Etymology with a Portuguese and French twist

The President of Viniportugal, Dr. Vasco d’Avillez, treated members of the French and British-Portuguese Chambers of Commerce to a wine tasting session at the Hotel Pestana Carlton in Lisbon, last week.

While hosting the sampling of the best wines Portugal has to offer, he entertained his company by regaling tales from the archives of Portuguese gastronomic and vinicultural history. Here is a selection of his anecdotes ….

When Portuguese galleons left harbour for trade or war, in the good old days of sail, they carried with them ample supplies of ship’s wine on board, of which the crew were given daily rations, in a bid to avert the dreaded scurvy (scorbitus/scorbutic). That’s why today vitamin C is known as Ascorbic Acid.

Of course alcohol doesn’t cure scurvy, but, the vitamin C from the grapes, at least helped delay the severity of the symptoms after fresh fruit had long since run out, although, at the time, no one knew why. Interestingly enough, the Germans used sauerkraut (hence the nickname ‘krauts’) while the English used limes (hence the name ‘limeys’).

The question of preserving fish was another burning issue on board ship. Of course, at sea, there was no easy access to protein, so the problem was resolved by the bright idea of putting raw fish in vinegar, which, at the end of three days dissolved the bones. The Japanese caught on from the Portuguese, and sushi became a national dish.

When it came to bread, they were even more ingenious – putting thousands of bread rolls in the oven and just baking them lightly for a minute, so that they were raw in the middle and formed a protective crust on the outside. That way, at sea, the bread didn’t go mouldy or stale and could be re-baked freshly every day in the little ship’s ovens. Because the bread was cooked for a second time, it was called biscoito or ‘twice cooked’ – hence biscuits!

Francis I King of France (1494-1547) has a particular claim to fame. He didn’t like the bitter smell and taste of wine, and asked his court to come up with a solution. The only way of solving the problem was by putting a piece of charcoal in the wine cup. But this caused the wine to take on a black hue. The answer was triangles of toast blackened on one side only, which was not put in the cup. Instead the king would pour the wine over the burnt toast; it would filter and remove the smell and bitter taste. The King would shout “Oui, la tostée” and hey presto you have the origin of the phrase ‘let’s make a toast!’

At the same time, when kings received foreign diplomats and other princes at a banquet, there was always the ever-present threat of being poisoned. Marie de Guise, mother of Mary Queen of Scots, was supposedly poisoned by an English minister via her wine. In order to show there was no danger in the wine, when the toast was made, they didn’t deliberately ‘chink’ glasses, as is done today, they poured a little wine from each of their cups in the cup of the visiting parties. The resulting gesture and tinkling noise is universally recognised today as the ‘chin chin’ or ‘cheers’ toast!

Charles II of England, who married Portuguese Princess, Catherine of Braganza, (who allegedly said, “My God, they have bought me a bat to marry!”) is credited with having introduced tea to England. Her ladies-in-waiting drank it, although it failed to catch on with the rest of the population until the advent of the East India Company and eventual annexation of India a century later.

The same womanising King had a rule that English boats could only take on provisions and be stocked up in English ports. But the Portuguese ports were readily available to restock English ships. Catherine of Braganza asked her husband to change this silly law. The King, therefore, agreed to ONE port that would be made available to the English for taking on fresh provisions. The clever English chose Funchal on Madeira. A smart move since, at the time, there was nothing there. It made it possible for the Anglo-Portuguese to produce wine there known as Madeira to supply the British ships.

Interestingly enough, the general word for sweet or cheap table wine in Russia is also Madeira, as is any kind of sponge cake in England. While coming back to the origins of the English national afternoon drinking obsession, ladies who provide cups of tea and biscuits at workplaces were, until recently, known as ‘char ladies’ from ‘cha’ meaning tea! In England they still affectionately refer to ‘a nice cup of cha’.

Then, with the advent of tea rooms in the 18th century, made fashionable by the Duke of Cumberland, the waitresses knew that tea was only good if drunk piping hot. So they put wooden boxes on the counters, as had been seen with collection boxes in churches – with the letters TIPS (to insure prompt service) and so we have the origin of the phrase ‘to leave a tip’.

The English phrase ‘make a palaver’ or fuss comes from the Portuguese word palavra meaning word. When the English were negotiating the price of slaves and the Portuguese were considered to be quoting too high a price, which the English disputed, they shouted “palavra de honra” (I give you my word it’s a good price). Incidentally, ‘flamingo’, ‘breeze’, ‘marmalade’ and ‘molasses’ were all absorbed from Portuguese-speaking countries.

And, if you ever wondered why vineyards are called ‘quintas’, then that’s because the King gave the nobles the land to cultivate and in return expected a tythe or tax of one fifth of the estate’s income – hence quinta. Of course, in the south, it’s more likely to be called herança since the land was given by the king in perpetuity to be handed down from father to son.

By Chris Graeme