“A magic that can occur from a few choice ingredients"
Famous, Portuguese, Michelin-starred chef Nuno Mendes on the dishes that he serves to guests at his London restaurant Taberna do Mercado, on the Alentejo of his childhood and on the secret, regional, Portuguese cooking that is still such a big secret.
Master chef Nuno Mendes
Nuno Mendes, you lived in Lisbon for a long time. You are a former city boy. What brought you to the very village-like and rustic Alentejo region?
The Alentejo is where part of my family comes from. On my father’s side of the family, we have had property in the Alentejo, and roots there, for many years. I spent my youth going to a farm we used to have in the region, in Mora, right on the border with the Ribatejo, in northern Alentejo. I have memories of the Matanças, the annual killing of the pig, from my youth. It was a farm where we had a lot of different animals, but there was a focus on dairy production. We had cattle and produced milk.
And what happened next in Nuno Mendes’ life?
I moved away from Portugal at the age of 19 to go to study in Miami. I was supposed to go to study marine biology, but when I was there I discovered cooking, and I learned about the culinary schools in North America. So I made a kind of deal with my father. I would help him turn the dairy farm, which was something he was doing for fun, into a business, and I would work there for 9 months. In return, he’d help me with my travel and schooling.
That’s something you can only do as a young man, don’t you think?
It was a huge step in my life, but I almost didn’t realize how important it was. At the time I was living in Miami Beach. I was young and enjoying exploring the new world. I was enjoying that life. So I then spent 9 months in the Alentejo, and it was a pretty enriching experience. It grounded me, and gave me a lot of knowledge about the products.
Which foods and dishes from the Alentejo do you like best to eat?
The Portuguese food we cooked at home was always Alentejo food. It is still one of my favourites of all the cuisines of Portugal, because it is so poor, so rural and so honest. It is so simple yet so complex. The flavourings and the ingredients – the stuff we use to cook with – is so basic. For example, we make so many dishes just out of bread. Bread, garlic, coriander and a bit of water, with salt cod bones. It is amazing: we can turn the most simple ingredients into something magical.
Now I’m getting an appetite! Please tell me more about this.
Some of my favourite foods from Portugal come from the Alentejo. There’s migas, for example. This is old bread that you soak and refry. In the asparagus season you’d use wild asparagus and different types of herbs, like coriander. Or you might use different types of mushrooms, and sometimes pork meat. This is something I love. Depending on the season it keeps changing. Another dish is açorda. In the Alentejo, it is the humblest, simplest dish. For me, there is a correlation between this and dashi. The Japanese and Portuguese have been close at many times in history, and I feel that cuisine wise there is a lot of connectivity. For açorda we use salt cod bones or trimmings and just boil them. Then we smash garlic with salt, olive oil and coriander stems, and we add this to the broth. Then we pour it over some toasted bread, we have a poached egg, lots of coriander, lots of mint and if you are lucky a little bit of flaked fish. Then a generous amount of extra virgin olive oil. It is a soup: the simplest thing in the world, but for me it is memories of home.
Got any more?
Of course: Another dish is cozida a Portuguesa. It is almost like a national dish. If it is done well, it brings together all the different meats, different chouriços, blood sausages from different parts of Portugal, and then combines vegetables such as carrots, turnips and chick peas and cabbage. You simmer everything in one big pot, and in the Alentejo this is served as a soup from a big bowl.
What motivated you to go to London open Taberna do Mercado there?
This is a dream that I have had for many years. It always made me sad that people weren’t aware of Portuguese cuisine. There’s really not a lot of knowledge about it, and I felt there wasn’t much awareness of Portuguese ingredients. There’s also not enough support for Portuguese artisans. We’re at risk of losing a lot of our tradition because we are not giving enough support and visibility to our craftsmen. It is our responsibility. I do this for pleasure, but it is also out of responsibility to safeguard it and give it the visibility it needs.
Which foods are we talking about exactly?
There are so many amazing Portuguese ingredients: olive oils, cheeses, meats, honey and salt. Also, I wanted to show here the diversity of Portuguese cuisine. I thought I’d start with something that is very casual and accessible, and have a cuisine based on Portuguese ingredients, flavours and recipes, and showcase this to a wider audience outside of Portugal. I feel this hasn’t been done a lot. It has been poorly done in the past.
I also have children, and I feel like I need to make sure I leave something for them. They were born in the UK, but I would like them one day perhaps to have something to look back to, so that they don’t forget where they have come from.
Do you think that Portuguese food could be “the next big thing” in the cooking scene? In the way that it was Nordic cuisine last time?
I think we have so much history and diversity. The Portuguese spent time in India, and we traded a lot with Japan. We can see the Chinese and Japanese influence. We have amazing ingredients and we have an incredible coastline. It is a rich, dynamic cuisine, but I don’t know if Portuguese chefs are united enough at the moment to push collectively for this. We need more dialogue among ourselves. I think we have something very special: if we push together and establish our principles, we can give some countries a good run. But we need to come together as a collective of chefs, professionals and the public.
Where would you stop for a bite to eat if you were in the Alentejo at the moment?
I like to get into the little tabernas. I like to go to the more traditional, homely, mom and pop style casual restaurants. I usually stay away from the high-end restaurants. There are some good ones now, but they have the tendency to be a little bit too clinical. Portuguese cuisine has this really good ‘grit’ to it, and sometimes when you clean it too much you lose that. I prefer to go to these places because they are real. They are as I remember. They are honest.
To finish up, could you say a few words about the wines of Portugal and of the Alentejo?
I am a huge fan of what’s happening in the Portuguese wine scene. I have very good friends who make wine. We have so many indigenous grape varieties, we have young winemakers who have travelled: they are educated and they are thinking about the world. They have a broader vision and they are embracing interesting techniques. They are looking back but they are also looking forward. There is something nice happening. One of my commitments with this place is to give visibility not just to Portuguese food, but also the wine. This is another secret we have: most people don’t know about Portuguese wine. They are now starting to understand a little but about it.
About Nuno Mendes
Nuno Mendes is a Lisbon-born chef who trained in the USA, and since 2006 he’s been based in the UK. In 2010 he founded Viajante in Bethnal Green, East London, and during the next four years he gained a Michelin star and became the talk of the town for his inspired experimental cooking. In 2014 he moved on to be the head chef for the Chiltern Firehouse a new restaurant by hotelier André Balazs in the Marylebone area of London’s West End, which quickly achieved cult status and became a celebrity hang-out. Then, in 2015, Nuno returned to his roots by starting Taberna do Mercado, an unpretentious authentic Portuguese restaurant in Spitafields Market, in the City of London, showcasing the best ingredients and dishes from his country.