A traditional Portuguese meal to remember…
From the rocky edge of Sítio, 300 meters above the endless, crescent-shaped sandy sea-front of the fishing village of Nazare, 120 kilometres from lively Lisbon, I held my breath at the scene. Scalloped waves curled against silky aquamarine waters and a riot of rust-roofed white houses pushed along a snaking Calcada promenade. An ordinary home in an extraordinary setting right here. Now that’s a life to aspire for!
Minutes later, we were down there with our guide, Sonia, weaving through narrow one-way streets, while I tried to disentangle my over-imaginative brain from a futile, albeit engaging web of mental pictures. She had no idea that I was predicting the floor plans of the cramped, but cute, whitewashed houses with blue and yellow borders, while she located a parking spot. As we headed to a small restaurant for an authentic meal experience, I was completely clueless that in addition to my appetite, my curiosity was about to be satiated too!
Down one of stone-paved lanes that offered a distant, but enticing peek of the seafront, Sonia led us to Rosa do Ventos. A cobalt blue awning and a removable porch with a couple of tables were the only two features distinguishing the tiny restaurant from the row of neighbouring houses. I felt my eyebrows rise a micro-millimeter and my lips curve with undisguised delight. Layout, layout! Oh, and food.
Inside the small space (originally a living room, maybe), lay 5-6 small tables dressed with pink-and-white checkered tablecloths. Modest crockery and cutlery were placed upside down. Protection from flies? Fishing nets hung casually from the ceiling. On the walls, several ropes were knotted in different nautical styles. Black & white framed photographs of village and fishing scenes, and a family in traditional Portuguese costumes, added a touch of vintage character. Definitely ancestral, no flea market finds here. Blue and white tiles decorated the bottom half of the walls and a faded sky-blue fan added to the seaside effect. We settled down onto the simple blue-painted wooden benches and gazed around. Rustic and adorable!
It was just us…apart from a Japanese couple engaged in animated conversation with their guide. When the restaurant owner (we assumed) emerged from behind the open kitchen counter and Sonia hugged him with a warmth for an old friend, we knew this was a regular stopover for all her tour clients. She introduced us to him, recommended the fish soup and rushed off for a quick errand. Fish soup…hmmm. Or go with our gut feeling and order grilled fish instead? Gut feel, then.
Raimundo brought us three varieties of raw fish to choose from and we picked the sole. Relishing the fresh bread slices dipped in flavoursome olive oil, we talked about the pretty villages we had seen along Portugal’s countryside all the way from Lisbon. But we weren’t alone for long. With the fish on the grill, he was back soon and the chit-chat began. We asked him about the proud portrayals of his family legacy on the walls (even his own childhood picture was up there). He flash-backed unabashed and we shadowed him down memory lane.
In 10-15 minutes, the fish arrived on a steel plate, with raw juliennes of onions, sliced cucumber, chunks of tomatoes, shredded carrot and beetroot on a bed of lettuce and wedges of boiled potato with skin. Eyeballs locked hypnotically, as Raimundo expertly cleaned the fish, sliced off the head and tail, removed the bones and served neat portions onto our plates. The crunch of the crisp meat was sheer music and the fresh aroma was pure fragrance. Instinct boldly spelt it out…this would be a meal to remember. Instinct never lies. One bite and we were floored…it was divinely, crisply cooked to perfection! Two heads nodded enthusiastic in sync…and he smiled in glee. Great quality fish, lots of rock salt and grilling, he revealed. “And love”, we added. The simplest recipes are the best. We couldn’t agree more. Who needs Michelin stars, when you can savour this?
Raimundo continued to season the meal with tales about Nazare’s famous winter waves. For evidence and effect, he replayed a video of the 100 feet tsunami-like wave surfing record. We listened intently as he opened his heart to us…his love affair with the sea, his passion for fishing in winters, his spiritual connect with Nazare and his lifelong commitment to his food business. We smiled in amusement at his innocent imitation of stressed-out Lisbon visitors from the ‘big village’. And we knew then, that this little corner of the world was his entire life, and he craved nothing else, not even an expansion of his precious family business. Raimundo was living his dream and he was content. We were taking back unforgettable memories of an afternoon spent with a friendly, simple, unaffected family man, who had served us one of the best meals of our lives!
For dessert, we strolled the generous beachfront, watched laundry dangle from windows, counted colors of houses, took sneak pictures of local women selling chestnuts and wondered how many of their generations had lived here. Were they wearing seven skirts too? (Read my post on the seven skirts tradition of Portugal here.) No hustle-bustle of a touristy beach retreat, just the languorous calm of incessant waves, the gentle warmth of the coastal sun and the infectious pace of people-watching. Raimundo was right. Stay long enough and you’ll never want to leave!
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