“Those who error, we forgive once, but not three times”, as the Portuguese popular saying goes, but this popular saying thing, as we all know, is just made to rhyme and make sense once a year, at most. Producers, chefs and bartenders, make a lot of mistakes, please. It has been working out very well for centuries now.
If you’ll excuse me, which is the same as saying “if I have your permission”, which is the same as saying you’ll shoot to kill, I’ll start with a linguistic consideration. “A friend of mine” is that horrible pleonasm that sends chills down your spine. If you have a friend, they are obviously “yours”. Thus, what I have is a friend, that by the look of things might also be friends with other people, but only because I let her, that had a house she used to call Babaloo, on the most improbable place ever. Or so I thought. Portela da Teira. That friend saved my life. Which is like saying, saved me. Twice. But that’s not why I love her. I love her because she is perseverance on a stick, always with a smile ready and loaded. Even when she can’t or, at least, shouldn’t. She’s one of those women that make a man write about her. Like I’m doing now. This is yet another reason why I thought it was so weird that she had picked one of the deepest locations in Ribatejo to spend her weekends. But the fault is mine, I’ve always had a “thing” with Ribatejo. Bullfights, landowners who explore meadows and, above all, Cartaxo wine, that filled me with second-hand embarrassment for the whole country of Portugal and that had the power to leave me in the worst of moods. One of those places you never mention to tourists, because you know they can come across a bull run and tavern wine and then they’d go back home talking about how Portugal is a country of bloodthirsty analphabets that don’t know their wine. But because you’re always in time to learn another thing or two, here I am, admitting my wrongs, and realizing that the day after that big old party that is the slaughter of a pig, and after one too many medronho brandies mixed with honey, I decided to leave Portela da Teira on foot, going down the street, of course, as it was the only possible way.
The road twirled around what, under the dusky light, seemed like a hill. Later I discovered it was the Candeeiros one. There were sections of forest, that I can say for sure. Until I reached another town party. In some salt pans. In Rio Maior, as the plaque indicated. The only ones in the “interior” of Portugal. And the only ones still working in Europe. The first reference to the existence of this place dates to 1177, back when Portugal was still a little brat. With the ocean at around 30km away, live folklore music and a bunch of happy people dancing in circles, it was to my great amazement that I ate and drank some more, and, of course, bought some salt. Or rock salt, which is the correct technical nomenclature for that type of sodium chloride. It only took one meal prep, a few days later, for me to make a rather common mistake. I know great chefs that, every so often, out of mere distraction or assumed error, put too much salt on their food. What I didn’t know was that rock salt is way more “salty” than regular salt. When I realized it, being absolutely aware that I was on the verge of ruining a huge pan of bean rice I had made as a side to what we call pataniscas for ten of my pals, I employed that last resort everybody already knows about: I baked a potato in there. That “legend”, the one that says a potato will absorb the salt of a cooking batch, was wrong. And yet, this information keeps getting passed on to anyone who’ll listen, as if we were talking about a miraculous cure for negligence. It’s always a potato, yes, but also other vegetables, a carrot if possible, and most of all, add more water. And yet, nothing is guaranteed. The only thing guaranteed is yet another mistake that made it mandatory that I start this text the way I did. I left Ribatejo with a full heart. I came across places from another world, and most importantly, met good people, with open arms and large embraces, made to measure for all the things that great souls encompass. There is a certain humility there that prepares those people for everything and everyone. That’s what I should have been. Humble enough to never have let my prejudice and stereotypes cloud my judgement. It was a white glove slap across the face almost as big as my dilated belly after lunch at Cantinho da Serra, two mere kilometers away from the salt pans, in Alto da Serra. You’ve never been? Then it doesn’t matter how many kilometers away you are, go!
Let’s draw, right here, the limits to carrying on with a rather common mistake that, personally, gives me somewhat of an “itch”. Because it puts into evidence the great palate naivety and inability to distinguish flavors and their consequent sensations. The term “spicy” can only be attributed to piripiri and to the sensation it entails, that goes way beyond our tastebuds. Brazilians refer to it as “pepper”. It’s not that. The “confusion” comes from the fact that the chilies (the spicy kind) are from the species capsicum, such as peppers (the sweet kind). Their relation to what we call pepper, from the species piper, is null. The same goes for wasabi, the Japanese condiment that comes from a type of horseradish, but a great deal more intense. To define the term “spicy” as the effect pepper or wasabi produce on our palate, we would be obliged to also include onions and garlic in the mix. Pepper adds flavor. When in excess, it heats up the dish. Wasabi unleashes a sort of vaporized substance that we feel in our nasal passages. Piripiri, on the other hand, opens up the flavors of a dish, making them more enjoyable. When overdone, it produces a sense of warmth, which some take as a pleasant aftereffect, and others can’t seem to grasp how sweating from your forehead can be amusing. I can assure you, it can. A lot. To suffer is to swallow a fishbone or choke up on a piece of bread. At least the spiciness always brings some joy along with it.
When, for example, we decide to consume Portuguese fast food, typically roast chicken (the original recipe is from Goa, later adapted in Mozambique), and at the grill they ask if we want it “spicy”, we’re entitled to be as infuriated as when someone asks an alentejano if they want their bread sliced up. The substance that makes chilies so spicy is capsicina, an alkaloid whose poignancy is measured according to the scale of Scoville, that goes from zero (paprika) to sixteen billion (pure capsicina). Between the extremes we can find the jalapeño Mexican chilies (with a mere 8.000), the north American carolina reaper (with a considerable 2.000.000) or the Jamaican hot pepper (with a bearable 200.000). Now is the time to note that the people in charge of disseminating the plant of the species capsicum throughout the world, were Portuguese, a curiosity that becomes way denser when we think about how we’ve brought it from South America to India, where today it occupies a central point in the subcontinent’s gastronomy – and in all of Asia. What takes us to what I see as a major mistake in the Scale of Scoville: the absence of one or two Angolan species, jindungo cahombo (rounded chilies with a characteristic smell of goat (kahombo means “lamb” in kimbundo) and jindungo calequeta, a smaller, sharper chili, but much spicier. That was the one a friend of mine brought me from Luanda. Still fresh and ready to use. Influenced by its small appearance, I chopped one into a seafood rice plate for six people who were “used to it” (because you need to be “educated” in the consumption of spicy things). Impossible. We were sat at the table as if we were on a spinning class. Everyone was sweating. We were drinking as if no one had to drive afterwards. The first measure taken in order to “cool down” the effect of those little demons was to dry them out. Still, no way. They got “worse”. The only solution was the one presented by my father. He planted them in the backyard. And used the seeds of that crop to plant some more. It took four repetitions of the process for them to become “bearable”. Even then, I failed again, this time with fish noodles. I decided to call someone who could fix that generalized malaise we had going on at the table, since drinking tea or milk, that little cheat sheet we all know of, wasn’t working. My friend Basílio, who was the owner of the first Goan restaurant in Lisbon, in Príncipe Real, who laughed uncontrollably before he managed to tell me: “Chew some cilantro leaves”. A cure from Alentejo, of course.
Let’s say we weren’t going through these awful times we’re living, and we had invited some friends over for a nice meal. In the more relaxed version of things, we’d wake up at 6am to cook the meat we had salted the day before, only then would we go onto to the beans we left under water for 24h, and by 8am the bean stew is already spreading its first traces of deliciousness throughout the kitchen. By the time we’re supposed to eat, someone shows up with a bag of KFC because they “don’t like beans”. And because it’s not up to us to educate them on basic etiquette and good manners, we frown and carry on. We open up that bottle of wine that has been stored away for years, waiting for a special occasion. And then someone goes and adds Coke to it, because they enjoy katembe. It’s a pain. These are the mistakes that, however, put into evidence the beauty encompassed in that very Lusitanian expression “well, the more will be leftover”. Nonetheless, here lies a solution to other people’s mistakes. It’s called refinement. When we want to raise a toast to our buddies with all the class they deserve, there’s foie gras, sweaty lobster, and caviar. That’s how you reinforce the respect for a meal. The epitome of refinement though, is when the bottle of brut goes POP and echoes through the whole house. Champagne is, and always will be, an institution. Its origin, extremely occidental, like the one of brandy, is what makes us consider that the French are able to make these little mistakes that, despite everything, always turn out ok. What could have been a simple sparkling wine became so much more, because it was produced in the vineyard region of Champagne, one of the smallest in France, with only 33 thousand hectares divided by 15 thousand owners that are prohibited from using machinery, as the process, from start to finish, is completely manual. Its story is filled with tiny imperfections.
It was only in the 13th century, through the hands of benedict monks, that the cellars began to be used to age the liquor of gods. In 1668, at the Hautvillers’ abbey, Dom Pérignon began to apply the assemblage technique, which means they would mix different types of wine, while also producing white wine from red grapes, peeling them off during the first round of treading. The pretentious gas would only become famous in the 14th, when Louis XV allowed for the transportation of wine in bottles, although half of them would end up exploding. It was the cellar master at Madame Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, the german Anton von Müller that, in 1813, created the pupitres de remuage, where bottles were kept with their neck down and flipped in regular intervals, so that the gas that accumulates during fermentation could be gently released, making the beverage more crystal clear, just as we know it. When it comes to brandy, legend has it that Napoleon had requested, exhausted, a glass of “eau de vie” to a commoner, who thought he only had some brandy that had gone bad, offering it to the Emperor either way. False. The wine produced in the region of Charente was, for the French canons, who are some seriously demanding folks, so bad, with such a low alcohol percentage and so easily deteriorated, that they would distill the majority of the harvest. The goal was to be able to export something of the highest alcohol percentage, that the consumer could drink by adding water onto it. But these intentions ended up being demised and the “wine brandy”, distilled in stills of copper, was stored in oak barrels. That’s when the magic happened.
But don’t think for a second that we, Portuguese people, don’t have our own mistakes that went right. Between the Douro and the Minho, around that monument placed in Viana do Castelo called Fortinho da Vinha, lies one of those treasures we are actually really proud of. That Verde wine that is, in the end, made of ripe grapes. But in its first years, really, grapes wouldn’t mellow. And that was due to the fact that grapevines are some sort of bindweed that climb, three or four strains high, up the trees, until their bunches were covered by the treetops. Production was enviable (the crushing majority of plants, in the eminence of not being able to leave any offspring of their own, multiplies the number of fruits in order to guarantee it), but their growing was faulty. Wine was too acid and low in alcohol. “Verde wine is a three-century long accident, that’s why it is considered somewhat new, but that influenced a great deal, and things of major importance such as gastronomy”, these are the words of the highest “entity” in Portuguese wine, Mr. Anselmo Mendes. From all Verde wines, the obvious spotlight goes to Alvarinho, or the “White Wine of Monção and Melgaço”, that besides their characteristic flavor, diverge from the others through the process of batonnage, the French term that defines the retrieving of “fine sediments” from the barrels during the stages of fermentation. This keeps all yeasts in suspension, so that the process can keep going until it reaches its final goal, when the aromas sacrifice the fruits in trade of the acquisition of that characteristic mineral and citric complexity. You lose sweetness but gain volumes of other terms that winemakers love to use, but that we don’t really comprehend. But we keep tasting them. Thoroughly. And not many things can top it.
In his autobiography, Henri Charpentier recalls that day when, at only 14 years old, he was a waiter at café Monte Carlo and prepared some crepes for the desert of the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII of England: “It was by chance. While I was there working on that plate, the liquors caught fire. I thought it was all ruined. The prince and his friends were waiting. I couldn’t start everything from scratch. I tasted it and thought: ‘This is the most delicious melody of sweet flavors I have ever tried’”. And just like that, the crepe Suzette was born. The dishes that have been created by mistake could fill the pages of a Beauty of Imperfection Bible. There’s no space for so much. But we can assure one thing: they’re all amazing. In 1904, during the St. Louis World Fair, an ice-cream vendor called Arnold Fornachou was selling so many units that he ran out of cups. Ernest Hamwi, a baker who was a few meters away, came to his rescue. He rolled up the dough of his waffles, creating a “cone” with the particularity that it could also be eaten. Potato chips, though, came to be from a much more unpleasant occurrence, which is that one really annoying client that always shows up on the worst time of the day. Complaining about the width of the french fries of the establishment, the New York chef George Crum decided to cut the chips with a spinneret, making them so thin they almost became transparent. Their success continues to this day. And the extra pounds are really hard to lose. Those who cook can’t get by without Worcestershire Sauce. It was born when an English nobleman came back to England from a season abroad in India, and hired two chemists, John Lea and William Perrins, to recreate a type of seasoning he had thoroughly enjoyed during his trip. Lea and Perrins weren’t happy with one of the first blends they made and forgot all about that jar in a cellar. Years later, they found it again and understood how the fermentation had given a whole new taste to the substance. And what should we say about the worldwide popular beer, that was created in the unusually barren Mesopotamia, in the Arabic Peninsula, between the rivers Tigre and Euphrates, in the current territory of Iraq? While storing cereal in humid places, their grains began to spontaneously ferment, which generated the first beer in the world. Who was brave enough to try the strange liquid for the first time? We don’t know. But we are deeply grateful.
Joe Best, that old sea wolf, dream chef and “erratic vivant”, as he was defined in a certain publication, very much due to the fact that he hopped form one point of Portugal to the other, cooking in villages, towns and cities, was, around a decade ago, asked to be part of a project that looked to identify, produce and commercialize a specific sweet water seaweed that fed by absorbing carbon dioxide. The aim of the program was to reduce the ecological footprint of factories and refineries, but also to integrate the algae into the food chain as an alternative source of protein. “I was nowhere near of imagining how massively I would fail. I was assigned the task of integrating the algae in gastronomy, to rule the taste of chlorella, which was of an intense flavor, somewhat weird, that wonderful green it transports and that makes our noses twitch when it reaches the palate”, he enlightens. And explains what happened: “That green compelled me to create a fake straciatella, in which I would make use of the word chlorella to create a pun. I pulled the gallons, somewhat taking knowledge from molecular gastronomy, I toned down the aroma with a zest of green lemon, incorporated some techno sugars, texturized with xanthan gum and beat in some albumin to its creamier state, a velvet merengue. I added the chocolate shavings, I tasted it and thought ‘I’m going to drive everyone nuts, this is the most vibrant fake mousse ever’. I put it in the fridge for it to freeze until it was time to serve desert. When I opened the sweet chamber later on, I was the one who froze off. My mousse was gone. That charming green of chlorella was so attention grabbing, that I forgot the aerification of the textures would be eaten away by it. I created an autophagic mousse.” A wondering life, he says. But it’s so much more than that. And I’ll say, I have tasted it.
Originally published on Vogue Portugal November issue, "The Beauty of Imperfection."