It’s before noon on a Monday and I’m sniffing at high-end bottles of Portuguese gin.
No, I’m not getting lit at the office. I'm in East London cafe Portuguese Love Affair, about to begin an exploration of the capital’s Portuguese eateries, bars, and bakeries with chef Leandro Carreira. Out with the milky coffee and piri-piri chicken, in with multiple bottles of gin.
Carreira is not only with me on this boozy tour as a companion, but also part of the reason for it. His new restaurant Londrino, in Central London, has sparked talk of an emerging Portuguese food scene in London, building on the success of fellow London-based Portuguese chef Nuno Mendes. With Guardian food critic Grace Dent describing Londrino’s dishes as “magical, ethereal,” the restaurant has established a new era of Portuguese food in the capital. Except there’s one problem: Carreira doesn’t want Londrino to be a Portuguese restaurant.
“People just expect, perhaps because of the fact that we frame the restaurant around Portuguese flavour, it to have that kind of staple of Portuguese food,” he tells me. “So that makes it harder for people to get it.”
Even if Carreira wants to distance himself from traditional Portuguese dishes, he clearly still has a lot of love for his home cuisine. At Portuguese Love Affair, he wanders around the shop area, examining tins of fish, specialised salts, teas, and of course, wines.
“I used to take this in my lunch to school,” he says, picking up a tin of sardines in tomato sauce; the first, nostalgic addition to today's Portuguese feast. To go with the sardines, cafe owners Dina Martins and Olga Cruchinho bring out tins of octopus, tuna fillet and fennel seeds, spiced mackerel, spiced calamari in ragu, and limpets. As if that weren’t enough, Cruchinho has made some rissois, croquette-like snacks filled with chicken, shrimp, and suckling pig. To wash it all down, there are three different gin and tonics. An ideal pairing for anyone who loves fried food and gin, otherwise known as: literally everyone.
Do the gins normally go with tinned fish and croquettes? I ask.
“Gins go well with anything, I'm sorry,” laughs Martins. “It doesn't matter what you're having,"
Taking this as an invitation, I begin forking at the flakey tuna, as Carreira talks me through this Hackney-fied version of an old-school Portuguese snack selection.
“I like the sardines a lot,” he says between bites, “and I'm very curious to try the limpets and the tuna with fennel seeds."
Carreira recounts his journey from the small town of Leiria in central Portugal to the opening of his London restaurant in December, including a slight mid-life crisis that saw him consider working as a miner.
"I ended up in culinary school because I was a rebel teenager and I wanted to stop studying, but my parents said I had to do something with my life,” explains Carreira. “So I went to culinary school in Leiria. I liked it.”
It wasn’t until he moved to the city’s capital, however, that he started to think about cooking as a proper job. “When I moved to Lisbon, I got my really serious job,” says Carreira. “At the age of 20, I was head chef.”
However, success came too early, and Carreira soon turned restless. “All of a sudden, I ran out of resources because I had no experience and no idea what to do, so I thought, Shit, time to give up again,” he explains. “So then I left Portugal and travelled a lot, worked in seven or eight different countries before I got here.”
With the tins of fish nearly empty, Carreira and I spitball about alternative careers he might have pursued if he had quit cooking. Mining? Farming? Someone mentions food journalism. Worried that my job could be under threat, I figure it’s time for our next stop.
We head south to Lambeth, a borough that is home to around 37,000 Portuguese speakers. Here, in Stockwell, we find “Little Portugal,” a road teaming with Portuguese bakeries and restaurants, including Grelha D'Ouro. It’s a no-frills establishment and empty apart from me and Carreira, who immediately starts talking in Portuguese to the owners.
“Do you mind if I just order?” Carreira asks, briefly switching back to English.
“Sure?” I say, naively.
We get some Portuguese beers and I wait excitedly to find out what the mystery order will be. Please, 14 pastéis de nata, I think to myself. An entire second lunch of flakey pastry and custard wouldn’t be weird, right?
I am way off the mark. Out of the kitchen and straight to our table comes an identifiable meat dish with a thick, tomato sauce. Then there’s a light, octopus salad and pica pau—beef strips in a gravy sauce—and a serving of chips. But I still can’t work out what the gloopy, red plate is.
“It’s gizzards,” Carreira tells me, smiling the smile of someone who has trapped their guest into eating an organ found in the digestive tract of birds. “It’s very traditional!”
Speaking of tradition, I ask Carreira how often he returns to Portugal. I expect the chef to to burst out of his seat in a bout of proud patriotism for the country’s temperate weather, wines, and turkey necks in tomato. His response is more measured.
He admits that he finds some people in Portugal to be stuck in their ways and as a result, doesn't visit as much as he'd like to. “I don't go mostly because I don't have time,” says Carreira. “I like to go back to see family and friends, but I don't stay there too long.”
Having filled up mainly on chips and beer, we leave South London’s Grelha D'Ouro and walk toward the cab. I stop. The craving has become too much and I have just recognised Lisboa, a Portuguese cafe whose West London location I loved visiting as a child. I ask if we can go in—I need my pastel de nata fix.
Carreira obliges, and we walk out with three of the egg custard tarts and one rice cake, my childhood favourites. This is way better than gizzard.
Our next stop is Londrino, and I’m looking forward to making sense of this Portuguese-but-not-quite-Portuguese restaurant. Situated in London Bridge, the restaurant has huge glass windows that let in the pale January sunlight. The interiors are muted—greys and browns—with large, hanging plants decorating the walls.
To finally decode Londrino’s flavour, I’m presented with Portuguese red wine and a selection of snacks made by Carreira. The crab tarts and fermented mushrooms crisps with caramelised yogurt and fish roe stand in stark contrast to the deep-fried bites we ate earlier in the day.
Carreira might be making headlines for this interpretive use of Portuguese flavours, but he seems ambivalent about whether London is in the grip of a Portuguese food renaissance.
"I don't see a massive Portuguese food scene around London," he tells me. “It's irrelevant almost. I don't know why. Look at the places that we've been to today, that's the kind of restaurants you see more and more around town, not this kind of place.”
To make sense of Portuguese influence on the capital's food scene, a few days after meeting Carreira, I turn to Dr. Eleanor Jones, lecturer in Portuguese and Lusophone Studies at the University of Southampton. Why might Carreira see it as "irrelevant"? “This is mostly to do with immigration distribution,” Jones explains over email. “Portugal has an even longer history of emigration than many other European nations, as well as being a former coloniser, so its patterns of migration have not always been ’traditional’ (i.e. clustered around large cities).”
She continues: “Where I’m based in Southampton, for example, there is a much bigger Portuguese presence than, for example, a Spanish one, in contrast to London or Manchester,” but largely agrees with Carreira, adding: “I’m still not seeing much of what would be considered ‘traditional’ Portuguese cuisine in London.”
But there might be another reason for Carreira's hesitation at defining Londrino as a purely Portuguese restaurant.
"Because I don't know how to cook it,” he tells me, matter-of-factly. “I find it fascinating to go back and research it. Now that I feel that I have more tools to work around those traditional recipes, I find it fascinating.”
He continues: "I don't want to deny where I'm coming from, I think Portugal deserves to be more recognised as any other country, like Italy or Spain. I don't see why not. Because there's huge, huge potential. I just didn’t want to do Portuguese Portuguese.”
Back at Londrino, with the light disappearing, we finish the crab and head to Bar Duoro, a Portuguese taverna that sums up the dichotomy in the dishes I’ve tasted today. The walls are covered in traditional white-and-blue Portuguese tiles, but the bar is stylish and contemporary. We eat croquetes de Alheira, smoked Portuguese sausage croquettes and Pataniscas de bacalhau, salt cod fritters, while drinking (more) wine. It’s a fitting end to the day—a mix of modernity and tradition.
Now almost completely dark, I’ve eaten more food than is necessary for any human within the space of five hours. Carreira is expecting a baby soon, so must get home to deal with things far more important than fried fish and wine. However, I need to ask one last, pressing question. After our discussion on nationalism, identity, cuisine, and nostalgia, what I’m really dying to know is: Will Carreira consider adding a pastel de nata dessert to his menu?
He laughs, which may well be due to exasperation rather than humour. “No pastel de nata, I’m afraid.”