This is a day to do nothing. After a week of working from home, I’m facing another weekend of lockdown. Our restaurants are closed, and so are the bars – nowhere to get a drink. It’s raining outside, and I realize that I have chosen the wrong book to read: The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck makes the pandemic numbers even more difficult to bear.
I open my computer and scan the news. Stopping to read an article about the selection of the year’s best Port wine, I remember that, yes, January 27 was declared International Port Day – a day for the world to celebrate this fortified vinho – a decade or so ago by the Center for Wine Origins, an organization in Washington D.C. At this point in time, I’ll take any reason to celebrate.
Go on, why not open a bottle and … cook? It’s an image that can alarm those who aren’t from here. Perhaps they think that we are wasting something special, but in Porto – and in Portugal – the world-renowned wine serves for more than an exquisite sip.
Where do I start? With the most traditional: the famous Abade de Priscos pudding. The recipe for this pudding is from the 19th century and, according to legend, it was the only one left by the abbot of the Priscos parish, in Braga, one of the great cooks of the time.
In Porto – and in Portugal – the world-renowned Port wine serves for more than an exquisite sip.
Before beginning the pudding, I make caramel to line the steamed pudding mold – I use a lidded pan that resembles a Bundt baking tin, but any cake mold will do – by placing 250 g of white sugar and half a liter of water in a saucepan over heat. I don’t stir, letting the sugar dissolve, and after a minute it becomes a syrup. I let the mixture boil until it turns a darker color. To make the caramel more liquid, I add 1 liter of warm water and let it boil for a few minutes. Then I spread it all over the mold, both the base and the sides – that way, when the pudding is finished and turned out from the pan, the caramel will drain through it.
Then I take 15 egg yolks (yes, 15), a lemon peel, a cinnamon stick, 500 ml of water, 500 g of sugar, 50 g of bacon (yes, bacon in a sweet), and two glasses of Port wine (one for the pudding, another one for me).
Between one sip and another, I boil the water and add the sugar, lemon peel, bacon and cinnamon stick. Two minutes later, I pass the syrup, which is a little thicker than water but still not caramel, through a mesh strainer. I add the glass of Port – the one for the recipe, of course – to the beaten egg yolks and mix it all together. I pour the syrup over it and combine them, letting the smell spread through the kitchen. Then I tip it into the mold coated in caramel and cook it in a double boiler. It takes half an hour or so, enough time for me to finish my glass.
According to the message left by the abbot of Priscos, “the recipe is just the beginning. The cook’s hands, smell and taste do the main thing.” I’m not a Michelin-starred chef, but my pudding always ends up looking pretty.
I’m only enjoying a small glass, but sometimes the purpose is getting beautifully drunk: in this case, drunk pears. Yes, trust me, I swear I only had one glass. Drunk pears is another well-known recipe here and basically consists of submerging cooked pears in Port wine. A cozy dessert for a winter day. They are soft, sweet and sublime for the senses, perfumed as they are by the aromas of spices and glorious Port wine.
I peel half a dozen of the hardest pears. Be careful not to remove the stalk; and keep some of the skin around the stalk. I cut off part of the base. I think they look better if they can stand up. I put the pears in a bowl with water and lemon, so that they don’t oxidize.
Then they go in the pan. I also toss in a cinnamon stick, an anise star, two cardamom pods, two cloves, a coffee spoon of vanilla paste (vanilla extract works too), the rind of a small lemon and the rind of half an orange. Sprinkle with 200 g of sugar and then pour in 250 ml of Port wine. But that’s not the end of it – I also add 250 ml of red wine and 100 ml of water.
When I turn on the heat and cook the pears on low, I wish I could describe the aroma that is in the air. I need one more glass. And the pears need affection, so I spend my time basting them with the syrup that forms. Once cooked, after about 30 to 40 minutes depending on the variety and size of the pears, I remove the fruit from the pan and place them on a serving plate. I reduce the syrup and then douse the pears again. Some people like to pair them with mascarpone cheese or pine nuts. I opt for vanilla ice cream.
I lack something for the main course. I leave the classics aside and venture into a recipe of my own. The ones I make when I just feel like gathering ingredients and seeing what I come up with.
I choose shrimp, which have never failed me. I mix 250 g of peeled shrimp with five crushed and finely chopped garlic cloves, 100 ml of Port wine, grated ginger and a pinch of salt. Thirty minutes to marinate. I pour myself another glass of wine as the rain continues to come down.
I put oil (or butter) in a frying pan and, when it is very hot, sauté the shrimp. They take exactly two minutes, and then I put them aside on a plate. The leftover marinade goes into the skillet with finely chopped piri-piri until it comes to a boil. Then I let it simmer until it’s reduced to a thick sauce, which I pour over the shrimp. This mixture of flavors, with chopped coriander sprinkled on top, makes the shrimp sing. It’s so easy, yet results in so much flavor.
I dive into these dishes, which are actually a trip through some of the many places that are currently out of reach. Although called Port, the wine is not produced in the city of Porto, but high up in the Douro Demarcated Region. The recipe for the pudding came from an abbot in Braga, the pears come from the southwestern part of the country and the best shrimp are those from my hometown, Espinho, some 20 kilometers from Porto.
But at a time when everything and everyone is far away, it tastes better than ever to bring all these little pleasures so close to you. The song that echoes, from a very well-known Portuguese singer, says to me that “there will be Port / For the discomfort / For those who are crooked / In this sailing.” Let there be Port. A toast to the flavors that bring us together, make us feel nice and cozy, and keep our minds healthy!
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