Conjure the phrase "Portuguese food." You instantly thought of a custard tart, didn't you?
Of course you did. Pastel de nata is utterly delicious—perfect for when you need something sweet to accompany a coffee but can't manage a whole wedge of carrot cake. Get a Portuguese custard tart. It's textbook.
But just as there's more to England than fish and chips, there's more to Portugal than the pastel de nata. One man trying to broaden the perception of his country's cuisine beyond egg-based desserts is Portuguese chef Leandro Carreira.
"Things are changing now in Portugal," says Carreira, currently resident chef at Climpson's Arch, an East London coffee-roastery-stroke-restaurant (and former railway arch) that champions new chefs by inviting them to take over the kitchen for six-month stints. "There's way more people interested in cooking, more young chefs. People are traveling more for food, people are more excited."
Originally from Leiria, Carreira launched his residency at the Arch in October with a weekly-changing lunch menu, focusing on the food indigenous to a particular Portuguese region or city. So far, his dishes have traversed Beira Baixa, Extremadura, and Madeira. Today he's cooking from an a la carte menu that uses a combination of classic Portuguese flavours.
First up are three ingredients you'd be lying if you said you'd ever thrown together: leek, whey, and crisps fermented from leek juice. Carreira tosses the torpedo-sized leeks onto the coals heating the brick oven in the Arch's outdoor kitchen.
"This helps give them maximum flavour, makes them kind of creamy," he explains.
When I have a taste, the vegetable is indeed devilishly creamy: its natural sweetness enhanced by the oven's intense heat.
Carreira then places six or seven pieces of the leek in a whey and olive oil mix, and dresses with near-translucent slices of lardo di colonnata. It's viscous, slurpy, and very salty—maybe two steps away from being too salty, which is of course the perfect amount. Before we even finish mopping the sauce with lashings of bread, Carreira has slinked back to the kitchen to cook the next dish: beef with radish and clam juices.
"It's a beef that's grilled really fast so it's still raw, which is then mixed with chopped radish and clam juice," he explains.
The clams have been cooked in the traditional bulhao pato way, named after 19th century Portuguese poet and gourmand Raimundo António de Bulhão Pato, who liked his shellfish simmered in a rich broth with garlic and coriander. Carreira makes a sauce inspired by this combo using kuzu starch as a natural thickener.
His cooking may seem simple—a couple of ingredients literally swirled together in a bowl—but a lifetime of technical culinary knowledge has gone these dishes. Carreira attended cooking school in Leiria before moving to Lisbon, and has been abroad since 2004, plying his trade in Dubai, Ireland, Switzerland, Spain—and now the United Kingdom.
It was in Spain that Carreira landed at Mugaritz, the sixth best restaurant in the world, according to World's 50 Best. In the Basque Country mountains, he cooked alongside chef Andoni Luis Aduriz, himself a student of legendary El Bulli founder Ferran Adrià.
"Working there [Mugaritz] sticks on you," he says. "It's quite unique. It's incredible. But I was working there three years and I left by choice. I never went to be the head chef, to fight for that. I went there because I really wanted to see what they were doing: I was lucky enough to work there for three years, and for me that was enough." From there, Carreira followed his compatriot Nuno Mendes to his London restaurant Viajante, still squeezing in time to cook with celebrated Japanese chef Junya Yamasaki and James Lowe at Lyle's.
With such an illustrious culinary CV, what on earth is he doing in an outdoor (albeit covered) kitchen in Hackney?
"The food we do here is really creative and I need that because I get bored very easily," Carreira replies. "It's such a huge commitment to work in a place like that [Mugaritz]—16 or 17 hours a day. Ten years ago, I was happy to do that. Fifteen years ago, I wanted to do that and I think you should push yourself at that point in your career. But there comes a point in your life where you realise you can't do it forever. I want to be more relaxed, to have a life outside of food—but I still want the food to be great."
And it is pretty fucking great.
The third course is Bisaro pork with shaved salsify. While Portugal is generally associated with the the black Iberian pig, Carreira prefers the Bisaro from the country's north. It feeds largely on chestnuts, which he says produces a sweeter meat.
For this dish, Carreira uses the secreto cut of the pig, a small flap of meat near the shoulder blade that is said to be the finest on the beast. He marinades it in fresh yeast puree for two days before grilling and drenching in lemon immediately after. As well as shavings of salsify, Carreira scatters crumbs of caramelised whey, adding a biscuity counterpoint to the citrus-soaked meat. Our photographer Jamie—a vegetarian—eats it and describes it as a "meal fit for Death Row." We all agree.
As we eat, Carreira joins us to discuss why Portuguese food doesn't seem to have been adopted by Brits so readily as Spanish cuisine. He tells me that going to culinary school isn't seen by many young Portuguese as a viable career option.
"Growing up, it was seen that you worked in a kitchen if you couldn't work anywhere else," he explains.
So not many did. It wasn't until the late 80s when Portugal's restaurants were suddenly overtaken by German chefs—attracted by the potential of a country with a flourishing tourist trade—that things started to change. Portuguese chefs became proud of their food and its heritage, and while the country may still play catch-up in some areas, Carreira is optimistic about where the food scene is headed. He name-checks Leonardo Pereira and João Rodrigues as two young Portuguese chefs he is particularly excited about.
As we sit licking spoons and idly rubbing contented paunches, a final tray is brought over—bearing a custard tart, of course. For the first time in my life, I give it a miss.
All photos by Jamie Drew.