore, this is definitely a vegetable that I will be eating a lot more of!

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Sweet potatoes are delicious baked simply in their skins; but I have decided to create something a little different by combining some other flavours and textures in with the combination of potatoes. Lots of garlic gives it a good pungent aroma, finely chopped red peppers for colour and added sweetness, Spring onions for a touch of sharpness and bacon pieces for their salty and smokey contribution. The light crumble top gives texture and a salty bite! The combination, is simply sensational!

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Pan fry in olive oil, the garlic, torchino/smoked bacon, sweet red pepper and Spring onions. Season well.

Peel the sweet and waxy white potatoes (just about a kilo in total) and boil them in a pan of salted water until soft enough to mash with milk and butter. In the meantime, pan-fry, in olive oil, the sliced garlic (3 or 4 cloves),  sliced red peppers (1 pepper – deseeded), bacon pieces (100g) and 3 sliced Spring onions. When softened set aside until the potatoes are mashed and ready. Mix the pan-fried vegetables into the potato mash and place in an oven dish. Using a little over a half packet of ‘tuc’ biscuits, place these in a food bag and crush into crumb form. Mix with approximately 100g of butter to produce a ‘crumble’. Sprinkle the crumble over the potato mixture and bake in a preheated oven at 180 degrees centigrade for 20/25 minutes. To accompany, I made some simple meatballs with a mixture of beef and pork and seasoned them with oregano, salt and pepper. Bom Apetite!

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Bom Apetite!!


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Stuffed Squid with Garlic & Roasted Red Peppers

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This is amazingly easy, but just a little ‘fiddley’, to prepare! The ‘fiddley’ part is the stuffing of the squid, but I have concocted a method to hold the end of the squid tube open; and that is by using the large open ring of a piping nozzle.

I love this meal at lunch time (ten squid tubes like the ones pictured here are perfect for two) – it’s light (so long as one is not tempted to mop up all the delicious juices with wedges of crusty bread), healthy and will unquestionably tantalise your taste buds. The roasted red pepper zings with colour and sweetness; the squid is tender and succulent and the stuffing can vary, depending on the ingredients you fancy. I find being good difficult and often can’t resist the temptation of dunking chunks of freshly baked bread into the scrumptious oily, peppery, salty, garlicky sauce. It’s utterly Mediterranean and could only improve, if polished off with a chilled glass of white or rose wine!!

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Pre-cooking. The squid cleaned, de-veined and stuffed.

I bought fresh squid with the tentacles attached, which for this recipe, I removed. It is important also to remove the translucent spine – this is quite easy and just needs a firm tug. For the stuffing, I simply mixed couscous (just follow the instructions on the packet) with finely chopped garlic, red peppers and sultanas. Once these ingredients were combined with the couscous, I mixed in a few drops of olive oil, a good pinch of sea salt and freshly ground pepper. I filled the squid (this is a little time consuming and can be ‘fiddley’) by using the nozzle of a piping bag without any attachments. Once filled, a wooden tooth-pick was used to secure the squid tubes. I chopped a red pepper into pieces and placed them in an oven dish with the prepared squid and sprinkled them with some more finely chopped garlic. Finally, I drizzled over a good quality olive oil (making sure that everything was well coated), then added a generous pinch of sea salt and a good twist or two of ground pepper. Covered with tin foil and baked in a preheated oven – 180 degrees centigrade for 20 minutes, before removing the foil and baking for a further 5 to 10 minutes to brown.


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Espiche Golf Club & Restaurant – Serendipity!

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Bumpety, bumpety, bump – avoid pot hole! Bumpety, bumpety, bump – veer around more pot holes – avoid oncoming traffic – bumpety, bumpety, bump!!!  Turn right – aahhh, carpet road!! We are nearly there! And, believe me – you are entering nirvana – it’s worth the jerky journey.

Take the road inland from the village of Espiche, west of Lagos – Portugal that is, not Nigeria. However, such is the state of the road that takes you to the golf club, that one might be forgiven for thinking they had been captured by bandits, drugged and deposited on a bush road between shanty towns. This is not the case, the camara (town council) have it’s repair high on their priority list (ha,ha) so, for the time being, follow signs for Barao de Sao Joao and Espiche Golf. Turning right, you enter a private estate (yet to be built out) – follow the directional signs – and the magnificent structure of the club-house will appear, sitting proudly on a hillock, surrounded by gently undulating bush and woodland.

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A magical modern day castle, perching on a hillock!

It really is extraordinarily magical, a modern day castle, that rises imposingly from the surrounding scrubland, burnt russet-red soil and contrasting manicured grasses of the fairways and greens. Appearing like an oasis on the horizon, it is a most welcome watering hole to the golfers who have challenged and conquered or been conquered by the course. Designed, created and nurtured with love, the course improves, mellows and matures with each passing month. Now, I must add at this stage, I am no authority on such things – I am a novice golfer having ‘hacked’ around the course on a handful of occasions, but I listen to others and to my son Jonathan, all of whom are infinitely more qualified to judge. And the current verdict is very good given the course is still in its infancy.

Working in tandem, the restaurant, conjures magical menus on a daily basis, satiating the appetites of hungry golfers and visitors, with no particular interest in the game of golf, but who have made an excursion (along the lumpy, bumpety road) to enjoy the awesome views and sample for themselves the burgeoning reputation of the chef’s food. The Espiche golf and restaurant teams are a joy to encounter – helpful, courteous and welcoming. We are regular patrons of the clubhouse, visiting early evening, to enjoy a ‘sundowner’ or two while relaxing on one of the elevated terraces that wrap the building. The vista is glorious with unbroken panoramic views stretching to the horizon in all directions. The atmosphere is genial and I can think of no better way to relax after a challenging game of golf, a stressful day in the office or at home with the children; or simply – just because you can! The facility is open to all of us, so why not enjoy it?

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The menu is tastefully simple but sufficient. The quality and presentation of the dishes are ‘tip-top’, in accordance with all things at this club. I am not normally a ‘burger’ person, but I can’t resist the super size succulent homemade beef burger that is served between wedges of juicy tomatoes, crunchy lettuce and a soft seeded bun – accompanied by the best potato chips that I have ever, ever had!! How bold is that statement? Now, you will need to go and try them yourself. I could also recommend several of the other dishes, but worthy of special note are the Argentinean steaks and the generously portioned chicken Caesar salad. In addition, there is a ‘dish of the day’ – carefully chosen and created to make the most of seasonal produce. In accord with the food, the choice of wines are meritorious, distinctive and very well priced. Great care has been given to the selection process by sourcing wines of originality and refinement. Ribafreixo, a boutique winery located in the heart of the Alentejo region supply their award winning wines to the restaurant. The house wine is Gaudio (red and white) and it is exceptional – the quality greatly surpasses the price. My tipple, produced by the same winery is the Connections Chenin Blanc – made from a grape variety not normally found in Portugal. If wine is your passion (as, you might have guessed, is mine) or you just appreciate a good glass of wine at a sensible price, then you have another incentive to place this venue at the top of your ‘must visit’ destinations.

Everything about Espiche Golf Club – the course (which will just go on improving as it matures – like good wine!), the clubhouse and the restaurant ooze class, refinement and sophistication. The attention to detail has been meticulous and it shows – from the fancy soap dishes in the ladies changing rooms (I can’t speak for the men’s facilities) to the plush leather sofas on the upper floor sitting rooms; from the quality glass and tableware in the restaurant to the state-of-the-art equipment on the course – nothing has been spared or left to chance. I feel enormously fortunate to have this wonderful facility on my doorstep and am pleased to share this serendipitous find with everyone. May those who inspired its creation, the designers, architects, investors and staff all reap their just rewards.


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Salt Cod (Bacalhau) with Rough Mashed Potatoes and Cream

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Dried salt cod (Bacalhau) is, unarguably, the most outstanding ingredient in Portuguese cuisine. The tradition of drying and salting this fish dates back to the 15th century and was/is a method of preservation. Caught in the cold wild seas of the North Atlantic, the fish was salted in the hold of the ship and kept, sometimes, for many months or years. Given salt cod is not caught off Portuguese shores, it is bizarre that it became such an important part of Portugal’s food culture. On average, a Portuguese person eats around 10kg of dried salted fish per year and it is the main ingredient served in celebration at Christmas. It is used in hundreds of dishes and can be cooked in a multitude of ways; but I have chosen one of my favourite methods –  known in Portugal as bacalhau com nata (cod with cream)! I state now, that it is my recipe! The Portuguese are very possessive about their cuisine and I know that one of the cooks that I worked with in my restaurant, here in Portugal, would have raised her eyebrows ….. and more. Forgive me, Cristina!

 

All supermarkets here sell bacalhau or dried salt cod. In its preserved state, it looks quite unappetising. Miracles happen after soaking in water as the meat starts to take on its original form.

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I always ask the fishmonger to cut the fish for me into pieces easier to soak in a pan.

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It is important to soak the fish for at least 2 days, changing the water regularly.

Remove the fish from the water, rinse and place in a baking dish. Cover with milk or a mix or milk and water; seal the tray with foil and bake in the oven for 40 minutes at 180 degrees centigrade. Remove the dish from the oven – be careful when peeling the foil off (steam’s hot!) – remove the cod from the liquid and allow to cool.


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Thick flakes of juicy cod.

The white meat will flake away very easily. For me the next part is very important!! Take time to remove any bones – I pick over the meat fastidiously – as I know that my son would down knife and fork instantly on unearthing any offending item.

Follow the recipe below to create the creamy sauce – and then combine all the components. Serve with buttered carrots. It’s absolutely fishilicious!!


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Add the vegetables to the pan and simmer until softened

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Serve with cracked black pepper and buttered carrots!

Bacalhau (salt cod) with vegetables and cream

Prep Time: 30 Mins Cooking Time: 40 Mins Total Time: 1 Hour 20 Mins

Ingredients:

  • 4 tbsp of olive oil
  • 3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 sticks of celery, thinly sliced
  • 1 large leek, thinly sliced
  • 2 carrots, thinly sliced
  • I cup of fish stock
  • bacalhau, soaked, cooked and flaked – discarding the skin and bones
  • bunch of parsley, chopped
  • a knob of butter
  • 200ml of cream
  • 600/700g of potatoes
  • salt (be cautious as the fish will be salty, despite soaking)
  • pepper

Directions:

  1. In a large deep pan, add the olive oil.
  2. Add the garlic, celery, leek and carrot.
  3. Add a pinch of salt and pepper.
  4. Cook for 5 minutes and add the fish stock. (I make stock in batches and freeze it like ice cubes)
  5. Simmer until the vegetables soften. Add a splash of water if the mixture becomes too thick.
  6. While the sauce is simmering, boil the potatoes. When cooked add a knob of butter and rough mash the potatoes. Set aside.
  7. Add the cream to the sauce and mix together.
  8. Gently fold in the flaked fish, rough mashed potatoes and parsley.
  9. You can serve the meal at this stage (carrots are a great accompaniment) or transfer to an oven proof dish, sprinkle the top with some grated cheese and bake for 10 minutes at about 180/190 degrees centigrade.
  10. Enjoy!

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Fish Pasta – Paulo’s recipe!

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Last night we feasted heartily on two plump sea bass (see my previous post), but the quantity of meat yielded, meant that there was enough over for a recipe that I had wanted to try following a ‘foodie’ conversation with a young Portuguese waiter that works in the restaurant at our local golf club in Espiche. He is enormously enthusiastic about food and flavours and, for his young years (to me, anyone under 40 is young), he really knows his stuff! He recounted to me how he gained this knowledge and appreciation of food and flavour combinations while working alongside his mother and grandmother. It is unusual to find a young person these days with such a joyous passion for food and, therefore, I wanted to share his recipe!

Like many Portuguese recipes, it’s quite simple to prepare and therefore, simply healthy and delicious. Using fresh ingredients, the flavours marry together very well. I served a bowl to my son (photographed below) at lunchtime – he is always hungry – and he loved it! What a fabulous way to use up the leftovers! Thank you Paulo for the inspiration!

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“Hey Mum, I’m eating! Promise you won’t publish that photo!” – “Of course not, Jonathan!”

 

 

Paulo’s Portuguese Fish Pasta

Ingredients:

  • 500g (approx), white fish (cod) or salmon – baked and flaked
  • 500g Penne pasta (fresh is best) 
  • 1 red onion chopped
  • 1 large sweet red pepper, chopped
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 3 large tomatoes, chopped
  • A good squeeze of tomato paste
  • 2 tablespoons of Portuguese Moscatel Wine (or Vermouth)
  • Small bunch of coriander
  • Salt and Pepper
  • 1 fresh lemon
  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil

Directions:

  1. For this recipe, I used some sea bass that I had cooked the previous night. Any white fish or salmon fillet can be used. Just wrap in foil with butter and salt and bake for 15/20 mins at 180 degrees centigrade. Flake, removing any bones and set aside.
  2. In a saucepan, bring salted water to the boil in preparation for the pasta.
  3. In a large frying pan add the olive oil, onion, pepper, garlic and tomatoes. Simmer for 5 minutes. Add salt and pepper, tomato paste and the Moscatel wine.
  4. Simmer until the vegetables are soft and the liquid reduces a little.
  5. While this is simmering, put the pasta into the boiling water and cook until soft.
  6. Gently mix the cooked fish into the sauce.
  7. Drain the cooked pasta and top with the fish sauce.
  8. Garnish with fresh coriander and a squeeze of lemon. 
  9. Optional – a good twist of sea salt and ground pepper.

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Almond, Fig & Carob Cake – a real taste of Portugal

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The countryside that surrounds us is plentiful in its bounty and naturally glorious! I love foraging along rugged tracks in search of goodies to take home and cook. Under an azure sky – our summer seems endless – we are blessed to be able to profit from God’s ‘free’ larder. Despite the earth’s exposed red rocky soil and sun scorched pastures, the trees and hedgerows are heavy with fruit. Southern Portugal at the start of September is a good corner of the world to be living in; and I am grateful for this little piece of Eden in a world burdened with the weight of wars and discord. I try not to take my blessings for granted and just pray that more nations can share the harmony and peace, in which I am privileged to live.

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Under an azure sky, we gathered carobs from the ladened trees at Espiche Golf Course.

In search of ingredients to make a most delicious Portuguese speciality, my husband and I incorporated dog walking and a game of golf with costless shopping. I should mention here – in case anyone from the club stumbles upon this post – that we did not walk the dogs on the course! We’d be hung, drawn and quartered for committing such a heinous crime on cherished turf! We may have been guilty of slow play (much to the extreme annoyance of our son, Jonathan, who takes the game very seriously and only graces us with his company under extreme duress or bribery) as we took time to fill two carrier bags with carob pods. The golf course has  numerous carob trees and, at this time of year, they are heavily burdened with rich chocolate coloured pods.

Early on Sunday, before breakfast and the inevitable fierce rays of the sun which will penetrate the clear brilliant blue sky before mid morning, we headed out of the village with two eager dogs to gather a few fresh figs, almonds and quinces. Our mutts, Georgie and Ulrika, are like coiled springs in anticipation of their daily outing – running across open scrub land, searching out new scents in the hope of hunting down some unsuspecting prey. For Georgie, it is a dream. She has no hope of catching anything. A tortoise would have an even chance! She lumbers in search of windfall figs while Ulrika sprints and bounces like a greyhound. They are great companions to us and each other and give much pleasure. In return, we supply pats, comfortable beds, bones and …… above all, food!

The hedgerows and open meadows are bursting with fruit and we quickly filled our bags with ripe green figs, last year’s almonds still protected in their hard husky shells and ugly yellow quinces which will produce the most fragrant jelly. It is better than any supermarket – no one to jostle you, ram you with a trolley, no need to queue at a checkout and, best of all, no need to pay.

Armed with all the ingredients necessary to bake a great Portuguese speciality, I headed to the kitchen. Using the carob pods I produced the powder by breaking them open, discarding the hard seeds and grinding the pods to produce the powder. Carob is deemed healthier than chocolate powder, so no guilt issues when indulging in a second or third slice! I produce my own carob powder because I have the pods in plentiful supply, but knowing the same privilege is not available to those living on the King’s Road, the product can easily be sourced in supermarkets.

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A deliciously moist almond, fig & carob cake!

I am reliably informed that this Portuguese speciality complements a glass of Medronho (fire water) and a small strong black coffee (bica). Medronho is a strong spirit – usually distilled to around 48% alcohol. The berries are picked from a tree of the same name and are usually found growing wild. The drink is very popular with farmers and fishermen and is often drunk at breakfast to wake the spirits! It’s not for me – I’ve no idea what my spirits might get up to if I consumed this at the break of day – but I might be tempted to a little slice of almond, fig and carob cake with my coffee!!

Fig, Almond and Carob Cake

Prep Time: 30 Mins Cooking Time: 35 Mins

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup of plain flour
  • 1 cup of light brown sugar
  • 2 tbsp honey
  • 1 cup of carob powder
  • 1/2 cup oatmeal
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 cup of chopped almonds
  • 1 cup of chopped figs
  • 1 cup of milk
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • 1 tbsp confectioner’s sugar to dust

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 355 degrees fahrenheit / 150 degrees centigrade.
  2. In a bowl, separate the whites from the yolks. Beat the egg whites into a creamy and even consistency. Set aside.
  3. Mix together the flour, oatmeal, baking powder, carob powder, sugar and honey.
  4. add the olive oil, almonds, figs and milk.
  5. Add the egg yolks to the mixture and then fold in the whites.
  6. Pour the mixture into a greased baking tray.
  7. Bake for 35 minutes.

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Atlantic Croaker

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This post is published a little late! Travel back in time a just three weeks please!

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Here he is before his meeting with the oven ……..

I needed inspiration for dinner. It’s August (the coast is teeming with tourists) and it’s warm here in Portugal (high 30’s), so didn’t want to prepare anything too heavy. I have also been lacking in energy but feel guilty for being sloth-like! In an effort to summon some inspiration, I took a drive to the fish markets in Lagos, in the hope that something would catch my eye. And it did!! On the quay, there are several seafood specialists, one of which I ambled into – it was humming with activity – and had, in tanks or on display a colourful array of shrimps, prawns, crabs, percebes (barnacles), crawfish, oysters, clams and lobster. Ummhh, I thought! Fresh lobster would be a real treat. Determined to hold my place in the queue (ha! no-one forms an orderly queue on the continent), feet in flip-flops firmly planted to the wet and slimy fish-gut floor, I was spurred on by the price the lady in front of me (Portuguese) had just paid for three lively lobsters of a very respectable size! I was envisaging the dish – prawns and crab claws, topped with a regal lobster, salad and new potatoes – we would enjoy that very evening on the terrace, enjoying the warm summer air, a glass of Chablis or two to help the prized meats slip down while listening to the melodic sound of crickets and birdsong!

No more inspirational shopping for me . . . . we’ll not in August anyway! Driving away from the port in my oven-like car, I headed straight to the counter of my usual fish supplier in town. Confident in the knowledge that his displayed prices were for everyone, I selected a handsome Atlantic Croaker (Corvina in Portuguese).

 Who Needs Lobster?

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And here he is ready to be feasted upon …………..

Who needs lobster? This fine fish did not disappoint us with his sweet flaky white meat. Stuffed with lemon butter, garlic and fresh dill, then sealed in foil and baked in the oven – he fed three of us very generously. The local new potatoes and asparagus from the north of Portugal, garnished with sea salt and slathered with butter were a mouthwatering accompaniment.

We did eat on the terrace – the air was warm but the wind had developed a sharp edge, the sound of birdsong and the melody of the crickets were drown out by the the children next door shrieking in the pool. And I washed the delicious fish down with a glass of two of local plonk! But life was and is still good when one considers the horrors of war and unrest being endured by too many in our world today!

 

Baked Atlantic Croacker

Prep Time: 15 Mins Cooking Time: 30 Mins Total Time: 45 Mins

Ingredients:

  • 1 Croaker fish or similar ( based on 2.5 kilos) which would feed 3 or 4 people
  • 1 large lemon
  • 3 cloves of fresh garlic
  • 3 springs of rosemary
  • 3 sprigs of fresh dill
  • butter
  • sea salt

Directions:

  1. To make the stuffing – mix 2 tablespoons of softened butter with a good squeeze of lemon and the chopped garlic.
  2. Spoon the mixture into the body of the fish (I always ask my fishmonger to prepare the fish for me).
  3. Add half the lemon – sliced, the dill and the rosemary.
  4. Butter a large piece of foil and wrap the fish, making sure that the parcel is air tight.
  5. Bake in a preheated oven (180 degrees) for  about 30 minutes – ovens vary! After 25 minutes check how the fish is cooking by using a thermometer (55 to 60 degrees centigrade).
  6. Serve with a generous sprinkling of sea salt and a good squeeze of lemon. The meat should just flake away from the bone.

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Sea Bass

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I’m having a penchant for fish at the moment! Maybe it’s the warm weather (the winds have abaited a little), but I am being drawn to fish counters when out shopping and there is rather a splendid array of specimens from which to choose. Being in close proximity to the southern coast of Portugal, what else would one expect! Fish are easy and relatively quick to prepare for the oven, so on a balmy summer evening, what better meal to feast on.

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Here are my stars of the show – two plump sea bass stuffed with lemon, garlic and dill

Having taken a rest from my restaurant kitchen, I am eating rather more and inevitably the kilos are increasing! It’s enormously tedious, this debt to pleasure! When I was cooking commercially, I didn’t have time to sit down and eat a full meal and I must admit that by the end of service, I didn’t feel like food. My ‘carrot’, at the end of the day, was a glass of chilled wine. I mostly survived on nibbling and tasting the dishes in preparation during the day. Alas, that has all changed for the moment – to the detriment of my hips, ‘tum’ and bum. I am enjoying experimenting with recipes and cooking at home and, inescapably, eating the results – in fact, clearing the plate and often replenishing it. Quel horreur!  Therefore, my intentions are good in selecting fish for dinner, which eaten with a crisp green salad, would be extremely healthy and probably hold the kilos at bay! But, I am weak (I’ve mentioned before that I suffer from a disease called ‘will power deficiency’) and I can’t pass on the potatoes. My particular partiality to potatoes must have its roots somewhere in my Irish ancestry. Locally grown potatoes, which I buy at our village market, are simply irresistible. They ‘taste’ how I want a potato to taste – often creamy with a slight sweetness, not watery and bland like so many of the supermarket offerings.  The potatoes in moderation (like everything in life – huh!) would probably be fine; but I like mine with lashings of good quality butter and a generous sprinkling of sea salt. Those people interested in cautious eating, should not follow my blog!

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Just about cooked!

After 25 minutes in the oven at 180 degrees centigrade sealed in foil, plus 5 minutes with the foil unwrapped at 200 degrees centigrade, we had two beautifully baked bass. These fish weighed about one kilo each – the meat just fell off the bone. It served three of us very generously with oodles over for lunch the next day.

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Just look at this succulent meat!

As there are three of us and I had two fish, I served it off the bone with a lemon butter, garlic and dill sauce – new potatoes and carrots. Salad next time …. maybe! Or, perhaps, I’ll start running to the market!!


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