ArchiveOctober 2021

MED Cookbook

When cookery writer Claudia Roden’s three children spread their wings and left their London home over 35 years ago, Claudia decided to leave home too and travel around the Mediterranean.  Off she went in the spirit of adventure without plans or arrangements but with her head swirling with childhood memories of the exhilarating moment when she and her siblings arrived in Alexandria by the desert road from their home in Cairo and suddenly saw the sea. She still vividly remembered the flavour of the food in the cafes along the sea front…

Back in the 1980’s, a woman travelling alone was definitely suspect but Claudia was on a mission to research and recapture flavours. This excuse allowed her to make contacts, ask for help, visit restaurant kitchens…It gave her the freedom to introduce herself to people on trains in cafes or in the sitting room of pensions…

She would start her conversation with ‘I’m an English food writer researching your cuisine, can you tell me what your favourite dishes are?’. Invariably people were happy to talk about food and so it began, Claudia continues her journey, to this day, endlessly curious, endlessly researching…

The countries around the Mediterranean Sea are all very different – with both Muslim and Christian cultures, deserts, forests, mountains, islands, yet they have much in common, a shared climate…hot, dry Summers, mild Winters and balmy evenings that encourages convivial outdoor cooking, alfresco eating, street food, bustling markets…

Every country has its own food culture and unique dishes, some of which differ from one town to another. Ingredients and utensils can be similar, clay pots to cook over fire, pestles and mortars, wood-burning ovens…

Curious, friendly people invited Claudia into their houses and cooked their favourite dishes for her while she painstakingly jotted down the recipes they shared.

On and on she went over the years – through Spain, Italy, France, Sicily, Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, the Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, meandering through the Balkans and the Levant. Much of this is documented in her cookbooks which have brought so much joy to so many of us throughout the years.

Claudia, now in her 80’s, she had already written 22 books.  Nonetheless, during Covid, her agent pressed her to write yet another book.  She was reluctant at first and was convinced that ‘nobody will want another cookbook from an octogenarian’.  Fortunately she was persuaded to share the favourite recipes that she loves to cook for family and friends.  Claudia, whom I have been fortunate to know for over three decades, is a beautiful, generous home cook and a relentless entertainer. Her food is fresh and timeless and inspires and delights both home cooks and professional chefs. I feel so blessed to know her.

Here are a few of my personal favourites from MED published by Ebury Press.  Seek it out – a perfect Christmas present for friends who love to cook. 

Mozzarella Soaked in Cream with Baby Tomatoes

Taken from Med, A Cookbook by Claudia Roden published by Ebury Press

In Italy in the 1980’s, it was fashionable to call dishes tricolore after the green, white and red Italian flag.  There was risotto tricolore and pizza tricolore.  The insalata di mozzarella e pomodori is still with us because tomatoes and basil are great with mozzarella.  In this recipe, very fresh Mozzarella di bufala is macerated in double cream for a few hours to give a magical ‘burrata’ effect.  Sautéing the tomatoes gives them a sweet and intense flavour.

Serves 3-6

3 x 125g (4 1/2oz) balls of mozzarella di bufala, each cut into 4 slices

150ml (5fl oz) double cream

500g (18oz) red and yellow baby Santini tomatoes or cherry tomatoes

4 tablespoons mild extra virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon sugar

6 basil leaves, leaves torn

salt and black pepper

Put the mozzarella in a bowl, cover with the cream and season with salt and pepper.  Cover and leave in the fridge for at least 4 hours.

Sauté the baby tomatoes in a pan with 1 tablespoon of the oil for about 8 minutes, adding the sugar and a little salt and pepper, shaking the pan and turning the tomatoes over until they soften and the skins of some of them tear.

Serve the mozzarella at room temperature with the tomatoes on the side.  Drizzle with the remaining oil and garnish with the torn basil leaves.   

Haricot Beans with Clams

Taken from Med, A Cookbook by Claudia Roden published by Ebury Press
One night on the seafront in Barcelona, I was looking for a restaurant that served zarzuela. I had eaten the extraordinary seafood stew many years before and it had left such an impression that I was desperately keen to have it again. My friend Pepa Aymami, who lives in Barcelona, only wanted clams. My zarzuela was disappointing but Pepa’s clams were delicious.

The Spanish alubias con almejas is my favourite clam recipe. Use good-quality white haricot beans from a jar or tin. The wine gives them a delicate flavour and the clams add the taste of the sea.

Serves 2

650g (1lb 7oz) clams
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1/2 small fresh chilli, chopped (optional)
3-4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
350g (12oz) jar small white haricot beans (or 1 x 400g (14oz) tin), drained and rinsed
125ml (4 1/2fl oz) fruity white wine or cava
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
salt

Throw away any clams that are chipped or broken and any open ones that do not close when you tap them on the sink or dip them in ice-cold water. Scrub them with a brush if they are dirty. Leave them in fresh cold water for 20 minutes – as they breathe, they will push out any sand that remains inside. Lift them out and rinse them in a colander under running water.

Heat the oil in a wide casserole or pan with a tight-fitting lid. Add the onion and the chilli, if using, and stir over a low heat until very soft and beginning to colour. Add the garlic and stir for a minute or so.

Add the beans, the wine and a little salt, mix gently and cook for 2-3 minutes. Put the clams on top, put the lid on, and cook over a medium-high heat for 2-3 minutes until the clams open. Throw away any that do not open. Serve sprinkled with parsley.

Red Pepper and Tomato Salad

Taken from Med, A Cookbook by Claudia Roden published by Ebury Press
Inspired by Moroccan cooked salads, this one is a favourite for its glorious colour and marvellous flavours. The addition of boiled lemon, with its unique sharp taste, is my little ‘fantasia’. For this, boil an unwaxed lemon for 30 minutes until it is very soft.

Serves 4-6

3 large fleshy red peppers
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
300g (10oz) cherry or baby plum tomatoes, such as Santini
1/2 – 1 fresh chilli, seeded and chopped, or a good pinch of ground chilli (optional)
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 small boiled lemon (see introduction) or 1/2 large one (optional)
3-4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
a few sprigs of coriander, leaves chopped
salt

Preheat the oven to 220C/Gas Mark 7 and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Cut the peppers in half through the stalks, remove the stalks, seeds and membranes and arrange them, cut-side down, on the parchment paper. Roast in the preheated oven for 25-35 minutes until they are soft and their skins are blistered. Put them in an empty pan with a tight-fitting lid or in a bowl with a plate on top and leave them to steam for 10 minutes, which will loosen the skins. When cool enough to handle, peel off the skins and cut each half into four ribbons.

While the peppers are roasting, heat the oil in a frying pan and add the tomatoes and chilli, if using. Cook over a low heat for 10 minutes, shaking the pan and turning the tomatoes over with a spatula until they are soft. Push them to the side of the pan, add the garlic to an empty bit of the pan and cook, stirring, until the aroma rises and the garlic just begins to colour. Add the sugar and some salt and stir well.

Add the peppers to the tomatoes. If using the lemon, cut into small pieces and add it to the pan, juice and all, but remove the pips. Stir gently over a low heat for a minute or so. Leave to cool.

Serve at room temperature, drizzled with plenty of extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of coriander.

Variations
Garnish with 10 black olives and 10 anchovy fillets in oil

For Neapolitan peperoni e pomodorini in agrodolce, dissolve 2 tablespoons of sugar in 100ml white wine vinegar, pour over the peppers and tomatoes and cook for a minute or two. Omit the sugar, boiled lemon and coriander.

Chicken and Onion ‘Pies’ with Moroccan Flavours

Taken from Med, A Cookbook by Claudia Roden published by Ebury Press
I have often enjoyed the Moroccan festive jewel in the crown b’stilla, a pigeon pie, and have made it many times myself, with chicken encased in layers of paper-thin pancakes (warka) or more often with filo pastry. Here, I have drawn from the flavours of versions from Fez (famously sweet) and Tetouan (famously sharp and lemony). A light rectangle of puff pastry sits in for the crust. It is both sumptuous and easy.

Serves 4

320g (11oz) all-butter puff pastry sheet
1 egg yolk
2 large onions (about 430g/15oz), halved and thickly sliced
4 tablespoons olive or sunflower oil, plus extra for greasing
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, plus extra to decorate
50g (2oz) blanched almonds, coarsely chopped
6 boneless, skinless chicken thigh fillets, cut into bite-sized pieces
1-2 tablespoons lemon juice
grated zest of 1/2 orange
1/2 boiled lemons, chopped (optional)
icing sugar, to decorate
bunch of coriander (25g/1oz), leaves chopped, to serve
salt and black pepper

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4.

Take the pastry out of the fridge about 20 minutes before you want to use it.

Unroll the pastry onto a lightly oiled baking tray. Cut it into eight rectangles. Brush the tops with egg yolk mixed with a drop of water and bake in the preheated oven for about 15-20 minutes or until the pasty has puffed up and is golden brown.

Put the onions in a wide frying pan with the oil, put the lid on and cook over a low heat, stirring often, for about 10 minutes until they are very soft.

Stir in the ginger and cinnamon, then add the almonds and the chicken pieces and season with salt and pepper. Cook uncovered for 7-8 minutes, stirring and turning the chicken until it is tender and lightly browned. Add the lemon juice and orange zest, the boiled lemon, if using, and 3-4 tablespoons of water, and continue to cook for 5 minutes.

Lightly cover the pastry rectangles with a dusting of icing sugar and make a small lattice pattern with ground cinnamon on top.

Stir the coriander into the chicken mixture and serve hot. Place two puff pastry rectangles on the side of each plate.

Parfait Mocha Praliné

Taken from Med, A Cookbook by Claudia Roden published by Ebury Press

This very easy no-churn ice cream has the wonderful mix of coffee and praline flavours that I love and also brings back many happy memories.  The same ingredients, plus sponge fingers, were those of a cake my mother always made for my father’s birthday.  When I went back to Egypt for the first time after 30 years, I looked in the window of the old pastry shop near where I used to live and there was the French cake book open at the page with our diplomate mocha praline.  My mother had ordered it there and learnt to make it herself after she left Egypt. 

Serves 8-10

50g (2oz) blanched hazelnuts

50g (2oz) caster sugar

300ml (10fl oz) double cream

175g (6oz) sweetened condensed milk

2 tablespoons instant espresso coffee powder

To make the praline, in a dry frying pan (not a non-stick one) toast the hazelnuts over a medium heat, shaking the pan, until they just begin to colour.  Tip the hazelnuts onto a plate and set aside.

Put the sugar in the pan, spread it out and place over a medium heat until it becomes liquid and turns a light golden colour (watch it as it can quickly turn very dark and bitter).  Put the hazelnuts back in and turn them around until they are well coated with the liquid caramel.  When the caramel turns brown, pour it onto a baking tray lined with parchment paper (or onto an oiled baking tray).  Let it cool completely.  When it is hard and brittle, grind in a food processor.

Whisk the cream with the condensed milk and coffee powder until soft peaks form.  Fold in the praline, keeping 2 tablespoons aside to decorate.  Keep this in a little cup covered with parchment paper until you are ready to serve. 

Line a mould with parchment paper (it makes turning out easier) and pour in the cream mixture.  Cover the top with parchment paper and freeze for at least 6 hours or overnight.

Take out of the freezer 15 minutes before serving.  Dip the mould into a bowl of very hot water for a few seconds.  Remove the covering parchment paper.  Turn the mould upside down onto a serving plate and remove the remaining parchment paper.  Serve sprinkled with the reserved praline. 

Spain

Last week I wrote about our Portuguese experience and some of the delicious food we discovered including the exquisite Flor da sal from the salinas in Tavira close to Faro.

This week’s column comes to you from Andalusia in Spain.  Jamón country where the hams are made from the long-legged black Iberian pigs that have adapted to the terrain and roam freely through the dehesa (the woodland forests of cork oak, chestnut and pine trees) that cover much of the Iberian Peninsula.

The little town of Jabugo is the centre of the industry, the quality of the jamón varies dramatically so I really wanted to understand the process that determines the finest cured ham.  I arranged a tour of Cinca Jotas who arguably produce the very best acorn fed jamón.  Serrano is the generic name for Spanish cured hams just as prosciutto or Parma ham is the term for Italian ham.

As ever, the best hams start with the finest raw materials, must be 100% Iberico breed and acorn fed.  At Cinca Jotas, the pigs spend two years ranging freely in the woodland.  It’s not just the breed but also the feed and curing process that contributes to the final quality.  The finest hams come from pigs that feast on acorns throughout Autumn.  They walk an average of 14kms a day, snuffling through the undergrowth for the three different varieties of oak that thrive in the dehesa. Each contributes to the final flavour, holm oak, the sweetest, cork oak, gall oak….Pata Negra di bellota, acorn fed ham is not only delicious, but it is low in cholesterol, high in beneficial oleic acid (a mono-unsaturated fatty acid) and omega 3-6-9.

At Cinca Jotas, each pig is allocated 2 hectares of woodland.

Each ham is unique, first the hams are trimmed of excess fat (which is gently rendered into superb lard), then weighed, classified, and buried in Atlantic salt from the salinas in Tavira…  1 day for every kilo of weight…   In that time, the salt will penetrate 1 – 1 1/2cm into the ham, to preserve flavour and draw out excess moisture. The salt is then brushed off and the hams are washed, hung and rotated in special curing rooms for 2-3 years. Once the hams are dried, they are stable.

The bone is porous, so pork lard is spread over the bone to seal.  Penicillium grows on the inner side, which is part of the curing process, this is painted with oil, 12-15 times over three years.

These artisanal methods have been passed from grandfather to sons and onto grandsons for centuries.   

A whole jamón can cost upwards of €500 and a small plate of wafer-thin slivers costs between €20-25 in wine bars and restaurants.  So, it’s really worth knowing what to look out for, otherwise it can be an expensive disappointment. 

After all that, how do you judge a good jamón…
Look out for: Top quality…

A Black Label – tied around the leg which indicates 100% Iberico breed and acorn fed for two seasons, plus details of age…. 

A Red Label – 50-75%, Iberico breed crossed with Duroc, must graze on a minimum of 10,000 metres of dehesa per animal and be acorn fed for 1 rather than two seasons.

A Green Label – 50-70% Iberico. A combination of extensive and intensive rearing, corn and grass fed with a minimum of 100 metres space per animal.

A White Label – the pigs are produced intensively, many in cages with a minimum of 2 metres per animal and are grain fed. 

The label must remain on the ham until the ham has been carved.  The hams are tested by the quality controller with a sharp horse bone (a calado) inserted close to the hip bone of the ham.  He can pick up a taint when he sniffs the bone.

The hams are hand carved in tiny wafer-thin slices (1 1/2 – 2mm).

I learned so much on the tour from Jago, the enthusiastic young guide.  We watched as he carved the jamón from left to right and explained that each part of the ham has a different flavour.  The middle and largest area of the jamón is called the maza.  Turn over the ham to find ‘la babilla’ – this is the front part of the leg, lean with no infiltration of fat – smoother in flavour. Behind the hip bone is the ‘punta’, many aficionados consider it to be the best bit but hardest to carve – the little snippets that those ‘in the know’ seek out. 

If you are fortunate to have a whole ham, attach it to a jamón stand.  Carve in tiny slivers and cover with strips of fat saved from the outside trimmings to keep moist between servings.  Eat a jamón within 1 1/2 months – I would choose little slivers of an exquisite jamón for my last meal…

Los Marinos Picadillo

On the day after the September fiesta, known as Hangover Day, the local villagers all gather in the local square.  They bring a bag of huge juicy pink mountain tomatoes, cucumber, onions and green peppers to make picadillo, a sort of chewy gazpacho.  It’s all wonderfully convivial.  Both men and women chop side by side, it all goes into a huge bowl to be served with slivers of jamón, country bread and grilled sardines. 

Moroccan Peppered Prawns (Gambas picantes de Marruecos)

We stayed at the wonderful Finca Buenvino in the oak forests in Aracena.  www.fincabuenvino.com

We enjoyed these prawns as a starter.  A super, easy recipe to serve a few friends for dinner.   

‘It is usually simple to get frozen raw prawns in Spain.  Most towns have a ready supply of fish, even if they are a long way from the sea.  Aracena is no exception, and it boasts two fish shops and two market stalls.  Unlike most of our recipes, this dish uses butter rather than olive oil.’  Recipe taken from The Buenvino Cookbook by Jeannie & Sam Chesterton.

Serves 8 as part of a mixed tapas

1kg (2 1/4lb) medium-sized raw frozen tiger prawns (allow 6-8 per person)

100g (3 1/2oz) unsalted butter

6 garlic cloves, finely chopped

leaves from 1 sprig of parsley, finely chopped

1 tablespoon smoked sweet paprika

1/4 teaspoon smoked hot paprika

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

salt and freshly ground black pepper

lemon wedges, to serve

Allow the prawns to thaw in a colander in the sink, covered with a tea towel.

Shell and devein the prawns, remove the heads and leave on the tails.  Jeannie finds it easier to peel them when they are still slightly frozen.

Melt the butter in a pan over a low heat.  Add all the ingredients except the lemon wedges, with 1/2 teaspoon of salt and cook over a low heat for five minutes.  Serve immediately with lemon wedges. 

Fried Padrón Peppers

‘These small green peppers, originally grown in Galicia around the town of Padrón, just south of Santiago de Compostela, are now more widely cultivated and have become very popular all over the country and further afield.  We know them as Russian roulette: although most of them are sweet, every now and then one will blow your socks off with its heat!’  Recipe taken from The Buenvino Cookbook by Jeannie & Sam Chesterton.

Serves 8 as part of a mixed tapas

250g (9oz) Padrón peppers

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

sea salt, to serve

Wash the dust of the fields off the peppers and dry them carefully with a tea towel so they don’t spit when you add them to the pan.

Heat the olive oil in a wide pan that has a lid and, when warm, add the peppers.  When the oil is hot and the peppers are frying, cover the pan.  Allow to cook for two minutes, shaking from time to time.  The peppers should not be browned all over, only softened.

Drain on kitchen paper and sprinkle with sea salt to serve.

Meatballs in Tomato and Orange Sauce (Albóndigas con tomate)

We ate the leftovers with pasta the next day – so, so delicious!

‘These tasty meatballs can be made with minced beef or pork or a mixture of chicken and pork.  We like to use Iberian pork because it is readily available in the Sierra de Huelva and the quality can be relied upon.  Have the butcher mince the meat in front of you.’   Recipe taken from The Buenvino Cookbook by Jeannie & Sam Chesterton.

Serves 8 as part of a mixed tapas

4 spring onions, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

225g (8oz) minced beef or pork or a mixture of chicken and pork

2 tablespoons grated Manchego cheese

2 teaspoons thyme leaves, plus more to serve (optional)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon olive oil, plus 2 tablespoons more to thicken (optional)

4 tomatoes, chopped

200ml (7fl oz) red wine

2 tablespoons chopped rosemary leaves

1/2 teaspoon caster sugar

a little freshly grated orange zest, plus juice of 1 orange

2 teaspoons cornflour (optional)

chopped black olives (optional)

Mix the spring onions and garlic with the meat, cheese and thyme in a bowl and season with plenty of salt and pepper.

Mould into little meatballs with the palm of your hand, then fry gently in 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a deepish pan, turning frequently until browned all over.  Remove the meatballs, set on kitchen paper, and keep them warm in a low oven.

Add the tomatoes to the pan with the wine, rosemary, sugar, orange zest and juice and season with salt and pepper.  Cook gently for 15 minutes or so.

If the sauce is too thin, mix the cornflour with the 2 tablespoons of olive oil to make a paste.  Whisk 1 tablespoon of the paste into the sauce and bring it to the boil.  Cook out until the sauce is thick and smooth (you probably won’t need the rest of the paste but keep it in case you want the sauce even thicker).  Replace the meatballs and cook gently until warmed through.

Serve sprinkled with chopped black olives or more thyme. 

Citrus and Honey Cake

‘This is an Eastern Mediterranean cake which is perfectly in tune with Spanish ingredients.’  Recipe taken from The Buenvino Cookbook by Jeannie & Sam Chesterton.

Serves 12

For the cake:
175g (6oz) unsalted butter, softened, plus more for the tin
plain flour, for the tin
1 orange, washed
1 thin-skinned waxed lemon, washed
25g (1oz) roasted hazelnuts, plus 12 whole hazelnuts to decorate (optional)
110g (4oz) almonds
175g (6oz) Demerara sugar
3 large free-range eggs
250g (9oz) semolina
1 teaspoon baking powder

For the sauce:
225ml (8fl oz) runny honey, ideally orange blossom honey
4cm (1 1/2 inch) cinnamon stick
juice of 1 orange
juice of 1/2 lemon
creme fraiche, or a mixture of whipped cream with yoghurt, to serve (optional)

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas Mark 6.

Butter a 25cm (10 inch) springform cake tin and line the base with greaseproof paper. Butter the paper too, then dust with plain flour, turning to coat the tin and tapping out the excess.

Cut the orange and lemon into quarters and remove all the pips.

Grind up the nuts in a food processor, then add the citrus fruit and process together. It’s good to leave some of the nuts slightly coarse, as it lends texture to the cake, and it’s also not bad to encounter the odd bit of roughly chopped peel, so don’t worry if it is not entirely smooth.

Beat together the butter, sugar, eggs, semolina and baking powder until you have a smooth mix. Stir in the fruit and nut purée.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin, place on a central oven shelf and bake for 10 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4 and bake for a further 45 minutes.

Remove the cake and cook for five minutes. If you have buttered and floured your tin properly, it should come away easily from the sides when you unclip them. Remove the papers and place the cake on a wire rack over a wide plate.

Make a flavoured syrup by simmering the honey with 5 tablespoons of water and the cinnamon stick for five minutes. Fish out the cinnamon stick and add the citrus juices.

Prick the cake all over and pour the syrup on to it, distributing it as widely as possible, as you want the whole cake to be dampened. Any juice which goes straight through on to the plate can be spooned back over when the cake is cold and on its serving dish.

Have ready in a bowl some creme fraiche, or a mixture of whipped cream and yoghurt and, just before serving, spread a thin layer on top of the cake and decorate with the roasted hazelnuts, split in half, if you like. Cut the cake at the table and hand around the rest of the cream in a bowl with a small spoon or sauce ladle.

Sam’s Pickled Anchovies with Parsley

A perfect tapa to serve with a dry sherry.

Debone the anchovies, remove the guts and open out.

Sprinkle with wine vinegar, 2 finely chopped cloves of garlic, thinly sliced scallion, salt, freshly ground black pepper.

Allow to macerate for a couple of hours. Rinse, add freshly chopped coriander and serve.  Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.  Serve with lots of crusty bread.

Purple Figs with Quesa Fresca and Mint

A super simple, truly delicious starter.  One day, we didn’t have mint so we used some torn basil leaves, also very good.

Serves 4

10 purple or green perfectly ripe figs
75-110g (3-4oz) quesa fresca (cheese)
Flor de sal and freshly ground black pepper
fresh mint
extra virgin olive oil

Just before serving, split the figs in half. Arrange on a platter. Top the figs with 5mm (1/4 inch) thick slices of quesa fresca. Season with Flor da sal or flaky sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper.

Sprinkle generously with torn mint leaves. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and serve.

Portugal

What do you know about Portuguese food?  Those of you who pop over to Faro from time to time will be familiar with the spanking fresh seafood on the Algarve but I’d only been to Portugal once before – a little foray over the border from Spain for a couple of hours so my knowledge was limited… it’s been a wonderful adventure… 

We rented a little house in the old town of Olhão, a little fishing port not far from Faro with some friends who also love to cook.  We filled our baskets at the markets with local food and vegetables, bunches of purslane, verbena and coriander…..

The red brick fish market close to the sea front had a mesmerising selection of fish and shellfish…. octopus, cuttlefish, clams, tiny conquilhas, mussels, razor clams, shrimps, and gorgeous silver scabbard fish. Corvina, new to me, gurnard, sole, sea bass…Beautiful little anchovies, whole or already gutted, ready to be pickled or fried and of course mounds of fresh sardines.

Olhão was the centre of the sardine canning industry in Portugal famous for quality.  Sadly, since the mid 1979’s the action has moved to Morocco so the seaside town is now almost fully dependent on tourism.

Umpteen sandbanks appear and disappear with the tides.  We visited several tiny islands off the coast, Coulatra, Isla de Cabanas, Armona…One day we took a boat and a picnic over to Ilsa Deserta, an idyllic desert island where we collected beautiful seashells and swam and swam in the crystal clear waters. 

At low tide, one can shuffle through the golden sand on all the local beaches and collect tiny conquilhas between one’s toes.  Local fishers harvest clams, oysters and mussels at low tide as they have done for generations and take them home or sell them at the local fish market.

Twenty kilometres further along the coast in Tavira, I visited the salinas where the most exquisite flor da sal is harvested in the same time-honoured way that it has been for hundreds of years and surprise, surprise, there’s an Irish connection… Rui Simeao, the 86 year-old owner who lived through the end of the second World War told me proudly that an Irishman called Anthony Creswell uses Tavira Flor da Sal for his multi-award winning Ummera smoked salmon – a small world…. 

On Saturday, local farmers and their wives pour into the Olhão Market and set up stalls along the water’s edge to sell their homegrown fruit and vegetables.  Lots of beautifully ripe green and purple figs and many intriguing products made from the dried fruit. Little rolls and tiny cakes sweetly decorated with slivered locally grown almonds.  Beekeepers were out in force with their new seasons honey, orange blossom, carob, rosemary, and little wedges of honeycomb.  Another stall, sold dried beans and lentils and both barley and wheat to grind at home for beer and bread making.

I bought a verbena plant from a lady on a flower stand and queued for piping hot, crisp golden churros tossed in cinnamon sugar. 

The white peaches were at their best too as were the huge juicy heritage tomatoes.  One old lady was selling sweet potato greens and another, long strands of chilli peppers, multi-coloured, some mild, others like scud missiles – a kind of Russian roulette…

We were so torn between cooking in our little house and eating in local restaurants and cafes.  We grilled sardines over charcoal on the little barbeque in the courtyard, steamed open conquilhas with slivered garlic, chilli and coriander, ate mussels with Portuguese spinach and made escabeche from the leftovers.  Coriander is a favourite herb in Portugal, much more widely used than parsley.

Breakfast was a feast of fresh fruit, local cheese, honey and bread from the little bakery a few cobbled streets away. I also loved the pork with bay leaves and clams which I ordered twice at Sabores de Rio in the main square.  Also loved riso con Lingueirão (razor clam rice) and love the sound of riso e pato – rice with duck.  Many of these dishes are easy to reproduce at home.  Make a trip to the fish stalls in the English Market in Cork, Ballycotton Seafood or your local fish shop.  I use leftover roast duck for the riso e pato and have a feeling it will become a favourite.  

There were lots of insanely sweet eggy desserts but my favourite by far are pastéis de nata… the little flaky custard tarts … dusted with a sprinkling of cinnamon.

Conquilhas with Garlic, Coriander and Chilli

Conquilhas are sweet little, tiny clams, the size of a fingernail.  Cockles, mussels or palourdes could also be used.

Serves 4

1kg (2 1/4lb) conquilhas
4 garlic cloves, slivered
1 scallion, chopped
1 tiny hot chilli
60ml (2 1/2fl oz) white wine
50g (2oz) butter
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

2-3 tablespoons coriander, chopped

First soak the conquilhas in lots of well salted water for 3-4 hours.

Melt the butter and extra virgin olive oil in a pan, add the slivered garlic, chopped scallion, a small whole chilli.  Sweat on a medium heat for 4-5 minutes.

Add the white wine and bubble for 2-3 minutes until the garlic is soft.

Increase the heat.  Add the purged, drained shellfish, cover and shake and cook for 5-6 minutes or until all the conquilhas pop open. Add the coriander and shake again.

Turn into a serving dish.  Serve with lots of crusty bread to soak up the juice.


Pork with Clams and Bay Leaves

If you have a cataplana (a saucepan with a hinged lid), use it, otherwise choose a lid that fits the pan tightly so the clams will steam open.  A delicious combination of flavours, suppose you could call is surf and turf. 


Serves 4

1 1/2kg (3lb 5oz) clams
1 x pork fillet (500g/18oz approx.)

salt and freshly ground black pepper

2-3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2-3 garlic cloves, chopped

3-4 bay leaves
coriander, chopped

Soak the clams in well salted water for several hours to get rid of any sand. Wash the clams in several changes of cold water.

Trim and slice the pork fillet into 2 – 2.5cm (3/4 – 1 inch) slices. Season well with salt and freshly ground black pepper. 


Heat the extra virgin olive oil in a pan, add the slivered garlic and bay leaves, toss and cook for 2-3 minutes until tender. 

Add the pork slices, a few at a time. Cook just until they change colour.  Add the clams, cover the pan and steam until the clams have opened.  Add the coriander, toss well (if you have a cataplana, use it).  Taste and serve ASAP with lots of crusty bread to mop up the juices.

Portuguese Steamed Clams with Coriander

Serves 4

1kg (2 1/4lb) clams
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
6 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons dry white wine
squeeze of freshly squeezed lemon juice
freshly ground black pepper
a handful of coriander, chopped

Wash the clams in several changes of cold water, discard any with damaged or broken shells.

Heat the extra virgin olive oil in a wide sauté pan, add the garlic and cook for 4-5 minutes on a medium heat. Add the white wine and a generous squeeze of lemon juice, bring to the boil for 2-3 minutes and freshly ground pepper.

Add the roughly chopped coriander and clams. Cover and allow to steam for 4-5 minutes or until the clams pop open.
Turn into a serving dish, scatter with a little more coriander. Serve with good crusty bread to mop up the juices.


Mussels with Saffron and Spinach

In Portugal and Spain, there are many recipes for shellfish (or snails) with spinach or chard.  Some are muddied with tomato puree, others flavoured with cloves.  Often there is a handful of rice or some beans thrown in.  This is a beautiful dish with golden creamy sauce and bright green spinach leaves contrasting wonderfully with the black and orange of the mussels.  This recipe comes from Sam and Jeannie Chesterton’s ‘The Buenvino Cookbook’  

Serves 4-6 as part of a mixed tapas

150g (5oz) spinach

extra virgin olive oil

4 tablespoons dry white wine

2 sweet white onions, finely chopped

4 bay leaves

1 celery stick, finely chopped (optional)

a few sprigs of thyme

10 black peppercorns

1kg (2 1/4lb) mussels, cleaned and debearded

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 pinches of saffron strands

250g (9oz) crème fraîche

salt and freshly ground black pepper

Wash the spinach, drain and then wilt it in a pan with a little olive oil.  Don’t overcook it.  Set aside.

Pour the wine into a large heavy-based pan with a tight-fitting lid.  Add the onions, bay leaves, celery (if using), thyme and peppercorns and bring to a simmer.

Now tip in the mussels and cover the pan, keeping it over a low heat.  Shake the pan now and then to distribute the shellfish.  Check to see that the mussels have opened and, when they are all open, tip the lot into a colander set over a bowl to catch the stock.  Remove the flesh from some of the mussels and discard these shells.  Discard any mussels that have refused to open.

Wipe the pan and return it to the heat.  Melt the butter and add the saffron, crème fraiche and the mussel liquor.  Check for seasoning and add freshly ground black pepper.  It’s just possible you will also need salt, but mussel stock is usually salted enough.  Bring to the boil and simmer for a couple of minutes, then return the spinach and the mussels.  Cook for a minute to warm the mussels through, then serve immediately in warmed bowls with crusty bread.

Portuguese Custard Tarts

This is our recipe for Pasteis de Nata, the famous Portuguese Custard tarts – we use homemade puff pastry to make these delicious tarts, they make a much more complicated pastry. 

Makes 24

1 large egg

2 egg yolks

115g (4oz) golden caster sugar

2 tablespoons cornflour

400ml (14fl oz) whole milk

zest from 1 lemon or 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract

900g (2lb) puff pastry

Lightly grease 2 x 12 muffin tins.

Preheat the oven to 230°C/450°F/Gas Mark 8.

Put the egg, yolks, sugar and cornflour in a saucepan and whisk, gradually add the milk and lemon zest if using and whisk until smooth.

Cook on a medium heat and stirring constantly with a whisk until the mixture thickens and comes to the boil, continue to cook for 2 minutes.  Remove the saucepan from the heat, stir in the vanilla extract if using.

Transfer to a Pyrex bowl, allow to cool.  Cover with parchment paper to prevent a skin from forming – prick here and there to allow steam to escape.

Roll the chilled puff pastry into a 3mm (1/8 inch) thick sheet, stamp out 7.5cm (3 inch) discs.  Press into the muffin tins.

Spoon a generous dessertspoon of the cool custard into each pastry case. Bake in the preheated oven for 16-20 minutes or golden on top.  Allow to cool in the tins for 5 minutes then remove to a wire rack.  Sprinkle with a little freshly ground cinnamon.  Eat warm or at room temperature.

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