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‘Bread is an important element of our culinary identity’

Alexandra Prado Coelho, culinary editor of the Portuguese daily newspaper Publico, informs us about Portugal’s diverse varieties of bread, the bread of the Alentejo, and those instances in which a piece of bread can even replace a knife (even if this does seem a bit indelicate).

Bread is the most basic and most important food throughout Europe. An old English saying refers to it as the staff of life. What role does bread play in Portuguese culinary culture?

Bread is, of course, a very important element of our culinary identity, an identity that was born in the kitchens of the simple folk. All workers – not too far back in time, and regardless of whether field or factory – brought their lunch to work with them. For example, a piece of sausage or sometimes sardines, and of course the bread that constituted the basis of their nutrition. These times are now mostly past, but still today, bread certainly does play an essential role. There is no meal – even dinner in luxury restaurants – where there is no bread, to be dipped in olive oil or in a sauce. Bread can even take the place of a knife in this respect, when morsels of food are nudged onto the fork with a piece of bread, and the same bread is used to wipe the plate after the dish has been consumed. This is of course not done according to Debrett’s, but eating with bread in this fashion is certainly a part of the down-home Portuguese way of life.

The special thing about our cuisine, though, is the significance of bread as an ingredient in a wide range of recipes. And this is true of sweet dishes as well as in the salty and savoury ones. There are a great number of desserts, like fatias douradas or sopa dourada, in which old, hard bread plays a new role. Another very delicious Portuguese tradition is the cornbread.

Bread from the Alentejo is said to be particularly good. Is this true?

In terms of bread in general, Portugal offers substantial regional variety. But for many Portuguese, the Alentejo is the region with the best bread. I know folks in Lisbon that will only buy pão alentejano. In the Alentejo one also finds a number of traditional dishes where bread is the primary ingredient. For example, açorda or migas. Migas is a pan-fried dish, often eaten for breakfast, which can be embellished with tomatoes, asparagus or what have you – it always tastes great.

And of course you also cook with bread. What is your favourite recipe?

That’s correct; I do cook using bread quite often. I use bread, for example, as an ingredient in the classical kabeljau-açorda, or in a lamb stew. And I like to sauté bread in olive oil until it achieves a crisp texture. But my absolute favourite recipe using bread is our gaspacho alentejano/algarvio, the internationally famous chilled soup that goes so well with our hot summers. Many folks only know the Spanish gazpacho, but our version is entirely different. It is made from diced tomatoes, red bell peppers and cucumber with garlic, dried bread and prosciutto. To this we add oregano, olive oil, vinegar and cold water. Refreshing and simply delicious!

Is there in Portugal, like we’re seeing all across Europe, a revival of artisanal baking?

Without a doubt. In the past few decades, industrially produced breads from the supermarket have been the type of bread most widely consumed in Portugal. And of course the quality of these breads varies considerably, but they are mostly made from pre-packaged mixes. And these have a very short period of fermentation. Now, the Portuguese too are realising that with these industrial products we run the risk of losing our own highly diversified culture of bread and baking.

Although there are enough regional varieties of bread and recipes for baking them, it becomes constantly more difficult to find bakers who produce traditional styles of bread with traditional methods. But the good news is that a few bakers have begun to push back against this negative trend – there are now new bakers who are determined to learn the old techniques of baking, with long fermentation periods and natural sourdough. These new bakers are able to sell their breads with great success, and the consumers are ready to pay more money for them. There are also old varieties of grain being planted, a reaction against the popularity of grains that grow rapidly and promise prolific yields, but don’t really deliver on substance.