The Dish: Take a Culinary Field Trip to Portugali
Savoring Rhode Island's Cindy Salvato and Azorean cookbook author Maria Lawton lead tours through the Portuguese specialty market.

By Jamie Coelho
RI Monthly
November 18, 2015

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If you're a fan of Venda Ravioli's Italian marketplace, visit Fall River for the Portuguese version. Portugalia is a specialty food store that procures the finest cheeses, olive oils, wines, salted cod, seafood and more imported straight from Portugal and the Azores, as well as locally made baked goods and sausages.

Cindy Salvato from Savoring Rhode Island has familiarized people from around the world with Federal Hill's Italian markets and bakeries through her food tours, and now she's connected with local cookbook author and the Azorean Greenbean blogger Maria Lawton, and the Benevides family who owns Portugalia, to put together a tour that showcases Portuguese products and cuisine.

Lawton wrote the cookbook, Azorean Cooking From My Family to Yours, and she is currently organizing sponsors and funding for a thirteen-episode PBS TV series based on the book. Who better to show us around Portugalia than a home cook who was born on Sao Miguel (Saint Michael) in the Azores, and learned how to cook through family recipes?

We start the tour in the produce section, which Lawton says is set up just like an indoor farmers market she frequents on Saint Michael in Punta Delgada. "This place reminds me of going there," she says. "The center part is where all the farmers have their seasonal crops and around the market there are all the other shops; the fishmonger, the cheese shop, the butcher shop, the ready-made foods."

Portugalia procures cheeses, imported goods, wines and olive oils that you can only get by going to Portugal or the Azores. Instead of stuffing our suitcases with items to bring home from our travels, we can now simply drive to Fall River and stock up. "Portugalia has done that for us. They've gone there, and they've brought it back!" says Lawton. "I always say it's like taking a mini trip without getting on the plane."

Second-generation Portugalia co-owner Michael Benevides explains how the new location recently celebrated its second-year anniversary. The store is not just about the food, it's about sharing culture. There are handmade blankets, pottery and other trinkets for sale in the store. "The idea is to transport folks to Portugal. That has always been the mission," says Benevides. "The food is instrumental — it's the core of what we do — but we also sell Portugal; the art of Portugal, the music of Portugal. And we have events that reflect this: book-signings, live music, artisans, dancers, wine tastings and more."

People might not think about Portugal immediately when it comes to wine, but there are hundreds of excellent (and very affordable) bottles at Portugalia. "It's very rare that they don't have a wine tasting and that's an absolute must for someone who wants to try these new wines. They aren't new wines but they are new wines to some people who have never heard of them before," says Lawton. "You are going to get really good wines at a low price point." She recommends Papa Figos for $12.99 a bottle.

I'm impressed by the wine selection, but today, I'm here for the food. I learn about special custards called Queijadas de Vila Franca, which can only be made and replicated in the Azores because of the consistency of the dough and the importance of the climate in creating it a specific way. I learn how to roast chestnuts as part of the Portuguese tradition of preparing for winter. I discover the Gorreana tea estate — the only tea plantation in all of Europe — and find out that it was actually the Portuguese people who introduced the concept of High Tea to the British.

After digesting historical facts about Portuguese food and drink, we begin to explore the other departments in the store, starting with the salted cod room. It is a large climate-controlled room behind glass doors, where salted cod filets from as far as Norway are kept at a certain temperature. The cod is dehydrated for preservation and can last up to a year and even longer. To prepare bacalhau, a traditional Portuguese dish, the salted cod must first be rehydrated for up to three days in the refrigerator, and the water must be changed twice a day.

"It's Portugal's staple. You can go to the finest restaurant in Portugal and they will have bacalhau on the menu," says Benevides, who eats it at least once per week, usually at a restaurant like Sagres in Fall River. "There's still a love and affinity for it, even with the young people. It's very much a part of our society."

Along with the explanation of foods and ingredients, Lawton shares cooking techniques and suggestions to help tour participants choose foods and products for cooking experimentation at home. "You want to select a fish with a thick belly so that when you rehydrate that, it's going to give you more," she says.

Salted cod is not the only seafood offered at Portugalia. The frozen section boasts small octopi, large octopus tentacles from Portugal, limpets, frozen mackerel in different sizes, frozen fish filets and much more.

Lawton explains that limpets are only available in Portugal. "This is something that you can't get anywhere but in the Azores. You can have them grilled or raw. It's really neat that they are able to have it here," she says.

The wall of cheese features varieties from all nine islands, and you can usually try a few of them sliced at the cheese counter before you buy. The best is Sao Jorge cheese. Whether you choose the three-month or seven-month selection is up to your taste preference. "The difference between the two is texture and consistency based on how long it's aged," Lawton says. "The three-month is creamy, buttery, less sharp, and when you go to the seven-month, you are going to get a more pungent taste."

Next up is the sausage counter, where we learn about the differences between chourico, linguica and alheira. Portugalia procures the sausage locally since they are not allowed to import meats from Portugal into the United States. Lawton explains the history behind some of the sausages and shares cooking tips to boot.

Speaking of cooking tips, you'll need the proper equipment, and Portugalia stocks an extensive selection of terracotta bowls, platters, dishes and more. There's even a whole section dedicated to dessert molds and flan pans, and cheese-making materials. If you like fresh cheese, you can learn how to make it yourself.

Every home cook needs good olive oil, and Portugalia stocks some of the best bottles around for a much lower price point than Italian versions. They've set up tastings so you can differentiate the flavors of each one. "I was not aware of how good our olive oils are until a couple years ago when this opened," says Lawton. "I used to buy a $30 Italian bottle of olive oil to cook with, but these are the most amazing for only $8.99. Our olive oil is underrated."

Shop for Portuguese juices, snacks (even prosciutto-flavored Lays potato chips shipped in from Portugal), herbal teas, seasonings and canned tuna. Be sure to bring home freshly baked Portuguese rolls, sweet breads and yeast cakes created by area bakeries. You should also stock up on a must-have ingredient for any desserts you will be making: Maria biscuits.

"Anything you can do that requires crust, you substitute Maria. Anytime you see layering of cookies, you use Maria," says Lawton. "If you have a baby, you mix it with milk and a banana when they are starting to eat, and then when you're old, and you have no teeth, you're eating Maria."

Reserve a spot on Cindy Salvato's and Maria Lawton's next culinary field trip to Portugalia: A Taste of the Azores and Portugal, which includes food sampling at the end of the tour. Upcoming dates are Saturday, Jan. 23 and Saturday, Feb. 20 from 2 to 4 p.m. Lawton is currently looking for donors and sponsors large and small to fund the remaining twelve episodes of her pending PBS TV series. Those who wish to contribute can contact Lawton at azoreangreenbean.com. Portugalia, 489 Bedford St., Fall River, Massachusetts, 508-617-9820, www.portugaliamarketplace.com.

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