There are things that captivate you when you travel. Little minute details you try to recreate over and over at home either to remind you of that place or because in whatever way it’s an improvement.
When I was in Italy in 2008, I fell in love with Italian wines. It was partially because I had assumed all Italian wines were bad after hearing time and again how it was the “bitter Italian wines” that had turned my grandmother away from red wine for ever. In fact, I had always associated Italian red wine with the wicker-basket bottled Chianti and homemade stuff that was tasted terrible, but did the job. If my grandmother’s grandfather, who had owned and run a bar, couldn’t make good wine, native Italian and all, then it seemed no one could.
Of course, this was me in my infant days of wine drinking (although, I can’t say I’ve progressed much since – I still asses the value of a wine based on its drinkability versus cost, when really the world tells me I should care about unique-ness) and when I wandered into a Florence wine bar with a new Australian friend, I was shocked by how, well, good the wine was.
This has since spurred an epic fascination of Italian wine, which compared to its French cousin, is still relatively cheap here in California. Of course, what I wouldn’t give for the 5 Euro burgundies and Bordeaux lining the grocery store shelves in Paris… (those of course are $15+ here, way too much when you think about it). There was even a point my senior year of Berkeley where I had tried just about every Italian wine at Andronico’s, the local gourmet grocery store, besides the $30+ bottles.
This is also the place where I admit that I often have a problem remember names and vintages of wines. Often, one looks familiar but I can’t remember why I know it – it’s either because it was amazing and must buy, or because it was so god-awful I should never, ever buy it again. This leads to much dilemma as I stare at the shelves and fend off the help of the well-intentioned staff.
And what was the point of my Italian wine drinking? Well it lead me to an equal appreciation for Portuguese wine, something my grandmother even confessed was quite good. The Portuguese have mastered the table wine like no others – it is cheap, plentiful, and never bad. It does not matter whether it is white or red, sparkling and still – it is all delicious.
So as I cracked open a $4 bottle of Vinho Verde that I bought at Trader Joe’s (one of my all-time favorite cheap wines – light and sparkling, delicious and cheap), I realized I had the perfect items for a Portuguese dinner – vinho verde, white beans, cod, and kale. Just as Italian wines fascinated me, so did the Portuguese food. There were so many times when I was there last year that I was shocked by the simplicity and flavor of what was set before me when there, and yet, every attempt to create what I ate since getting home is never the same. It doesn’t matter whether or not I follow a recipe or follow my whims. I need to find that Portuguese grandmother and kidnap her to learn the secrets of Portuguese soup, especially caldo verde, and the variations of cooked kale.
(These, of course, were not the problems I faced with Italian food since I have an Italian-French grandmother and lived with an Italian during college. Things like amaretti have been a childhood favorite – I often went to my grandmother’s pantry stealing a few to eat.)
So tonight, instead, I constructed a “Portuguese” plate – baked giant white beans with roasted red peppers, grilled black cod with garlic chips and chili, and a grilled kale salad with plums and ricotta. All of these are items I had assembled in past recipe hunts and together they formed that plate of Portuguese items. They were wonderful, amazing, what have you – I even snapped a photo and sent if off to make others jealous. However, the taste was still Italian or French or California – really Italifrenchfornian. It was good, great even, but not what I was looking for.
What I really need is that Portuguese grandma’s recipe box.