About two years ago I was invited by the Town Hall of Odivelas to participate in a community meeting. Of course I was expected to give a lecture on the coming together of the cultures and their influence on gastronomy. Almost at the last minute it was suggested that I speak, specifically, about the departures? to Cape Verde, to which my reaction was to ask my interlocutor if he was insane. One thing is to talk about the relationship between two big regions, two countries which are Portugal and Cape Verde. Another thing is the relationship between a small region, Trás-os-Montes1, and a Country, Cape Verde. Although I wasn´t too happy about it, I accepted the challenge, believing that luck would protect me.

A little unnerved, there I went searching for my memory aids to find the common elements that link these gastronomies and the mingling of cultures in the food area.

Although I had been to Cape Verde a couple of times, it was not easy to recall the memories. It was easier for me to remember the hospitality, and the simple and spontaneous food that was served to me. Indeed, the best meals at the time were those served or shared at the homes of people whom I had just happened to meet. I always went out of my way o find out who had cooked the meal and to thank them for cooking it. I had delicious conversations with women who considered cooking a vital necessity, like breathing. And the more simple the meals, the better they were. I recalled that attitude as the most evident, more so than the dishes I ate. And here I found an expression that was very commonly used in Trás-os-Montes when people had guests at the table. It was compulsory to have a second helping of the main delicacy. And if we were to refuse, then the fatal question would immediately come up: Did you not enjoy it? To tell the truth, enjoying it, would mean that we would have to be served again. And we would end up by eating it. This hospitality at the table was so similar….! And it was tricky because we would have to honor the table and its delicacies, and particularly the hosts.

But, going back to the common practices between the Portuguese and the Cape Verde cuisine I will refer firstly to the most interesting book on this subject. The book is “A Viagem dos Sabores” (Journey of the Flavors) by Rui Rocha and published by Edições Inapa during the time of EXPO 98. In that book the introductory text is fundamental to this understanding. So there, the author presents three elements, or rather, three recipes of the Cape Verde patrimony: Xerém with Coconuts Milk, Cuscuz and “Cachupa Rica”.

If in relation to the first recipe there are no doubts because Xerém continues to be cooked, especially in the Algarve, corn is used all over the country as an element to bake bread.

As for Cuscuz, inherited from the Moor occupation, only in Trás-os-Montes is it still made. However, it would seem more logical that the Maghreb coming from the North of Africa had transmitted these customs to Cape Verde. We tend to think then that the Atlantic Coast of Africa was dominated by the sea conquests of the Portuguese.

But, why is this not such an easy geographical relationship? According to my friend, Antonio Monteiro2, and in a recent book published on this subject, which refers to “now tracking a historical route, from North Arica to the Cold Transmontana lands (Terras frias Transmontanas), that certainly has not been easy at all!”. And I refer my readers to Antonio Monteiro´s article, called “Cuscos em Vinhais3, O exotismo de um manjar enjeitado” (Cuscos in Vinhais, the Exotiscm of a rejected delicatessen), published in the magazine bebes.comes. In Brazil, this delicacy is still considered to have originated in Cape Verde and is identified with the communities of Cape Verde that have settled there.

As for Cachupa, some authors tend to find some parallelism with our Cozido (dish with an assortment of boiled meat, special sausages and vegetables); this is only because there are such a variety of ingredients. Cachupa starts off with chicken stew, then the corn, chickpeas and beans are added in that sauce. As I mentioned in other texts, the cooking fusion brings together produce and or culinary techniques that sometimes create exultant new recipes.

Referring back to the beginning of the text, I was fortunate enough to share the table with the fantastic great author of the book, “Cozinha de Cabo Verde” (Cape Verde Cuisine), Mrs. Maria de Lourdes Chantre, who also wrote a paper. If we read the book very attentively, since there are not only recipes, we learn about the local traditions that enable us to identify their national cuisine. In fact we find many more than those three recipes and the presentation of the produce with the local names.

We find many canjas (chicken soup) other than that made with chicken, there is one made with tuna, newly born dove, kid goat and limpets. The fish broths are very similar to our broths and soups. There are various recipes of Cuscuz and many others of Xerém. As for the stews, they seem very similar to ours, with the addition of local ingredients. When we observe the Guisado de Capado com Ervilhas Verdes, (Capado4 stew with green peas) we can easily imagine the same stew in the Douro Litoral5, merely substituting the Capado by a castrated goat.

The curious thing about the book is the presentation of the recipes using local terms. So, “Azeite Doce” means olive oil, because before our oil came was used, they were familiar with other oils. “Batata inglesa” (English potato) is the common potato. Caldeira is an iron pot with three feet, and there are many other terms. This edition of the 80’s, an excellent inventory of recipes and traditions, is culturally enriched with excerpts of local authors so as to illustrate the produce, the recipes and other habits. There is also a list of the recipes to follow according to the calendar of festivities.

Recently, in conjunction with the support of the Ministry of Culture of Cape Verde, an updated book called “Cozinha da Avó) (Grandmother´s Cooking) was published, edited by the author, Josefina Benchimol Duarte. The book contains recipes and some texts and some texts regarding the confection of some recipes, and short texts in Creole6 which I read aloud so as to try to understand them. I know of another book published in Portuguese written by Maria Teresa Lyon de Castro. However, I got more out of the first two books because the authors are native to Cape Verde.

As has become my habit, I exceeded the time stipulated, and the conversation was extended to the table and we didn´t get to talk about the meeting of cultures, cooking, neither did we discuss the discovered fusion. At the table we had another great Lady of Portuguese Cuisine and culture, Maria Proença, whom I learned to appreciate and admire. This is to say that I was very well surrounded. Therefore, or specifically out of conviction, I dared to state that cooking in the version of great family feeding, is a feminine activity, or it used to be so.

Let us try to understand the following chronology: initially, when fire was discovered, man used to cook or grill the meat directly on the fire. With the cooking utensils and the family organization, cooking became the woman´s activity. And it then developed as such; satisfying the family necessities, but this evolved and created new pleasures at the table. We can simultaneously confirm three types of cooking which is exclusively aimed at men and cooked by them: the shepherds, the fishermen and the soldiers in the military camps. Of these three groups we can easily identify groups of recipes, simple and a result of the circumstances. If the gazpacho “á alentejana” (cooked in the Alentejo style) is a simple recipe, the shepherds lamb is a more elaborate recipe. Later we come across the codfish or octopus “à mestre lagareiro” (olive oil maker style) due to the profession. However, the great variety of “caldeirada” (Caldeirada is a typical Portuguese stew consisting of a large variety of fish, and sometimes shellfish, with potatoes, tomato and onion) recipes is a good example of the fishermen´s activity. Of course after the discoveries and with the sea voyages another type of more programmed cooking developed. However, history recalls the great difficulties encountered during the long sea voyages. It was not at all easy to cook food on those long trips. All it takes is to read the reports, relatively recently, now present in several books concerning the trip of the Portuguese Court to Brazil at the beginning of the 19th Century.

However, the awareness that the cooking activity was feminine is very obvious at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. With the preface of Carlos Bento da Maia, written in 1903, for his book “Tratado da Cozinha e Copa” where he complains that there was a lack of professional cooking schools and therefore his book would be a good contribution for the students of the institutions to learn to become good cooks, thereby becoming good servants.

Of course the Twentieth Century created a new dynamic concerning these concepts. While only a small minority could afford to eat out at the beginning of the century, at the end of the century only a small minority have their meals at home. The family structure desegregated due to modern demands.

No doubt that the Portuguese culinary patrimony owes a lot to women who developed and perfected what we yearn for today as home-made cooking.

Luis Baena, recently wrote in an amusing way, that those who “want homemade food must eat at home” When one eats out one expects spectacular cooking, something different, that will establish a true price/pleasure relationship.

Bon Apetit!

©Virgílio Gomes

Foto: © Adriana Freire

1 Portuguese Northest region (back to the main text)

2 Important portuguese writer (back to the main text)

3 Town in Portuguese Northeast region (back to the main text)

4 Capon (back to the main text)

5 Region around Oporto (back to the main text)

6 Local language (back to the main text)