It was April 2006. I’d been in Portugal for the better part of a week with good friend and fellow Master Keith Goldston. We were guests of AMORIM, Portugal’s largest cork producer, and had toured cork factories, seen cork forests and sat through seminars on all things cork with emphasis on TCA-related issues. The week also afforded many great meals including numerous opportunities to taste black pig, the most delicious pork in the known universe. But now it was afternoon on the last day and we were sitting on the beach in Porto watching the huge golden sun set over the Atlantic while sipping ice-cold Sagres beers and eating the freshest, briniest oysters I’ve ever tasted. Life was grand.
It was precisely at that moment that Maria Rosita, our lovely guide for the week, suddenly rushed up saying she had managed to get tickets to the first ever winemaker dinner to be held in Porto. Further, the meal would be prepared by one of Portugal’s hottest chefs and would take place at the modern art museum. She was simply giddy at the prospect like she had scored back stage passes to a Stones concert.
Maria was therefore understandably shocked when we barely registered any response at all. “So let me get this straight,” I said, “you want us to leave this gorgeous beach, the sunset, the cold beer and the oysters to go to a winemaker dinner? Really? Seriously?” She was visibly crestfallen, even hurt. After all, she had been our cheerleader, our biggest fan and our insane-crazy-ass driver for the entire week. Needless to say, the guilt of it all quickly sunk in and we caved in mere seconds. We would go to the dinner forsaking the Hallmark moment of golden beach and cold beer.
Less than half an hour later found us at the entrance of the stark white exterior of the museum. We were quickly ushered to the room designated for the night’s gala event. Once inside it took just moments to realize that the venue may have worked for a museum but it was a completely horrible space for any kind of formal dinner. The ceilings in the “dining room” were barely ten feet high which wasn’t exactly a problem except for the fact that everyone—except us—smoked. Constantly. Heavily. Smoking, if you’re not familiar, is Portugal’s national sport along with football. To top it all off and to complete the psycho-killer kind of a feel to the room was the fact that there weren’t any windows at all. What followed can only be described as a quick descent into the darkest reaches of culinary hell. But as the wise Inigo Montoya once said, “It’s too long to explain. Let me sum up.”
To begin, the cast for the evening’s performance:
The crowd: dozens of Porto’s top foodies all fashionably attired were there in force eagerly waiting the night’s repast as they smoked cigarette after cigarette non-stop.
The winemaker: from a small estate in the Douro Valley that produced both Port and dry wines from Port varieties. He resembled a short, beardless Santa Claus and was perpetually smiling as if someone had dialed up his medication for the evening. He spoke only Portuguese which to my ear has always sounded like Russian pirates trying to speak Spanish.
The winemaker’s son: would be joining us at our table which meant that Keith and I actually had to behave and pay attention. The son had gone to school in New York and spoke very good English. He was a timid sort but truly excited about the evening because it was a grand opportunity to show off his family’s winery and wines. After all, it was also Porto’s first winemaker dinner and how bad could that be? The gods were just about to show us.
The Chef: soon after arriving Maria arranged for Keith and me to meet the chef. Moments later he appeared from the kitchen in impeccably clean and starched whites with his tiny assistant trailing behind. Said assistant was a short, mousy woman who looked as if she’d experienced one too many explosions at close proximity. We would quickly learn why. The Chef shook our hands vigorously and in perfect English regaled us with tales of his recent opening of a multi-million dollar restaurant in Rio de Janeiro. He then went on to provide his thoughts on the menu for the night’s extravaganza.
It was about ninety seconds into the conversation when I noticed the chef’s left eye begin to twitch. Odd, I thought, but really no big deal. But as he went on describing the menu and how he would, and I quote, “flaunt convention,” things got weird. His speech became increasingly punctuated with loud staccato words and jerking gestures. Several minutes in and our chef was shouting and literally spitting words out as he finished describing the dessert course. Keith and I looked on more than a bit concerned. We weren’t quite sure what had just happened but in watching him and then looking at his tiny cowering assistant suddenly everything became crystal clear. The thought of this guy in a hot busy-ass kitchen working with knives also became an unsettling picture.
Punctually at eight o’clock the proceedings began with an elegantly dressed socialite, cigarette in hand, welcoming the group and introducing the evenings’ important personalities. First the winemaker stepped up and over the course of the next ten minutes or so told the story of the family winery all the while mewling in sotto voce Portuguese. Every few minutes Keith and I turned to his son and asked, “What did he just he say?” The response was something like, “he said the winery is really old,” or “the hills are very steep.” Finally, the winemaker showed both wisdom and temerity by sitting down. Next up came the chef with his assistant. Any doubts about the earlier script being repeated were quickly resolved as the chef sputtered his way through the description of the first course. The crowd, bless them all, listened with rapt attention and smoked recklessly on as if nothing was out of the ordinary.
As the first course hit the table I remembered the chef’s phrase “flaunt convention.” It was a soup course, in this case a cream of almond soup with a texture not unlike Malt-O-Meal. But the crowning touch was a raw egg yolk floating in the center of the bowl looking for all the world like an enormous evil yellow eye. Memories of the black and white Twilight Zone commercials with the huge blinking eye quickly came to mind. All around me diners with spoons in hand pierced the evil yellow eye and tucked into the almond soup which was remarkably salty and a stark contrast to the slimy texture of the egg yolk. To top it all off the soup was paired with an oxidized over-oaked Douro white wine that reminded me of an unfinished bedroom set that had seen better days. I will leave you to imagine the combination of gloppy soup, slimy egg yolk and oaky over-the-hill white. It was definitely not conventional.
With each successive course the bizarre tableau repeated itself. The foodies chain-smoked as if it were their last day on earth with the smoke getting so thick you could, as they say, cut it with a chef’s knife. The winemaker would stand up and quietly mewl away for 5-10 minutes about the next wine. Finally, mercifully, he would stop talking to the smoky applause of the diners. Then the chef would reappear from the kitchen to describe the next course with his tiny assistant hiding behind him. As before he would start speaking to the group with authority and conviction but within minutes start to melt down. After sputtering and barking through the end of his presentation the audience politely applauded through the haze. To say it was surreal is a bit of an understatement.
Between courses Keith and I would stagger outside through a side door gasping for fresh air. Any and all urges to grab the nearest cab back to the hotel were quickly thwarted by the appearance of Maria who was concerned about our sudden absence. We complained vociferously about the cigarette smoke but there was nothing really to be done. To her credit, Maria tried to get the people around us to give the smoking a rest several times but it only worked momentarily.
The high point, the pièce de résistance, of entire evening was surely the entrée. It consisted of a large chunk of cod, a staple of the Portuguese diet, which had been pan-seared and supposedly finished in the oven. Beneath the cod was a puree of roasted pearl onions and on the side a lettuce leaf–burrito looking affair filled with soggy mashed potatoes. As I went to cut into the cod for the initial bite I quickly realized that it was all but raw. In fact, it had the same texture as a piece of flesh just carved from the bone of basically any kind of dead animal–as in hard and alarming.
Accompanying the dead cod, onion puree and mashed potato burrito was the brettiest, most tannic Douro red wine I’ve ever tasted. Imagine the essence of stables and barnyard combined with a texture similar to licking the floor of a machine shop. The brett in my glass was so extreme my eyes watered. At that point I looked up and across the table at Keith. He was equally stunned. We put our dinning utensils down in unison and picked up a glass of one of the other wines and quickly slammed the remaining contents. All around us Porto’s top foodies noisily wolfed down the raw cod and potato burrito with alarming relish and aplomb. It was completely disturbing.
The end the meal was kind of/partially/sort of saved by a delicious flourless chocolate cake prepared not by the chef but by a local caterer. It was paired with the winemaker’s vintage port which had a smoky edge due either to the wine’s age or the tainted air in our lungs. I’m not sure which. Four-plus hours later and we emerged from that hazy den of gastronomic disaster practically begging for another beer. Back at the hotel bar we did our best to tell Maria that it was OK–that we would be just fine. After the second beer even she had to say, “Wow, that really sucked.”