I discovered Portuguese cooking several years ago on a visit to Sagres.
Standing on the edge of the cliff, I struggled in the merciless wind to keep my unruly hair out of my eyes. A losing battle it was, for I could barely see the roiling blue Atlantic Ocean below. No trees, scrubby grass, an old whitewashed church, and a modern lighthouse, nothing else.
Sagres, perched on the tip of Portugal’s bleak Algarve region, now resembles a deserted airfield more than a spot that witnessed one of the greatest revolutions in human history. It is the perfect place for getting up to speed with sails unfurling. And its bleakness hides a romantic history. Some steps away from the cliff where I stood, Prince Henry the Navigator created a school for mariners. Those pioneering men learned well and eventually sailed around the world, driven in search of riches, including spices. Many of those spices played important roles in the Galenic humoral theory so entrenched in medicine and cuisine at the time.
Spaniards, as well as Portuguese, navigators attended Henry’s school, as did Christopher Columbus, whose path led to Los Reyes Católicos, particularly Queen Isabella. And the rest, as the trite saying goes, is even more history.
As for the cuisine, all roads led back to Rome. Or just about. The antecedents of Portuguese and Spanish cooking lie in Roman sensibilities, with the Roman’s excessive use of exotic and costly spicing, a practice that lasted longer in Spain than in the rest of Europe, thanks to the prolonged Arab presence for over 800 years.
The history of cookbooks in Spain (and, by default, Latin America) rests primarily on one thirteenth-century Spanish cookbook that has survived the molds and fires of time, An Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook. Another, Llibre de Sent Soví, in fourteenth-century Catalan, recorded 222 recipes as prepared before the influx of foods from the Americas. Other manuscripts dating from this time period also demonstrate borrowings from Sent Soví, namely Le livre du cuisinier de l’eveche de Tarragone, written in 1331; and Com usar de beure e menjar, written by a cleric, Francese Eiximenis (1337 – 1409), who quipped somewhat nationalistically that “com catalans mengen pus graciosament e ab millor manera que altres nacions,” or that “Catalans eat more graciously and better than do other nations!”
Yet another cookbook, this one from the fifteenth century, Libre de totes maneres de confits, included 33 recipes for fruit confits, may have been based on material from the Sent Soví manuscript. The anonymous author of the Manual de mugeres en el cual se contienen muchas y diversas recetas muy buenas also cherry picked recipes from Sent Soví.
Arab sources such as the 10th-century Kitab al-Tabikh (The Book of Dishes), by Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq, provide a glimpse of the roots of spicing patterns used in medieval Spanish cuisine and throughout Europe. Characteristic ingredients found in Spanish cooking owe much to the presence of Arabs, who dominated the Iberian Peninsula from 711 to 1492. Many of the following spicing ingredients still appear in familiar recipes found in Portuguese and Spanish cooking:
|Cloves Fennel Parsley|
Convent and monastery cuisine impacted so strongly on Portuguese and Spanish kitchens, it is likely that the daughters of conversos (Jews or Muslims or their descendants who converted to Catholicism in Spain and Portugal in the 14th and 15th centuries) made significant contributions. These women entered religious life to avoid marriage with Christians and brought their familial food traditions with them, along with their trunks of clothes, and passed those traditions on to their new communities. In particular, nuts, eggs, sugar, honey, raisins, and frying oil-enriched baked goods and other confections.
Cheri Hamilton, in Cuisines of Portuguese Encounters (2007), examines the cooking that emerged in Portugal’s overseas colonies.
For a more modern look at Portuguese cooking, you might be interested in Leandro Carreira’s Portugal: The Cookbook, from Phaidon (2022).
Containing 500 recipes and a brief introduction to Portuguese cuisine, the book also contains dozens of full-color photographs of many of the finished dishes, too.
(Photo credit: Amazon)
For a visual display of Sagres, take a look at this video from Rick Steves.
I still own a piece of Sagres, a pitted rock that sits on my desk, reminding me of the sweep of history.