A taste of Portugal in Notting Hill

There are actually quite a few portuguese restaurants in London but many of them are aimed at the Portuguese living here rather than at anyone else. This may explain why, despite there being a sizeable portuguese community, it’s a cuisine that many Londoners don’t seem to know that much about.

So I was pretty excited when I heard about a new portuguese restaurant in London’s Notting Hill. Coincidentally, although it’s now one of the most chi-chi parts of the capital, back in the Sixties Notting Hill was a poor area which became home to many of the first wave of portuguese immigrants arriving in England.

Notting Hill Kitchen

Notting Hill Kitchen

There’s nothing in the name, Notting Hill Kitchen, which tells you about the kind of food on offer. The menu, has been devised by the portuguese chef, Luis Baena. He’s apparently quite famous, but if I’m honest I’ve never heard of him (but then I’m more of a keen foodie and not a restaurant critic).

The restaurant itself is in a traditional victorian terrace – the only hint of an iberian influence are the blue and white tiled panel outside and the simple paper placemats indoors which are also inspired by blue and white tile patterns.

Our party of  four – three of us with family ties to Portugal and the fourth half-spanish – were given a warm welcome despite arriving slightly late. The staff were attentive and friendly during our visit and the sommelier was very helpful when it came to choosing from the impressive selection of portuguese wines on offer.

We began by ordering a mixture of petiscos (the portuguese equivalent of tapas) and some larger starters. The three miniscule seafood cataplanas (a typical stew from the Algarve) were tasty. Also good, although I’ve never seen one in Portugal, was a rather unorthodox-looking pale pink prawn sausage. Less successful was a cold, partially-cooked egg yolk, dressed with truffle oil and served with shredded greens. Again this was not something any of us have ever eaten in Portugal. I couldn’t taste the white truffle and the egg’s texture wasn’t particularly pleasant.  However my starter of alheira, a portuguese sausage made from game, which was served with roasted quince was  delicious – beautifully combining  flavours I associate with Portugal. It was served in the traditional manner with two fried eggs, in this case two tiny quail eggs. A black-eyed bean and octopus salad also went down very well with one of my companions as did the richly-flavoured bone marrow and pata negra (cured ham) served on toast.

For mains three of us had bacalhau à brás. The dish  – a mixture of flaked salted cod, finely grated chips and scrambled eggs served with a scattering of olives – was very good, although I suspect it may have been too salty for some english palates. The other main course we ordered was also a very traditional portuguese dish – arroz de pato or duck rice. The version I have always eaten has a strong flavour and slightly oily texture, with bits of choriço and duck mixed into the darkened rice. At Notting Hill Kitchen, the pale rice seemed rather dry and over-cooked to the point of mush and the flavours were not nearly as robust.

For dessert, I couldn’t quite bring myself to pay £7 for a pastel de nata (a portuguese custard tart), but my partner had no such scruples. Instead of the traditional round tart, nowadays an increasingly common sight in many London cafés, this pastel had been shaped into a rectangle with pastry on the inside instead. I don’t think this really added to the taste, but it was good and the accompanying cinnamon ice cream was, according to him, delicious.

Overall, we had a fun night out in a relaxed and friendly setting – some dishes more recognisably portuguese and more successful than others. Our party was probably harder to please than most and it wasn’t cheap at £50 a head including one bottle of wine and service (certainly compared to most portuguese restaurants I’ve been to in London). But if you’re looking for something different or are feeling homesick and fancy a treat, Notting Hill Kitchen is probably worth a visit.
Square Meal

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The Lacemakers of Peniche (part 2)

IMG_0361One of the great things about the lacemaking festival of Peniche this summer was that there were so many opportunities to chat to the women about a skill which traditionally takes place behind closed doors. Many of the older lacemakers I spoke to had learnt the craft as young girls from family members or neighbours. For many years it was also taught in local secondary schools. One woman, who was seventy five, described how she had been making lace since the age of four, having learnt it from her mother. She told us how as a child she would work on pieces during the long summer holidays. She would then sell the lace to a local shop and use the money to buy herself a pair of smart shoes to wear to the annual religious festival.

IMG_0359Bobbin lacemaking was never apparently a main source of income for the poor fishing communities of Peniche. Instead it was a way for the fishermen’s wives to make extra money when times were hard. According to one woman I spoke to this was particularly the case during the few months of the year when the fishermen would stop going out to sea in their boats to allow the fishing stocks to be replenished.

IMG_0354Since those days, as the community has become more affluent, it seemed as if lace-making in Peniche might die out. However in recent years there’s been a renewed interest in the craft and a desire to preserve a skill so closely associated with this small fishing town. At this year’s event it was great to see quite a few young children, all girls, demonstrating their lacemaking skills alongside the older women. Although no longer taught in secondary schools there is now a college where children and adults can learn the craft.

IMG_0353Traditionally the lace has been used to edge sheets, napkins and tablecloths. but nowadays there is an attempt to find more modern uses for it. My thirteen year-old daughter was rather taken by some lace earrings on sale and it’s now also being  incorporated into clothes and accessories such as bags and belts. We didn’t have time to stay and watch the outdoor fashion show or visit the local exhibition where the winners of the annual lacemaking contest have their works displayed, but I do hope this small town continues to find new markets for its unique and enduring talent, which against the odds has survived to the present day.

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Having fun with Joana Vasconcelos

The Portuguese don’t really do museums and galleries, certainly compared to the British, which is a shame because there are are some wonderful places to visit. Joana Vasconcelos’ show in the Palácio da Ajuda in Lisbon has been the exception. By the time we turned up at the beginning of this month an astonishing 100,000 people had already been to see it. And with a couple of days to go until it closes, that number has nearly hit 200,000. Tonight’s opening hours have been extended until midnight.

So what’s all the excitement about? Joana Vasconcelos creates eye-catching objects using everyday things most of us wouldn’t look at twice. The finished object is often a mixture of  the traditional and the modern, the grand and the ordinary. At its best her art challenges our assumptions about the way we see things.

The Palácio da Ajuda, a large nineteenth century palace, rather than a modern art space, is the setting for this exhibition. Her creations are placed throughout the furnished rooms which were once home to the royal family until the portuguese decided they’d had enough of the monarchy and got rid of it.

Joana Vasconcelos Exhibition, Palácio de Ajuda

Joana Vasconcelos Exhibition, Palácio da Ajuda

There was a lot to see on our walk around the palace and my favourite objects were probably towards the end. They included an enormous pair of glittering, shoes made of steel pans and lids which towered and sparkled over us and made me feel like a lilliputian from Gulliver’s Travels and an enchanting rotating red heart made of translucent red plastic cutlery (the kind children love to play with on picnics and adults throw away). Also lots of fun was an enormous chandelier, beautifully constructed, which on closer inspection you realise is made entirely of tampons.

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I’d already seen examples of some of Vasconcelos’ work on the web. Some of these were also on display. Most easily recognisable, and there were a lot of them, were the ceramic glazed animals made by Bordallo Pinheiro covered in crocheted lace from the Açores, carefully selected to reflect the room they were in.

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The exhibition could have been a little shorter (although I did have a couple of impatient teenagers with me) but I really liked her stuff – fun, subversive and beautiful.

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The Lacemakers of Peniche (part 1)

Peniche Lace Festival

Peniche Lace Festival

A few weeks ago I went to Peniche, a small fishing town an hour’s drive north of Lisbon,  where I spent the day watching dozens of women (and a couple of men) in a local park making intricate lace under the shade of trees and oversized parasols on a hot summer’s day. The event is part of the annual bobbin lace festival of Peniche which takes place over a weekend at the end of July each year. Lacemakers from all over Europe and even as far as Goa in India (where the Portuguese introduced the craft) were also there, but they were far outnumbered by the dozens of local lacemakers who against all the odds still know how to make this beautiful and delicate material.

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The Peniche lacemakers work by pinning their patterns to large sausage-shaped cushions. The pins follow the shape of whatever pattern has been selected and from these pins dangle dozens of fine cotton threads attached to wooden bobbins. The mounds of bulbous bobbins which look overwhelmingly numerous at first sight are kept out of the way when not in use by large metal pins. The lacemakers are impressive to watch – they  move quickly with the bobbins held lightly in their upturned hands, passing over and under each other in quick, short intricate movements. Many of the women I spoke to work on their projects in their spare time so a piece of lace can take weeks or even months to make.

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No one knows exactly how long lacemaking has existed in Peniche but the quality is believed to have improved greatly in the 1830’s after a local grandee, the Condessa de Casal, unimpressed by the local lace, introduced new patterns and better materials for the women to work with. The superior quality of the resulting lace, which became famous all over Portugal, may explain why it has survived to this day in Peniche. The festival is a great opportunity to see a craft which is usually hidden behind closed doors and to enjoy Peniche’s great seafood.

A young lacemaker at the Peniche Lace Festival

A young lacemaker at the Peniche Lace Festival

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The Sweet Smell of Success

Ach.Brito soaps

Ach. Brito soaps

As you’ve probably guessed, this photo wasn’t taken in London. I’d popped out to the local supermarket to stock up on a few essentials at the start of my holidays in Portugal and returned with a bag full of these. I’ve got a bit of a thing about soaps and the Ach. Brito soaps immediately caught my eye –  great packaging, a wonderful range of scents and, although I haven’t tried them all, good on the skin.

Ach. Brito is a family business in the north of Portugal which has been going for just over a hundred years. Ten years ago it started selling its luxury brand of soaps, Claus Porto, abroad. With their distinctive packaging and scents, Claus Porto soaps are now sold in over fifty countries including England where they’ve become a familiar sight in London’s smarter shops. In the United States even Oprah Winfrey is a fan.

Exports are now a big part of the company’s business but it’s good to see it hasn’t forgotten the domestic market. The Ach. Brito soaps pictured here are the firm’s cheaper brand and I think they can only be bought in Portugal. Priced at between 1-4 euros each, they’re very good value for money and make wonderful presents.

And for those of you who are nowhere near Portugal, the company has recently launched another brand, Confiança, after buying the portuguese company of the same name. These can be bought online. Here’s the link to the english version of the website  – http://www.confiancasoaps.com/en/. I haven’t sampled them yet but they look tempting.

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A Splash of Colour

I often take my portuguese basket with me to the market or supermarket for my weekly shop and over the years I’ve had quite a few compliments, but I’ve never seen anyone else with one. Last week though I finally spotted one. I was walking along a busy London street close to my home when I heard a portuguese voice and instinctively looked up, catching a glimpse of a young guy on a bike whizzing by with a basket virtually identical to mine hanging rather precariously from one hand. It was a hot day and I suspect, like many Londoners, he was heading to the park to enjoy the rare good weather we’re having at the moment. I’ve tried to recreate the moment using my own bike below!

My portuguese basket

My portuguese basket

The colourful baskets are very flexible, so bend but don’t break, and they last for years. The flat bottom and straight sides are very handy for carrying things upright or larger objects and also for stacking things. I’ve never really seen anything quite like them anywhere else.

In Portugal the baskets, which come in different sizes and patterns, are often sold in fruit & veg markets or arts and crafts fairs and shops. But I’ve also recently discovered a website in English, (thanks to A Ervilha Cor de Rosa), called Toino Abel. As well as selling the baskets, Toino Abel also describes how they are made using reeds which are woven together on a loom to create a beautiful and durable product.

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The Movies

The Movies

My sister and I spent a few hours immersing ourselves in portuguese films last week in East London. I know nothing about portuguese cinema, so it was with some curiosity that I headed upstairs to a roof garden in Dalston for an evening of short films organised by the Arte Institute and hosted by the The Portuguese Conspiracy.  Some of the films made us giggle, some we really liked, some made us homesick for Lisbon (it’s such a beautiful city on film). We left before the end (last train to catch) but it’s  great to know there are so many young portuguese filmmakers out there. This year was the first time the Arte Institute, which promotes and supports portuguese art and culture, has taken its NY Portuguese Short Film Festival to London. Hopefully it’ll be back next year.

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Tia Ná’s Blanket

Tia Ná's Blanket

For as long as I can remember, this blanket has been part of my life. It was made by my  great aunt, Tia Ná. She died suddenly when I was eight years old and losing her was my first painful encounter with death. Although I was quite young at the time I remember her vividly. She had a filthy laugh, a wry sense of humour, and a rare ability to talk to her young nieces with a directness and an honesty that we all loved. I still miss her.

IMG_0259Rather like my Tia Ná when she was alive, this blanket and its concoction of colours made from bits of wool left over from years of projects, brims with life. It’s over forty years old and in a pretty sad state at the moment, with a number of squares having rotted away. I’m now beginning the process of attempting to fill in the holes with squares of my own.

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Made in Portugal

A lot of the products I’ve written about so far are rooted in Portugal’s past and rely on techniques that often have barely changed at all. That of course is part of their beauty and allure. But can any of them have a place in the modern world?

My father's placemats - still groovy after all these years!

My father’s placemats – still groovy after all these years!

In the Sixties, not long after my father had arrived in London, he walked into one of London’s most fashionable stores, Heals, and with the uncomplicated optimism of the young offered to supply it with portuguese wicker placemats. They were a big hit and that was part of the problem. The small manufacturer in the Algarve couldn’t cope with the demand and so ended my father’s short-lived career as an importer. Years later he went looking for the placemat maker in Estombar, only to discover that it had closed down. Of course all of this happened during the time of the Salazar regime which almost seemed to relish keeping Portugal backward and cut off from the rest of Europe.

Later, in the Eighties, I started to notice the “Made in Portugal” label appearing in London. However this was mainly on cheap clothes made for international companies attracted by Portugal’s low labour costs. These weren’t really portuguese products – owned and championed by portuguese firms – and the foreign companies involved were quick to abandon Portugal once they found somewhere else cheaper to make their clothes.

SCP's latest range of handmade portuguese earthenware

SCP’s range of handmade portuguese earthenware

Fast forward to the present day, and a friend recently sent me a link to a website announcing the arrival of a new range of plates and dishes at the stylish London store, SCP. They look great, are machine washable, hardwearing and made in Portugal, a point, I’m very pleased to say, the shop was happy to trumpet on its website. I went to check them out and they didn’t disappoint. In fact they seem a lot tougher than my own terracotta dishes which I buy from a market near where I holiday.

If a shop in London can source traditional quality items like this, why am I not seeing similar products in lots of other places? Endless googling has failed to locate them on portuguese websites, with the exception of one, Feitoria, but their range is smaller than SCP’s. Again it feels as if a foreign company has succeeded in identifying a product overlooked by many businesses in Portugal.

I don’t know if it’s a lack of confidence, marketing savvy, technology or investment but I feel that Portugal isn’t always that great at making the most of what it does well. I know things are changing and that there are now more shops in Portugal selling portuguese products. Abroad, Claus Porto soaps in particular have been a big success. However I still think Portugal as a country could be doing so much more to champion some of the things it has been making for decades (or longer) and which really do have an appeal for the modern consumer and not just for tourists and people on a nostalgia trip.

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Carpets of Colour

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Arraiolos rugs have been around for hundreds of years and are still frequently seen in portuguese homes. The patterns are often intricate and can look quite busy, not always ideal in a smallish, cluttered flat like mine. But in the right place, with enough space, they have a freshness and life all of their own.

IMG_0119Tapetes de Arraiolos are made from a dense water-resistant, merino-style wool which is hand-sewn onto a canvas backing using a form of cross stitch.

My rug has spent the last few months in a shed at the bottom of my garden waiting to be cleaned and stored away properly until I can find a new place for it. So instead I’ve turned to friends and family for inspiration.

The first two photos here are of my parents’ rug, which my mother inherited from her parents and she thinks it’s about fifty years old. The geometric patterns remind me of tiles and although it has had some repairs it still looks very good for its age.

IMG_0283The other pictures (left & below) are from the home of my friend and neighbour, Ana. Like me, Ana bought her rug directly from the small town of Arraiolos after which the rugs are named. No one knows their exact origin, but one theory is that a group of rug-makers, of north african muslim descent, introduced them to Arraiolos when they settled there in the 16th century.

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There are inevitably cheap machine-made imports out there, but if you want to see the real thing in all its glory and support those who make them, it’s worth heading to Arraiolos where there are dozens of shops selling  the rugs in lots of different sizes, colours and patterns.

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