Monday, August 30, 2021

My Portuguese Rosebud

All Portugal trip reports in chronological order:

Oddly Bookended Food Day in Portugal (Nepali and Goan in Almada)
My Portuguese Rosebud (questing for a second helping of the arroz de mariscos that changed my life 30 years ago)
Bacalhau Score (glorious restaurant version of a homely grandma dish in Almada)
Grappling with Chowhounding Hubris (good-not-great pork cheeks in Sintra)
Taskinha Do Chef (Torres Vedras, Portugal) (exquisite family-run restaurant in Torres Vedras)
False Friends, Inadvertent Penetration, and Coimbra (diagnosing the Coimbra Problem)
Solar dos Amigos (rustic culinary splendor in Caldas da Rainha)
Burguezia do Leitão (the best roast suckling pig palace near Coimbra, in Casal Comba)
A Casa do Jorge (smashing wine country steakhouse in Santana, near Azeitão)

In 1992, when I was last in Portugal, I was only beginning to eat fish. Like many chowhounds, I was a picky eater, something I never felt obligated to apologize for. After all, what is chowhounding but extreme pickiness? But I was starting to play less and write more, so I could no longer indulge culinary whims. I made myself like fish.

My biggest early boost was in a seafood restaurant right on the river across from Lisbon. You had to take a ferry to get there, and it was one of three restaurants right at the boat landing. My contact on that side of the river, a local music producer with the improbable name of Vítor Hugo, had booked me for a jazz master class and concert, and, having heard about my food obsession, led me directly into a seaside dining room so skinny you could touch both walls with the span of your arms. We sat on small wooden boxes as the gravely waiter, wielding an enormous pot and an enormous ladle, spooned out steaming soupy arroz de mariscos, sort of like paella soup with coriander and replete with clams, mussels, shrimp, lobster, and unidentified gloriously delicious sea monsters.

It was one of the greatest meals of my life, and I’m not kidding when I say that I’ve thought of it, if only briefly, every day for 29 years. I always figured I’d be back soon, but then Chowhound happened (supposed to be a two or three year enterprise, though it’s now going on 25), and then recovering from Chowhound having happened, and I didn’t make it back until now. So very far into the future.

I somehow lost three decades, and it’s very disorienting, especially at moments like this. I’d booked a room in Almada, near the ferry, and ambled around the port, which seemed unrecognizable. It was jammed to bursting with huge, loud mega cafes. I stood there moist-eyed amid the touristic mediocrity, like one of Colombus' crew trying to recognize his pristine Hispaniola amid the clatter of 2021 Santo Domingo.

One place claimed to be an arroz de mariscos specialist, so I headed there and it was half as good as my previous (people always say food memory lies, but my palate's proven to have perfect recall). Still real good, though.

I made mistakes eating this, because I was rusty. The waiter was solicitous but not quite condescending, because he sensed some facet of some fraction of my story. As I ate, I picked up steam, regaining my sea legs, so to speak. I sucked shrimp brains, and dissected exoskeletons like a surgeon. As he brought the check, the waiter called me "amigo", and this is not Mexico where the word is spoken glibly.

But it was not like my arroz de marisco. Not even close.

A few weeks ago, I explained a memory trick which involves letting memories surface at their own pace, slow and steady. 12 hours after this meal, I recalled that my gig and my meal were not in Almada, but in Seixal, a village 15 minutes up the coast with its own Lisbon ferry service. So I made my way there, and suddenly the restaurant's name flashed into my head: Pescador. The Fisherman! I found an obscure reference on the web, in Portuguese, along with an address, and I drove straight there, discovering that it was exactly where I'd remembered! And still super skinny! But now it has a new name and it’s dolled up.

As I stood frozen before the window, an old-timer limped by, so I grilled him in broken Portuguese. "Yeah, I think I remember...." he croaked out possibly his last words on this planet, "but that place closed a long, long time ago. Different owners now.” He shrugged and kept walking. A representative of the single most sentimental culture on Earth, and he couldn’t even button it for me. No “A shame!”  No “It was great!” Nothing. Just exit stage left.

I’d arrived too late. I’d thought I had all the time in the world. But you can't fast forward three decades without repercussions. 1992 feels like yesterday to me (I honestly don’t remember much from the Chowhound years, or my recuperation years thereafter). I’m still there. But the world moves on.

1 comment:

Claus Nymark said...

Our palate can play strange tricks on us. Tô me its Often stronger than visual memories... Really sorry you didn't find your beloved "arroz de marisco" but tomorrow you"ll eat the clams of our life! :) Olive oil, Garlick, coriander and clams... You'll see... :)

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