If you’re not familiar, Portuguese historical adventures have created an abundant food and wine legacy, for which they are most proud… while being very humble about it as the same time.
During the past 3,000 years, Portugal experienced an ebb and flow of different civilizations invading their country. From Iberian to Tartessian, Celtic, Phoenician and Carthaginian, Greek, Roman, Germanic, Arabic, Jewish, and the Moors, all of these aggressors left interesting imprints on this small, Mediterranean country. It is important to note that in 868 A.D., during the Reconquista period, the Christians re-conquered the Iberian Peninsula from Muslim and Moorish domination. This was when the first county of Portugal was formed, and it was then transformed into the independent Kingdom of Portugal.
Today, Portugal is the oldest political reality in Europe, with its borders remaining unchanged for the last nine centuries. All of the incursions of Portugal happened before the creation of this country. It is the invasions and dominations by each society that established the roots of Portugal.
Its culture, history, language, foods, wines, and ethnic make-up have created a civilization so unique that writer Martin Page devoted an entire story to it entitled, “The First Global Village, How Portugal Changed the World.” For many, Portugal proved to be an Eden.
Subsequent to all of the above occupants, between 1415 and 1542 A.D., Portugal went on to become a major economic, political, and cultural powerhouse, as its empire’s explorations stretched from Brazil to the Indies. This was done with enriching effects, and is referred to as their own Age of Discovery.
These multicultural contributions, both from being raided and from experiencing their own voyaging, have led to epicurean and civilizing benefits for the world to enjoy. Their invaders each added a rich confluence of food, wine, and lifestyle; all of it geared toward enjoying the gifts of the earth in the healthiest possible ways. As the world’s first cultural melting pot of all humanity, each of Portugal’s defining paradigm shifts then trickled out to every corner of the globe.
Today, their influences remain as great contributions.
- ARAB CULTURE: When the Arabs arrived, they brought with them bananas, coconuts, sugar cane, oil palms, maize and rice, lettuce, onions, carrots, cucumbers, apples, pears, wine grapes, and figs… All part of a Mediterranean diet.
- FRANCE: The Portuguese own and operate over 400 restaurants in Paris as Italian trattorias.
- INDIA: The chili plant was brought to India, allowing “curry” to be invented.
- JAPAN: Portuguese Jesuits lived in Japan for generations before our ancestors knew of this, introducing words into the Japanese language; e.g., “orrigato,” which means “thank you.” They brought the recipe for tempura. They also introduced the technique for gun manufacturing. (One could argue that guns aren’t very civilizing. They do, however, help one protect oneself from another’s behavior, which might be uncivilized in intent.) The Portuguese also taught the Japanese how to construct buildings that would withstand artillery attack and earthquakes.
- UNITED STATES: While Portuguese is one of the most prevalently spoken language in Europe, it’s also the language of cattle ranchers in northern California and fishing communities along the New England coast line…. Both of which I have personal experiences.
- WRITERS: Sintra, Portugal, has been an attraction for writers’ inspiration for generations; e.g., Henry Fielding, Robert Southey, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Lord Byron, Ian Fleming, Graham Greene, Christopher Isherwood, W. H. Auden
Portuguese foods are still studied today by northern European medical researchers for clues as to what makes their heart-healthy diets such a phenomenon. The following information will provide great insight.
Irrigation, which was driven by water wheels, was brought to Portugal from Alexandria. This act created a technological revolution, the likes of which had never been seen in Europe prior to the Arabs arriving. This allowed for the crops mentioned above to be successfully farmed and introduced.
In a historical time-line, Portugal has had pivotal dates and people which have affected their country; and, in a trickle-down effect, world civilization. People from all over the world have migrated to Portugal throughout certain periods of world history, contributing to their varied culture. Each transformation, once adapted, has added rich fibers to the tapestry of these fascinating people of today.
Each world invasion, and the ethnic traditions left behind, has resulted in a country’s history that is a fascinating study in interdependence. It’s a country that is completely unique as a result from all other countries in the world. It’s been active and constantly adapting, creating a nation set apart from all others; and yet, has so many links to the past that many people can identify with the Portuguese culture of today.
Martin Page has given us chapters to follow in his book, as an outline with dates of significant benchmarks, putting Portugal’s history into complete perspective. The details within the book are the following:
- From Jonah to Julius Caesar [700 BC ]
- Rome on the Atlantic [55 BC]
- Rise & Fall of Christianity [212 AD]
- Arabs Bring Civilization to Europe 
- The Christian Reconquest 
- The Cistercian Peace
- Prince Henry the Misadventure
- King João and the Great Adventure
- Pêro da Covilhã: Master Spy
- Vasco da Gama and the Lord of the Oceans
- India and Beyond
- The Golden Age of Lisbon; Disaster Abroad
- The Coming of the Inquisition; The Departure of the Jews
- Freedom Regained
- Pombal and the King: A duet in Megalomania
- Playground of the great Powers [England and France]
With each invasion, the Portuguese people were open to the civilization refinements that were delivered to them. Along the way, they created the Institution of Good Men (in the 700s), which still exists today. A social consciousness act was created, whereby, widows and orphans are in the care of the country. Once created, this social welfare system has been maintained. All duties of the town are seen as everyone’s responsibility – including fire fighting – and are independent and self sufficient. It’s a daily way of life in Portugal, throughout the entire country, not just pockets of social consciousness.
On a personal note, having visited Portugal in the fall of 2009, I found the Portuguese people everywhere to be extremely polite as a people. I’m in constant communications with Enoforum Wines, a client in the Alentejo wine region, and am continually impressed by how all of their communications written to me are with the utmost humility and respect. One has to wonder: with all of the challenges that each new invader brought to Portugal, did the exposure to so many different kinds of people and mannerisms create a culture of world diplomats?
Exploring the foods and wines of Portugal
There are many experts who cite the foods and wines of Portugal as being the freshest and finest in the world; not only in flavors, but also in value.
When there, I learned that Portugal’s foods held the rich flavors of my grandparents’ summer garden. Fruits and vegetables reminded me of the days when I was allowed to devour their victory garden. I just thought of it as a place to hang out and eat; they thought of it as a place for me to enjoy the fruits of their labor and always know where to find me. The flavors of Portugal were that great. My friend Madalena Rudé, of Castro Verde, told me that she finds the best fruits and vegetables come from Portugal, and she’s traveled the world. I have to agree that the flavors were really superlative.
Fish arrives daily from the sea, and may be ordered from a basket of fish presented to restaurant guests, without the bother of reading a menu. The fruits and vegetables enjoy the benefits of being grown organically, not as an advantage, but as a standard of living.
While visiting Reguengos, winemaker Rui Veladas of Carmim Winery had taken me to tour their vineyards. As we entered the gate, we first passed their olive grove, and then drove down to their vines. As we passed the rows of vines, I realized that each row had a couple – if not a few – grazing sheep in it… row-after-row. I was allowed to get out of our vehicle to take pictures. Then, when we returned to the gate where we had entered, we saw an entire flock of sheep. They were wandering everywhere. It was at this exact moment that I realized how very beautifully basic and wholesome Portugal still remains.
A familiar product of the Mediterranean climate is olive oil. Portugal’s Alentejo district has many olive trees that thrive in its soils. These oils are considered by many authorities to be world-class. Olive trees are integrated within the vineyards, bordering vines, and being brought in just after the harvest of grapes. This is all done in a systematic way, produced by Mother Nature, allowing vintners to also enjoy the oils from olive trees, as well.
A delicacy on hoof is their black feral pigs of the Alentejo. They’re allowed to roam the countryside, dining on acorns from the cork trees, and mushrooms during late fall when the rains arrive. This humane treatment of this food source gives the black pigs the best possible life, until that fateful day. The meat from this food source is absolutely delicious… a delicacy for any meal.
Of the wines from Portugal, what international wine experts have written:
- Jancis Robinson: “It is so sad that top-quality Portuguese wine is not widely known and appreciated. Admittedly, the fact that Portugal now has such a vibrant wine culture… these wines have such a strong personality, I don’t think any interested drinker should deny themselves the Portuguese experience. Portuguese wine is well placed to take advantage of current fashion for “heritage varieties. The Alentejo Region, hot and dry, in the southeast, is perhaps the most promising source of accessible table wines, full-bodied, with intense colours… and this is without a doubt one of the most promising wine growing regions in the world.”
- Eric Asimov of New York Times: “Today, Portugal is a source of distinctive wines. More than anything, these wines struck me as honest. They do not try to imitate flavors and styles that are popular elsewhere.”
When in Portugal, one who embraces all things wholesome in life might find a home away from home, as I have.