Time goes by quickly. It seems like it all happened so little time ago and 10 years went by after all. I’ll be writing on EXPO98, but in the gastronomical perspective and on the exercise of inventorying the culinary of world encounters, which took place in Portugal’s Pavilion. Portugal was the one who first truly gave way to the widely mentioned fusion cooking. The cultural background though did not always get the attention that the matter deserves. It reminds me of a great French cook that moved to Brazil two decades ago and came to Portugal last year to present his fusion cooking. He mentioned that he was the first to divulge the fusion cooking that took place between Brazil and Europe (by which he meant France). Of course, in the end of his lecture I went to him and told him I would not agree with his statement and why.  

Explanations went back and forth as he was telling me that the difference lies in the fact that he creates new dishes with that conscience. I replied that the dishes he creates are possibly remaining in his restaurant or maybe in the books he publishes. The great advantage of the presence of Portuguese abroad though is that our fusion cooking remained for several generations and now integrates the Brazilian cultural heritage. These traditions are hardly in extinction. And this did not only take place in Brazil! The cuisine one eats in Goa nowadays is still much of a cross-culture cuisine of both our countries.  As it happens with several other countries.

The expression fusion cuisine is used rather loosely. An expression everybody employs from the moment there are ingredients or techniques from different regions or countries brought together.  Fusion cuisine is not just a combination and a mixture of ingredients but it is especially an encounter of cultures that naturally gives birth to new dishes. These cultures brought together come out from time to time as culinary creations truly new and exultant. But the most important and still poorly inventoried are the recipes that last, that enter tradition, no matter the conscience or straight forward contribution to the concepts of fusion cuisine. Several authors sustain that fusion cuisine is essentially one of the natural processes by which cuisines evolve.

All this is about the gastronomic program of Portugal’s Pavilion. It had three big attractions: first of all the building itself, as a public object and a singular architectural value; then the cultural contents that became object of endless visits; and last, a bold gastronomical concept. Food and beverages were served in several spaces: a cafeteria in the ground floor riverfront arcades offered Portuguese delicacies or other associated with the restaurant menu. On the first floor there was a gastronomical restaurant with a weekly menu program on which I will write ahead. Also on the first floor, there were several banquet rooms where the official lunch of the country of the day was served, as other meals were, especially dinners and meals for many guests.

A year beforehand we started to build the gastronomical program for all occasions coherent with the overall  program, which should give the image of Portugal. On the initiative of Mrs. Simonetta Luz Afonso, Portugal’s Curator in chief, it had a non-flexible and well outlined program: Portugal and Portuguese traditions. Even details should have an echo in culture. The program was defined and thanks to the Curator’s persistence tit was respected even when some agents tried asking for menus with the vulgarity of a French-like wrongly copied cuisine.

The Pavilion opened the day before the official disclosure with a dinner for several Heads of State arriving for the big day. Dinner simply presented “Seafood from the Portuguese coastline salad”, “Stone-bass with fresh coriander leafs”, “Serra da Estrela cheese”, “Guimarães rich egg-pudding” and coffee served with “Cascais nuts”1. On the table only rye bread was presented.

But the biggest challenge was to generate an overall program for the nineteenth weeks that the event lasted. Three themes were created to cover some weeks. Hence, and because the program was called ‘A Tour of Tastes”, the first chapter covering the three first weeks was ‘Earth Fruits”. Each week was successively dedicated to Bread, Olive oil and Wine, three structural elements of the Portuguese food.

The next chapter, “Among seas”, represented the big encounter of world cultures through travels, fusion cuisine, where each week was especially dedicated to Brazil seas’, Seas of the East, African seas, Indian seas and a last week of “tastes from the Sea”  to honour the Portuguese Coasts.

The remaining weeks were dedicated to regional Portugal and Islands with the following poetic names: “Beyond the mountains”, “Between rivers”, “Atlantic islands/Blessed iIslands – Azores”, “Beira mountain side”, “In Mondego’s margins”, “On the Tejo marsh lands” , “Around the seven hills”2, “Machim Islands / Blessed Islands – Madeira”, “Through the plains”, “The almond-trees garden” and to close “Sweet scents” with a display of national sweetmeats which got to be the further upgraded gastronomical sector following the Discoveries.

 At the restaurant the menu represented the whole country and each week the suggestions were changed according to the above mentioned themes. This 90 seats restaurant served around 450 meals per day. After all these years I’m still pleased to remember some clients that would not fail to come weekly to taste what was offered. It was hard work but especially rewarding given the clients reactions.

As to the banquets it was interesting, and a challenge, to show that it is possible to serve our traditions even in official meals and – I will repeat myself – with the deed of only serving rye bread slices.

Portuguese cuisine, so many times accused of roughness, lacking elegance and of being outdated, can be presented at any given table. Some foreign chefs arriving here have discovered the richness of our ingredients and have easily accepted the kind of confection that best suit these products. The year after EXPO98 Portuguese gastronomy was upgraded to Cultural Heritage upon decision of the Ministers Counsel. What now? Who is going to identify, to inventory, and who gets to decide what within this classification?

I would like now to recall a Seville Exhibition. Not the one of 1994, but that of 1929 where Portugal proudly presented itself with its agricultural produces. It was not exactly a Universal Exhibition but Latin-American, although the Portugal Pavilion was so outstanding that it is still there. And the space dedicated to Agriculture had the size of Industry and Trading together. Its 1929 catalogue already shows Portugal as a touristic country with modern equipments. As to Agriculture it presented the following fields: olive oil and olives, fresh fruits, dried and prepared fruits, wines, liquors and brandy, cereals, vegetables, green groceries, industrial plants and its derived products, fish preserves and brines, … . Self-esteem seemed different then. We do have to learn to value the best we have.

Photo: ©Adriana Freire

1 Cascais Nuts is a name given to an egg and sugar delicacy, in the form of a roundish yellow nut, with a crisp and shining light caramel coating, over which a half walnut is placed. In other places the same recipe is given the form of a chestnut and taken to the oven to get a brownish cover, resembling this fruit. (back to the main text)

2 Seven Hills is a way of referring to Lisbon. As Rome, mythical Olissipo / Lisbon would have developed as a city upon seven hills. (back to the main text)