“We’ll both have the Fettuccine Bolognese.”
“Yes. Very good,” said the waiter. Actually, he said, “Si, bom,” because we were in Espinho, Portugal, a few miles south of Oporto on the ocean for a ten-day vacation, and here we were ordering an Italian entree in this Portuguese hotel restaurant because, we figured, if they have it on the menu they must know something special about Italian cooking that we don’t, and after all, the restaurant was dripping with elegance – white linens, candles, and crystal everywhere, so the food must be good – even if it’s from a completely different culture a few hundred miles to the east.
Except – and this is a sign – there was only one other couple in the place, with some thirty-odd tables empty.
In preparation for this trip, we studied European Portuguese (quite different from Brazilian Portuguese) just enough to realize we wouldn’t get very far past good morning, hello, thanks, please, and where’s the bathroom because it is a devilishly difficult language that requires one to swallow most consonants till you’re half-gagging, and stretch vowels – like the “o” in “bom,” into three or four syllables. This might be a slight exaggeration, but trust me, Spanish and Italian are like simple arithmetic compared to the trigonometry of Portuguese.
Some more cynical than I will tell you “Portuguese cuisine” is an oxymoron, but I disagree. Except for their penchant to dump a poached egg on top of nearly everything they serve you (like hamburgers, fried fish, roast chicken), the food is quite varied and generally fascinating. They do dozens of exotic things with cod (“bacalhau”) because of the still-vital Portuguese codfishing fleet. And their treatments of lamb, beef, and pork are just fine.
But a Bolognese sauce? We’ll see.
Our tuxedoed waiter returned to your table with two bowls of steaming fettuccine and a rolling cart bearing a chafing dish. He lit the Sterno can underneath, heated a skillet, and produced a bottle of brandy.
Wow. Brandy in Bolognese sauce? Who knew?
He poured brandy into a skillet, heated it for a few seconds, then lit a match and ignited the brandy. Very strange for Italian cooking, but exciting!
And now with a flourish he revealed a large plastic bottle of Heinz ketchup.
My wife and I looked at each other. What the — ?
He squeezed about a cup and a half of ketchup from the bottle into the flaming pan.
Oh no! Heinz Ketchup flambé!
He whisked it while it burned and bubbled, then poured cream into it (dousing the fire), then some spices, and whisked merrily away until it was well-blended, then spooned it out onto our fettuccine. He smiled proudly, bowed, and quietly retreated to some safe dark corner.
(the hostess at the Noval Winery tasting room on the Douro River in Oporto. We came home with a fine vintage Quinto Noval port- the best I’ve ever had – and some other goodies.)
For the rest of our time in Espinho, we ate elsewhere. And, to be honest, we didn’t fly all the way here for the food; we came to be in a quiet beach town with friendly people, and also for the Port, succeeding nicely on both fronts. We returned home with a seriously overweight suitcase, bulging with bottles, and some warm memories of a wonderful people.
More about Portugal later, but let’s now do a Bolognese sauce right. What is it? It’s a simple meat sauce (ground pork, veal, and beef) made with minced vegetables and chopped tomatoes sautéed and then simmered in white wine, with an added touch of cream, all of it nicely stewing in a covered skillet for about an hour, and it’s a favorite of our guests.
Most recipes call for diced pancetta as an option, but I’m not crazy about it, so I leave it out. It’s entirely up to you.
A note about the meats: the pork and veal are essential for flavor. We grind our own pork – from either a pork butt or short ribs – leaving in about half the fat. If you have to skimp on the meat, I’d lose the ground beef. But then, if you don’t eat veal, go with a mix of pork and beef.
This sauce is clean, simple, not overly flavored, free of the curses of brandy and ketchup, and completely delicious. Here we go – this is to serve three hungry people.
There you have it. Back next week.