(Meat loaf from Trás-os-Montes)

How is regional identity created and recognised in relation to food? Today, it still seems easy to characterise a region when resorting to our memory of habits and traditions that became established for generations. Mine was still raised with these traditions, which came from what nature spontaneously produced, or from what man obtained from agriculture. This identity was also marked by transport/access difficulties. According to Professor Claudio Torres, identity is a result of the distance that a mule could travel in one day. It meant the sharing of (perishable) food only took place as far as transportation was possible in a day. As a result, a collection of recipes was created in accordance with what a region produced and those recipes were made according to the nature or timing of festivities, which were often religious in origin. Of course, there was other produce, such as cod and octopus, which could be transported easily because they were dried and could be stored.

Other culinary arts also generated recipes that meant that food could be kept longer periods, such as meat loaves, and various folares (traditional Easter bread), as well as escabeche (marinated food) and cuscos. And so we can still define the identity of Trás-os-Montes through its food and associated celebrations.

But for how much longer can we maintain this identity? Sometimes I say, in rather exaggerated fashion, that, within fifty years, what characterises our identity will feature in a chapter on archaeology. The model is being eradicated. And why is that? Is it merely for the advancement of civilization? Is it because of our passive nature or the power of disinformation? A bit of everything, really.

Let's look at how we are affected by social habits, the requirements of work, the development of transport and the speed of information in particular.

In what way are we to blame and how can we turn back the tide? Why was it so easy for pizzas, burgers and sushi to feature in our day-to-day lives? Why do we accept fruit with sugar? Was the language of our food so complex and difficult? I know that times have changed; that, in the past, our mothers’ role was to raise us and feed us at home. Now mothers have to work outside the home and children eat in school canteens. My first experience of this came when I went to college in Porto. We run the risk of rapidly stripping our origins of their unique character. And why should we defend and maintain our traditions? Because we have a history. Because the future can only be built on a past that evolves. Cuisine, or the culinary art, is an act of creativity that accompanies rituals, festivities; even a certain etiquette.

Cuisine developed the first sociable acts and it has constantly evolved. However, when this evolution is the cause of breaches, it creates abysses like those we experience today; showing little respect for what is (was) ours. And so, it is important to protect and support the communities or associations that maintain traditions and respect how they evolve.

Let me give you two examples. The first relates to misinformation in a recipe from Trás-os-Montes and the other to culinary short-cuts in Brazil. Recently, a rather attractive cookery magazine (Click in Gourmet) featured the recipe for "Feijoada à Transmontana"(a regional bean stew) on its cover. When we read the recipe, we see the ingredients include "regional chouriço", which is meaningless because it is called "chouriça" in Trás-os-Montes. Then it includes two sausages that are not popular with people from the Trás-os-Montes area: farinheira (Portuguese smoked sausage) and morcela (black pudding). To make things worse, the dish is garnished with a sprig "coriander"! Yes, it’s shocking.

Now, the bean stew is called Transmontana because it should have regional produce. The above mentioned sausages are from the Beiras region and coriander is something normally used in the Alentejo ... The other example of "easy and convenient" is the widespread use of condensed milk in most sweets in Brazil. The extensive use of condensed milk is ruining the original character of Brazilian sweets! I know it's easier, but ...

Use the ingredients that still identify us with pride. And don’t forget, food tastes better if enjoyed with a good glass of wine.

© Virgílio Nogueiro Gomes

May 2011