It’s no easy task handling a 70-kilo longfin tuna or a 20-kilo corvina. But over the past few weeks, we’ve watched our favorite fishmongers in Lisbon’s Mercado da Ribeira do just that – looking more like weightlifters or wrestlers, they endeavor to fillet the big, fat Atlantic fish that usually make their appearance in April.
Even more humble specimens, like mackerel, are also at their fattest (and tastiest) come spring. That’s the joy of feasting on spring fish and seafood in Portugal – so much is in season that you can’t go wrong.
To get a better sense of this spring’s “gifts from the sea,” we visited some of our favorite chefs to learn about how they are building their menus around seasonal fish and seafood.
Our first stop was Prado, a restaurant in Lisbon that opened in December and already has a legion of regulars (the name means “meadows” in Portuguese, which seems appropriate for our spring theme). Focusing on seasonal produce, chef António Galapito changes the menu daily based on what’s available in the local markets. After six years of working in London, he is still adjusting to the rhythm of Lisbon’s longer seasons, which lack the micro-seasons he got used to in the U.K.
We found 27-year-old Galapito in the kitchen, where he was filleting a stripy sarda fish, a variety of mackerel abundant in Portuguese waters and a delight at this time of the year. Shining blue and silver, mackerel may not compare in size to tuna or corvina, but it still plays an important role in Galapito’s menu. “We smoke it slightly on the skin and serve it with a lettuce vinaigrette and a parsley emulsion. It’s going to be one of our daily dishes this spring,” he explained.
Galapito is also cooking with those prized catches from the Atlantic, like the 15-kilo longfin tuna and 13-kilo corvina he had in recently. When he gets a whole fish, he cooks everything from head to tail – nothing goes to waste.
A number of his recent dishes have prominently featured tuna belly, made from tuna caught around the Azores islands. There’s the tuna belly with fava beans, which are also in season. It looks simple but he adds in some surprises, most notably the stock made from tuna and ham bones. The belly is cut into very thin slices and the warm stock is placed on top – the temperature of the broth is high enough to cook the tuna and melt its fat. But each component maintains its flavor. “I want each element to have its own flavors, so you can taste them individually,” explained Galapito.
Then there’s the smoked tuna belly: “It’s smoked and when it reaches a mild 26 or 27 degrees Celsius we seal it a bit on the grill, slice it into thin pieces and then serve it with calamansi, a kind of small orange with a lot of acidity. It tastes like smoked bacon,” joked Galapito. It makes sense given that fishermen call muxama (cured tuna loin) the ham of the sea.
When he gets a whole fish, he cooks everything from head to tail – nothing goes to waste.
Corvinas are also in season but they will get even bigger with roe. “They are amazing, very fat, and can last up to seven days,” Galapito said. The young chef said that this type of mature fish is at its peak on the fifth day, when it’s still fresh but the flavors are more concentrated and the fish has a harder texture. “This dry maturation in the fridge works with corvinas but is impossible to do with tuna, it gets brown too quickly,” he explained.
Shellfishwise, cockles – one of the spring season’s treats – will be around still for a few more weeks. They play a central role in one of the most popular dishes at Prado: cockles with smoked butter, croutons and chard. It’s one of those dishes that you won’t want to share.
Two hours north of Lisbon, near Viseu, another young chef, named Diogo Rocha, also heavily features seasonal seafood on his menu, even though he’s a bit further from the coast. But having built good relationships with suppliers, he’s able to source his wild sea bass easily. “It’s a favorite of mine at this time of year, as are the sea urchins – that is when the divers have the courage to get them, though their season is now almost over,” he said.
According to Rocha, the best vegetables will come in two months time. For now, he uses chard, spinach, some late cabbage and beetroot and the almost forgotten parsnips in his fish dishes at the restaurant Mesa de Lemos. This spring he’s bringing together langoustines and míscaros (a type of mushroom) – the two strong flavors balance one another when paired together.
Rocha also likes to surprise his clients by pairing octopus from Peniche, a city on the central coast of Portugal, with beetroot. “The dish combines acidity and spices with the ocean and an earthy flavor,” he said. It’s the kind of combination that features prominently in his new cookbook, Hoje.
Back in Lisbon, we met up with chef Filipe Rodrigues as he gets ready to open Taberna do Mar (Tavern of the Sea), a new restaurant in Graça dedicated to fish and seafood. He was previously the founder and chef of Sea Me, a Lisbon restaurant with a Portuguese/Japanese fusion menu which featured his iconic sardine nigiri.
Rodrigues, who teaches about fish and seafood at Lisbon’s Estoril Higher Institute for Tourism and Hotel Studies, thinks this is best season for the horse mackerel and the other two varieties of mackerel (the previously mentioned sarda, and cavala). “The smaller fish are better, cheaper and more sustainable,” he added, recommending that we consume more of these less prized fish.
As for shellfish, razor clams, crab or spider crab are also good for the time being, according to Rodrigues – though it’s best to ask about the provenance of the crab, as much of it is imported from France and the U.K. Echoing Rocha, he said that sea urchin season is almost over. “Sea urchin is still not consumed much in Portugal so we don’t see it as much on menus or at the markets,” he explained.
What about the old Portuguese saying we shouldn’t eat shellfish in the months without the letter ‘r’, i.e. between May and August? Rodrigues agreed, explaining that we shouldn’t eat them during this season to respect the reproduction cycle and allow for the recovery of stocks.
Luckily, summer’s sardine season is just around the corner.
Editor’s note: To celebrate the arrival of spring this year, we’re looking at seasonal produce and products that are a bit surprising.
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