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In the three months of confinement in Porto, I had to learn to live very differently. The days stretched on, embedded with a fear of going out. Those of us whose jobs permitted it learned to work from home, to spend all our free time confined within four walls, to look at the sky – and one another – always through a window. I stopped going to my favorite restaurants and asking about the dishes of the day, and became better acquainted with the concepts of takeaway and delivery.

It was in the kitchen where I reinvented myself the most, where I found those little things that comforted my stomach and, at the risk of sounding cliché, my soul. It was in the kitchen that, for me and many other Portuguese, the phenomenon of making bread began. There will be few who disagree: Bread is a food that, if not noble, is at least mandatory, essential at the table. Here, we eat bread with everything. Is there anything more comforting than that last piece of bread used to soak up the sauce at the end of the meal? Although in Porto, this is by no means something saved for the end of a meal: We often use bread in place of a spoon to eat any dish smothered in sauce.

So, during confinement, the most essential ingredient in my home was flour – by no means revolutionary. Suddenly, we all became bakers, which led to flour disappearing from the shelves of many markets. After several unsuccessful attempts, I found the perfect recipe that never fails and where the dough rises in less than two hours. I made a loaf almost every day: The smell of freshly baked bread, more than anything else, gave me a sense of security. And my imagination ran wild with each new batch: chorizo, nuts, rosemary, oregano. Always a different flavor, but still with that same comfort.

One of the protagonists in the history of Portugal was a baker who, as the story goes, cooked a group of Castilians that had hid in her oven during the invasion of Portugal in the 14th century. In 2020, the heroes were all of us. Although our baking was not quite as violent, it too served a purpose – to give us strength for battle.

Editor’s note: Normally when December rolls around, we ask our correspondents to share their “Best Bites,” as a way to reflect on the year in eating. But 2020 was not a normal year. So at a time when the act of eating has changed for so many, our correspondents will write about their “Essential Bites,” the places, dishes, ingredients and other food-related items that were grounding and sustaining in this year of upheaval.

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Cláudia BrandãoCláudia Brandão

Published on December 25, 2020

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