A Taste of Portugal in London

29 Jan 2015
4 min read
The return of Chef Ricardo Costa to Portal restaurant in London gives us a glimpse into some fine Portuguese dining.

The street was nearly empty at such an early hour after work. 6:30, I thought his part of East London would be busier, but the cold had driven everyone home, back into the shadows.

Emerging from Farringdon station, I kept my head down; scarf wrapped tightly around my neck, gloves on, music in my headphones. I almost passed the restaurant, so consumed with my thoughts, but also it is inconspicuous. The small sign near a large glass window, it looked warm and inviting inside. I ran in, caught the warm air on my skin; the smell of pork and men’s cologne was hanging in the background.

The bar was empty; everyone was crowded around a small table in a room just behind it. My coat was put away, hellos, hi’s and welcomes from several new faces, a cocktail of white port and tonic (refreshing if a bit sweet) and then an elaborate, over the top pork scratching. Bisaro Pork; foam; crunch; bits of pork skin everywhere, the floor was getting all crunchy. Ladies in nice shoes stuffing crispy skin in their mouths to soak up the cocktails – dinner felt hours away.

7:30 – ushered into a dining room surrounded with wine bottles floor to ceiling. 12 or 13 of us all-sitting at a large square table, I felt like I was at a Mafia Boss meeting. The atmosphere was punctuated with the sommelier’s words about each wine; then back to the small talk. Three courses all prepared with elegance and skill, lacking a bit of rustic-ness that I think the food deserved, it was a bit gussied-up, but the flavour was there.

The porky flavour of the belly of suckling Bisaro pig, crunchy under the knife, with small circles of apple, and a large prawn; it all seemed so easy to eat. It felt comfortable and pleasant. Just before that course, there was the game sausage, created by the Jewish community in Portugal. It was good. Especially when dipped into the cup of egg yolk gravy. Yes.

I’ll skip to the dessert now because it was a surprise of pork, citrus and Abade de Pirscos pudding. What? Pork in a dessert? Sim, bom, bom. Madeira to wash it down, the dryness, the salinity…

Before I headed towards home, I managed to ask Chef Costa a few questions about his inspiration and his cooking.

Ricardo, you say that you’re inspired by your Grandmother – What are some of the best cooking tips she gave you that you still use in the kitchen?

Apart from the principles and values that my mother and grandmother passed on, perhaps the most important lesson they gave to me was in educating my palate. The fact that my mother and grandmother were both good cooks and they passed on their techniques to me and introduced me to new flavours in both regional and typical dishes, was an invaluable inspiration.

Have you been inspired to put some new renditions or classic recipes from the past on your menus, like we ate this evening?

I am constantly updating myself with both technical skills and products, but the fact that I am Portuguese means that I enjoy cooking national and regional dishes and so I think about reinterpreting them in a modern way. Sometimes Portuguese cooking is not very balanced, it uses a lot of beans, potatoes, rice, etc. so I reinterpret the recipes in a more modern and balanced way, for example with less fat.

What are the flavours of your youth that bring back memories of family and gatherings together?

There are 3 particular dishes that bring back strong memories of being with my family and family gatherings: one is eel ‘caldeirada’ – it’s a typical fish stew dish from ‘Aveiro’, which is my hometown. It uses potato, vegetables and usually fish, in an oily base, but in Aveiro it is very typically made with eel. Another dish is suckling pig, which was served at almost every party when I was young: weddings, birthdays and holidays. Another such dish is called ‘chanfana’ – it’s a very rich, warming meat stew that is roasted in the oven and takes me back to my origins. I frequently have different variations of these dishes of in my menus.

What is it like being back at Portal? A good flashback?

I’m very happy to be back in London and at Portal, which was my first project as a Head Chef and is also a project that started with me. I had a great time working there and the restaurant was very successful so it was a good time and a good memory.It is obviously quite significant, nearly ten years later, being where I am now in my career, to return and to have the opportunity to cook here again and to share what I have learnt. It’s wonderful.

What do foreigners not understand about Portuguese cuisine? What are they missing out on?

Perhaps what foreign visitors don’t know is that there is a huge amount of history and tradition in Portuguese cuisine, involving many different dishes, some of which are incredibly old. Certain dishes from the Bairrada are 300 years old and Sweet Egg Yolks (the traditional technique of ‘Ovos Moles’) is a 200 year-old recipe – facts that are often overlooked, even by Portuguese people. Portugal offers a temperate climate with a lot of meat, great fish and excellent vegetables, all of which contribute to our fine Portuguese cuisine. Transmitting the great food and wine of Portugal to foreign people is also our mission at The Yeatman. We do this by ensuring the best quality of ingredients and by reformulating historic dishes from the past.

Taste Portugal London continues through March 2015.tasteportugal-london.com