Food, glorious food

by JUNE LOVER [email protected]

After 35 years in the TV and film industry, June Lover retired to the Algarve in 2006.  Having owned a holiday property here for 12 years she now lives in the hills above Almancil.

When I moved to the Algarve, I had visions of a Mediterranean diet of freshly caught fish, salads, citrus fruits from the abundant orange and lemon groves, interesting local cheeses, and lashings of beautiful olive oil.

I was no stranger to the area, having owned a holiday home for a number of years, and this was exactly the food I looked forward to when I came for my regular three-week breaks. But a holiday is one thing. Living here is something else entirely.

We moved from our holiday apartment to a proper house on the outskirts of the tourist areas.  Total bliss! Integrating into the Portuguese way of life became a challenge, one which I happily met head on, and life was good.

The summers were unbelievably glorious and I continued to dish up sardines and salad by the shedload.

But after a while, the magic of oil and vinegar began to lose its appeal. In spite of my attempts at making a variety of salad dressings, I found that Hellman’s Mayonnaise and Heinz Salad Cream (for Sir) began to creep onto the weekly shopping list.

And whilst the huge variety of chorizos and prosciuttos were still an attractive proposition, there’s a limit to what you can do with them unless you want to spend hours in the kitchen and a fortune on other ingredients to jazz them up a bit, and I certainly didn’t move to the Algarve to do that!

New potatoes used to be a summer treat. Jersey Royals served with generous dollops of butter, the leftovers turned into potato salad with a sprinkling of chopped chives. There’s no shortage of new potatoes, but they’re just not the same somehow.

And then there’s the bread. Absolutely gorgeous! Full of holes, with a chewing gum texture and a crust that makes sure you visit the dentist on a regular basis.

But if you don’t eat the whole loaf within the first couple of hours it goes rock hard. Even the birds won’t eat it. Believe me, I’ve tried.

I felt an irresistible urge for a sliced wholemeal alternative full of preservatives. And so it goes on.

It began to dawn on me that we were seriously missing some of the grub we’d left behind in dear old Blighty. Things like Melton Mowbray pork pies, Scotch eggs, Baxters beetroot and slices of delicious boiled ham. And that’s just summer!  

It may sound sad, but we were beginning to make a ‘must have’ list. English bacon, Lincolnshire sausages (think toad-in-the-hole) and black pudding were added to the items above.

I had no idea how much I would miss them until I couldn’t have them. Fortunately they are now available thanks to my British butcher who recognises the needs of expats like me.  

The ‘must have’ list grew longer. Marmite, English mustard, Branston pickle, double cream, English butter and the wonderful variety of English cheeses.

Most of these are available if you know where to shop and are prepared to pay the price.  And pay the price I do, because no matter how much you think you’re going to change your eating habits and ‘go native’, your tummy and your memory have a cunning way of pointing you in the opposite direction to the one you’ve chosen.

To add to my problems, Sir indoors created a wish-list of his own.  Twiglets, mini-Cheddars, Mulligatawny soup and profiteroles topped his list. He even craved Sugar Puffs until I bought some for him (so expensive!) and then realised that his childhood memories had lost some of their attraction.

The one request I haven’t been able to satisfy is his hankering for spring greens. I can’t tell you how many different varieties of cabbage there are here, but none of them resemble the good old British spring greens.

So what’s wrong with the local produce I hear you cry? Absolutely nothing. It’s delicious, it’s fresh, it’s home-grown, it’s reasonably cheap, and hopefully it’s helping to sustain a fragile economy.

But… if you’re an expat, your culinary heart is in another country and eventually you give in to your taste buds.

Meanwhile, it’s winter. The nights are longer, the temperature cooler and comfort food is on my mind. Old habits die hard, so bangers ‘n’ mash, steak and kidney pie, Lancashire hotpot, lamb shanks, yellow peril (Finnan haddock, the real McCoy, not that colour-coated stuff) and of course fish ‘n’ chips ‘n’ mushy peas become the order of the day. Not to mention crumpets. Oh, how I miss crumpets!

The traditional Sunday roast is another ‘must have’, served with roast potatoes, Yorkshire puds and lashings of gravy. Horseradish sauce, mint sauce and apple sauce get added to the shopping list. And let’s not forget the Christmas turkey! It’s hard to dispense with tradition.

There’s no shortage of meat here in the Algarve, and the pork is to die for! Sweet, tender, succulent meat from animals that have enjoyed a happy life noshing in the almond groves. But the beef and lamb are not quite what we’re used to.

Meat is not treated in the same way as it is in Blighty. It’s not ‘hung’ and therefore hasn’t had time to tenderise. And if you ask for leg of lamb, that’s exactly what you get. A whole leg, much longer and thinner than our Welsh variety and far too big to fit into my oven.

It is not the custom to cut it in half so that you can have the fillet end, or the leg end. It’s all or nothing. No good to me when I’m only cooking for two.

The beef looks nice enough. Blood red, but as tough as old boots. Thank goodness for my British butcher.

Casseroles and stews, not to mention a dozen things to do with mince, are winter favourites.  Long slow cooking that fills the kitchen with a mouth-watering aroma. Served with mashed potatoes and root vegetables… what could be better?  

But this style of cooking is not the most popular in this neck of the woods where meat is traditionally cooked over hot coals, so the local Talhos make their mince and braising steak from prime cuts.

Your Bolognese sauce, chilli con carne and cottage pie take on a different appearance altogether. Not to mention a different flavour. So does your beef-in-ale and boeuf stroganoff.  

Lamb’s liver and kidneys are like gold dust. When my body cries out for iron, the offal has to be lamb’s. Such is the perversity of the British expat.

Bacalhau (dried and salted codfish) is one of Portugal’s national dishes. It is said that there is a different bacalhau recipe for each day of the year.

Not my cup of tea I’m afraid. Apart from bolos de bacalhau (fishcakes to you and me), I can’t think of any worse way to present what should otherwise be a succulent and flaky fish.

There was a flurry of activity last November when a British food chain opened its doors in the Algarve. I went along to see what all the fuss was about and, true enough, the store’s shelves were lined with goodies which up ‘til then had been unavailable on our sunny shores.  

Along with everyone else, I parted with my Euros and came home laden with jars and cans of memorabilia although I did manage to resist the temptation to fill the cool-bag with Bird’s Eye fish fingers.

It was great therapy. The Mulligatawny soup was delicious but we don’t need it again for at least another 20 years.

I quickly realised that the ‘must have’ list was there simply because it was a ‘couldn’t have’ list. The pressure’s off now.

There was, however, still an overwhelming feeling of guilt at reverting to type and departing from local cuisine. This was laid to rest by a French friend when I confessed my preference for good old English fare.

“Mon Dieu!” she cried.  “I have lived here thirty years, my husband is Portuguese, but I only ever cook French food!” So perhaps it’s not just me after all.

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