Unbeknownst to Jaap, our Dutch neighbour up in the hills at Mesa do Cume, I scrumped (scrumping: the act of illegally plundering fruit from the tree) his lemon tree this morning.
Thursday night, I cooked dinner for a party of 25. The setting was a lodge next to the river on the outskirts of Tavira. It's a simple but beautiful place comprising of a main private house, 5 smaller cottages and a walled terrace .
The party-goers were here to celebrate the birthday of a friend and both he and most of his guests had travelled from their homes in Norway.
After a few emails back and forth we had agreed upon a menu; pâté, escabeche, a number of salads and various dishes to accompany fish... BBQ'd fish.
Whilst catering in Holland my relationship with the 'Barbie' was not always a happy one. Attempting to grill too large hunks of rib-eye in virtual darkness, shielded from the rain by a dodgy 'party tent' which flapped about wildly in the wind. Whilst the guests sank mojitos in the warmth of a Herengracht townhouse.
Catering for 50 guests or more in a domestic setting is difficult enough without adding the vagaries of spitting charcoal and the dicey nature of Northern European weather. I found the whole BBQ thing - messy, unpredictable and wholly avoidable.
Of course the climate here in the Algarve is better suited to outdoor cooking, eating and just about everything really. Hairy chested, chubby cooks need only the slightest excuse to grab the tongs, pop open a bottle of Sagres beer and ignite the BBQ. Whether to prepare a handful of fresh horse-mackerel on a Sunday afternoon or to grill hundreds of kilos of sardines in order to celebrate 'Tavira day'.
Conditions, the other evening couldn't have been better. A disused bread oven provided a chimney under which the BBQ stood. I'd taken a lesson in BBQ'ing from Fransisco just a few days before, Hannah, our waitress, was both charming, calm and efficient and the guests were in holiday mood, here to relax and enjoy an evening amongst friends.
Singed arm hairs and a blister on my neck are evidence of wounds incurred in the call of duty and I am infinitely more comfortable standing over a range. However, thanks to Asmund, Elenor, Lis, Hannah and Fransisco I have made (temporary) peace with the BBQ,
Sunday the 8th of June saw Pessoas cafe in Tavira full to brimming with dignitires, minor royalty and most importantly the friends who helped me to produce the book. Thanks to all those who attended and made it, at least for me, an afternoon to remember.
I'm visiting Amsterdam at the moment, a city (in)famous for it's liberal attitude towards wooden footwear and cheese. Where the inhabitants cycle to the red light district, clutching bunches of tulips, puffing on joints.
Although the promise of 'coffee shops' remains a magnet for many tourists, what i crave most when returning to the city is herring. Specifically 'een Hollandse Nieuwe': Raw, salted and ripened herring served with or without chopped onion.
The traditional season for the Dutch herring catch is somewhere between the months of May and July when the juvenile fish reach a high (above 16%) fat to body weight ratio.
After partial gutting, they are layered into small barrels and scattered with salt. A process occurs in which moisture is extracted from the fish to be partially replaced by the salt.
The reaction of the resulting brine, combined with enzymes derived from the pancreas of the fish, ensure that within a short period (as little as 24 hours) the herring's flesh softens and a mild salty flavour is achieved.
Before the invention and advancement of freezing techniques a greater amount of salt was necessary to ensure safe preservation. The obvious drawback was - very salty herring often requiring a pre-soaking in milk and/or water to make them palatable.
Nowadays, law dictates that the ripened herring undergo freezing (eliminating any parasites that could be present). This has the advantages of allowing the pickle to be less salty whilst at the same time lengthening the 'shelf-life'.
For the uninitiated a good introduction to the pleasures of this very Dutch delicacy is 'een broodje haring'. The fish is served in a soft white bread roll with (controversy still rages) chopped onion and slices of pickled gherkin.
It might all sound a bit too raw, salty and traditional but they really are a treat and one of those foodstuffs which the body (mine at least) seems to recognise as being good and at times unmissable. Happily and famously, Portugal has it's fair share of sardine dealers to satisfy even the most acute oily fish craving.
The Portugal News has kindly featured the book.
I think the last time my name got in the papers it was concerning a streaking incident which took place on Brighton beach back in 1998. A case of mistaken identity and Johnny Depp was later arrested and sentenced to 25 hours community service.
After a winter break I’ve resumed ‘squeezing my box’ on the streets of Tavira.
Although my takings by no means constitute a decent salary, I enjoy it.
I’ve only really started to play outdoors since the end of last summer. Prior to that I wasn’t a confident busker. I suffered from sweaty hands, my fingers prone to slipping from the buttons.
It took me quite some time before working up the courage to be anywhere people may have the chance of hearing me. Preferring desserted streets, telephone boxes or hilltops. And if some lost traveller happened along I would immedialtely stop playing and pretend to be polishing the instrument, my reflection already clearly visible in it’s gleaming wooden surface.
In the summer the town is host to 6 or 7 regular street artists and although there is no official pecking order, I tend to defer to those whose weather beaten faces and well worn hats indicate hard years strumming or blowing, exposed to the elements.
Apart from the obvious discomfort of playing under a blazing sun, weather conditions pose further problems. The ‘Roman’ bridge is Tavira’s prime spot but my Castagnari instrument is small and produces a lovely tone but relatively low volume, easily blown away on the slightest breeze.
I’m conscious also of houses with open windows having once been told to ‘sling my hook’ by an old lady from her 2nd floor balcony. I could appreciate her annoyance but think she went too far, spitting on me as I packed up.
Repetoire is another important consideration and as mine is limited I choose spots where the punters have little oppurtunity to hang around.
My preferred venue is against the wall of one of Tavira’s many churches, offering a view over the town. I tend to play slow, melancholic numbers, or just decrease the tempo of otherwise perkier tunes. Now and again I reckon they hit the mark as an occasional onlooker will dab a tear from their eye before quickly moving on.
In Portugal, the industry of canning fish and seafood has long been important, providing both employment and sustenance.
I've, maybe incorrectly, considered the product as a land locked, poor-man's alternative to fresh but here in Portugal, nowadays - tinned fish is 'hot'.
In the capital you can find cafes proferring a menu comprised only of snacks from the can (which if you're a visiting American may be off-putting). And a few weeks ago, during a short working trip to Lisbon I visited a shop whose shelves were packed like sardines in a tin, with - sardines in tins.
The choice was staggering and although the fish most eblematic of Portugal goes to make up the bulk of the stock, there are plenty of alternatives, from anchovies to horse mackerel, through herring roes, lamprey, octopus, smoked mussles, squid in ink, tuna and bacalhau.
Likewise, the choice of brands and their labels offer a bewildering selection, ranging from the simple to the exotic, through cartoonish characters and elegant art deco designs to modern, minimalist illustrations.
Back in Tavira, I spent the last month alone in the house. I worked behind the bar of Pessoas cafe in the evenings and spent most of my daytime at the Tavira library, re-reading and making final corrections to the book.
I had little inclination to cook for myself and as such resorted to tins.
I tried all of the above with varying degrees of enthusiasm and apart from spaghetti with anchovies, bread and tomato salad with bacalhau, I did little to augment them. Preferring to prise open a tin and serve the contents with toasted bread.
I can't say that I'm too keen on the bivalves and cephalopods. But I do know fans. A Dutch baron I used to cook for insisted on rounding off a 5 course meal with a couple of savouries, including Angels on horseback; smoked oysters wrapped in bacon, grilled and secured with a toothpick.
The roes are good, especially those from mackerel.
However, the humble sardine is, in my opinion, the best of the bunch and it's worth spending a little more for those in olive oil from a better brand.
After a month of omega 3's, my hair is shiny and my powers of concentration may never have been better but, I'm happy to have someone again to cook for. I've just returned from the market with the freshest of mackerel and a plan for tartare with pickled cucumber.
Photo: Ana Paula Carvalho
I’ve just returned from the barbers, sporting a little-too-short but neat-and-tidy hairdo.
The barber in question is beyond retirement age and his salon is devoid of music, an expresso machine or skinny teenagers in skinny black jeans. What the place lacks in terms of modernity it makes up for in atmosphere. An old television set sits in the corner, a photo of a Portuguese wrestling hero hangs on the wall and the swivel chair in which you sit dates back to the fifties.
I communicate my wishes with broken phrases, smiles and vague hand motions but it’s my third appointment and he knows what he’ll do.
After 25 minutes of clipping, sheering, wetting and shaving I think he’s done, only to remember that this was but the first stage. What follows is a repeat performance but then in finer detail. Rogue hairs are dispatched with, a closer shave is reached and symmetry achieved. After almost an hour, I’m free to go.
Walking home, I wonder how long he’ll keep babering, if he enjoys it and whether he’s ever considered doing something else.
As a freelance chef I’m afforded the luxury of choosing, within reason, when and where I work. I enjoy this and the relative feeling of freedom it allows. It does have it’s downsides: no work – no income being the obvious one. Maybe in the future I’ll go back to full-time employment but at the moment I’m happy with the choice. And by all accounts free-lancing, job sharing and flexible working practices are gaining popularity. Yet, although my ears are somewhat protruding, I’m happy that this particular barber is a steady and permanent fixture in a back street of Tavira.