It is curious how we accept so many innovations and novelties and unconsciously reject others. Christmas and associated celebrations, has been a time of true revolution of spirit and traditions.
I am not that old to complain about times gone by. Nevertheless, I clearly remember that Christmas, a deeply religious celebration was also essentially perhaps a Family celebration. It was a return Home and a get together of Friends. It was a calm period, with deserted streets on the 24th, except those going to Christmas Mass. On the 25th families would visit one another back and forth. Now, not only at Christmas, but the habit of families visiting one another is dwindling day by day.
But, let us go back to Christmas traditions. If we only maintained the Christmas Eve dinner with boiled codfish, after the long fasting period that the Church imposed. We promptly accepted Turkey as a substitute for this famous meal, and probably found it tastier... Freamende (Portuguese parish) keeps the Capon as a gastronomic flagship of quality. Turkey is a recent product which we have absorbed and accepted very well. Why have we not kept the tradition of fish which has been passed on for generations? Why have we accepted turkey so well instead of capon? It would take too long to answer this…!
When I was just a boy and still living in the glorious province, we had several rituals associated with the Christmas celebration. One of the rituals that were the most fun was to make the turkey “drunk”. Only later I realized why they this was done. The turkey was fed crushed nestles and on the day it was sacrificed it was forced to drink several doses of brandy and fed whole walnuts that were forced into its mouth. The beak was forced closed and this caused it to swallow the walnuts whole. Then the kids would watch the animals tumble and say as they walked. Death only came to them once they were considered appropriately “anaesthetized”
When I refer to this tragic course of events due to the pleasure at the table, I don´t mean to maintain this tradition which is perhaps very local. What I mean is the evolution and the change in traditions, and in this case, the abandonment of our castrated capon or eunuch as Duarte Galvão recently referred to them. Suddenly, within fifty or a hundred years habits have changed. Of course change always faces resistance. I do not want to mention again the forsaking of fish, which the Church forced on us. The famous banquet of King Sebastian, offered to his uncle, the king of Castella , was recorded in history. The big surprise was the menu composed of over thirty different fish. Felipe II was surprised and paid compliments to the meal by saying: “My nephew is the Master of the Seas”. Maybe the uncle already considered inheriting those seas…!
Another element that was quickly became part of our traditions was the potato. Today it is unthinkable to imagine eating codfish without associating potatoes either as part of the dish or as a side plate. Even the simple codfish cake that seems to have been part of our menu for so long is made with potatoes.
Obviously in the past the people that were well off ate meat abundantly by being exempted through payment of the papal edicts.
There is a tradition that has survived since medieval times: the abundance of sweetmeat. Initially they were not very sweet and there was little variety. However, after the establishment of sugar plantations in Brazil (1532), and the abundance of sugar coming to Portugal, we developed creativity which led s to be an example of gastronomic “virtue” for the new world. Portugal and the glory of sweetmeat!
This chapter also includes how the Bolo Rei (King Cake) which appeared only in the mid Nineteenth Century became so quickly part of our tradition. Today it is unimaginable to do without this famous cake at Christmas time. It is true that the cake appeared in the century of great changes in society, the mentalities were in evolution and the royal sponsorship greatly influenced its consumption. Later the Bolo Rainha (Queen Cake) appeared. It was made only with nuts and raisins) and the Bolo “esfrangalhado” (crumbled) and there are many other by-products.
In reality, Christmas in the Twentieth Century, is still a party to unite the families, but it is mainly a commercial party. It seems like the Season´s Greetings make people forget all the harm done and caused during the year. The streets decorated with many lights are the commercial ones.
Let us o back to the table traditions. Today with the galloping globalization, we are faced with new products. What I mean is the availability of elements that are out of season. When they grow during the appropriate season they are at the height of their taste. It is sad when strawberries are served with sugar, thus indicating that they are not sweet at all…
I hope the tradition of the melon that lasts until the New Year is maintained. And the tradition of raisins and pears is also dwindling.
The good wines are also losing tradition. I don´t usually write about wines. I am strictly in the position of the client who will consume these wines. However, to write about wines has become an elite thing. So much so that I have stopped reading chronicles critics or specialized information on wines. My position is very radical. I taste the wine. If it tastes good I then continue to drink it. I was taught to drink wine, but always with the maxim that wine is not meant to quench one´s thirst. The object of wine is to help to improve the pleasure at the table and help and help to react better to the food. This leads me to suggest a delicious book on wine. Or rather, this book teaches us to understand wine in a language for the layman. It simplifies the difficult language used in the written manuals. What I am referring to is the “112 Conselhos para perceber o Vinho” (112 Tips to understand Wine) written by Maria João de Almeida. She is a renowned wine chronicle writer and acknowledged wine taster and critic, whom I admire and appreciate. She wrote this delicious book with a very clear title as to what she intends to convey. 112 is the emergency medical number and this book therefore becomes the emergency answer to so many questions about wine. Only someone very intelligent familiar with wine can convert specialized writing to such simple language which is accessible to everyone. This book reminds me of another one called “Não entendo nada de vinho, mas sei do que gosto” ( I know nothing about wine, but I know what I like”) by Simon Woods. It was also written for the layman and this target is the mass wine consumer.
Regarding books and this is a marvelous time for published Titles, which make some editors seem more concerned with the Christmas season covers than with the actual contents. There is another book that deserves my applause. “Palavras de Olival” by Antonio Monteiro. It is the best written dictionary and teaches all one needs to know about the olive grove, the olive tree, the olive and olive oil. It even presents the cultural issues associated to those terms and most important of all, it talks about olive oil which is a product the Portuguese should be proud of and which they should start using more. This is another book which is written in simple language, typical style of people who are intellectually superior and specialists and who know how to convey information to the public in general.
At the end of 2008 there was an excellent work edited on a DVD. It is a very important collection which is registered in “Os Gestos dos Sabores” (The Gestures of Tastes”. This was a result of many years of research. This sweet, delicious film produced will be very important for the future. This is an attempt to refrain from losing some traditions. Tastes also have gestures. The same way a music score has several interpretations, these traditions also reach the height of perfection depending on who the interpreter, confectioner, or person doing it is. Maria de Lurdes Gomes Diegues, one of the last specialists in “Cuscus”, Francisco Matias Paulo and the reconstitution of the “Vila de Amêijoas” recipe (shellfish), Maria Fernada Bispo with “Cabrito Estornado”(goat), Maria Catarina Murcho and her “Doces de Ovos” of the Alentejo (egg sweets), Margarida Gomes specialist in “Bucho”. Maria Odete Farinha with “Maranhos”, Belmira do Carmo Branquinho with her amazing “Lagartos” de Castelo de Vide, Maria Leonor Rodrigues and Maria Manuela Máximo with their knowledge of “Pão-de-ló” (sponge cake), and Maria Antónia Aguiar with her “Bolos de Cabeça”. Like any film star we have the star craftsmen allow their gestures to be registered and who make a difference. I feel like calling them poets of the culinary arts. The mentors of this project are the renowned and knowledgeable traditional Portuguese food experts who certainly deserve the applause they get: Maria de Lourdes Modesto and Maria Proença, who carried out this project under the framework of the cultural association activities “ As Idades dos Sabores” (The Ages of Tastes).
By the way, when will we start to see kakis in the restaurants, or quinces without seeing them in marmalade?
As consumers or restaurant owners, we should learn to keep what is best in our traditions.
Happy New Year for 2009
© Virgílio Nogueiro Gomes
Foto © Adriana Freire