Every meal or dish placed before you carries with it two story lines. The first is the story of the food itself. What is it called? How was it prepared? What ingredients were used? In which country did it originate? What does it reveal about that country’s people, history, and culture?
The second story is about the people who prepared the food. Who are they? How long have they been cooking? What are their culinary secrets and specialties? What are their ideas, perspectives, and sentiments on food? How do their creations express who they are?
Last night, Brussels Express attended a showcase and sampling of Portuguese cuisine innovations presented by AGAVI, an association promoting the food, wine, and regional products of Portugal. We got a taste of some of Portugal’s culinary classics reinvented by internationally-acclaimed Portuguese chef Hélio Loureiro. Here are the two intertwined story lines of the evening.
Portugal’s culinary tale begins with geography. The country borders the Atlantic world to the west and the Mediterranean world to the south. As a result, its national cuisine combines the best of both worlds.
But it’s even more global than that. According to Chef Loureiro who has been in the cooking profession for more than 30 years, Portuguese cuisine contains a great deal of spices and vegetables from all over the world along with the regional products of Portugal. “It’s a mix of cultures and international influences,” says the chef who hails from Porto, city of the great Portuguese port wines.
Fish and seafood also dominate the Portuguese food scene since fishing is one of Portugal’s major industries. The most popular is the codfish or bacalhau which is traditionally served on Christmas eve, says Chef Loureiro. Sardines are another Portuguese favorite and an important seafood in Portugal. As the chef explains, sardines are considered the poor people’s fish. Other seafood staples include octopus, cuttlefish, crabs, lobster, prawns, squid, and a large variety of crustaceans, shellfish, and molluscs.
Of course, Portuguese cuisine is not without its meat specialties which include pork and beef sausages such as chouriço and salpicão, and the alheira, a type of sausage made with meats other than pork.
Chef Loureiro says Portuguese cuisine is really very simple. “It comes from the earth, the ocean, and the heart.” What makes the food unforgettable are the spices, herbs, and fresh ingredients that provide wonderfully surreal flavors and aroma. For Chef Loureiro, this is what distinguishes Portuguese cuisine from other European cuisines. “We have fresh products, fresh fruits. You smell the oranges, smell the apple, smell the pears, smell the peach, you smell all the flavors. This is very important in my country. Our vegetables and fruits have smell and flavor.”
But to really understand and experience the gastronomic delights that Portugal has to offer, Chef Loureiro says you have to come and visit his country. The culinary master has worked with several five-star hotels across Europe, but he wants more than just to promote his national cuisine through restaurants abroad. “The most important for me is that people come to Portugal and taste the flavors of Portugal. When you taste the chouriço and the wines and the cheese and take these products from supermarkets and taste them at home, remember Portugal.”
At present, Chef Loureiro commands the kitchen of several hotels and restaurants in Portugal. Aside from cooking, he has also authored more than 20 books on gastronomy. He continues to seek ways of reinventing Portuguese cuisine, in line with AGAVI’s vision of innovating Portugal’s gastronomic culture through healthier, more biodiverse, and more sustainable local products and recipes. It all falls under his philosophy as a chef best expressed by a line he borrowed from Mozambican writer Mia Couto. “Cooking is not a service. It is an act of love.”