BC X 2: before Covid and before Christmas

Monday, May 4, 2020, 13:23

Boxes of salt cod in the local shop

Christmas Dinner! I said before Christmas that I would try to write another post about the customs in Ponte de Lima but I never did.

We had the whole family to stay – they came from Phoenix in Arizona and Chippenham in Wiltshire as well from my home town of York - which was wonderful. Yet preparation filled up the time so completely that writing blogs got put to one side. And then came the Coronavirus. Life was put on hold, the local news became how long one's hair had become and where to buy face masks so blog writing became difficult. What do you have to write about up here on the mountain? Well there are a few things, not world shattering but at least interesting in their own way. First, however, the Ponte de Lima Christmas menu.

To find out what people in the Minho love to eat on Christmas day, click here.

Well as you can probably guess, from the picture, turkey doesn't figure prominently amongst the ingredients of a slap-up Christmas meal. It may be on the dishes, of course, but according to Nuno who is the fount of all knowledge in our village, it would be only third on the menu .... if there at all.

So, what is top of the menu? Why salt cod, naturally! The Portuguese say that there are as many recipes for salt cod as there are days in the year, which might make you think that a change to something exotic would be indicated and yet, ubiquitous as is, dried cod is apparently number one in the charts. In the picture above you can see 5 of the 25kg boxes of the salt cod that Nuno expected to sell, a third of the total he had bought in. That means that in our village alone 375 kg of the stuff was going to appear on local tables during Christmas.

The message on the box, below the statement of the contents, Bacalhau salgado – salt cod – says "a gentleman at your table". This is a slogan I find confusing but I take it to mean that this salt cod has class: it's not your common or garden salt cod but a noble, up-market form of it. What do you think?

Just so that you don't think our village is an exception, next to the photo of Nuno's boxes of cod is an ad from the window of a Ponte de Lima shop, which advises us to take advantage of their tradition of selling "o melhor bacalhau" - the best cod - for Christmas.

I well remember my astonishment when, as a student spending Christmas in the remote village of Águas in Beira Baixa, I was told that the traditional Christmas Eve dinner was salt cod with cabbage. This was not something to set me salivating. Dona Beatriz made a valiant effort in her huge black cauldron over the open log fire but it really didn't feel Christmassy to me!

An shop advertisement for octopus and w sorts of whisky

So, what else might one expect at the table? Well the middle advertisement above is also what Nuno was planning to have: octopus! Portugal is a coastal state and its people have been seafarers from well before the country itself had an existence or a name. So perhaps it is not surprising that seafoods figure prominently on their tables but to us the curving arm of an octopus covered in suckers is not our picture of a feast, even if is, as the ad says, of "alta qualidade" – top quality!

What is, perhaps, surprising is that despite the UK's coastline being enormous and that we too have been a seafaring nation, we are singularly unadventurous when it comes to seafood. When did you last see octopus on the fresh fish counter at your local supermrket?

Many people from around the world would understand the advertisements to either side of the octopus. Whisky! It seems that the delicious, slightly sparkling vinho verde of the Minho is set aside at Christmas. I must be a contrary sort of person because, not only do I not want cod and octopus, but rather than whisky I would be much happier with the common or garden product from the local co-operative, a bottle of "Adega de Ponte de Lima". It may not be posh; it is perhaps unsophisticated; but the cold, light, local vinho verde that you can buy for a couple of euros would be my preferred tipple any day.

It all goes to show that what is local to you, what you grow up with, is what is closest to your heart. I grew up in the 1950s when families like mine had a roast chicken for Christmas. In those days chicken was a luxury and we only ever ate it at Christmas. Turkey came later for us. In Portugal, seafood is far more common and tradition, something which is of paramount importance in the Minho, dictates that cod and octopus are the only foods to make a perfect Christmas dinner.

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