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 Olhao, 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.

Olhao was the centre of the sardine canning industry in Portugal, famous for quality. Sadly, since the mid 1970s 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 Olhao 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 season 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 cafés. 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.

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 Lingueirao (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, 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.

Portuguese Steamed Clams with Coriander

Coriander is a favourite herb in Portugal, much more widely used than parsley. Cockles, mussels or palourdes could also be used. Serves 4
1kg (2¼ lb) 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.

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, I suppose you could call it surf and turf.

Serves 4

1½ kg (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 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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