Wednesday 3 September 2014

Azulejos to Bacalhau

Azulejos (1) at the Museu Nacional do Azulejo, Lisbon
©Take One Dish

The 'Dish' in the frame this month is of the edible variety but, bear with me, because there is a connection with the delicious tile panel above.

It's impossible to take a walk around Lisbon without being struck by the Portuguese love affair with tiles, or azulejos.  Everything from a grand palácio to a humble casa might have its architectural credentials embellished with a touch of earthenware art.  Inside, you could find floors and walls from corredor to quarto decorated with these practical and beautiful tiles.  In Portugal, particularly, tiles bridge the divide between the majestic and the domestic. Unsurprisingly it was the tiles of the cozinha that particularly caught my eye.

Azulejos were introduced into Portugal by the invading Moors in the the early 15thC.  By the 16thC  European patterns and techniques began to influence tastes.  The second half of the 17thC saw a fashion for the distinctive cobalt-blue and white, tin-glazed, earthenware tiles from the Netherlands.  Only when imports were stopped by King Pedro II did the Portuguese industry truly take off.  Workshops such as that of Gabriel del Barco, a Spaniard working in Portugal, led the way for the country to find its own style in tile design.

Portugal's expansionist policies saw designs taking inspiration from the Far East and India.  By the early 18thC tile painters such as António Pereira and Manuel dos Santos were appreciated as artists and began to sign their tile panels. Historical panels became popular. The most famous example is in the Museu Nacional do Azulejos in Lisbon and depicts the city as it was before the great earthquake of 1755.  Also at this time, the "Figuras de Convite" (Welcoming Figures) of noblemen and elegant ladies, specific to Portugal, were created to line palace entrances.  Wider demand for azulejos for architectural and domestic interiors in Portugal and her colonies led to the mass production of simple, repetitive designs.

The social changes which took place in the mid-19thC changed the market for tiling to a more utilitarian one and new techniques of transfer-printing were adopted.  The 20thC Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles saw expression in Portuguese tile designs, exemplified by artist Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro.  The work of Maria Keil brought abstract design to street and underground station tiling in the 1950s.  This use in public spaces continues to the present day and now embraces artists from around the world, sometimes employing computer technology to achieve their designs.

Azulejos (2) at the Museu Nacional do Azulejo, Lisbon
©Take One Dish

These photographs of cozinha tiles were taken at Lisbon's Museu Nacional do Azulejos.  Here, in a 16th century former convent is the largest collection of Portuguese tiles in the world.  Exhibits date from 1580 onwards.  I wonder whether the fish depicted can, more easily, be identified by a local than by me.  The tangles of eels is a simple one; a pair of plaice, perhaps; maybe a quintuplet of mullet; surely a cod.  The cod is certainly a fish appreciated by the Portuguese, though historically more in its salted form of bacalhau than fresh.  Portugal sought the cod as far as the coast of North East America.  Mark Kurlansky in his book Cod - A biography of the Fish That Changed the Word points out that a 1502 map identifies Newfoundland as "land of the King of Portugal".  Dangerous though the journey was, "by 1508, 10% of the fish sold in the Portuguese ports of Douro and Minho was Newfoundland salt cod".

For each mouth, a different soup
Portuguese proverb

Salt cod needs to be properly re-hydrated to achieve the right consistency and pungency.  When done well it is a glorious thing.  Brandade is my preferred way of using it and this recipe is adapted from that in one of my favourite books, Simon Hopkinson's Roast Chicken and Other Stories.  You will need to soak the salt cod in cold water for 24-48 hours (depending on the grade of your salt cod) beforehand, changing the water several times.  I prefer to buy "green" salt cod if I can get it - it's less salted so has a shorter shelf-life and 24 hours soaking is quite enough.

(Serves 4)

1 large potato (about 175g/6 oz), peeled and diced
200ml (7 fl oz) best quality olive oil
200ml (7 fl oz) milk
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
450g (16 oz) salt cod fillet, soaked, drained and boned 
Juice of 1 lemon

Boil the diced potato in salted water until cooked.  Drain and ensure it is completely dry before mashing while still hot.  Keep warm.
Gently heat the olive oil, milk and garlic together in a small pan until warm.
Put the cod in a pan of cold water and bring to the boil.  Switch off the heat and leave for 5 minutes.
Lift the cod out and discard the skin.  Place the cod in a food processor and, with the motor running, gradually add the olive oil, milk and garlicky mixture.  Process briefly to a thick, sloppy consistency.  
Add the mashed potato and blend very briefly (too much and it will become gluey).  Season with the lemon juice and pepper.  Taste and add salt only if needed.

I share Simon Hopkinson's taste for serving a dish of brandade with a slick of olive oil, some fried bread, and, maybe, a few healthy black olives.

Museu Nacional do Azulejo, Lisbon
Portuguese art: Portuguese Azulejos by Rosie Mitchell
Cod - A biography of the Fish That Changed the Word by Mark Kurlansky
Roast Chicken and Other Stories by Simon Hopkinson

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