We’ve reached the final installment of our four part series recapping the Rum & Biscuits jaunt abroad, and it’s a vital one. After all, if there’s nothing else you take away from all of the hard work we put into rooftop and beach-side wining and dining in Southern Europe, I hope that you at least take away…the takeaways. Hence this post.
It goes without saying that there’s a lot to be learned from the culinary traditions of South France and West Iberia; two regions that while rivals in majestic views from hilltop vineyards and oceanfront terraces are considerably distinct in their foodways. Even with the modest research I banged out prior to the trip, in the end it was all I could do to throw it all out and just hold on for the ride. Now we don’t want to get in the way of your own ferris wheel of spontaneity, but in the spirit of closure, we humbly submit the below pearls from own travels in the spirit of closure and as a challenge to those out there ready to discover your own.
With that – What I Learned (And What You Should Know) About Food in South France and Portugal. Let’s get to the meat of it, literally:
The Portuguese respect their meat
After my trip, I received a lot of questions about the cuisine in Portugal, and I sincerely mean it with the utmost reverence when I say it’s not unlike Spanish, (with the tapas culture), but with more pies, tarts, and incredible meat. Big, sweating, slabs of fresh, perfectly-cooked animal. Melt-in-your-mouth sirloin and pork belly with three courses in each bite – so diverse are the textures and flavors in a single glistening cut.
My brother and I wondered allowed if it was Brazilian churrascaria culture completing the cycle and influencing the mother country, but that’s almost certainly over-simplifying. Whatever the inspiration, Portuguese farmers, butchers, and chefs clearly appreciate their animals and take great care in delivering the best mouth-watering product to the plate, in it’s many forms and accompaniments, perhaps the most vital of which is listed directly below.
Bolo de Caco is the bread America needs
Sure, we’re all familiar with the dense chewiness of the potato doughnut, and the perpetually moist softness of the potato hot dog bun. God gave us these things because He loves us. But if you’re anything like me, you were blithely ignorant to their glorious forerunner, Portuguese Bolo de Caco – the Madeiran sweet potato bread that will change your life forever.
These round, flat, but thick and doughy buns form the base of two of Portugal’s most infamous culinary staples yall may recall made my eyes roll back in a previous post: the prego and the bifana. They’re steak and pork sandwiches, in as much as Maseratis are cars. Only appropriate that such an incredible vessel should support the country’s beloved hunks of meat. The combination would make even tacos cover in shame.
Hazelnuts are huuuuge in Portugal
Portugal hovers right at the cusp of the Top Ten hazelnut producers in Europe, but their desserts would have you think they invented the thing. Nearly all of the roughly three thousand desserts we enjoyed in the country were an homage to the humble filbert – everything from Chef Jose Avillez’ none-too-subtle “Hazelnut3” (read: to the power of three) to perhaps my favorite dessert on the continent, the “Hazelnut Textures” of Sala de Corte: hazelnut mousse, with hazelnut cake, hazelnut chocolate, caramel corn and salted caramel ice cream. Cue the streaming tears, please.
If you’re drinking sitting down, you’re Lisboning wrong
On Day 1 of Lisbon we discovered the riverfront Pitcher Cocktails cart so artfully promoted by pre-visit must-read site Lisboa Cool. The generous mixologists manning the cart kindly indulged my request to spike my mojito with the passion fruit juice from their non-alcoholic option, because as I reasoned, “maracuja makes everything better” and I’ll be damned if it didn’t!
In the subsequent exploration of waterfront shopping I learned that these affordable, delicious, take-and-go pitcher cocktails are common up and down the river, and enjoyed an incredible 11am plastic cup of sangria, followed later by more passion fruit via a take on the classic Madeiran “poncha.” Frankly, I needed all I could get to blunt the pain of America’s savagery in shunning public, pedestrian-friendly imbibing.
Pasteis de Nata: better with syrup
Imagine french toast batter, baked in flaky croissant dough, inside a muffin tin. You’re getting close to imagining the crisp and creamy egg tart, the Pastel de Belem, or Pastel de Nata – first runner-up for National Dish of Portugal.
These little treats with their distinctive leopard skin of caramelized black-and-gold custard are certainly delicious served fresh, warm and in naked glory. But increasingly as I traveled I found them served as a breakfast item, and so frequently right next to maple syrup as to not seem at all incidental. So drizzle I did, and what a Level-Up this proved. The trick only offered further evidence of the pastel’s proximity to french toast, and had the same effect of abating the egginess, which I’ll admit can be pretty real.
Pigeon is a red meat
The more you know, amirite? I think we all knew or could infer that the Big City Bird was a “gamey,” even “dark” meat, but this Oregon bumpkin was nevertheless shocked to get the how-would-you-like-it-cooked question after boldly ordering the dish at Monaco’s breathtakingly scenic Le Grill restaurant. Medium’s the way to go, btw.
Petit Fours, because who doesn’t want a second dessert?
Maybe yall knew, but I was brand new. These staples of the French prix fixe are essentially a mixed plate of sweet treats that 75% of the time are better than the dessert you’d had five minutes earlier. Even in Lisbon at Chef Jose Avillez’ acclaimed Minibar, all my brother could talk about after the meal were the petit fours that my wife and I had left too early to even enjoy.
Nice’s Bellet AOC offers us so much…by offering us so little
On the steep, green and rocky hills just north of Nice, the small wine appellation of Bellet is home to just ten vineyards. Here the terrain is so rough and inhospitable that what wine they do produce – most notably, in my book, rosé – goes to make limited quantity, highly concentrated wine typically reserved for top restaurants and particularly exclusive suppliers. Believe me, it is worth the trip up to get your hands on one of these bottles. Much as I drink the pink stuff (which is to say, swimming pools), most is way too fruity and acidic for me. The Bellet breed, however, is like literal liquid rose petal.
And yes, I know that sounds like bullshit since there’s only an accent aigu difference between the flavor and the wine itself, but after trying to find other descriptors, research proved this one to be legit. So go get you some!
As you can see, it was an especially insightful (and delicious) trip! We hope you enjoyed the series – way atypically Eurocentric for Rum & Biscuits, if we’re being honest, but with good reason. The regions collectively tore down and rebuilt both our retirement plans, as well as the way we look at food. If case studies is what you need, I got ’em: the trip has already changed the way I shop for wine, the types and cooking methods of meat I’m excited about and experimenting with, and put non-starters like bread, sandwiches, and hazelnut desserts firmly in play for me.
Hardest to shake has been the fact that after six months of diligent reliance on unsalted baked chicken, blackberries, and bacon (The 3 B’s and Me, hitting shelves soon), two weeks of 4,000-calorie days hardly put a dent in our progress. At that point the buzzword of “whole foods” became a lot less theoretical and a whole lot more shown-and-proven. France, Portugal, and indeed so, so many food cultures much older than the states have stayed true to a single core principle even when others were adapted with the times: a respect for food, the integrity of local, fresh ingredients, prepared with pride, and without additives like the one I’ll make up now – Cassium cesinate. This has got to be the most important takeaway from the trip, maybe mostly because we can truly take it away. Take it home, and apply it. I definitely hope, and encourage yall, to do so. I know for me, once all the wine is gone or gifted, this lesson will be my easy transportation device back to the sunny beaches of Europe, and even save me some workout hours in the process.
And thank God, cuz that baked chicken was killing me. #PassTheSalt