I lived in Portugal for just under 20 years before returning to England in 2009. Not sure what I miss most, the weather or the fruit.
Portugal’s bumpy fascist past and shaky socialist present means that the Portuguese just can’t rely on the government. It’s also the norm to own some land. Self-sufficiency isn’t so much a hobby or a privilege. It’s a right. Even if it’s only on a balcony, everyone grows something. So like sunshine, fruit is ubiquitous. And even if you are not a natural-born farmer, it’s perfectly acceptable to pilfer the ornamental loquat or cherry trees in late Spring and should you find yourself in the forest, you’ll always have wild coremas and delicious carob pods.
Maybe the country’s relationship with fresh fruit is in part due to its attitude to life. In Portugal, being early is bad manners. Walking at what I call “Britain speed” is impolite too. You will be stopped and asked if you’re “trying to catch the train”. It makes sense that processed and fast food is too suspiciously quick and easy for Portuguese culture. After all, there’s a saying there that goes something like, “Speed and quality are mutually exclusive” – (“Depressa e bem nao ha quem.”)
Upon his first visit to Portugal, my husband remarked on how everyone looks like an Olympic athlete. It’s true! I can attest that it’s harder to keep fit in Western European countries, where there staples are mostly carb-based, not fresh produce. Back home in Britain, I can only buy two sad-looking figs for £3 at Sainsbury’s, if I’m lucky. And worst yet, a University tutor marked one of my articles down for a brief mention of wild olive trees, which she could not conceive to exist. I pity her infinitely for not knowing that in some other countries, weather allows things to grow without the anxious hand of man:
But let’s say you’d like to try all the fresh fruit Portugal has to offer in your next visit, but you don’t know what there is or where to get it. Where do you even start? I compiled a list to help.
There’s nothing quite like a big bag of fresh honey figs for lunch, which costs the same as what two figs cost here. They’re juicy and super sweet. You can take them with you to the beach for a drying-off snack, or keep them in the fridge for an evening treat. They can be bought at town markets and supermarkets, but also grow wild everywhere. Look for grey, stout trunks that tendril off like old oak trees, and dark green leaves shaped with deep grooves.
You can’t really buy mulberries in shops, you must forage the trees yourself. Like many Portuguese children, I kept silk moths as pets. They will only eat mulberry leaves, which turned me pro at identifying them by smell, as the tree itself looks quite unremarkable. You know how a 4-year-old draws a tree, with a thin brown trunk and a big fluffy canopy? That’s a mulberry tree. If you see large-leafed trees lining a Portuguese street and you’re pretty sure they’re not sycamores, then they’re probably mulberry trees. Mulberries are very sweet when ripe, and make fantastic jam. They have all the sweetness of blackberries and the intensity of blackcurrants, with a hint of strawberry flavour.
I’ll tell you what tangerines should look like. They should be bright orange, so intense and deep that if you take a photo, the camera just makes it red because there’s no digital equivalent to what you’re seeing. The skin must be thick and peel off the fruit like warm butter. That’s how you know they are going to taste out of this world. The sad pale balls I see in British supermarkets claim to be tangerines, but they really are just speed-grown anemic water balloons. Oranges and tangerines grow everywhere in Portugal, and anyone with some land will have a tree or two. You can’t escape the oranges, they are everywhere. There’s something particularly soul-soothing in coming across a churchyard bench with an elderly man snoozing in the shade of a big citrus tree.
Unlike what my English lecturer might tell you, olive trees do grow wild all over Portugal, especially around Sintra, Montemor, Alentejo, and Tomar. You can forage your own, but it’s sometimes hard to tell when olives are ripe. Unripe olives taste quite bitter. Luckily they are stocked plentifully in markets and supermarkets. In British supermarkets, you will find one or two brands of pickled olives, at best. Not so in Portugal. Medium-sized supermarkets will have a whole section just for fresh olives, with dozens of different kinds, and a whole corridor just for olive oil. And another thing! There is no such thing as olive oil that is not extra-virgin in Portugal. Only the good stuff gets made, and you buy it by the galon. If olive oil is not pitch-dark green and doesn’t smell like battery acid, it’s not the real deal and I don’t go near it. When buying olive oil in Britain, always check the color – the darker and greener the better. If it has a cloudy deposit of any size, then that’s a sure sign that it’s a fake blend with canola or sunflower oil.
I’ll let you in on a secret. You know the classic British orange jam, marmalade? It’s not marmalade. Quinces are called “marmelos” in Portugal, which is why jam made from them is called “marmelada” – from which the English word is a bastardization of. The suffix “-ada” actually means “jam”, and it is applied easily to other fruits. “Goiabada” for guava jam, “bananada” for banana jam, etc. Our orange jam therefore ought to be called “orangeade”.
You can get quinces in the shops, although they also commonly grown as ornamental street trees. The fruit itself is quite bitter, but what makes it really special is the jam you can make from it, which is the tastiest thing in the world. It’s so popular that we stole its name from the Portuguese! Here’s a recipe.
The abundance of loquats in Portugal is a result of 16th century European expansionism. They are a japanese fruit, but they are grown so much around the country that you’re likely to find a tree every 100 yards. Strangely enough, I’ve never seen them being sold in supermarkets. Loquats taste like sweet peaches, but without the sour center and without the drippy juice. They’re quite dry and firm. The leaves can also be boiled for a very effective remedy against the common cold.
Carob pod powder is commonly used as a replacement for chocolate here in Britain. Despite their tropical appearance, carob trees really are native to Southern Europe. In Portugal they grow wherever there is original forest left. The early 20th century saw the rise of a profitable Portuguese paper industry, which sadly resulted in the chopping down of all the ancient oaks and pines. The land was then planted over with fast-growing eucalyptus, which proved to be a disaster. Not only are eucalyptus trees extremely flammable, adding to Portugal’s wildfire problem, they are also turn the soil toxic. This was an irreversible mistake as eucalyptus reproduce faster than they can be chopped down. When I was a girl scout, the government would send my group to go into the woods and eliminate as many eucalyptus saplings as we could. Occasionally we’d find a carob tree, and we’d spend our breaks climbing its branches and gorging on its pods. It was a real treat. Carob pods look like large, shriveled fingers. You eat the whole dry pod straight off the tree, not just the beans. They’re very sweet, and you guessed it, vaguely chocolatey.
Portugal is a catholic country, with much of its culture revolving around convents and monasteries. All of the country’s tastiest foods and best produce cultivars come from these self-sufficient communities. When I was a child, a teacher told me they experimented with food out of boredom, but I think otherwise! They really were onto something, especially with the brave de esmolfe apple. The fruit is pink and green pastel-colored, and tastes like strawberries. No kidding. Its only flaw is that it is a little bit too floury for my taste, but otherwise, it’s a beautiful apple. You can buy it in supermarkets.
I’ve seen rocha pears being sold in British supermarkets as “funsize” pears for children. What an insult! Like the brave de esmolfe apple, the rocha pear is breeding masterpiece, also by monks. In Portugal they are treasured for their firmness, juiciness, and sweetness.
Coremas are small white berries that only grow in Portugal, in the deepest parts of forests. They taste like bitter lychees, although turning them to jam makes them sweet. Do not confuse them with the poisonous snowberry, which grows in England and North America. Coremas are the size of a fingernail and have semi-transparent skin, and grow on stout, spiny bushes.
The persimmon was considered by the Ancient Greeks to be the ambrosia of the gods. Not only is it delicious, it also has a ton of health benefits. The inside of the fruit is runny when ripe, with jelly-like segments. You eat it in a bowl with a spoon as it creates a huge mess. You can find them wild and in supermarkets.
Not all species of physalis are good to eat, but the ones grown in Portugal are the edible cultivar bred in Japan. Like the loquat, they were imported during Portugal’s expansionist period. Unlike the loquat, however, physalis vines are grown for their attractive lantern-shaped pods, not as food. You won’t find physalis berries sold commercially, but you can still forage for them. They taste like passionfruit, although less sweet.
I’ve spotted pomegranates being sold in Britain as they’re the newest fad “superfood”, but these are always an overpriced disappointment. Once opened, one half will be pale-orange (underripe), while the other will be brown (travel-damaged). That’s not what pomegranates should be like at all. Portuguese supermarkets stock them in the Summer and Fall. The segments look like blood-red rubies through the entire fruit, and taste like juicy grapes. A healthy pomegranate has yellow membranes, never brownish. Try the real deal and you’ll see why the Greeks thought the first trees were grown from the blood of a god.