Clam, ma’am?by Lauraine Jacobs
Break away from sausages on the barbie and stew them with seafood instead, like they do in Portugal.
With a coastline lapped by the Atlantic Ocean, Portugal is a delicious destination for seafood lovers. The country is dotted with vineyards and olive trees, so the traditional cuisine is heavy on fish and olive oil (garlic and coriander, too), washed down with aromatic white wines and rich, dark reds.
On a recent visit to Europe, we were in need of a little respite from the excesses of eating and drinking the rich fare of Paris and Burgundy, so we flew to Lisbon, then drove to the Algarve coast. The economic crisis affecting this colourful country has changed the pattern of many lives, but it hasn’t stopped restaurants and cafes everywhere overflowing with diners seeking inexpensive, informal fun.
Haute cuisine may be in decline here, but Lisbon, with its twisting streets and ancient clattering trams has a vibrant nightlife and many casual eateries offer both traditional and modern fare. Dried, salted cod has always been a prized ingredient in Portuguese cuisine and Lisbon has several traditional family-run “bacalhau” (cod) restaurants with tiled walls, crammed seating and simple menus featuring cod, sardines and an array of seafood plucked fresh from the tank. For those who want to indulge their sweet tooth, the city’s pastry and coffee shops open early and close late.
About 150km east of the city, in the wine-growing region of Alentejo, we visited the medieval hilltop town of Évora, a Unesco World Heritage-listed city, and explored its elaborate and well-preserved architecture. A night spent in a carefully restored monk’s cell was a highlight.
Two dinners on this trip were unexpectedly outstanding. In Évora, we discovered a little backstreet bar that seated only 10 diners. Its no-reservations policy saw us arrive an hour before it opened, when we scored a place behind five visitors already forming a queue. The jovial owner cooked for us according to his whim, and the meal of thick slices of rosy cured ham, olive oil-baked mushrooms, a whole grilled sea bass and a simple tomato and cucumber salad was perfection.
Further south on the Algarve coast, we found restaurants built on beaches and perched on clifftops. It was at one of these, a glass construction jutting over a pocket-sized sandy beach, that we feasted on sardines and huge Mozambique prawns and tried the classic Portuguese clam and sausage stew.
Those stewed clams, which feature on the majority of Portuguese menus, are the central ingredient in one of the following recipes. I’ve used diamond shell clams. Sweet and meaty, they’re prized by our chefs, who order them freshly harvested from the sandy bottom of the deep water of Marlborough’s Cloudy Bay. Don’t be afraid to try them fresh and tangy straight from the shell.
These clams can be shucked with a sharp knife, but a far easier way to open them is to pop them in the freezer. Remove them after about two hours and place them on a shallow platter – they’ll open as they thaw. Serve them immediately and they’ll lose nothing in the process.
This is also a terrific way to open clams for making very tender fritters (when clams are steamed open, the shellfish cook, so using them to make fritters means they’re heated twice, which toughens the meat) and will work with any shellfish gathered fresh over the summer months.
FRESHLY SHUCKED CLAMS
1kg Cloudy Bay diamond shell clams, scrubbed and opened
2 shallots, finely chopped
Lime wedges, to serve
To serve the raw clams, place them on a platter, splash with the chardonnay vinegar and scatter with the shallots. Though not strictly necessary for flavour, a few lime wedges work well for decoration.
PORTUGUESE-STYLE CLAM STEW WITH CLOUDY BAY DIAMOND SHELL CLAMS
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
6 spicy sausages
1 red onion, thinly sliced
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1kg diamond shell clams, scrubbed
4 medium tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 clove garlic
1 large handful roughly chopped coriander
1 cup dry white wine or light vegetable or seafood stock
Heat the olive oil in a wide pan. Remove the skin from the sausages, then break them into small pieces and add to the pan with the onion. Cook over moderate heat for 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion softens and the sausage begins to brown.
Stir in the pepper, add the clams and top with the tomatoes, garlic and half the coriander. Add the wine or stock and bring to a simmer. Cover the pan and cook for a few minutes until all the clams have opened.
Scatter over the remaining coriander and serve in bowls with spoons, providing an extra bowl for diners’ discarded clam shells.
Serves 4. Wine match: cabernet blend.
Stay: Beautique Hotel Figueira, right on the central square in the old city.
Eat: Bacalhoeiro and A Licorista for traditional seafood and cod; Cantinho do Avillez, a casual buzzy bistro serving small plates of Portuguese specialties; Confeitaria Nacional, for pastries, sweets and coffee.
Stay: Pousada dos Loios, a former convent in the heart of the historic area.
Eat: Botequim da Mouraria, for delicious food in a cosy bar.
• Porches, Algarve coast
Stay: Vila Vita Parc, a luxury resort with pools, a sandy beach, clifftop walks and multiple dining options.
Eat: Arte Náutica, a seafood restaurant built on a sandy spit; Reis das Praias, a seafood restaurant constructed over the sand on the tiny Caneiros Beach.
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