A foodie travel tale from Portugal
These past six months the Pacific Northwest has been especially cold, wet and gray. I deeply need a vacation to any place where I can feel the sun on my face for longer than a few minutes until the next passing rain cloud.
It’s for that reason this week I’m recounting a story from the last time my wife and I had an exceptional trip. It was in 2019 where we spent two weeks wandering around warm and sunny Portugal.
For half of that trip, our friend Joanne accompanied us, and together we had some hilarious experiences, but I’ll save those for a later date.
However today, since the pandemic has ruined our local selection of decent restaurants so much that I’ve almost forgotten what true culinary genius is, I’m presenting a tale from later in the trip when Deb and I had an “interesting” dining experience.
Dusk was falling as we walked down the tiny alleys of old town Evora, Portugal. It made me think of a de Chirico painting; crooked building angles; hidden sight lines; long shadows growing in late afternoon shades of orange and blue against the white facades.
We were headed to meet our reservation at a restaurant which all the tourism guides said was a dining extravaganza not to be missed. Of course Evora’s old town center is a UNESCO World Heritage site that’s also not to be missed. We spent a few days here mainly because I, being the ghoulish weirdo that I am, wanted to see its famous Chapel of Bones, one of the best ossuaries in Europe.
But on that night of our stay it was all about sampling the Alentejo region cuisine.
After a few twists and turns down the cobble stone streets, we found our destination, a restaurant called “Pimentos.” Outside and next to the restaurant’s glass front door, a stocky, middle aged man was sitting on a chair at a small table. He was leisurely puffing away on a cigar when noticed us approach the door. The fellow put down his cigar and jumped up from his chair.
“Boa tarde! Welcome to Pimentos! Senhor Flynn?”
That caught me off guard. “Why…uh..Yes! Two for dinner.”
He opened the glass door and ushered us through the entrance. As we entered I saw the staff. They were lackadaisically lounging behind the hostess counter. However they sprang up as we walked in with the man; and based on how he was ordering them around with a series of finger snaps and semi-whistles, he was obviously the head honcho.
He directed the hostess, a young woman in her twenties, to seat us. We followed her from the small entrance dining area and into a slightly larger room which held six tables.
The room’s decor was subtle; pictures on the walls which featured images from the region; hutches that featured flowered vases, wine selections with locally crafted art products; and white walls with archways accented in either deep yellow or blue. Overall it seemed like a pleasant and clean setting for fine dining.
The hostess sat us at a small table for two that was in a corner of the dining room. There was an old record player on a small cabinet also taking up space in this corner. I thought it was quaint nod to a forgotten era.
I asked her for a menus but she must not have heard me as she skittered off.
A moment later, the cigar man entered the room. He was now wearing an apron and was carrying a large black poster board with writing on it. He marched over to our table, raised his board and began reciting an obviously well-rehearsed monologue.
“Bem-vindo to Pimentos! I am your host, Chef Johnny! I speak 5 languages and have worked as chef in some of the finest restaurants throughout Europe. I opened Pimentos so that I could bring you excellent meals with only the freshest ingredients!”
He then motioned to the poster board.
Chef Johnny reinforced just how fresh his ingredients were.
“Tonight’s menu features the following items. Pay attention because I’m not repeating it twice!” He let out a laugh that wavered between sarcastic and serious.
Chef Johnny then rattled off the list of items written on the poster board: appetizers, salads, main dishes, side dishes and finally desserts.
He talked with such speed we couldn’t possibly commit any of these items to memory, but Chef Johnny made sure to reinforce that we knew just how “fresh” his ingredients were.
When he mentioned the vegetables, a waiter popped in holding a plate showing the veggies in their raw state after a moment he then quickly bowed and walked back to the kitchen.
When Chef Johnny mentioned mushrooms, the sous chef appeared to show off a bounty of mushrooms and he then similarly bowed on his exit.
At the mention of fish, the hostess offered up a plate of dead-eyed fish staring at us.
She refused to bow anywhere near the fish and just walked off.
Chef Johnny even trotted out the guy making a delivery of herbs and mint to the restaurant. The delivery guy’s face clearly read that he drew the short straw when choosing delivery stops that day.
Deb and I exchanged glances at all this and both knew we were glad the Cattle and Chicken Ranchers weren’t available for a visit.
After Chef Johnny finished his litany of dishes he ended a warning.
“…and If you are here thinking you’ll get chips with the meal, GET OUT! I refuse to serve chips! Why just the other day a Russian Family of eight came in and they requested chips for their kids and I told them all to GET OUT!”
Again, he followed this with another sinister laugh. He then motioned to the waiter who was now standing next to him.
“This is your waiter, Afonso. He’ll take your order.”
Since neither Deb nor I managed to retain a single mention of what was being served, we just blurted out whatever came to mind.
I said “Salmon” which is a pretty safe choice since it’s one of the easiest fishes to cook.
Deb said “Mushrooms!”
The waiter wrote down our choices then rushed off to the kitchen. I asked Deb why she curiously chose a dish that she normally would never order.
“I don’t know! I panicked! What do I do?”
“Suck it up, Buttercup.” I reminded her that she did this on every foreign trip. “You suffer from food hysteria when faced with unfamiliar choices. At least it’s not the 1800’s where they’d pump you full of laudanum and tighten your corset.”
Deb admitted that a touch of Laudanum might help her finicky palate. When Afonso came to take our drink order she asked if they sold it in Portugal.
He told her all drugs were legal here and that he might know a guy.
But before Deb could finish that drug deal, Chef Johnny came over to intrude on Afonso’s job.
“I saw you ordered the Salmon and Mushrooms. Let me strongly suggest a bottle of Branco Alentejo with your meal.”
Before we could agree, he snapped his fingers at Afonso who scurried off to the wine locker.
The help sure did scurry like frightened mice far too much in this place.
Chef Johnny was distracted by the arrival of other diners and walked off, leaving us to wonder what kind of wine was ordered for us.
“You get the feeling that this isn’t Burger King?” Deb asked.
“What do you mean?” I responded.
“We’re not getting anything our way.”
We laughed as we turned out attention to Chef Johnny, who was now repeating his “No Chip Menu Soliloquy,” complete with the accompanying food displays, to each table in this now packed house.
Thankfully the Branco Alentejo wine that Afonso served up was damn tasty. He also brought us a basket of bread sticks, which if you know anything about restaurant math means the number of sticks served equals the amount of time you’ll wait for your meal to arrive.
That basket held a lot of sticks.
After Chef Johnny’s performance at each table, he turned and addressed us all.
“And now for your listening pleasure, I will put a selection of Jazz Music on the record player.”
I said to Deb, “Oh good, A little mellow Jazz music. It’s better than suffering through K-pop blasting at us like in that Albufeira Fish and Chips shop.”
Chef Johnny bristled and sneered in my direction, “WHO SAID CHIPS?”
“Uh…nothing Chef, I was just telling my wife about a place in Albufeira…”
He further rankled, “Albufeira! That town is nothing but drunk English tourists with dead tastebuds!”
Chef Johnny then unsleeved a record of John Coltrane’s Free Jazz, put it on the record player and turned up the volume.
I immediately regretted saying anything about chips as the blaring cacophony of rambling saxophone riffs blasted next to me.
Everyone else in the restaurant glared at me as if this sonic torture was my fault. I started playing with the bread sticks to avoid any eye contact.
After an hour or so of listening to annoying Jazz platters, plus a pound and a half of bread sticks, our food finally arrived. Each dish was artfully presented upon a slate shingle.
At this point we’d been in Portugal for about 10 days and practically every meal came served on a slate shingle. I was beginning to wonder if porcelain dinner ware was possibly outlawed here, or if the material was limited only to decorative wall tiles. Given every establishment’s apparent fondness for this flat rock, ordering soup seemed like a potentially messy affair in Portugal.
But I digress…
As I said, each dish arrived “artfully” arranged, or to be more precise, disorganized and deconstructed by a schizophrenic alternating between fits of being Jackson Pollock and Frances Bacon.
While my Salmon dish was very tasty and had the proper accompanying smears of mashed potatoes (or was it Yucca? I forget.), Deb was less enthused about her plate…er I mean, shingle.
“What’s matter, Babycakes?” I asked.
“I don’t like it.” She replied as she glared down at the slate tile that was littered with a variety of stewed mushrooms and roasted vegetables.
“You haven’t even tasted it! Plus none of the food items are touching together. You know how you don’t like your food to mix company? That looks like mission accomplished to me.” I replied as I stuffed a heap of salmon into my mouth to the rhythm of a bouncy jazz number playing behind me.
“It’s the overall arrangement.” Deb said with a visibly sour expression.
I looked at her plate more closely. It did somewhat resembled a wedding reception seating map…but made from food.
I then added, “Just move things around until you separate the in-laws.”
For my failed joke I got a stare so cold it froze my fish.
A moment later, Chef Johnny swooped by our table. I could tell he saw Deb’s open distaste for her dish.
“Enjoying the meal?” He boomed with a subtle hint that this was less of a question and more of an edict.
Deb started to reply, “Oh it’s…”
I cut her off and piped up, “É mais delicioso, Chef Johnny!”
This is the one time where I considered a happy chef was better for my health than a happy wife. Especially when that chef was possibly some Portuguese butcher knife wielding, megalomaniac.
“Oh bom, bom! Let Afonso know when you want dessert.” He said as he lumbered off to the next table, who had equally anxious looks on their faces.
“I think I’m ready now.” Deb said to me as quietly as she could over the music.
I quickly finished my Salmon and made sure at least one person was walking out of this place satisfied with the meal.
Deb finished off the wine and motioned to our waiter, Afonso. But before he could walk over, Chef Johnny, who was wandering between tables like a shark in a coral reef, swam over to us and again cut off Afonso from his duties..
“Ready for Sobremesa? I suggest the Folhado de Maçã. It pares well with two glasses of Madeira Wine.” Again, a hint of command, not suggestion.
In my smarmiest I replied, “Only if it comes on a slate!”
Chef Johnny walked off and snapped his fingers at Afonso, who frustratingly walked to the kitchen. Even so, I sensed there might have been something prearranged in all this.
I kept repeating the name of the dessert to Deb. “Folhado de Maçã…Folhado de Maçã… I like how it rolls off my tongue. There’s something so exotic sounding to it!”
A few minutes later Afonso came to our table with the glorious Folhado de Maçã.
Deb looked and said flatly, “Some exotic dish…An apple turnover with ice cream.”
Afonso implored, “Por favor, say you love it just for my sake.”
He then nodded over to Chef Johnny, leaned closer and said in a desperate, barely audible whisper. “You don’t have to work for heeeem. By the way, for the lady, there’s a late night chip shop in the main square.”
I hope you enjoyed this little travel tale. I’ve got many more, far wilder stories to come which I’ll sprinkle between my comic offerings. So stay tuned.
WE TRAVEL NOT TO ESCAPE LIFE, BUT FOR LIFE NOT TO ESCAPE US. – ANONYMOUS
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That’s all for this week and remember, don’t let anyone bully you into an exotic sounding dessert.
I loved this. When I was traveling around Israel, I remembered my father's admission: "I'll eat anything that doesn't eat me first." Helped me tremendously to try new foods.
Thoroughly enjoyed this! Every time I read something about Portugal, it makes me want to visit immediately. How I’d love to escape our PNW gloom!