Jennifer: The Bacalhau Chronicles
Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Portugal, etc.
I am an American girl from small town in New England originally. I have had wanderlust as long as I can remember. I have lived in New York City, worked throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, hiked the Alps, and eaten reindeer in Lapland. So when the love of my life turned out to be Portuguese, living in Lisbon working for a company he helped to found and didn’t want to leave, I didn’t take much convincing! I moved to Portugal in March 2009, married him, and we have lived here ever since.
When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
Ever since I got here, I have been curious about the Portuguese and their traditional foods. From what I can tell it is truly a nation that adores comfort food: local food prepared simply, like grandma used to make. Except that here, “comfort food” is octopus and rice, snails in broth, stuffed squid, and the iconic bacalhau (salted codfish). I sat across the table from my 7-year-old nephew as he was munching down an octopus tentacle, no complaints. I was flabbergasted.
The Bacalhau Chronicles started once I decided to deepen my understanding of Portuguese culture (and my new husband and his family) by cooking this unusual comfort food. I have a captive judging panel of one: my husband (a.k.a. Bacalhau Boy). At dinnertime I try to recreate or experiment with the foods he loves. For me, it is all new and there are times when I alter recipes to fit my tastes and other times when I try to challenge myself to be faithful to the original. It seemed silly not to share the results with my friends and family abroad. So I started blogging it.
Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?
Yes, I have one particular favorite, and funnily enough it is not a bacalhau dish. It is the Frango na Púcara (Chicken in a Jug) that I made for the Feast of Saint Anthony last year. This post reminds me of our visit to the fantastic monastery town of Alcobaça, where the monks invented the dish. We first tasted it at a local place called Frei Bernardo, and it was heavenly. I knew I had to try to make it for myself.
It is a tricky dish with lots of different elements and a sauce made of three very traditional alcohols-- I was so proud to have pulled it off with authentic Portuguese flavor! Since I did it the day we watched the Marchas Populares on television, I included a clip of that for the reader to get the whole experience.
Eating a monk-invented, three-alcohol “chicken in a jug” while watching neighborhood folk dancing troops dance barefoot in the middle of a modern European capital? In a lot of ways, that sums up Portugal for me.
Tell us about the ways your new life in Portugal differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?
Moving to Portugal felt, in a way, not so much like geographic travel but like time travel. The rush of the modern world has left many corners of the country, even Lisbon, untouched. You can wander the streets of Alfama and feel like you are in a village that hasn’t changed for hundreds of years, from the ladies hanging out of their windows and chatting with each other to the craggy, cobblestoned pedestrian streets. You can wander through the mid-century architecture of Avenidas Novas and see a corner café that seems to have appeared-- with clientele-- right out of 1956. Doing laundry requires patience and work over three days: one for washing, one for drying, and one for ironing. When I first got here the slower pace of life drove me nuts!
Now that I have been here a while, I find the pace of life refreshing. In the US, I don’t think I had taken more than a day or two off in a row since I started working as an adult. Even if I wasn’t in the office, I was always “on” via laptop or phone. Here in Portugal there is an appreciation for the quality of life and the simple pleasures. People really do take an hour for lunch, to eat a full meal instead of a sandwich on the go. My husband works hard, but he takes his 5 weeks of vacation every year, and the city empties in August while people take time to be with their families and friends. Here we slow down enough to really enjoy life as it happens. It reminds me of “the olden days”, except I get to live them right now. I love it.
Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Portugal? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?
No, I definitely wasn’t fully prepared, but I would not have changed that. Learning as you go is such a wonderful adventure. It would have been helpful to take a Portuguese language course, but so many Portuguese people speak English it really isn’t dire if you just try to pick it up once you get here.
There is only one change I definitely would have made, and that is in my packing. I should have brought more shoes. I have US size 10 feet, and shoe stores only carry up to a US size 9 here. I should have brought a whole suitcase full of them when I first came over!
Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
A couple of years ago, I decided to throw a Thanksgiving bash for 30 people. I have a butcher shop (talho) right down the street from me, so I decided to go old school and order the turkey fresh from there. I managed to tell him (in broken Portuguese) that I was making turkey for 30 people, and he suggested a 10 kilo bird.
I realized just how much 10 kilos was when I went to pick up the bird the day before Thanksgiving. I took one look at the beast he was about to hand me, and I KNEW my European-sized oven would never fit such a thing inside it. I stuttered a bit, and asked him to cut it into pieces. He gave me a sour look, and I tried to explain about the oven.
He sighed, turned his back to me, and started chopping it up and muttering under his breath…well, not TOO under his breath. He knew I wouldn’t understand it. But what he didn’t know is that my backup turkey-carrier, Bacalhau Boy, was standing next to me sniggering to himself and understanding every word the butcher was saying. Apparently, he was swearing up a storm, complaining that I was making him ruin a beautiful bird, perfectly bred to be eaten whole. “That foreigner, what does she know about turkeys??”
I have to say, for a country that doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, they take their turkey very seriously here. And in the end, I cannot fault the man for his pride—the bird was absolutely delicious. Even if I did have to cook it in four separate pieces.
Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Portugal?
Expats will find such a passion for fresh food cooked simply here, which is delightful: grilled fish (with the head, bones, and skin); spicy chicken piri piri, roasted to perfection on a rotisserie; steak with a wobbly egg on top, surrounded by a mound of fries and rice. Seasonings are limited to olive oil, onions, and garlic in most cases.
And while eating nose to tail may be a hot trend in New York, Portuguese have a 700-year head start on this particular trend. Tripe, snout, innards, chicken neck, whole rabbits—these are worked into everyday food as a matter of course. If you are moving here, prepare to open your mind to new foods. You will be pleasantly surprised!
As a tip for before you move—bring some spices. All this simplicity of cooking is wonderful, but there will be days when you think: I desperately need a burrito. Or hummus. Or spicy buffalo wings. Or pancakes with syrup. Unfortunately, it can be prohibitively expensive (or downright impossible) to find spices for non-Portuguese food. I would highly recommend stashing a bag full of dill, Tabasco, red pepper flakes, cloves, maple syrup, sweet chili, and any other favorites in your bag before you leave.
How is the expat community in Portugal? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
There are plenty of expats living in Portugal. In areas like Cascais or the Algarve, you have significant British contingents that are active in their communities. Lisbon is a very cosmopolitan place with residents from the EU and around the world. It is especially not difficult to find other expats through groups like Internations.
What always surprises me, though, are the number of Portuguese people who love to socialize with expats. There are many, many Portuguese people who live abroad at some point, for work or study, and then return. Oftentimes they seek out expat groups so they can keep up their language skills and cross-cultural interests. I think that is a great bridge for new expats, to meet locals who can help them navigate the differences between their home countries and Portugal.
How would you summarize your expat life in Portugal in a single, catchy sentence?
Life is pretty great when you slow down and take time to smell the bacalhau.