Sunday, January 15, 2017

Time Machine

I dropped Susan and Will at the Lisbon airport, then headed to Benfica to find the apartment before dinner to discuss translation courses at Universidade Nova next summer. After an hour of circling and waiting, I swooped down on a parking spot right in front of the building. The old elevator was a bit of a puzzle, but I finally figured out to close the gate and rose and rose to the seventh floor, out, right and fumbled the huge key in the lock, opened to the dark, groped for and found the master switch on the electrical panel, lights on, and entered the time machine.

The pipe on the shelf, likely lit last some decades before, had a fresh warm scent of tobacco. The furniture, neat and new in appearance, reminded me a little of my last visit to a safe house in the GDR. I felt her presence, saw the books and thought of the soft, strong hands that had held them and turned the pages. Through the hall, around the corner, around another and left, the little room, small bed and there I found her, that young doctor that I love, holding her infant son, the boy's face familiar with that knowing look.

Black and white the image, another near, color, the boy a little older, me thinking of his birthday the summer past, forty, little changed.

Books and books, closets, all clean, another room, a bed, neat and waiting to receive me after a long evening of plans and friendly talk of best practice and the students and the challenges of so much to teach, to learn, and so little time.

I didn't want to stay but tired, with a drive of hours home, so up I went again into that time machine and she was there, the air welcoming and warm, the bed and blankets covering the dreams and I heard her, pen scratching at the desk, studying for some qualification. And in the night her arm slipped softly around me in my sleep, my fingers brushed hers like the strings of a healing harp and I breathed deep in a reality familiar and distant in my dream.

Woke, felt her just departed, so I rose, dressed, ate a bit of chocolate, found the master switch of the time machine again and rode down and down, out and to the car in the dark through the streets, the bridge, tolls and long miles, hurtling through the dark in the Renault Tardis to home, where all those good dogs greeted as I passed by into the house where I felt her near, slipped quietly beside the sleeping form in the bed where her arm slipped softly around me, the tight curls of her hair in my nose as I breathed the air of content and drifted back in that time with the young doctor that I love.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Tosta de tomate

One of the conveniences of living in a Portuguese border town is that what we can't find here is probably to be had with a ten-minute drive across the border to Badajoz, Spain.

One of those things is apparently tomato toast. One morning the doutora announced that we were going for a drive and would have breakfast in Spain. I was quietly horrified at the idea, because Portuguese friends have often told me how terrible Spanish food is, and my few experiences up to that point had done little to contradict their opinions.

And when we took the freeway exit to what I would probably call a truck stop, I was dubiously curious about what was to come. Just tosta, she said as we approached the cafeteria counter, and café.

Hmm. I thought as I watched the help slop olive oil over a bit of white bread toast. Very dubious. We were given a plastic squeeze bottle with some orange crap in it, which turned out to be pureed tomato. At the table, I was instructed to spread the goop onto the olive oil-soaked toast and then add just a sprinle of salt. Given that we almost never cook with salt, I was really skeptical now.

It was love at first bite. My God.

Since then we've improved on that first delicious experience; now the tomatoes come fresh from the garden sometimes, and the bread for toasting is usually some sort of a spelt-and-rye sourdough or some other whole grain mix. And we use a better salt, collected from evaporation beds by the seaside. The olive oil too is a few classes better - Portugal has the best in the world, after all. Heaven can get better.

But that's usually the Portuguese way: go out and find something great somewhere in the world, maybe just a little way across the border. And make it better.

Saturday, December 17, 2016


António de Oliveira Salazar,
100th prime minister of Portugal
I'm a little hard of hearing, so when the doutora asked me if I wanted a "Salazar" when transferring my evening meal from a small pot to the soup plate, I thought I heard her wrong. A what? I asked. Do you want a Salazar? she repeated.

The beautiful thing about languages is that they are not about words, but about culture, context and communication. And here I was definitely lost in the translation of her Porglish.

We went through this repetition a few more times until she finally reached over to the bamboo utensil holder and pulled out a spatula. A spatula? I asked. What the hell did you just call it?

Salazar, she responded patiently.

You've got to be kidding. Isn't there some other word for it?


Really? None at all? She muttered some other Portuguese expression.

So is that what you would say if you were talking to a Brazilian?

No, she responded, I would say it is a Salazar and explain it to them.

So she patiently explained to this dumb American that because the dictator Salazar had taken all the money for the state and kept the people poor, essentially cleaned out the the consumer economy like a spatula cleans a soup bowl, the kitchen tool now bears his name in remembrance.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Cabbage tourism in Trás-os-Montes

On the first morning after our arrival in Negrões, the doutora returned from a quick shopping run to Montalegre and exclaimed that she was very frustrated. Not, alas, the kind of frustration that promised a mutually satisfying resolution of the difficulty. The horror, the horror, she exclaimed as she described all the beautiful cabbages she had seen on the trip and her great disgust at discovering that none of these tasty varieties were to be had at the market she found.

You would not believe how magnificent they were! And everywhere! she exclaimed as she confessed to felonious thoughts of first-degree cabbage theft, thwarted by the watchful eye of an old man with a particularly delicious patch of galegas and pencas. I knew she meant what she said, thinking back on our week in Minho and the likelihood that the local correio still had wanted posters up after her binge making caldo verde there.

Couves galegas to tempt passersby
There is an amazing variety of cabbages in Portugal, used in many varied and specific ways, all very confusing for the newcomer. Rochelle Ramos, a native of the US Pacific Northwest now living in Portugal's Ribatejo region, wrote a nice introduction to Portuguese cabbage and greens cookery which is a good place to start getting a grip on these delicious greens. But the grelos, couve-galega, couve-lombarda &alia she discusses are just a quick flash of light reflected from this jeweled trove of national culinary treasure.

The jewels in the crown: Couve Penca de Chaves
Walk into a local hardware store in Montalegre or Chaves, and you'll find packets of seed for at least eight or nine varieties, many of them local vegetables that I have not seen offered in Alentejo. And when you think you've seen them all, the next shop will have another kind you haven't seen before.

There will be a few newcomers in next year's garden.

Ramos describes cabbage and other greens as the epitome of peasant fare in Portugal, but for those with a taste for rich, healthy flavors and no pretense, they are a good main course on any plate.

A big plate of turnip greens dressed in olive oil and vinager with a mixed rice featuring alheira de Montalegre,
feijão frade, tomato and spices of Spain and India, all accompanied by a good local white wine.
Good, simple food, solid as the granite from which most of the regional houses and barns are built. Gourmet fare for Everyman.

Home between the cabbage patches in Negrões, with the ancient reservoir behind
A cabbage patch with a view in Negrões

Olives for all

My first visit to Évora was also my first encounter with fresh, locally produced pickled olives. Although I would occasionally buy Kalamata olives or various stuffed ones from Turkish merchants in Germany, I was never particularly fond of the fruit, and I found most of the lye-processed olives served in restaurants or sold in shops to be inedible. So the crisp, herb accents of fresh olives of various sizes and colors served to me in a small Eborenese restaurant were a revelation.

An old olive tree in Tavira
In my second year of residence in Portugal, I moved to a small quinta in Louredo, about 7 kilometers from the walls of Évora. There were about a dozen old olive trees on the property, and I got it into my head to see if I could use the fruit in some way. Making oil was out of the question; the nearest lagar for processing was about 40 kilometers away, and the complexities of re-registering cars from other EU countries in Portugal had left me without transportation. So pickling olives was the only choice remaining I thought.

Romans enjoyed the fruits of harvest from this 2000-year old tree!
A bit of online research turned up a lot of advice on how to preserve olives at home; the best I found was from the University of California Extension in Davis. Their 26-page guide offered advice on how to handle olives of various kinds in every stage of ripeness and drew on interesting traditions from across the Mediterranean and beyond. I skipped the methods using lye, because I had enough of ruined shirts from that in my laboratory days, and I've tried quite a number of water- and brine-curing methods. My latest variation is olives preserved by packing and drying them in salt, a method favored in Greece.

Greek-style, dry salt-cured olives in progress
My first batches of olives extracted in water for a few weeks, then preserved in brine with spices, were delicious and generally well received by Portuguese friends, except for a few odd batches where I got too creative and tried out "Christmas spicing". Those were a little strange. But the process on the whole is quite simple, particularly after I ignored all the nonsense in the guide about buckets of water and weighting down the olives with plates and simply recycled one- to two-liter beverage bottles as my water extraction vessels. Change the water daily - quite simple in the kitchen sink - and then just cut the tops off of the bottles when the olives are debittered to the point you want them.

Another simplification of processing for me was a the discovery of a special tool for cutting olives. Many water-extraction methods require a few cuts to be made in the olives to facilitate the extraction of oleuropein, the bitter agent in the fruit.

But years of using keyboards and vibrating power tools have caused considerable nerve damage to my hands, so that a few minutes of cutting fruit with a knife lead to excruciating pain. But the end justified the pain I thought. Then, as I was preparing my third annual lot of olives in the kitchen, the doutora asked why I didn't just use an olive cutter, because that would be easier on my hands. A what? I asked.

Indeed. This sped up processing enormously, reduced the mess and almost eliminated the pain. And all the time I could have had one from a local drogeria for a few euros.

This year I started so many pickled olives that I had to take some liters of them along on holiday and finish them off to take home afterward.

The doutora is less fond of traditional olives than I am, and when she saw recently that I had raided a few more kilos from an abandoned orchard near my office, she wrinkled her nose and asked why I didn't make sweet olives instead. What are those? I responded. Some years ago in Greece she had bought a jar of sweet olives and rather liked them, but she had been unable to find anything like that since then, because there is no such thing in traditional Portuguese food culture.

Nor in any other culture with a description of the process in a language I can read. A few recipes using brined olives to make unusual bar treats in California, but nothing for making a sweet preserve from raw olives. So I turned to a Greek colleague, who supplied me with a Greek description off the Internet of how to make sweet olives and sweet olive jam.

I published my initial adaptation of the process on Translation Tribulations, but since then I have discovered that the days of water extraction for the olives can be skipped. Sweet olives made with fresh, black-ripe olives had only a slight trace of bitterness; looking at the chemical structure of oleuropein, it seems not unlikely that a total of forty minutes boiling time oxidizes that substance, reducing or eliminating the bitterness of the fruit.

Sweet olives on fresh sheep cheese for breakfast
Reactions to the sweet olives here in Portugal are mixed - some love the taste and the novelty, others hate the break with local tradition. But given the country's history of bringing back the treasures of the world and making them uniquely local, I suspect that there may be a future for azeitonas doces here in Portugal. In my private Portugal at least.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Life reimagined.

When I used to see Portugal on maps, I thought that it was a shame I would never find the time to go to that faraway place, at the end of the civilized European continent. So much to do, so many places to go, and what would I find there anyway? Salt cod and churches and shadows cast by the dictator Salazar on praças where the Inquisition established to appease the wicked Spanish crown had so merrily sent the incense of burning heretic flesh heavenward for the glory of some gilt god. A worthless agricultural country, as one German savant described it, producing nothing of value, unlike his land, where the machines needed to run the world are made in virtuous small villages.

But life in the Teutonic Paradise of autobahns and Arbeit macht frei had gone on nearly fourteen years without much of a holiday, and as 2012 came to a close, a colleague suggested that I wind down for a week in Alentejo, because with a third of the Portugal's area and about ten percent of its population, a rich historical landscape strewn with Roman ruins and hilltop fortresses, megaliths and monasteries, art and aqueducts across a wide countryside of fields and forests, it would suit my temperament rather well she thought. Évora was her suggestion for a start, so I booked it.

My first impression of the country on arrival in Lisbon on January 9, 2013 was good. A different energy and a good mix of new and old. Early the next day I was off to Évora in the rented car, driving across roads through scenery that brought back memories of the better parts of Southern California, where I grew up.

For most of the week I drove the roads around the city, seeking and never finding those megaliths, but seeing some kind of a home in the oak groves and open fields. In the city I was fascinated by the maze of narrow streets, the diversity of locks and doorknobs, the different food, but most of all by the people, who were simply normal.

Early in the week I knew I would return. After a few days I thought I should start learning the language, maybe come back a few times a year or even split my time between Portugal and Germany. And then a long phone call with a German friend reminded me why I needed that holiday in the first place, and the die was cast: I had found my home.

Two more visits in two months, and then I struck off most of my material shackles in Germany, packed the car with dictionaries, two dogs, some clothes and computers and drove 2800 km from Berlin to Évora in two days.

It's been quite an adventure, with many surprises. A few times a year I hear from certain friends or clients in the Vaterland who ask me So, have you found that Portugal isn't quite what you expected?

Indeed. It isn't. I could not have imagined the full-bodied spirit of the place and people, nor my special inspiration and companion, the doutora, who has made it her mission to show me the country's unappreciated best aspects and the Portuguese genius for bringing home the finest of the wide world and blending it to create something better.

So here is the chronicle of my new life in large and small. A bit different from the blogs of breathless Brits who can't get over how much cheaper everything is than in London and all the sun and sand and alcohol, of course. My private Portugal is a different place, in a space real and virtual and perceivable perhaps only in my own head, with my own senses. There are, as one can easily discover, many problems in the country, some recent, some ancient. The place and the people are not perfect. Simply perfect for me.