Chestnuts in an Algarve Autumn

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Portuguese proverb………”It is Saint Martins Day, we’ll eat chestnuts and we’ll taste the wine”.

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Before the potato was introduced into Europe, the chestnut was a major source of carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals in the local diet. However its position  was supplanted, it still plays a role in the seasonal Mediterranean diet that resonates today. Chefs will still incorporate these food items onto their menus via soups, pastas, purees, roasts, braises and desserts. Fine dining cooking still needs the influence of the peasants classical cooking of necessity. If you did not eat the chestnut throughout the winter months, you might starve.

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But there is still nothing like being able to purchase freshly roasted chestnuts from a street vendor. Their sweet, smoky aroma is irrestible during November in the Algarve. Braziers burn and it is quite the social moment as customers wait their turn to receive their chestnuts wrapped up in a conically wrapped piece of magazine paper.

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Chestnuts are synonymous with the Feast of Saint Martin in Portugal, as well as demarcating that fine, thin line line between Autumn and Winter. In southern Portugal, it is imperative to have the Winter seasons crop of wheat already planted and the pig slaughtered in order to make and preserve the chorizo curing during the cool Winter months. It is also a season of festivity because, right around now, one can taste the new seasons wine offerings. In Algarve, the preference is for aqua-pe or “foot wine”. Essentially, this is an alcohol made from pouring water over the dregs left over from the wine making process, much like an Italian grappa.

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Classically speaking, kitchenwise, more morthern climates associate goose with the Feast of Saint Martin. Though in Portugal, one might be more inclined to see duck, which is what I used for my dish.

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My continued celebration of the chestnut is borrowed from the classic Tuscan dish named “Castagnaccio” (made with chestnut flour). Basically, it is a chestnut dessert pancake comprised of chestnut flour, pine nuts, raisins, olive oil and rosemary. I love the use of herbs for dessert cooking. For my own personal interpretation of Mediterranean cooking, fresh herbs are a must and are used throughout the meal.

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The finished baked item is usually accompanied by a dessert wine. In Italy, where much of my cooking experience comes from, this is VinSanto or Holy Wine. But hey……. hmmmm, this goes great with Port also. Eat and drink like a peasant.

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Tavira Phoenicia

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The Phoenicians landed in Baal Saphon (Tavira) from today’s Lebanon approximately 3,000 years ago as traders. And though they are credited with creating an alphabet, they did not keep very good records. Really, it is their archaeological footprint that supplies evidence and speculation. For me, it was the Phoenician fire-pits in Tavira that got me wondering. There is no smoke without fire. The fire-pits were associated with their feasting and religious ceremonies. I was curious to see if there was any echo reverberating from that time in today’s Tavira.

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As recipients of wine-making knowledge from the East, the Phoenicians were instrumental in distributing wine, wine grapes and wine making technology throughout the Mediterranean region. Today, Tavira wines have been recognised as been good enough earn the DOC appelation.

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Amphoras were used to transport wine. They were sealed with olive oil to prevent or reduce spoilage. This was fine until they were spilled in rough seas. Later in history, they were used to capture  cephalopods or octopus from our local waters.

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Nowadays, the original earthenware amphorae are more difficult to locate. They break easy on rocks at the bottom of the sea and are expensive to replace. Local fishing vessels use these black plastic replicas to attract the octopus, who like to hide out in dark cavernous places.

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The Buzio’s or purple spiny murex are still to be found at the local markets or better “marisqueiras”. Though extensive middens of shellfish are located along the Algarve coastline from older times, today they have become expensive. This type of shellfish was prized by the Phoenicians for the purple ink that it secreted which was used as a dye by their priest class. The dye was used to color their clothing so as to distinguish their elevated place in Phoenician society. This priesthood supervised the Phoenician cult of the dead, hence the fire-pits associated with these ceremonies. Bodies were buried with offerings of food and drink. One of the Phoenician gods was named Baal Saphon, Tavira’s earliest urban name, and was their God of the Sea.

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Fuzeta is a fishing village located close to Tavira. It is the octopus capital of the Algarve. One of the items that the Phoenicians capitalised on as they made inroads into Iberia was the use of cork to cap their amphorae. The largest production of cork in the world is in southern Portugal. Odds are that every time you open a bottle of wine, you will have to deal with a little cork stopper. Another Phoenician vibration……

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Octopus, or “polvo”, is a common sight at the Tavira fish market. There are many recipes available in books and magazines for this species of animal. I chose to blanch the tentacles and then boil it. After, I let it sit overnight in a simple olive oil based marinade. This marinade consisted of thyme, piri-piri, garlic and thyme, items that are to the forefront of the Portuguese pantry.

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My latter day version of the Phoenician fire-pit was an outdoor grill, ubiquitous to cooking all over the Algarve. Wrapped in smoke, the grilled octopus paid homage to another time in our collective culinary history. Eat like a peasant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tavira Mediterranica

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Throughout the Mediterranean basin, with all it’s different lands and cultures, the common denominator of the cuisine is based on the traditional staples of wheat, olives and grapes. Technically, Portugal does not border the Mediterranean. It’s climate can best be described as Atlantic Maritime. However, like the Portuguese language, there is always an exception to the rule. The southern Portuguese regions of Alentejo and the Algarve are, by definition, Mediterranean. This is on account of the climate. And climate, throughout the Mediterranean, influences the local cooking style. As does soil conditions and composition, water and location.

Whole wheat sour dough bread.

Wheat is synonomous with the concept of Mediterranean cooking. Without it, there are no regional breads, or any of the regional pastas, tabbouleh, cous-cous, bulghur and so on. The region of Alentejo is Portugal’s bread-basket and the largest producing region of wheat in Portugal. Indeed, it was what attracted the Roman’s to this this place. Wheat was neccessary for “empire building” in order to feed an expanding population. The Romans also brought their improved technology for milling the grain. Needless to say, I recommend whole wheat and encourage you to include more of it in your diet.

Wheatberry salad with golden beets and mustard greens.

In Tavira, I am fortunate to be able to purchase locally grown wheat from a farm in Santa Luzia, a village two miles away. Santa Luzia, or Saint Lucy is the patron saint of eye problems and her feast is celebrated on December 13. “Luz” in Portuguese means light and she is associated with the Winter solstice when the days begin to get longer and brighter. Wheat is also associated with her feast day.

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Certainly, without olives, there can be no extra virgin olive oil and, by default, no such thing as the concept of Mediterranean cooking. It is the primary cooking medium. Olives grow abundantly around Tavira and during the late Autumn, local farmers bring their harvest to the local cooperative to have their olives crushed so as to have it for the coming year.

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As a believer in local and sustainable food systems, Tavira’s local agriculture and markets play a key role in my outlook and food philosophy. Most, if not all, food items that I purchase are sourced locally. I have a special place in my heart for Quinta Shanti, a local organic farm located 5 miles away in Conceicao. I received their extra virgin olive oil pressed from their own Manzanilha olives. Unfiltered, you can see the difference what a year makes. Due to gravity and time, the oil will self clarify as all the little olive particles held in suspension will gradually fall the bottom of the jar. I use it every day for all my cooking needs and also as a table condiment to complete dishes. I also use extra virgin olive oil as a medicinal by taking two tablespoons each morning. Do that for a month and tell me how you feel.

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Much has already been written about Portuguese wines and there are many delicious wines from the Algarve that go under the radar screens. Fuzeta is a fishing village located 10 miles from Tavira. It is the octopus capital of the Algarve. This red wine is not D.O.C. rated because of the inclusion of Cabernet-Sauvignon into the blend. Portuguese D.O.C. wines must, by law, use local varietals that have been traditionally used within a defined region.

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Terras da Luz or Lands of the Light is from the parish of Luz da Tavira, located halfway between the towns of Tavira and Fuzeta. Luz da Tavira is also the archaelogical site of Balsa and considered one the more important Roman settlements in the Algarve. At that time, the Romans named the region Lusitania. Luso was the son of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. Eat, and drink, like a peasant.