New Year’s Eve 1977. I am on a date with a woman I barely know. At her suggestion, we are eating at the Casa Portugal, a venerable Portuguese restaurant in Cambridge’s Inman Square. I remember fish on rice, a melange of clams and pork cubes, and Portuguese fries, small fried rounds, soft rather than crunchy. It is honest food, strong flavors of garlic, wine, tomatoes, cumin, paprika and other seasonings that enhance rather than mask the fish, shellfish and meat with which they are cooked. After dinner, some tables are cleared and a man begins to sing. I understand not a word but the songs convey love, longing, loss and a noble sadness. Fados, songs of fate. I never see my New Year’s date again, but a lifelong relationship has been born.
Portugal shares much of the common European heritage — waves of invasions, exploration and conquests in the Americas and Africa, and absorption into the European Economic Community. It has its own unique character as well and the food is at once familiar and different from the other southern European cuisines.
Ludlow, for some reason, has a sizable Portuguese community, and I am walking down East Street ready to explore. I pass a sign that advertises “Falamos Portugues” as well as “Hablamos Espanol,” stare at the names like Silva and Mello that grace the doors of otherwise mundane businesses, and something inside begins to tingle.
My first stop is the ALIANCA MARKET at 223 East St. The Alianca has a small but good fish market, imported groceries such as olive oil, tuna and sardines, and a line of Gonsalves spices, beans and other specialties. Boxes of bacalhau (salt cod), both boneless and bone-in, sit on their own shelves. I buy fresh squid, striped bass and tilefish as well as a slab of bacalhau.
The woman behind the counter shrugs when I ask her about the tilefish, and points me to the woman at the register. She and I have a long conversation about the merits of striped bass (“tastes good but too much mercury”) and the tilefish, which I have never seen before. The tilefish has a beautiful grey and yellow mottled skin like some species of aquatic snake. The taste is milder than striped bass, more like halibut. I buy some imported tuna and sardines, and look fruitlessly for Portuguese All Spice, a blend of paprika, allspice, cinnamon and more. A bottle marked Jamaica raises my hopes but is merely cominos, cumin. They pack my fish on top of ice for me. I stow it in my car and continue down the street.
The LUDLOW CENTRAL BAKERY at 270 East St. is a block or two down from the grocery. The usual baked goods mingle with little tarts of coconut, rice and fejoda, which the young woman behind the counter explains “means beans but there are no beans in it.” There are fried donuts and packaged baked rings. I fill a box and continue.
A few doors down, at 276 East St., I hit a gold mine, the J. R. BUTCHER SHOPPE. Behind the counter hang lengths of homemade chourico. I have been on a quest for this for quite some time. The supermarket brands like Gaspar’s are good, but I want to taste homemade. Bread & Circus had homemade chourico, but like many of its sausages, they tasted good but utterly unlike chourico. This is the real thing. Chourico (pronounced “cherice”) is chunks of pork and fat, spiced with paprika and other good things and hit with a shot of vinegar which contributes to the unique taste. You can also find linguica, a similar but thinner sausage. Over the years, I have heard many explanations of the difference (linguica is ground, not in chunks, chourico is spicier) but nothing definitive. The taste is similar, but I prefer the chourico.
The butcher advises me to grill the links until they sizzle. He is clearly proud of them and, when I taste them once I get back home, he has a right to be. His chourico has a vinegar tang as well as a strong paprika taste and it cooks up without the pink of the nitrates that usually go into the commercial versions. It tastes as good as it looks.
On a subsequent visit, I look past the chourico and blood sausage links to whole smoked hams, the outsides red with spices. “Presunto,” explains the woman behind the counter. They are about 12 pounds each so I exercise restraint and buy only a half. She slices some for me so I can taste it. It is like prosciutto, a little saltier, and the overlay of spices rubbed all over it adds a piquancy that is quite appealing. They advise me that I can eat it sliced thin without cooking, and use cubes in cooking as well. J R Butcher has a freezer case, a box of bacalhau, and a set of shelves with canned and packaged groceries.
Clutching my goodies, I ignore the many good Portuguese restaurants, the Matador, Primavera and the like, and head home for a weekend of cooking: mussels cataplana, salt cod casserole, and a green bean recipe that looks good. I have other plans for the striped bass and tilefish: cataplana, a seafood stew.
The cataplana is both a cooking utensil and the dish itself. The dish, a tomato- and chourico-laced broth, is traditionally cooked with the small clams of Portugal. The utensil is like a wide hinged wok. Halfway through the cooking you invert the dish so the fragrant juices can trickle down and flavor the clams. On the Cape, I make a cataplana with the smallest littlenecks I can find, but here in western Mass, I use mussels or a combination of mussels and clams. Lacking a cataplana, I use a technique from Jean Anderson’s “Foods of Portugal,” and layer the sauce and the shellfish.
Howard Mitcham, whose “Provincetown Seafood Cookbook” is still a classic of Portuguese American cooking, uses linguica, chourico and bacon in his cataplana. “Foods of Portugal” uses chourico, prosciutto and baked ham. I have made cataplanas with various mixtures of sausages. I like them all, but I like the taste that the bacon imparts the best.
For those who like southern European cooking, but want to branch out from the Italian and Spanish staples, try Portuguese. Jean Anderson’s “Foods of Portugal” and “Portuguese Homestyle Cooking” by Ana Patuleia Ortins are two good cookbooks. Mitcham’s “Provincetown Seafood Cookbook” is currently out of print and hard to find ever since Anthony Bourdain touted it in “Kitchen Confidential,” but if you can find a copy, grab it. It cooks as good as it reads.
Ludlow is only a short hop away from Northampton and Amherst. Even if you don’t make the trip, the local supermarkets have what you need.
Originally published, Daily Hampshire Gazette, January 26, 2007.