Showcasing Portuguese fish at Taberna do Mercado in Spitalfields Market was an inspired idea – marrying the best fish in the world (according to Ferran Adria) with Nuno Mendes, one of the top exponents of Portuguese cuisine.
Promoting the new Portuguese Fish Route, APTECE (Portuguese Culinary Tourism and Economy Association) treated food and travel media to a presentation dinner showcasing some of the piscine delights of Portugal. Fine ingredients speak for themselves and the fish we ate were given royal treatment by Nuno Mendes and his team.
Aware that Portuguese produce and cuisine have been under marketed, APTECE has set about promoting culinary tourism. The Portuguese Fish Route aims to highlight the finest fish in each region of the country. Tourists will be able to download an App giving them information about not only fish but other gastronomic highlights as well as cultural information and activities. This is great news for travellers who, like me, enjoy researching a country’s culinary heritage and getting tips on where the best food is to be found.
While our dinner was fish based it did not ignore the other fine products that Portugal has to offer. We began with plates of sheep’s cheese, mild and strong, served heated so that we could dip griddled toasts fondue-like into the melted cheese.
This was followed by snacks known in Portugal as pestiscos. First up were Prawn Rissóis – little empanadas, breaded and fried and filled with spicy prawns. Although they had a spicy chilli note the sweet flavour of the prawns was not overpowered.
Next we were treated to a trio of House Tinned Fish. Referencing the famed Portuguese tinned fish, three dishes were served in tins. These included Dorset Char with fennel and lemon; Cod and chickpeas and lastly, Octopus and pepper salad.
Green bean fritters and Bulhao Pato followed. The fritters were like a tempura which was both salty and crunchy and gave way to soft green beans within. The textural contrast was further enhanced by the sauce which was both salty and herby, redolent with coriander. Researching the sauce which was unknown to me, I discovered that it is named after a Portuguese poet and often accompanies shellfish. It worked excellently with the fritters and we had our spoons out to scoop up the broth.
Small Plates came next the first being Tropea Onion, 24 St Jorge. The tropea is a sweet red onion that hails from Italy. Perhaps it is grown in Portugal too. The St Jorge, a Portugese cow’s cheese, 24 months old in this version, added to the comfort food feel of this dish.
Thin slices of red onion were mixed into a smooth sauce, roux like, and flavoured with what tasted like either nutmeg or mace.
The climax dish of the evening arrived looking gorgeously pretty in a blue and white bowl. Cuttlefish and Pig Trotter Coentrada. Coentrada is a coriander sauce. In it bobbed tender slices of cuttlefish accompanied by tiny cubes of pig trotter. Micro coriander was scattered adding to the attractive presentation as well as the flavour which melded coriander, garlic and chilli.
This was such a fine dish that I would go back to Taberna do Mercado for this alone. It was one of those dishes that lingers in the memory. It certainly woke the palate up after the comforting dish of onions that preceded it.
A monkfish tail arrived on the table and made quite a splash served on the bone and divided into meaty portions.
Firm and sweet, this king of fish was served with a light herb sauce and provided a subtle and gentle change of tempo from the punchy flavours of the previous dish. It was accompanied by a gem lettuce salad which had a green sauce. It was a wonderful partner for the fish in providing contrasting texture while extending the herbal theme.
By now we were groaning with pleasure and full stomachs and all insisted we could not eat the sandwich that was next on the menu. But the fun was about to begin, heralded by yellow squeezy mustard bottles. Bifana bisaro pork press, yeast mayo and fennel was easily the best toastie I have eaten since the Cuban sandwich I ate in New York. This dish needed some research on my part so that I could understand what made this such a wonderful mouthful; none of the diners could stop eating it despite our over full stomachs.
A bifana is a popular Portugese sandwich served on a toasted bun – Taberna Mercato’s bread was of excellent quality. Bisaro is an indigenous breed of Portuguese pig and presa is a gorgeous cut at the end of the pork loin which has a marvellously tender texture. Not only was the sandwich packed with slices of this delicious meat, but it had the addition of thin slices of fennel and a thin mayonnaise with the unusual addition of yeast. It worked beautifully. Even with the mustard. This is another dish worth stopping off for if you are in the area at lunchtime. You will never eat a Pret sandwich again.
Desserts were served but by now I was having to admit defeat. Still, I managed a few spoons of Abade de Priscos egg yolk and pork fat pudding with Port. What a treat – the egg yolk and pork fat pudding looked like a gold ingot floating in a ruby coloured sauce of port and olive oil.
Certainly one of the most unusual desserts I have eaten of late. The ingot, despite having salt crystals hidden within, was very sweet yet the waiter told us that in Portugal this dessert is far sweeter. Oh my!
Pao de Ló creamy egg sponge cake with olive oil was like an undercooked soufflé. Light as a feather, the creamy egg sponge was served in its baking paper and was cooked around the sides and runny in the middle with egg yolk, olive oil and salt. It would make a wonderful breakfast cake.
The meal was beautifully executed, each dish sang with a different note and tempo. It took us up and down the musical scale, some dishes subtle and others packing a punch. Throughout there was colour and exciting flavours. The Portuguese wines were all excellent.
There is no finer way to make an emotional connection with travellers than through food. At Taberna do Mercado I was thrilled by the flavours and dishes we ate. Having not visited Portugal I am unfamiliar with the cuisine. Having now sampled some of the food of the country I realise that a road trip in Portugal needs to go on to my travel agenda. Soon.