Cooking Up A Feast This Christmas
By Suzanne Radford
Published in Tomorrow magazine in the December 2020 edition.
In the words of the poet, George Wither, “So now is come our joyful feast, let every man be jolly…” with an abundance of local fruits and fresh produce we need look no further than the Algarve and the Serra de Monchique for inspiration and recipe ideas for the table this Christmas.
It's the time of year when the sounds of rustling can be heard from the fields and hillsides. It's the olive season and locals and landowners are harvesting, shaking olives from the trees and catching them in nets below the branches. The fruit is prepared for pressing to make olive oil or put in jars for eating. Olives are packed with vitamin E, iron and are thought to be a good antioxidant. They make a tasty appetizer too, especially after being marinated in Christmas flavours. Whether you prefer green, brown or black or a mixture of them all, place them in a clean glass jar. Add small pieces of blanched clementines, chilli, peppercorns, rosemary and garlic cloves. Pour olive oil to cover and secure the lid, pop in the fridge and the next day use as an addition to your tapas or selection of nibbles and as a complement to your cheeseboard.
Chestnut trees are bursting with fruit this year and roasted on an open fire or in the oven add a festive ritual to the proceedings and they are a delicious way to share moments with the family. For those with a more adventurous palette, try mixing salt, sugar, cinnamon and mixed spice in a bowl and sprinkle over the roasted chestnuts before eating. And for your stuffing on the big day, chestnuts go well with walnuts and figs.
Chanterelles, caesar’s, parasol and porcini are all varieties of edible mushrooms you can find in the Algarve. Mushroom hunting is an annual pastime but comes with a health warning, as some are poisonous, so it’s not recommended you pick them unless with an expert guide. Each year around Monchique a mushroom hunt is arranged by Monchique Passeios Na Serra and last year I joined the group of mainly Portuguese guided by Mr Simão Vilas Boas from Lagos who advised on what was good for eating, and there are plenty. A nice option for vegetarians (and non-vegetarians) are mushrooms stuffed with a filling of finely chopped mushrooms, shallots, walnuts, cranberries, thyme, breadcrumbs and topped off with a tangy local goat's cheese.
Wild Boar Casserole a perfect dish for a chilly winter’s evening, it’s rustic and warming and it’s a local favourite in the hills. The shoulder is the best cut for this, from a local butcher and chestnuts again come in handy, shelled, and thrown into the pot, along with quince, olive oil and garlic, add a bay leaf and season to taste. Slow cook it and you have a hearty stew that goes beautifully with Brussel sprouts and a glass of red on the side.
The medronho tree or arbutus, part of the strawberry family provides us with a highly medicinal raw honey, and a Medronho brandy (or firewater). Combine the two and we have melosa, a sweet after-dinner tipple. Place honey, water, lemon peel and a cinnamon stick in a pan of water and bring it to the boil, remove the ingredients, let the liquid cool down, add the brandy and stir before bottling it and popping in the fridge, for at least a day and a smooth and sweet honey liqueur is yours for the tasting.
For local raw honey go to Taberna Do Manel Honey Café, Montes de Cima, Mexilhoeira Grande. And for aguardente de medronho, Loja do Mel e do Medronho, Monchique.
So, there we have it, locally sourced ingredients from local producers, making a fine ‘joyful feast’. Enjoy!