Why do some meals taste better than others? What makes food great? Is it only the quality? Or the skills of the cook? For us, half why we appreciate food is the circumstances in which we encounter it. Sure, sometimes a simply well done dish can lift our drooping spirits but usually it’s the meals in wonderful places and with the right people that we tend to enjoy the most and remember for years. That, and the context –knowing what you are eating and how it was produced, is what matters to us.
There really only is a handful of reasons for us to live this life of travel. The unfailing hunger for the new and the different, the state of awe we’re able to keep thanks to Earth’s stunning beauty, the addictive feeling of freedom. Exploring new tastes in new places, with the people we meet, is worth traveling hundreds of miles. If sharing a meal was the only thing we could do in a new country, it would still be well worth it! Looking deeper, it boils down to one thing: the feeling of connection that kicks in when you’re doing something you love, and sharing it. Food is such an amazing connector that leaves religion, politics and all that jazz aside.
We’re not afraid of gluten and a country without good bread can make our life miserable. Coming from Poland, where bread used to be nearly sacred, we can’t live off the packaged, sliced, only-edible-after-toasting, with-a-life-span-of-weeks thing that has only the name in common with real bread. The first encounter with Portuguese food, at our host’s in Lisbon, made us sigh with relief. Good bread! But as always, what will make it really special is seeing how it’s made and sharing it.
So, there you have it: the good food, the context and the common experience. All the elements of the story. The setting: Portuguese Alentejo in spring. We cycle through green hilly Windows desktop landscapes with white carpets of chamomile flowers. In between the sudden eruptions of white towns. Clusters of houses perched on a hill, visible from afar. More green hills, cows, blue skies. Not much more. Then, the landscape changes a bit and we find ourselves by a dam lake, in a small village surrounded by nothing but wilderness and cork oak trees. A big farm with all kinds of animals, orchards, a garden. The good-natured owners, from whom our workaway host rents land and house.
There is no Portuguese food without bread, but it’s in the Alentejo, where bread is such an indispensable element of the local cuisine. White and not very heavy, but still substantial enough to stay fresh for a few days. It’s not only a side for the local dishes, it’s a crucial ingredient, too. Soups like açorda or sopa de tomate have big chunks of it floating inside! Or migas — a stir fried bread with seasonal vegetables. Very unique dishes we haven’t seen anywhere else in our travels.
But, it all starts with the skillful kneading flour and water. And with an invitation, of course. Zulmira and Antonio invite us to their house to see how they make their weekly batch. As it happens with homemade bread, the ingredients are basic: wheat flour, some rye flour, sourdough, some yeast. But most importantly, the skilled hands quickly processing the dough. We bake bread ourselves, so we know how it’s done. But we’re far from Zulmira’s mastery in operating a wet dough – keeping it soft and gooey inside, while the outside is covered with a thick layer of flour, so that it can dance between her hands faster than our eyes can follow. This layer will become a lovely crust you just can’t resist.
Off the loaves go, between sheets of cloth and covered under a blanket, while Antonio and Zulmira work on the bread oven. It’s huge, worthy of a separate room, and we joke it could fit one of us in. They feed the flames with thin branches in huge amounts until the bricks inside turn white with heat. Now it’s time for the bread to go in, and in they go, one by one, on a long shovel. Only twenty-or-so minutes later and we’re back in the room watching the loaves being taken out and undergoing a quality test. “Pão”(or bread in Portuguese) is the sound they should make when hit with a palm of Zulmira’s hand. We think she’s joking until one does not pass the test and goes back inside for a couple more minutes. And here they are: beautiful and aromatic, burning my hand through the kitchen clout. It tasted lovely even before I saw how it’s done but now it’s a whole different story. We leave on the next day, the loaf in our pannier, feeding us in many ways for the next few days on the road.
Leaving Alentejo we realize we haven’t tried any of the famous bread dishes. A bit dissapointing, but I try to keep my glass half full. Well, if they really are worth trying, there must come another occasion. Two days later we visit a great warmshowers host family in the neighbouring region of Ribatejo. It turns out that they both actually come from Alentejo. And guess what’s for dinner? The Alentejan sopa de tomate. Paula puts some chouriço and salo (pork fat) in the pan and fries them until all the fat is rendered. She removes the meat and fries chopped onions in the oil. In go the tomatoes, the “hortelã da ribeira” and water, while we chat with Henrique in the kitchen. Later it’s time for the perfectly poached eggs and at the last minute, big chunks of the Alentejo bread. Voila! We’ve made it through the whole cycle from flour and water to sitting by the table with the lovely Portuguese family and connecting over a bowl of their childhood food. See, this is exactly what I’m talking about!