Close encounters of the food kind

One of the biggest complaints among students I’ve taught who have visited Britain – usually London – is how poor their food experience was while they were visiting. In a few respects I sympathise with them, but as I regularly point out, great food is available in the UK, it’s just pricier than in Portugal.

As an example, during the course of a family sightseeing trip to London a few years ago, the four of us paused for a pitstop. When the bill for £17 for two coffees (which were nothing to write home about) and two juices arrived, I felt the blood visibly drain from my face, having got used to paying well under a Euro a pop for a good coffee that hits the spot. Equally, it is still possible to get a decent cooked lunch for around €7 in Lisbon. And while we’re not exactly talking haute cuisine, what you’ll get for this price is good, honest, homely food, not unlike your granny used to make (if she was Portuguese). I am realistic enough to admit that for a similar price in London you’d be hard-pressed to get anything other than fast food.

It must be understood that lunch is taken seriously in Portugal. If you ever had any ideas about sloping away from your desk at 1 o’clock, grabbing a sandwich to go and then eating it back at your desk, it could be considered grounds for dismissal.

It’s no joking matter for the little people either. School lunch in most crèches, pre-schools and primary schools is paid for by parents (where appropriate) and always includes soup, a main course and fruit for dessert. Now being in the situation where I have to send my son’s lunch into school with him, I’m acutely aware of what would and wouldn’t be acceptable. This is especially so after a friend told me how another (non-Portuguese) friend of hers once received a phone call from her son’s school expressing their concerns over the inadequate contents of his lunchbox, which consisted of typical packed lunch fare. This particular educator would be horrified to learn that a whole nation further north was, and is being, brought up on little more to eat than a sandwich, fruit and yogurt in the middle of the day. Having identified the potential pitfalls, my one stand for non-conformity has been refusing to send in soup. This decision is informed by knowing that, even if I bothered making it, it would probably meet the same fate as the bowl of indeterminate-vegetable soup that my son was caught (red-handed) flushing down the toilet, by a furious school cook during his final year at primary school.

Food, cooking and eating out invariably crop up in conversation with students. In the beginning, I quickly became accustomed to hearing that Portuguese cuisine was unsurpassable, although at the time I was unable to agree. This was not only due to the fact that I hadn’t graduated much beyond tostas mistas (ham and cheese toasties) and cakes at the local eateries, but also because I was withdrawing badly from Marks and Spencer’s food hall. I was also taken aback by how badly-viewed British food was, although even I had to laugh at one student’s assertion that the British kill fish twice – once when it’s caught and again when it’s cooked. Unbelievably, it seems that battered cod isn’t universally appreciated.

Besides, at the time I held my own views on Portuguese bacalhau (salt cod). When I first arrived in Lisbon, I couldn’t abide its pungent aroma as I passed it on display in the supermarket: conjure in your mind the overpowering stink of fish past its sell-by date and you get the picture. Added to which, its appearance to the uninitiated is equally unappealing. During the process of salting cod, thereby preserving it, it becomes completely rigid and the resultant product is reminiscent of recycled cardboard. I was stumped as to how anything looking and smelling so unappetising could be turned into anything remotely edible. I know now that it can be and am enthusiastic about all manner of bacalhau dishes – but let others deal with the preparation of them. All the soaking, rinsing and water-changing remains a mystery to me and, frankly, strikes me as being a bit too complicated and time-consuming.

Living in Lisbon and eating what the locals eat has undoubtedly changed my food preferences. Admittedly, it took me the best part of twelve years to appreciate the joys of eating octopus, but I got there eventually. This, despite my daughter recounting years ago that they’d been presented with arroz de polvo (octopus rice) for lunch at school that day, which nobody liked and “everybody cried” – I refer you back to lunch being a serious matter.

Despite my best efforts, there are a few delicacies that I’ll never get a taste for. Some well-meaning students once took me to a fish restaurant, intent on inducting me into the delights of more obscure fruits of the sea. I was pretty game, but the percebes (goose barnacles) were a bridge too far. I was supposed to be marvelling at the taste of sea-watery freshness, but in truth couldn’t get past the fact that they resembled reptilian digits that had become violently separated from their owners’ hands. I feel likewise about snails. Late Spring is snail season and many a student has tried to convince me that a plate of snails and a cold beer in the sunshine is one of life’s greatest pleasures. On the one occasion I gave them a go, my stomach was in knots at the thought of ingesting the snaily antennae alone and I’m quite sure my face was the human equivalent of the nauseous green emoji we all like to use these days to express disgust. I tried, I failed, but I’ll happily drink beer in June, so perhaps I get a half point for effort….

As a food-lover, I think it’s a shame to close your mind to new food experiences and I’m willing to try most things once before forming an opinion. I wax lyrical about British food to my students but can’t shake the feeling that my marketing strategy is failing. Perhaps it’s because I taunt them with Marmite and Branson Pickle tastings (a few have refused to get past the smelling part of the experiment). I also urge them to try milk in “builders” tea or vinegar on their chips, all to little avail.

As with much of my existence as a Brit in Lisbon, I cherry-pick food habits from both cultures, experiencing the best of both worlds. It could be seen as wanting to have my cake and eat it – which I suppose I do, preferably accompanied by a decent coffee that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.

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