Friday, June 24, 2011

Crunch Senhor

Well, I really couldn't find a way to translate the term croque monsieur from French to Portuguese. But I'd like to make the case that the sandwich itself, while delicious, has lost something in the translation as well.

The sandwich known in Portugal as Francesinha (or "little frenchie" or "little French girl") originated in Porto, in Portugal's north. It's said that a French/Belgian immigrant wanted to adapt the French croque monsieur to the Portuguese palate. This is the result, a sandwich of ham, pork and beef slices on thick bread, swathed in cheese and a spicy tomato and beer sauce and served hot.

Most Francesinha sandwiches arrive with French fries, somewhat drowned in the sauce. Often, there's a fried egg on top of the whole creation. The only ingredient common to all versions of this dish is beer.

We had our first Francesinha in Porto, its home town. Though the sandwich itself and especially the sauce can vary from town to town and from interpretation to interpretation, this sandwich does not at all make me think of France. No, I think of the diners and delis of my youth, the open-face roast beef or turkey sandwiches, covering a plate in the shape and size of a serving dish, brimming with sauce, and combining into a molten embrace of home cooking. Fries alongside were immersed in the gravy just like in the Francesinha, or the whole thing was plopped onto a mound of mashed potatoes.

This is the memory that is evoked by the Francesinha. The beer matures it up, and the spice provides some adult zing. But this takes me back like no croque monsieur ever did.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Sardines for Saint Anthony

The Saint Anthony festival is the midsummer celebration in Portugal. Like most other midsummer celebrations (such as Midsommer in Scandinavia and St. John's Eve in Greece), midsummer happens before or on the actual arrival of summer. For some reason that eludes me, midsummer celebrations often involve jumping over a roaring bonfire.

In Portugal, and especially in the Alfama section of Lisbon, this is one of the biggest parties of the year. The midsummer holiday happens in mid-June and honors St. Anthony, who's associated with matchmaking. So this holiday is something like Valentine's Day. Shy suitors can take the opportunity to win over hearts with romance in large doses. But this holiday isn't about chocolate; you give your lover a potted herb called manjerico. This plant is a sort of basil, with tiny delicate leaves, and groomed into a round bush. It's decorated with a small paper with a verse on it; what's romance without poetry?

But you can't make a meal of basil and love, so grilled sardines are also on the menu. They're a common starter or main dish in most restaurants at all times, but St. Anthony's Festival provides them a grand stage. They're associated with this saint, who was not only a great romantic, but was apparently able to converse with fish. Why this means that we should grill them is beyond me, but they are delicious.

It took some persuasion for us to get the sardine-seller to provide any plastic utensils. We watched people eat them and understood why. Each sardine is about the length of an unsharpened pencil, so they’re too big to eat whole. In fact, people don’t eat the bones of these. Instead, they plop the fish onto a slice of bread, where it hangs over the sides. Then they pick at it with their fingers, pulling the meat away from the skeleton and eating it, leaving a skeleton that looks like something you'd see in a Popeye cartoon. And then you eat the fishy bread.

Don't ever put your nose to the manjerico. The right way to do it is to touch the leaves with your hand, and then smell your hand. But do this before you go after the sardines.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Blowing your cover with a charge in Portugal

There's an undercover cost to meals and snacks in Portugal. It's called the couvert, or "cover". This sort of thing works differently in different countries. In some places, there's a cover charge that generally just pays for table service. In those places, it's not optional. In Portugal, it is optional, but you have to pay attention.

Portuguese menus have a section called "couvert". In that section are items such as bread, cheese, olives, and the like. You don't need to order some of them; they're placed on your table, the way you'd just get a bread basket in America or other places. If you eat it, or any of it, you're charged the cover price. Here's a sampling of the unrequested cover hospitality, local cheese, olives, and bread:

But the prices vary. The bread and the olives cost less than a euro. That little plate of cheese, though, is typically four euros (about six dollars right now). And it isn't pro-rated. You eat one slice; you're buying the plate of it. In Portugal, restaurants are affordable and portions are generous. But getting the bill is a happier occasion if you know the rules.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The cheese stands alone

Galicia comprises the northwestern corner of Spain. It's visited for its plentiful seafood and its pristine beaches. It's also the home of Santiago de Compostela, the third most important pilgrimage site in Christianity, behind Rome and Jerusalem. The Cathedral's stone carvings pay homage to many a Bible character, including one woman, most likely Queen Esther. She has a front-row spot on the Portico de la Gloria, a sculpted facade considered one of the most striking in the world. And she's the one who inspired Galicia's most titillating cheese.

According to local lore, the cathedral's original carving of Queen Esther was well endowed, in her place among the apostles and prophets. Nearby, a carved Daniel was smiling in her direction a bit too broadly, and rumors began to emerge of romance between these two stoners. Local elders were not pleased, and they ordered what amounted to breast reduction surgery, with a chisel.

Now, the citizenry did not receive this news well, and retaliated. A new cheese shape came into fashion, the tetilla, which translates to "small breast." So one of the regional dishes is basically "titty cheese." As a political statement, people would leave this breast-shaped cheese as an offering at the statue. The cheese is still sold everywhere. Nobody leaves it lying around, though. It's too delicious to part with. Got milk?