Does anyone else agree with me that, while Portuguese cooking can be wholesome, healthy and indeed delicious, it lacks a certain (dare I say it) subtlety, a certain je ne sais quoi, a certain finesse? (Probably not: such an opening is doubtless a culinary solecism of the first order and a lesson in how to offend about ten million people with just one sentence).
Butchering in this region is merely a skill (if that), not a science or even an art. Where I live, descriptions of dishes are pared down to a fine minimalism:
– Excuse me, what’s this?
– It’s fish.
– Yes, I can see that, but what kind of fish?
– It’s Rabinho de Peixe (fish’s bum).
Well, I mean to say! In Portuguese it doesn’t so bad, it sounds like the fish had a kinda cute little butt, but in English it just sounds gross. I mean it’s hardly likely to titivate the taste-buds or get the juices flowing, is it?
With meat it’s much the same. As I sadly contemplate the (savagely hacked) chunk of meat, tubes, bone and muscle, placed in front of me, I ask:
– I know that this is meat but what I’d like to know is what kind of meat it is.
– It’s roast meat.
But let us escape from this mundane world and take refuge in literature and film. Let us recollect in tranquility the descriptions of food in Proust, in Joseph Heller’s As Good as Gold or in Tomaso de Lampadusa’s The Leopard. Above all, let us dwell on the foodies’ favourite film Babette’s Feast:
The scene is a remote little village on the coast of Jutland during the last part of the 19th century. The small community is comprised of mostly elderly, simple, plainly-spoken and religious folk who see the good in everything and patiently eek out a living on this cold, bleak, grey shore. Their diet appears to consist of ground dried cod.
The story centers on two middle-aged sisters, the daughters of the pastor who founded this Christian sect. The sisters had hired a French house-keeper some years previously – Babette (played by Stephane Audran, who almost but not quite succeeds in disguising her Parisian chic).One day Babette receives a telegraph from Paris to inform her that she has won 10,000 Francs on the state lottery. She decides to give the villagers a lavish dinner à la Française to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Founder’s death.
The last and most relevant part of the film is the preparation and the serving (by Babette) of an extraordinary feast of royal dimensions, lavishly deployed in the unpainted austerity of the sisters’ rustic home. The film, previously showing mainly winterly whites and grays, gradually picks up more and more colours, focusing on the various and delectable dishes, a feast for the spectator as well.
Although the other celebrants do their best to reject the earthly pleasures of the food and drink, Babette’s extraordinary gifts as a chef de cuisine and a true connoisseur so characteristically French, breaks down their distrust and superstitions, elevating them not only physically but spiritually. Old wrongs are forgotten, ancient loves are rekindled, and a mystical redemption of the human spirit settles over the table — thanks to the general elation nurtured by the consumption of so many fine culinary delicacies and spirits.
The menu responsible for their pleasure features Potage à la Tortue (turtle soup); Blini Demidoff au Caviar (buckwheat cakes with caviar and sour cream); Caille en Sarcophage avec Sauce Perigourdine (quail in a puff-pastry shell with foie gras and truffle sauce); la Salade features Belgian endives and walnuts in vinaigrette, and Les Fromages features Blue Cheese, papaya, figs, grapes and pineapple. The grand finale dessert is Savarin au Rhum avec des Figues et Fruit Glacée (rum sponge cake with figs and glacéed fruits). Numerous rare wines, including Clos de Vougeot, along with various champagnes and spirits, complete the menu. Babette’s purchase of the finest china, flatware, crystal and linens with which to set the table ensures that the luxurious food and drink is served in a style worthy of Babette, who is none other than the famous former Chef of the Café Anglais in Paris. Babette’s previous occupation has been unknown to the sisters until she confides in them after the meal…
But it’s time to return to the present and today’s lunch. First it was customary thick yellow soup, OK, then blow me down if it insn’t followed by more soup, this time grey in colour and with a slightly fishy odour; oh good, exclaim my two table-companions, it’s Farinha do Pau!
To me it resembled nothing so much as grey frog-spawn vomited up by a giant Bloater. (No thanks!)