"When I was growing up in Portugal, I wasn't a big fan of pastel de nata—they were all garbage, really! There are many things that are better than custard tarts."I'm sat across from Antonio Galapito, head chef of Portuguese restaurant Taberna do Mercado in the heart of London's Spitalfields Market. He basically just dissed his homeland's national dish.
"My favourite was pão de ló [an eggy sponge cake served at Taberna with olive oil and sat]," says Galapito with a smile. "It's been one of my favourite desserts since forever. As a kid, my mum would bring me one and I'd destroy it."
But there'll be no sponge on the menu today. Instead, Galapito is going to show me how to make one of Taberna's longest standing desserts: abade de priscos. Or, as it's described on the menu, "steamed egg yolk, pork fat, and port caramel."While I'll happily eat my way through a bag of gelatin-laden gummy bears, I'm not sold on Galapito's pork-and-egg mix. But I descend the stairs to the Taberna kitchen with an open mind."Most of the desserts that we do here are traditional with a little difference," explains Galapito. It's not then surprising to hear that Nuno Mendes, the Michelin-starred chef known for showcasing Portuguese food with a fusion twist, is the owner of the joint and helped develop the menu.
Galapito tells me that abade de priscos originates in the northern Portugal region of Braga."Traditionally, it's dark brown because the port is mixed in," he explains. "But we took it out and used it in a sauce, so you end up with a golden egg yolk slice sitting in a pool of red sauce. The colours look really cool."It's time to start cooking.Galapito begins by chopping and weighing the pork. I can't stop myself from demanding to know why the meat is included in a sweet dish.
"It's just how it's done," shrugs Galapito with a laugh. "Originally, you'd probably just use regular fat or bacon but we use cured Ibérico ham which definitely makes a difference. It has a nicer salt."He continues: "We do fifty-fifty fat and actual meat. The fat adds to the texture and the shininess of the dish. The meat gives it the bit of saltiness that you're looking for. It tastes a bit like a salted caramel."The pork and fat go into a saucepan with lemon rind, a cinnamon stick, sugar, and water.Galapito jokingly warns me to look away when the sugar is going in.
"Although, the traditional recipe on which ours is based has, if I'm not mistaken, 300 grams more sugar than ours. We have taken out a lot of sugar! It was so sweet," he says. "Ours is already really sweet (especially for me, I hate sweet desserts) but I can take this. If it was any less sweet, it wouldn't be as good. It would be really eggy."While the mixture is simmering, it's onto those eggs. The saying goes "You can't make an omelette without cracking a few eggs," but apparently you can't make an abade de priscos without cracking about 18."That's if you're making about 16 portions though. We get through around 300 eggs a day," says Galapito. Noticing my shocked face, he adds, "And that's just for desserts."I comment that most Portuguese desserts are, to put it bluntly, quite eggy.Galapito says: "The reason is mostly, if it's an egg yolk dessert, it's because it was created in the old monasteries. The nuns used to use the whites to starch clothes and a good way to preserve egg yolks is to put them in sugar."
The golden yolks are separated from the whites and passed through a sieve, which Galapito explains is to make the texture super smooth and get out any stray bits of white. The pork fat mixture is also passed through a sieve and the hot liquid added to the yolks, a little at a time, so as not to curdle the eggs.As the whole things is poured on top of set caramel and put in an industrial steamer, Galapito tells me that it wasn't an easy ride to perfect the abade de priscos recipe."There was a lot of trial and error with this dish, like a lot. We knew the texture we wanted and we knew that we could reach it, we just didn't know how," he explains. "The way we cook it is very different from the traditional version which is done in a bain marie in a 200-degree oven. It just curdles a lot and becomes like a Spanish flan. We didn't want it like that."He continues: "We spent about three or four days just making it over and over. We went through boxes and boxes of eggs, just cracking, cracking, and baking. I think we baked about ten a day until we got there."
A Blue Peter-style, "here's one I made earlier" tray of shiny, bright yellow slices of set steamed egg yolk and pork fat suddenly appears from behind me.
Galapito slides one onto a blue and white china plate and pours blood-red port sauce into the dish until the golden egg yolk and pork fat is swimming in it. A drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt complete the dish.
"Now, let me find you a spoon," says Galapito.
I take a bite. It's custardy, salty, rich, gelatinous, and tangy from the port sauce all in one mouthful. I hurriedly go in for a second spoonful and it's all I can do to stop myself drinking the sauce straight from the dish.As I head out the door, I ask if Galapito could send me the recipe.He laughs: "Sure, but don't make it too often, your cholesterol will go through the roof!"I can't make any promises.