Gatherings & Celebrations: June Feast Days in Portugal - #109

Portugal runs along the southwestern edge of Europe, where the land ends and the sea begins.  And just below the mid-point of the coastline is the capital city of Lisbon.  For hundreds of years Lisbon was home to the ruling families of Portugal, the center of one of the world’s most powerful nations.  In the middle of the 1400s, the King of Portugal described himself as “The Lord Of Navigation, Conqueror Of Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia and India.  And that was his most modest title.  The one he used only with his closest friends.

The wealth that Portugal brought back from its colonies in Asia and the New World made Lisbon one of the most energetic cities in Europe.  And you can still see the impact of those years as you move around the city.

 Torre de Belem is a fortress built in the 1500s; it’s the spot where the great navigators of Portugal began their voyages of exploration...  the actual point of land where Vasco da Gama set sail on a journey that would uncover the sea route to the riches of Asia.

And this is the Monastery of Jeronimos, built in the early 1500s to honor da Gama’s trip around the bottom of Africa and on to India.  The structure is made of limestone and it’s a classic example of the architectural style known as the Late Gothic.

The river that runs along the city empties out into the Atlantic Ocean, but the rhythm and lifestyle of the people are really very Mediterranean.  For the most part, the residents of Lisbon are easy-going people.  The tension level is rather low.  The desire to take a somewhat laid-back approach to life is quite high.  And yet everything gets done and functions well.

The center of the city is the Praca do Comercio, an enormous square at the edge of the river.  Also along the river is the Ribeira, where the fishing boats come in.  And across the street, the Mercado da Ribeira, Lisbon’s great market... with its fruits, vegetables and the fresh fish that come in from the boats across the road.   Chiado is the most fashionable area for  shopping, and Ruo Garret is the busiest street.  This is the Brasileira. I am told that it is the cafe of choice for Lisbon’s artists and politicians.  And finally, the church of Saint Anthony:  very important for the first part of our story, which deals with the favorite saints of Portugal -- including Saint Anthony.

Portugal has three saints who are so well liked that they are literally known as the “Popular Saints.”  They are St. Anthony, St. John and St. Peter.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  St. John, St. Peter and St. Anthony were real people with real lives.  Sometimes they lived up to the ideals of sainthood, and sometimes they just lived it up.  But their human problems made them seem like friends to the people of Portugal, and their feast days are celebrated with dancing, parades, and good food.


The feasts of the popular saints of Portugal include a rather extensive range of activities.  There are, of course, religious events, but there’s also quite a bit of dancing in the streets, huge parties and a lot of outdoor cooking.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  A writer by the name of Claude Levi-Strauss once put forward a theory that the further a food is from the heat source while it is being cooked, the more “noble” its preparation. 

Frying, boiling and stewing are considered by him to be “low” forms of cooking because the meat is surrounded by heat, but only in the form of a liquid.  Roasting and grilling are the “noble” forms and suitable for feasts.  Interesting idea, and there may be some truth to it.  If you think about our important feasts -- Christmas, Thanksgiving, Independence Day -- the main foods are traditionally roasted or grilled. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Anthropologists point out that whenever an animal is killed, there’s a certain amount of guilt attached to it.  And that in ancient times that guilt fell most heavily on the hunters.  They feel that hunters developed the idea of the animal sacrifice in order to give a symbolic structure and meaning to their activities, and possibly to distract the gods from the fact that they had just killed one of the animals created by the gods.  They feel that whenever men work at a grill, some of that ancient ritual is part of the process.

Though St. Anthony, St. John and St. Peter are all honored, the favorite saint of Portugal is Saint Anthony of Padua, who lived during the 1200s.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  St. Anthony died in Padua, in Italy, but he was born in Lisbon.  His original name was Fernando, and he lived in a little hideaway for monks called St. Anthony’s Hermitage.  When he was twenty-five years old he decided that his life was too soft, and he was going to move to North Africa to convert the local residents.  He never got there, though.  His ship was blown off-course by a storm, and he ended up in Sicily, where he met a man who eventually became St. Francis.  Saint Anthony turned out to be quite a linguist; he mastered all of the dialects then used in Italy, as well as most of the languages used in France.  Most people have no idea that Saint Anthony of Padua really came from Lisbon.  But the people of Portugal are very concerned about this lack of accurate information, and they want it to be corrected.  So from now on I am going to refer to him as St. Anthony Of Padua, Formerly Of Lisbon.  It takes a little longer to say but it’s clearly more accurate.

Lisbon is built on seven hills, but two of them hold dominant positions.  One is Castelo de S. Jorge, a Moorish castle with medieval ramparts that date back to the 400s.  On the other side is Bairro da Lapa, which was the residential area for the nobility.  One of the stately houses that still remains on the hill was built over a hundred years ago as the home of the Count Valencas.  Today it is one of the most elegant hotels in Europe... Hotel da Lapa.

One of the highlights of the hotel is the gastronomic restaurant under the direction of Chef Bernard Guillot.  Today he’s going to prepare a few traditional Portuguese dishes.  The first course is a codfish and potato cake.

The codfish starts out as a dry block but after two days of soaking in water, water which was changed about every four hours, you end up with a piece of fish that looks like this.  At which point the bones are removed and the skin cut away.  Much as I love authentic recipes, my plan is to just buy a nice piece of fresh, skinless, boneless cod and pick it up from there.  The piece, which weighs about three ounces, is cut into three slices.  A potato is cut into pieces that are about the same size as the chunks of cod.

A cup of milk goes into a saucepan.  As soon as it’s simmering, the cod and the potatoes are added.  Then three cloves of minced garlic.  All that cooks together for ten minutes or until almost all of the liquid has been cooked off.  While that’s going on, the potatoes and fish are broken up into small pieces and loosely mashed together.  A little olive oil is added.  Bernard uses extra-virgin olive oil because, for one thing, it’s the highest quality and for another, it’s the lowest in acidity.  Which is what he wants in terms of the dish’s flavor. 

Three more cloves of crushed garlic and an optional two tablespoons of cream go in.  I say optional, not because I have anything against cream.  It’s just that I like to limit my intake of saturated fat and take it where I enjoy it the most.  And for me that would be ice cream rather than fish cakes. 

Now it’s time to form the cod and potato mixture into little round cakes.  Bernard uses a pastry mold but a tunafish can with the top and bottom cut out would work just as well.  A sauce is made by heating a little olive oil and some chopped coriander together for three minutes.  Then the codfish cakes go onto a serving plate, followed by a little of the coriander sauce, and a few coriander leaves.

The main course is a traditional Portuguese fish stew.  About an ounce of olive oil is heated in a sauté pan.  A quarter of a yellow bell pepper is seeded, sliced, minced and added to the pan.  A quarter of a cup’s worth of leeks are chopped and added in.  Two tablespoons of minced coriander are mixed in.  A few minutes of cooking and a half cup of fish stock is added to the pan.  

Then two cups of tomato juice, another half cup of chopped leeks, a minced clove of garlic and a half cup of white wine are added.  All of which Bernard claims to have already mixed together.  I didn’t actually see it happen but I’ll take his word for it.  He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy that would mislead you on a recipe, but you never know.  My grandmother did it all the time.

The seafood is a mixture of fish and shellfish.  You’ll need a total of about three ounces of fish and two ounces of shellfish per person.  The pieces of fish go in first and cook for one minute, at which point they are turned.  Then a mixture of cubed carrots, mushrooms, potatoes and zucchini are added.  A little tasting.  A little salt.  About a half tablespoon of sliced fresh ginger.  Now the pre-cooked shellfish go in.  And finally a few shrimp.  Bernard uses half with their heads on, the other half are headless.  Two more minutes of cooking and the stew is spooned out into a traditionally Portuguese ceramic dish.  First the fish, then the shellfish, some of the sauce and finally a garnish of coriander.

And how about a little wine to go with that?

The year was 1944. Europe was in the middle of the Second World War. The farms and vineyards of Germany, Italy, France and Spain were in total disarray. Everyone had forgotten about making European wine for export.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Everyone, that is,  except a man named Henry Behar.  Henry was a New Yorker in the business of importing European wines to the United States, and he believed that while the American troops were in Europe, they had developed a taste for wine which they were not going to give up when they got home.  Italy, France, Germany and Spain might have been a wreck -- but Portugal was in good shape.  They had been a neutral country during the Second World War, they had a winemaking tradition that went back as far as any other European country, and their winemaking facilities were ready to go. 

So Mr. Behar came to the town of Azeitao, just outside the city of Lisbon, and began looking for a wine that would appeal to American tastes.  He found it in the form of a local rosé, which he put into a bottle that reminded him of the ancient amphora.  An amphora was the container used by the Romans to bring wines from this area back to Rome.  He named it “Lancers” after a painting by Velasques.  The painting shows the King of Spain and Portugal just after he had won a great battle against the Dutch.  Behar also put a picture of a ship called a “caravel” on the label to remind him of the great times when Portuguese explorers like Vasco da Gama and Magellan traveled around the world in this same type of craft. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Eventually Lancers became the most popular Portuguese wine imported into the United States.  And it’s still made in the same little part of Portugal where Behar found it. The winemaker purchases fermented grape juice from the local farmers that’s been produced to his specifications. 

The juices are held in these tanks, which take their shape from ancient Moorish structures.  Both the form and the color reduce the effect of the sun’s rays and help keep down the vats’ internal temperature.  The juices are then blended to make either the White, Red, Rosé or Blush.  After the blending, the wine is filtered and chilled.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The first time a wine is chilled it may develop a sediment.  The winemaker doesn’t want that to happen in your refrigerator.  So they chill the wine at the winery and then filter it away from any sediment that forms.  At that point, it is ready to develop its sparkle.  Now, the technique that’s used to introduce this sparkle was developed by the Russians -- not necessarily a country that you would associate with bubbly beverages.  Nevertheless, it was a group of Russian scientists that developed the technology.

This is a miniature model of the cross-section of the tanks in which the wines develop their natural effervescence.   The tanks are filled with swirling strips of oak.  Wine is poured into the tanks, and at the same time a little yeast is added, and some grape juice.  The living yeast settles on the surface of the wood, which spreads it out and keeps it in contact with the wine.  The yeast interacts with the natural sugar in the grape juice and produces the tiny little bubbles that are found in all these wines.  The wines move through these vats in a continuous process that lasts for twenty-eight days.  One more filtration and it’s into the bottle.

Very often, there is a particular artform that appeals to the craftspeople of a nation.  And it fascinates them to the point where they turn the form into something quite extraordinary.  In Portugal, one  artform that falls into this category produces the colored tiles known as Azulejo.

VASCO D’AVILLEZ:  This panel that you see here is from the Fourteenth Century.  And it’s typical Moorish decoration.  The Moors, by their own religion, could not reproduce human figures or animal figures, so they went into a geometric theme to decorate the interior of their homes.  It is interesting that not only they painted they painted the tiles with different colors, but they had to try and resolve a problem, and that was that the colors would not run one into the other.  And this was difficult, so they invented a way -- they made a little division in each design, so it was an enormous amount of handwork to divide everything, one from the other, with a tiny string embedded in some kind of fat.  That would make -- excuse me to repeat the word -- a tiny wall around all the design.  And inside those walls they would dip the ink.  When the tile went to the oven to be baked, the string and the fat would disappear because of the temperature -- this is high temperature -- and the ink would dry immediately, therefore not running into each other.

The next step -- and we now move into the Fifteenth Century -- the next step is, they thought about it, and -- too much work, lots of hands.  So they created a stamp, and while the tile -- it’s made of clay -- while the tile was still soft, they would stamp it, and it created a low relief.  And in those low reliefs they would then dip the ink, and when it was baked the ink would dry.  And hopefully it wouldn’t run.  But it was not as perfect, because there are places where you can see, in here for instance, that the green runs into the white a little bit.  But still, the tile is to be observed and to be appreciated at a distance.  So in that respect, at a distance, you don’t detect, or you cannot detect so many defects and so on. 

Then I want to show you this corner now.  There’s another one that you would notice just below with green -- this one, with the green colors.  In order to paint green, they needed elements that were only available in Spain.  But we were always at odds with Spain, and in fact, most of the time at war with them.  So there was only one time, between 1580 and 1640, where the King of Spain, the famous Phillip II, was also King of Portugal.  So there was peace, and there was a constant flow of goods -- including the green.  So in Portugal, to find old tiles painted green, it’s very easy to date them.  They are between 1580 and 1640.

The second great city of Portugal is Oporto, with a population of about one million.  It’s the industrial center of northern Portugal.  Like Lisbon, it sits on top of a group of hills looking down on a river.  The river, opening out into the Atlantic Ocean, has made the city an important port for over two thousand years.   Directly across the river from Oporto is an area known as Vila Nova de Gaia. Originally it was a separate settlement, but in recent times it has become almost a part of Oporto.  Vila Nova de Gaia is the heart of the world’s port wine business. The buildings that you are looking at are called “lodges,” and they are filled with port that is aging, either in barrels or bottles.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  There are more stories about how port got started than there are ports, but they all seem to have one element in common.  At some point the winemakers here in the northeastern part of Portugal began making a wine that was sweet.  In order to balance that sweetness, they started introducing brandy.  Then the process ended up with what we now call port. The British loved it.  It tasted great and it traveled well.  It became so popular that a number of British families actually moved to Oporto in order to start businesses that would produce and export what was rapidly becoming their favorite drink.

The story of port got started about 2,000 years ago when the ancient Romans started to grow wine grapes in the northern part of Portugal.  English traders showed up in the 1300s, and began exchanging English wool and corn for Portuguese wine and olive oil.  Then in the 1600s, one of the English traders, John Croft, started shipping port wine back to England.

There are basically two varieties of port:  vintage port and tawny port.  John Burnett, a winemaker and managing director of Croft & Company explains the differences.

JOHN BURNETT:  A vintage port is basically a wine which is matured in bottle.  Vintage ports are only made two or three times in a decade, and they only represent a very small fraction of the harvest we make in that year.  So the year has got to be of exceptional quality, it’s super-selected, matured in bottle, and it’s probably not going to be drinkable for at least ten or fifteen years after bottling.  If you’re talking about tawny port, you’re talking about a wine which has been matured in wood for a considerable period of time, and it has actually turned color.  It’s gone from ruby, the starting point, to this rather brownish-orange flavor.  It’s also mellowed as well.  When you smell it, it smells rather concentrated.  It may be likened to dry fruit, walnuts, nuts -- and that’s partly due to the fact that it has been in wood for a long period of time, and it’s concentrated.  Tawnies tend to concentrate in flavor.  Port is an extremely versatile wine; it is probably the world’s most famous dessert wine.

DAVID DELAFORCE:  I think it’s probably the only wine in the world that really goes so perfectly with chocolate.  It’s very interesting that young, younger ruby ports actually don’t stand up to chocolate very well.  They don’t survive on their own with the chocolate.  So you want to get an older tawny port, like the one we’re drinking, or a vintage port, and that goes perfectly with the chocolate.  And then cheese is, I think, an obvious -- most people know about port and cheese.  Stilton and port is one of the oldest traditions.  And so a lovely blue stilton like this -- there is a habit, and it’s not really going to do the port or the stilton much good, of pouring port into it.  So we recommend cutting a piece of stilton, and having that with the port.

BURT WOLF:   I guess the best idea would be to decant and have it as dessert by itself and just knock it off in one sitting.

DAVID DELAFORCE:  That’s right.  If you’ve got a group of friends, I’m sure that the decanter would go around and be consumed fairly quickly.

BURT WOLF:   I’ll drink to that.

DAVID DELAFORCE:  Burt, I’ll drink to that too.

And after all the eating and drinking there is the possibility of fado -- epic songs filled with memories both sad and glorious.  The word fado comes from the word “faith,”  specifically a faith or hope that the destiny of the singer -- who was originally a sailor -- would eventually see his loved ones again.  It was, and still is very much an expression of the individual’s emotion.  And often the listeners are not paying as much attention to the specific words as much as they are searching within themselves for similar feelings.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Well, that is a very brief look at Portugal;  I hope you will join us next time as we travel around the world looking at the gatherings and celebrations that mark the passages of our lives.  I’m Burt Wolf.