Portuguese Food and Wine Pairing

(Excerpt from Report #24 New Wines of Portugal)

The Portuguese table is rich and varied. Throughout its history Portugal has absorbed many exotic herbs, spices, and foods from around the world that today form its national cuisine. Although it is a small country, Portugal’s diverse regions have an amazing culinary repertoire. To name but a few dishes, in the Minho one finds caldo verde Fish(a soup of pureéd potato and onion, kale and sausage); in Lisboa, Bacalhau Á Bras (salt cod with scrambled eggs) and sardinhas (fresh grilled sardines); in the Dão leitão (suckling pig) and carne de porco à Alentejana (cubes of marinated pork braised with onion, garlic tomatoes, sweet peppers, piri-piri sauce, and clams in their shells) in the Alentejo. These innovative dishes (and many others like them) give Portuguese cuisine its distinctive character and create interesting challenges for pairing its food and wine.

In what follows, we offer a selection of traditional Portuguese dishes and recommendations on Portuguese wines to pair with them. These recommendations are based on our personal experience and the wine and food pairing expertise of chefs like Jose Avillez of Lisbon’s Tavares Restaurant, who offered us a lesson on pairing Portuguese food with the wines of the Alentejo at the Portuguese Embassy in Washington, DC1.

Fish and Seafood

Fish and seafood figure prominently in Portuguese cuisine. Bacalhau or salt cod is far and above the most popular fish in Portugal and it is consumed almost everywhere in the country. Indeed, cod fish is so popular that there are at least 365 different cod fish recipes (one for each day of the year), and some say there are more than 1,000. Bacalhau À Gomes de Sá is perhaps the most common preparation—a salt cad, onion and potato casserole roasted in the oven. As described above, Bacalhau À Brás features scrambled eggs as a main ingredient. Bacalhau À Marinheiro (Sailor’s Bacalhau Gratin) is also very popular featuring cod cooked with potatoes, onions, egg yolks, cream, wine, bread crumbs and milk.

CataplanaFor those who like all kinds of fish the Portuguese table offers a magnificent dish called the Cataplana de Peixe. This dish, which has its origins in the Algarve, is actually a kettle of fish and seafood such as monkfish or red snapper, sea bass, grouper, shrimp, clams, sausage, bacon and herbs. These ingredients are cooked in a cataplana or domed metal cooking device that is clamped together to preserve the juice while cooking (see left). Sardinhas or Grilled Sardines is another very popular fish dish regularly served along Portugal’s coastal regions like the Setúbal Penininsula. Sardinhas are usually simply prepared on the grill with olive oil. Salmonete (red mullet) is also a speciality of the Setúbal Penninsula, while lampreia or lamprey eel and salmão (salmon) are more commonly found in the cuisine of Minho. Sushi, while not Portuguese in origin, is also becoming popular in Portugal.

Wine Pairing Notes: The exciting new whites being produced in Portugal today offer several options for pairing with fish. Full-bodied whites and light to medium reds (if not too fruity) are both suitable for pairing with Bacalhau dishes. Arinto, Loureiro, Antão Vaz and other whites go well with these fish and seafood dishes, provided they are not oaked. A rich Viosinho or blends of Gouveio, Roupeiro ad Rabigato would be also work well. The fresh and crisp wines of Vinho Verde pair beautifully with most sushi. Lighter reds like Periquita would be excellent. Weightier reds would also work with Bacalhau dishes that are made with a tomatada (tomato sauces, olives and mushrooms). Try light to medium-weight styles of inexpensive Trincadeira, Castelão or Aragonez with grilled sardines, or pair Alicante Bouschet with well-seasoned codfish for a treat.

Soups and Stews

AlentajanaThe Portuguese are big soup and stew eaters. The most popular soup through out the country is Caldo Verde, a soup made of finely shredded cabbage or collard greens and potatoes, onion and chouriço (sausage) Caldo Verde has its origins in Minho in the North of Portugal, but today Caldo Verde is considered by many to be Portugal’s national soup. Another magnificent soup is Açorda Alentajana, a humble soup from the Alentejo region produced with cubes or slices of bread, cilantro and chicken broth. We enjoyed an extremely flavorful one at one of the Alentejos better restaurants, A Maria in Alandroal. On the coast you can find an Açorda de Marisco, or shellfish soup with bread and egg laced with fresh coriander. The two most popular Portuguese stews are probably Cozido and the Caldeirada de Bacalhau. The Cozido pictured above is a stew made with different meats and vegetables and has its origin in the Beiras region. The Caldeirada de Bacalhau is a fish stew made of cod, soaked bread, tomatoes, garlic, and potatoes that is served all over Portugal. Another popular fish stew is Sopa de Feijão Branco con Bacalhau which features white beans with salt cod.

Wine Pairing Notes: Whites pair best with Caldo Verde, especially Loureiro or Alavarinho from Minho. If you select Vinho Verde, avoid the spritzy ones. Arinto with its citrus and tropical fruit would also pair well with Caldo Verde and with the Acoarda de Mariscos. For the Acorda Alentejana try an Antão Vaz. One with some herbal notes would do very well.

Poultry

Frango grelhadoChicken, duck, and partridge are part of the Portuguese repertoire of savory dishes. Frango grelhado (grilled chicken) is seasoned with peri-peri, garlic and olive oil. Breast of chicken is made more interesting by combining it with sage leaf and farinheira (garlic pork sausage)--a dish we enjoyed for lunch at J Maria da Fonseca. Favorite partridge preparations involve cooking partridge in a fragrant vinegar sauce with garlic, onions and spices, escabeche de perdiz and in a stew, perdiz estufada. We can attest to the fact that João Portugal Ramos makes a mean escabeche with partridge he himself hunts. Duck breasts are cooked with black olives.

Meat

ClamsWhile the cuisine along the coast is rich in fish and seafood, in the interior of Portugal, chicken, beef, pork and other meats take center stage. Pork is arguably the most popular meat in Portuguese cuisine and is prepared in a wide variety of ways. Indeed, pork-curing and sausage-making are cottage industries in Portugal. One of the more elaborate and savory dishes from the Alentejo is carne de porco à Alentejana. It consists of cubes of marinated pork braised with onion, garlic tomatoes, sweet peppers, piri-piri sauce, and clams in their shells. Another savory pork dish is leitão or suckling pig which is found all over Portugal but is a specialty of Bairrada. Espetada, (grilled beef kabobs) originally from the island of Madeira and bife à Portugues (grilled or sautéed steak) often cooked with a Port wine sauce are beef dishes commonly served throughout Portugal.

KabobIt is very hard to resist the wide variety of exciting Portuguese sausages. The favorite of most Portuguese is chouriço, a heavily smoked sausage made of pork, lots of garlic and paprika, and piri-piri sauce. Other favorites are Morcela, a blood sausage, similar to England’s black pudding, and farinheira, a ropy garlic pork sausage that is boiled or fried. The Portuguese also make a sausage called alheira which is not a pork sausage at all, but one made of chicken, partridge, rabbit and bread with garlic, hot peppers and paprika. These sausages were invented over 500 years ago during the Inquisition by Marranos (Jews claiming to be “New Christians”) who attempted to follow their own dietary laws and faith.

Bread is the main ingredient in severa, a Portuguese dish invented years ago by frugal country cooks; these bread-thickened soups and stews and migas are enjoyed all over Portugal. Migas à Alentejana or Migas da minha vovó costa are sturdy country fare involving the frying of wheat bread crumbs with pork or beef and their drippings. Migas Doces is a sweet version of these dishes made with cinnamon, egg yolks and sugar. Bola de Carne is a savory meal of soft pan-baked bread made with ham, bacon and large-size chourico. Corn bread and corn meal are also used in some dishes.

Wine Pairing Notes: The spicy and garlic poultry and meat dishes described above call for medium to big reds, such as an earthy Dao or an elegant Douro; but a white wine can work in some instances. For example, a flavorful Alvarinho pairs well with an adhiera made of game and a barrel fermented Alvarinho can stands up to some light pork dishes. On the other hand, the chicken breast served with farinheira tastes terrific with a Castelão Reserva and could pair well with selected Dao reds. Syrah-based reds in the Alentejo pair beautifully with the carne de porco á Alentejana with its garlic, olive oil and paprika. Migas are best paired with full-flavored whites and medium-bodied reds.

Desserts and Cheeses

docse de ovoThe Portuguese are famous the world over for their egg-yolk based dessert known as doces de ovo. There are hundreds of versions of this dessert through out the country with names such as Dom Rodrigo, Fatias, and Fios de Ovos. Egg yolks are also made into a silky paste with sugar and Pastiés egg custard tarts, and ovos moles eggs found in little shells. There are also several desserts which show the Moorish influence on Portuguese cuisine such as almond cake and figs.

Local cheeses are ubiquitous throughout Portugal and some can rival the finest of France. Although not a meal in themselves, they deserve special mention for their quality and delicious flavors. Queijo da Serra da Estrela, made of sheep’s milk, is the queen of Portuguese cheeses and when ripe can be buttery like brie or ripened until firm and pungent. CheeseIn the Alentejo, Serpa is the reigning cheese, although some would give the honors to Beja or Évora, two other Alentejano sheep cheeses. Serpa is a sweet and unctuous cheese made of sheep’s milk. When eaten fresh it is soft and buttery; after one or two years of age it is stronger and dryer. In the Setúbal Penninsula and Palmela, Queijo de Azeitão , little golden rounds of tangy creamy unpasteurized sheep cheese, reign supreme. Even the Azores have their Queijo de Ilha, a cow milk cheese that is primarily used for cooking and is grated like parmesan. Goat cheese is also popular in some of Portugal’s finer restaurants and is often served with strawberry marmalade.

Wine Pairing Notes: Portugal produces delicious dessert wines from indigenous varieties such as Loureiro, Arinto, and Muscat. These wines are both semi-dry and sweet but none are high in residual sugar, which makes them compatible with most egg based and creamy desserts. We liked Casa de Cello’s Quinta de San Joanne Passi for its dried tropical fruit and aromatic herbs. Moscato and blends of Muscato and Arinto work well with soft cheeses, combining their fragrant floral aromas with rich fragrant cheeses. Strong or hard cheeses would best be paired with big wines made of Alicante Bouschet, Tinto Roriz, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, or Baga..

1 We have also gained a good deal of knowledge and insight about Portuguese food from Jean Anderson, The Food of Portugal, Harper Collins Publishers, New York,1994, and David Leite, The New Portuguese Table, Clarkson Potter Publishers, New York, 2009.