The cycles of nature have a charm that we tend to ignore. And the grape cycle is one of the most remarkable, part of which is wine, an end product which we are well accustomed to. We should never forget that a bottle of wine holds generations of culture, which range from planting to perfecting this precious liquid. Nowadays, everything seems easy. We just go to a shop and buy.

Grapes were regularly eaten in antiquity (fresh or dried), both in the classical Greek and Roman eras, and we can see this in a number of murals from those times. Consumption continued until the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and grapes were used as decoration and later consumed with meals. Perhaps, this is why they are so often represented in still life paintings from the 16th to the 19th century.

If we think of the Catholic religion, grapes and wine are found in many texts. If the grape symbolises the arrival of autumn and in the writings of Filippo Picinelli grapes mean providence, wine itself represents the Passion of Christ. All religions refer to wine with rules and symbolism. In the North Mediterranean, grapes and wine are part of the trilogy of the Mediterranean diet, in southern regions fresh and dried grapes are consumed but wine is absolutely forbidden. Grapes are considered an important fruit in people’s diet and are often considered an important source of minerals, that also function as a diuretic, with cleansing properties and the ability to provide new energy. They also seem to reduce fatigue and rid the body of toxins.

I was brought up in the country, which gave me a different insight. I watched vines being planted and pruned, the spraying of ferrous sulphate, the harvest and the preparation of the wine. In my house, wine was also made but only for our own consumption, a wine that I still remember: wine on tap. And I was raised to believe that wine wasn’t to quench your thirst but to rather enhance the taste of food. And even today, this is a belief I adhere to. Before the harvest, we still ate grapes for afters and as a snack with bread. We would leave grapes hanging in the attic to dry and made sure there were enough left for New Year's Eve. Naturally, some would be used for desserts and others were unable to survive our hunger.

There is no Portuguese culinary tradition using grapes. They appear almost incidentally, as a reflection of a domestic cuisine d’auteur. Instead, we have recipes associated with meals for those working on the grape harvest, and this is why sardines started being eaten in the Douro region in the middle of last century, stored in barrels. In addition to these, there was also a cod stew, which was called à espanhola, and which was simply a kind of cod chowder with potatoes.

And then, of course, there are many recipes in which wine plays a crucial role. I remember that when a wine was sub-standard, people used to say it could be employed in food. Thankfully, this practice has almost disappeared. Poor wine produces poor results in the kitchen. Today, fortunately, we can see that greater care is taken to choose good wine to accompany fine dishes. I still think that wine’s most important function is making a meal more complete. A meal with wine will always taste better.

Wine has lent its name to dishes such as vinha d’alhos, to the likes of rabbit in the Alentejo, pork in the Beira Alta region and on the island of Madeira. Wine is used for cooking in chanfana and the famous perdiz à moda do Convento de Alcântara (Partridge Alcântara Convent style), as well as the long forgotten sopas de cavalo cansado (tired horse soup!).

In his "Dictionnaire amoureux de la cuisine", Alain Ducasse says: "Like all food, whether solid or liquid, wines are, like vegetables, cheese and poultry, the direct and immediate expression of farmland (soil)”.

To quote Azinhal Abelho (1911-1979), a poet from the Alentejo, while describing Portugal: "Bread with eyes, cheese without eyes and wine that catches the eye."

Wine has been a victim of sometimes unfair campaigns. Nobody makes accusations towards spirits and other alcoholic drinks. Drink wine with your meal and the food will taste better.

© Virgílio Nogueiro Gomes

July 2011