Once upon a time, rather a long time ago now, when I was a poor, hungry university student, someone published a recipe book aimed at poor, hungry university students. Its name was “The Potato-Shaped Space” and it worked on the premise that everyone, and especially poor, hungry university students, needs to fill up their stomach once a day with something nourishing. Potatoes are good, filling food items: hence the name. The writer gave lots of ideas for meals to make with potatoes, or with inexpensive alternatives to potatoes, and undoubtedly made quite a lot of money in the process.
I mention this because our search for culinary excellence here in Figueira da Foz took us yesterday to a restaurant called Forte Santa Catarina, where we ate something interesting which comes into the “potato-shaped space filling” category.
It quickly became clear that the speciality of this restaurant in the parrilhada, a wonderful platter of different kinds of shellfish that looks delightful but is so fiddly to eat that you end up feeling rather dissatisfied at having spent rather a lot of money to eat relatively little. (Proof of the inability of the parrilhada to fill you up is almost certainly the fact that the young couple at the table next to ours finished off one and immediately ordered another – we were stunned!)
Our waiter tried rather obviously to steer us in that direction by pointedly opening the menu at that page for us when he came to take our order. However we had tried parrillada (Spanish spelling this time) several years ago in La Coruña and thought it was quite nice but ultimately left us less that satisfied: hence the comments above. So we asked in rather hesitant Portuguese about the pescado do dia, the fish of the day, as it was unspecified and unpriced on the menu. So he brought us several fish to look at, very nice and fresh, and told us that the price was €49 per kilo.
Well, that was useful so we ventured some more hesitant Portuguese to try to ascertain what it would cost for the two of us. It all got so complicated with the need to weigh the fish beforehand and so on that we decided to opt for something else.
On the menu was something called açorda com peixinhos fritos. It was at this point that my Portuguese very nearly curled up and died, so I continued in Spanish and asked what it was. Our waiter was obviously perturbed. He really didn’t want to sell us this dish. His concern was that, as we had never had it before, we might not like it. It was, he informed us, a speciality of Southern Portugal and when you called it a speciality it really did mean special. But we are game to try almost anything and as it was accompanied by little fried fishes, we knew there would be some part of the meal we would really enjoy. Our waiter was still fussing and now was worrying about whether we still wanted the sopa do día which we had first ordered as a starter. I managed to ask him (back into Portuguese) if the açorda was very big and he did something midway between a shrug and a harrumph and disappeared.
In the meantime we had carefully eaten only olives from the rage of false freebies on the table. We are fast learners! And we managed to order our wine and water without difficulty. And eventually the açorda arrived in a closed earthenware pot, quite a large one. The decision about sopa do día had been made for us then! The waiter sort of sneered at the pot and left it to a colleague to talk us through it.
Yes, this was a speciality of the south of Portugal, made with bread, olive oil and herbs, he told us, and that was about it. He gave the pot a stir and looked at us questioningly as if to ascertain whether we wanted to continue. I began to feel like a participant in a reality TV show as I let him serve a dollop onto my plate, tried a forkful and said that, yes, it seemed fine to me, bring on the little fried fishes please. And so we tucked in.
Açorda seems to be another of those peasant dishes which has been turned into a regional speciality to be served in restaurants. It’s not the most sophisticated of food but tasty enough in its way. I would not go out of my way to eat it every day but neither would I turn my nose up if it was offered to me again. I did find myself thinking of the old stories of children being told to eat up their Yorkshire pudding first if they wanted some meat, a way of getting them to fill up with the basic staple food and possibly save the best of the meat for the man of the family. Well, I could imagine the same happening with açorda. If there were not many little fishes to go round, everyone could fill up on açorda.
Which brings me back to the recipe book: whether it’s mashed potato, pasta, rice, couscous or, in this case, a dish made with bread, every country's cuisine has something to fill up the potato-shaped space.
Post script: This is what Wikipedia had to say: Açorda is a typical Portuguese dish composed of mashed bread with garlic, coriander, olive oil, water, salt and eggs. It is mostly known in the Alentejo region and nationwide too. There are many types of açorda, like those made with shrimp (Açorda de Marisco or ...de camarão) or codfish (Açorda de Bacalhau).
And here are a couple of recipes culled from the internet:
2 lbs shrimps
2 lbs mussels
2 lbs seafood mix
6 cloves of garlic
1 bunch of coriander
1.5 loafs of stale bread
2 diced Roma tomatoes
3 cups of white wine
Olive oil salt & pepper to taste
1. In a skillet bring white wine with a little salt to boil
2. Add the mussels
3. Cover the skillet and lower to medium heat
4. Once mussel shells are opened remove them from heat, put the shells in a big pot and the meat in a bowl and set it aside
5. Add the juices from the skillet into the big pot
6. Add water and salt to the big pot and bring it to heat
7. Once boiling add the shrimps and the seafood mix
8. When shrimps turn pink (about 7 minutes), remove all seafood from stock and unshell everything apart from about 10 shrimps
9. Add the shells back again into the pot and let it simmer for about 20 minutes. Adjust salt and pepper as needed
10. In a different pot add a little olive oil, the chopped onions and garlic and half of the coriander leaves 11. Let it simmer until the onions are slightly golden
600g stale bread
6 egg yolks, whisked
600g cooked seafood: shrimps, clams or lobster (shelled)
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
Piri-piri sauce (hot chilli pepper sauce), to taste
A handful of parsley or coriander, chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
How to cook this dish:
1. Break the stale bread into bits and cover with water; just enough to turn the bread into a sponge. If you have cooked the seafood yourself, use the same water.
2. Do not overdo it. The consistency should not be too liquid, more like porridge.
3. Add the olive oil and cook, mixing slowly, until the bread has become a paste.
4. Stir in the garlic and piri-piri sauce, and season with salt and pepper.
5. Quickly add the egg yolks and half the seafood, mixing well, away from the heat.
6. Cover with the rest of the seafood, sprinkle with the herbs and serve.