Azure. It may be that the word is associated with visuality, a perceivable speckle among the spectrum of light; yet within it, just sometimes and specifically somewhere, can there be diluted in it streaks of murky feelings.
From the line where the celestial and rippling blues meet, a yearning to explore beyond the horizon; amidst its saline aromas and splashing whispers, a craving of its mineral-nourished flavours; atop manmade piers and natural cliffside alike, a pondering of structures sculpted and built by man and nature in tribute to the bodies of fluid that bind us all. Azure: our ever-flowing beliefs, dependencies on and relationships with the waters around us.
Not that it’s always an agreeable sentiment; occasionally it can be unforgiving, in times when I find my life and visceral leanings getting snuffed out by its asphyxiating currents and gusts. But at this moment, overlooking the marina of Parque das Nações in the northeastern edge of Lisbon, its calmness and clarity were evoking in me all the entanglements of ‘azure’ I’ve ever felt.
In turn, whether for my emotive devotion or mere shred of care, the water seemingly offered me its blessings: upon the beginning of a journey, with its hopes and appetites intact, entirely dedicated to seeking and savouring the best of seafood and fish Portugal has reserved for us.
Rota da Peixe, literally the route of fish in Portuguese, isn’t as much a singular, locative entity as it is an advocacy movement: spearheaded by APTECE, the tourism organisation endeavouring to promote Portugal’s gastronomic heritage and entice people to come experience its often elusive culinary side, the routes may be interpreted as the designated trails for fish-finding visitors as relevantly as the ways Portuguese fishery is spirited away from coasts to mouths, towards inland Portugal or other countries, as physical ingredients or as concepts and techniques of Portuguese fish cooking.
It is the kind of route unbound by the need of chronological order; it might well be best traversed in reverse, originating in a destination which has piqued enough curiosity so that only by retracing it back to its source can it be a truly fitting end.
Perhaps, way before I’d skirted the waterways of Lisbon, my own Rota da Peixe began in London. It was in the corner of Old Spitalfields Market, at a restaurant by the name of Taberna do Mercado, where I was first introduced to Portugal’s fishery: in the dishes transported and conceived by chef Nuno Mendes – himself a transplant from Portugal – and in the stories of José Borralho. As I sat next to the president of APTECE and chatted with him throughout the dinner, about everything from sustainability in food to food travelling, I could detect knowledge and fervour for Portuguese cuisine and specifically seafood interlaced with his dialogues; yet, almost coyly, he would hold back a bit of information here and a description there – as though throughout the night he was whispering into my curious ear: “you would know once you’ve experienced it yourself.”
My curiosity was piqued.
Suspending my connection with water in Lisbon, we drove up the vein and into the heartlands. Évora, as we inched towards its town centre, was already glistening with the golden hues of dusk by the time we landed back on our feet.
Anointed capital of the Alentejo region, the south-centre part of Portugal and arguably the very soul of Portuguese cuisine, Évora has withstood five millennia of strife and attrition as a guardian of civilisations – and, as populations upon populations flocked to the settlement, it must have had a fair share of mouths to feed.
And there I was thinking about food again. Sure, my mind does have a preexisting tendency of wandering off and gravitating towards everything edible – only because the culinary upbringing and acuteness are so imbued in the fabrics of my identity. Call it one of my core memory islands, to quote an Inside Out reference. You should visit it some time.
Yet, even in hindsight, my curiosity was led astray in Évora. For a short while, painted most conspicuously gold by the dwindling sun, it had to be the aged buildings that arrested my attention – not particularly for the visual spectacle but my own obsession of history. Medieval churches, remnants of the Ancient Roman temples; cobbled steps, Corinthian pillars, circular rose windows – what’s there not to marvel and envisage the bygone ages? After all, Évora is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its own right: one such is where persons come to revel in the past.
What is the past, or history on that matter? Its bookmarked chapters are most often affiliated with grandeur: tales of the most brutal battles, living proofs of human innovation and monuments of their daring, spectacular edifices surviving through abrasion and the wealthiest among men to have, or more likely claimed to have, built them; inevitably, to navigate through this vastness of time and space within recorded history, we would look to the brightest events to be mesmerised.
What we overlook, then, among the decades and centuries, are the everyday lives – at least, as I ambled while deep in reflection, that I do. I rarely zoom in on the timescale as I did, in Évora, wonder how the Celts, Romans, Moors and Portuguese existed and fed themselves: what they plucked from the waters and cultivated from the soil; which methods they cooked their harvests and preserved them for times of hardship; how they laboured daily to stave off hunger and famine, not only for preservations of selves but to delay the death knell of whole societies.
And, ultimately, where fragments of these edible histories have perforated through recipes and gastronomic artistries, passed down from generation to generation – and reveal themselves to me. Upon me dawned the purpose of my journey: for the sake of curiosity, to investigate and learn from the relationship of this region’s people with what they eat – and their negotiating with their environment in lifelong quests for sustenance.
I walked past a banner hoisted outside the Museu de Évora, whose words would echo:
“What’s past is prologue.”
It is said that there’s hardship when there’s need to eat dogfish.
In truth I might have made up that statement, but it doesn’t mean I fabricated a reality: as a family of petite sharks, dogfish may only be edible once their skin is removed – the very same outer layer once exploited for wood polishing. While not particularly palatable in flavour and requiring slow, long cooking to tenderise their flesh, they are at least notoriously abundant and, as scavengers, will feed on any bait; though gripping their sandpaper-coarse bodies with bare hands as they wrangle and grate is no smooth operation. Dogfish don’t exactly inspire the desire to be captured and eaten.
Thus, desperation – even if it’s a tradition practised in plentiful today that was contrived in poorer ago’s.
The setting of where dogfish was to be served resonated the same ‘charm of the meagrer past’, with its terracotta-walled, exposed-stone rusticity deliberately preserved and elevated. It appeared that my first meal in Portugal, at Café Alentejo, was to be a humble one. With dogfish on the menu.
And with all the probing on the meaning of food history at sunset, it’s finally my turn on the binoculars pointed backwards in time. And besides, how on earth would dogfish have tasted like?
A prelude to which, the plates of plentifulness: a rich spread of entradas, or the Portuguese way of overachieving at shared starters. Pastries, cheeses, beans, octopus – bites of reminding that, after a long day of travelling, just how famished we were. I didn’t spare much thought while I joined the ravaging, as though I was my overwintered self happening upon the first spring harvest.
In stark contrast, when it did come, the dogfish stew presented little overjoying qualities. Perhaps it was José Manuel, our driver guide and resident source of knowledge in Portuguese cuisine, explaining to us its significance of subsistence that cast a shade of inexcitable austerity over it; or it may have been that dull visually, with that overcooked-fish greyish-white hunkering down on an earthly pedestal of toasted bread. The fluid part, reserved for the photographers among us, trickled out of a teapot like molten, limescale-tainted porcelain with specks of discoloured greens.
For the eye, the dogfish stew was no dish designed for the sake of opulence; yet, while it conjured up the mantra of “it is what it is” – quite feasibly followed by a deep and mournful sigh – how it looked was still far from being quintessentially hideous or unattractive.
Never one to pass the judgment with sight alone, I dug in with a spoon – the dogfish had long given up resistance and broke apart easily. It didn’t taste of much, like its relatives I’ve previously sampled, though the lengthy braising did lend some marine flavouring of its to the broth, which was mostly eclipsed by vinegary acidity – most likely there to mask any unpleasant tangs of the dogfish – and fragranced with coriander leaves.
Its appearance did deceive me into expecting a far more unsavoury encounter, but it was ‘not bad’: British speak for decent enough to finish off, but probably never ordering the same again. Consider, at the very least, an interest satiated.
Towards the end of the meal, I felt none the wiser.
Is this it? As a gastronomic, cultural cross section of a region, the dogfish stew fell short of painting the whole picture; maybe I was expecting too many answers from one lone dish. What’s folded within it could be the generations-long effort of refining an undesirable ingredient, could be the acquisition of an acquired taste over time – could be the dogma in the virtue of making the most out of what nature can and will provide – but it was barely a representation to the understanding I sought. What I hadn’t yet discovered was the distilled version of Alentejo’s culinary soul; after all, it is often amongst rurality and poverty that the rich, royal and gastronomically acute, historically and presently, ultimately find their inspirations – “find what’s eaten from the dirt and transcend them to be worthy even for the gods of men.”
What was transparent is this necessity of conserving those palatal traces of bitterer times, of supplying nostalgia to those who lived through it and those deserving its stern teachings of frugality. Yet there must be more than just the products of mere survival encapsulated in history, in even the most ordinary of past lives; there has to be, in what modernity has inherited, the aspects of food that accompanies and cherishes festivities, togetherness and joy. Vivacity and abundance of flora and fauna. Celebrations of life. Tastes of having truly been alive.
But then again, it was easy for me to forget that, voyaging the route in reverse, being inland was really the starting point. The Rota da Peixe had yet to decipher its complexities for me; I had yet to give it time to begin. My curiosity for the culture of fish in Portugal had yet to receive its education.
As it was, the prologue was already written; the story had yet to be lived. And tasted.