Gwynne Conlyn considers the culinary ties that bind the Portuguese community all over the world, and in SA specifically
Every weekend in Portugal there’s a festival that celebrates saints — and along with them, always, food. Cuisine has celestial-sized significance in that corner of the Iberian peninsula.
SA’S doyenne of Portuguese cooking, author of several cookery books and consultant for many years to the Nando’s group of restaurants, Mimi Jardim, says: “For instance, bacalhau is so important in Portugal — and to the local Portuguese community — that there’s even a Bacalhau Academy in Johannesburg, now in its 50th year, which meets on a regular basis.” No surprise then, that this salted, dried cod dish goes by the nickname of Fiel Amigo (loyal friend).
As far as the SA Portuguese community goes, a large number of immigrants came from the island of Madeira (an autonomous region of Portugal), looking for work. Men who were mainly farmers became migrant workers in the fish industry and many worked in SA ports.
Their attitude to hard work is solidly entrenched in John Morte’s psyche. He is the charismatic owner of the award-winning Impala Meat Centre in Northcliff, Johannesburg.
“My forefathers had to go to market at 4am six days a week to buy stock. There was nothing lucky about their success. It was all due to hard work.
“My father was in retail. Before I could even see over a countertop, I was behind it. If we didn’t have sport on weekends, we’d have to go help in the family shop. I was the unpaid counter hand and till operator. The Portuguese are focused on keeping the ball rolling. It’s a survival thing.
“Our forefathers were willing to do what others wouldn’t: stand in a fish and chips shop from four in the morning to 11 at night. And do that seven days a week for 10 or 20 years.
“Our grandparents were separated from their families back home and worked in SA until they had enough money to bring their families here. They opened shops, started to trade, and saved money in order to do so.”
The Portuguese first arrived in SA in large numbers in the 1920s. By 1938 the community was flourishing, though the largest influx was in the 1950s.
Morte’s butchery is famous for its produce. Its contemporary interior and fridges stacked with trendy wagyu beef steaks have not replaced traditional solid service and goods. Homemade peri-peri basting, chicken livers — you’ll find them there. “We Portuguese people love meat, especially pork,” he laughs, “and we believe whole-heartedly in the head-to-tail use of the animal.”
This “head to tail” cooking means you use everything; prime cuts for the best dishes, then the trimmings for chorizo, for instance and black sausages. “We also cure a lot of our meats.”
In rural areas families keep pigs and chickens and grow vegetables, no matter how small their gardens. Taken that every part of the animal is used, meats like the spicy chorizo sausages are cured and hung in fireplaces to dry out.
I visit one of my favourite Portuguese restaurants, 1920, in an unassuming shopping centre in Ferndale, Johannesburg, looking for a plate of caldo verde (literally green soup) — the go-to starter among many Portuguese diners. When it arrives the soup is the greenest I’ve seen anywhere. Jardim tells me her secret is to add the steamed kale at the end so as to not overcook it and to use — always — Portuguese olive oil, a small pool of it drizzled over the soup just before serving.
The menu also features amêijoas (clams braised in white port and tomato), much-loved prawn rissoles and lulas (calamari). The Portuguese cook hundreds of their favourite fish
The Portuguese first arrived in SA in large numbers in the 1920s. By 1938 the community was flourishing, though the largest influx was in the 1950s