Christopher Hirst selects his favourite cook books of 2017
1. Lisboeta by Nuno Mendes
From Nuno Mendes, chef/patron of the Spitalfields restaurant Taberna do Mercado, the passionate, impressively wrought Lisboeta (Bloomsbury, £26) presents you with the steamy temptations of one of the world’s great food cities. I defy anyone to read a few pages and not emerge ravenous for the daily fare of Lisboetas (we say Lisboans though there is some debate about the collective term for the citizens of Lisbon). Of course, it includes the dishes that I have repeatedly enjoyed in the city’s clattering, tile-lined restaurants: the glorious, pungent marriage of pork and clams, also slow-baked shoulder of lamb, the bifana or pork sandwich and the ubiquitous (even in London) pastel de nada or custard tart. Incidentally, Mendes steers us away from the tourist-packed café/factory Pasteis de Belém (‘I don’t personally believe that these are the best pastéis in the city’). Along with these reliable stalwarts of Lisbon cuisine, Mendes includes less familiar items. I don’t think I’ve eaten enough salgados (little snacks such as runner bean fritters, prawn turnovers and fried pork pasties) sold in the little eateries known as tascas. Accompanied by a tiny glass of cold beer (lambreta), they are, according to Mendes, ‘Nothing less than bliss.’ We learn that samosas, ‘a spiced-up version of a traditional Portuguese snack’, arrived from the colony of Goa in the 16th century, while peri-peri sauce is a Portuguese invention incorporating peppers from Angola and Mozambique. Curiously, spices are ‘only used sparingly’ in the nation’s cuisine with the exception of cinnamon, which is ‘scattered prodigiously’.
The biggest surprise in the book concerns salt cod. Mendes concedes that ‘Portuguese people are completely infatuated with bacalhau’ but he has none of it. ‘I prefer fresh cod. To me the taste of bacalhau is quite strong – it has an almost fermented flavour, which I do like but I find the texture too fibrous. I think the beauty of fat flakes of cod is lost, its luminous sweetness gone.’ His solution is a fresh cure lasting just 20 minutes. Though I have tackled baked salt cod with caramelised onions and potatoes with some pleasure and even brought back a great lump to the UK, on reflection I think he’s right. To be honest, salt cod can be like fishy door mat. I remain tempted by salt cod cakes and Goanese salt cod fritters but the rarity of salt cod in Britain and the protracted processing makes them more of a restaurant treat. The book’s format is unusual with recipes and (excellent) photography interspersed with half a dozen essays on different aspects of Lisbon’s food culture. Since these pages are a smaller size than the rest of the book, the result could easily become a designer’s conceit. However, due to the quality of Mendes’s writing and his heartfelt passion for this ancient and intriguing city, the essays become a book within a book. Mendes emerges as very much his own man, disliking the plangent singing known as fado (‘I’m not much of a fan…our country was a sad place for too long’) even more than salt cod. So what to make from Lisboeta? From page after page of temptations, I first went for roasted orange-rub pork belly with fennel, which Mendes says he invented for a Christmas Eve party. Failing to find fennel bulbs for my first attempt, I substituted celery. The result was pretty much a definition of comfort food, succulent and profoundly tasty. My wife said the celery worked well though a second rendition with fennel bulbs was even better.
After this, I went for something more outré. Like Italian panzanella, prawn bread porridge (acorda de gambas) uses up any stale sourdough you may have forgotten in the bread drawer. You soak it in stock made from prawn shells, then add prawns, coriander, raw egg yolks and finish with a long squeeze of lemon. Mendes says the version sold in the fish restaurants of Guincho beach west of Lisbon is ‘fabulous’.Obviously they are going to use fresh raw prawns but I used cooked prawns from the freezer. The shell-based stock tasted OK but I awaited the verdict of my wife on the completed dish with some trepidation. ‘Boy, that’s good,’ she blurted after the first forkful. ’It’s a sort of cross between soup. Mmm, I love it.’ I can see Lisboeta getting plenty of use.
Photography by Andrew Montgomery