Cooking cataplana

Food is important in Portugal. Algarvians don’t only care about preparing and eating the dish, they also take the time to select good ingredients and enjoy their dinner conversation. Fed up with hastily put together meals eaten behind the computer, Enjoy the Algarve learns how to cook cataplana near Tavira.

See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine September 2017


“The Portuguese kitchen isn’t very complicated,” says Mariana Ramos Mesquita (37, pictured below on the left). That’s reassuring. Especially for yours truly who, quite honest, never spends more time in the kitchen than it takes to throw a salad together/grill some tuna/make a pizza. Mariana isn’t a trained chef either. Instead she’s got a background in tourism and business administration. Plus a great interest in food: “As a kid, I practically used to live in the kitchen!” Inspired by customers who wanted to know more about the home-cooked meals they were served at the family’s guest house Monte do Álamo near Tavira, in 2012 Mariana and her friend Sofia Teles decided to set up Taste Algarve which offers gastronomic tours and workshops. On today’s menu: cooking cataplana, together with two American couples who are staying at the guesthouse.



“Our customers are mainly American and Canadian, since their gastronomy and culture are so different from the Portuguese cuisine,” explains Mariana. “I’d describe the taste of the Algarve as genuine and honest. We don’t want to mix a lot of flavours and loose the sense of the dish; a good fish has to taste like the sea. The main secret lies in the quality of the ingredients. The fish comes straight from the coast and because of the nice weather here in the south of Portugal, we can grow our own vegetables in our organic garden. With good ingredients and a good recipe, you’re already halfway to a good dish.” The latter will later be supplied by Mariana and her family; for the ingredients, we drive to Tavira’s market.

In the market hall, long curled silver swordfish lies next to salmon and tuna that looks good enough to eat raw. Market sellers unload extra boxes of ice to keep the ray, sardines, octopus and at least a dozen other different sea creatures cool. One of the American women doesn’t seem too comfortable surrounded by the dead fish. With their glazing eyes, scales and teeth still visible, they’re a bit different from the pre-cut fillets she’s used to. “We always try to adapt our meals to what our customers are familiar with. Sardines, for example, can be very difficult for a person who isn’t used to seeing fish as a whole, since here in Portugal, that’s how we eat them, sometimes with bones and all,” explains Mariana, who quickly moves the woman  on to the not too fishy looking muxama de atum and explains all about this ‘ham of the sea’. In the meantime Luis Castro (64, pictured below on the right), the husband of Mariana’s mother Rosario, buys some grouper and monkfish for the cataplana.


At the fruit and vegetables section, Luis carefully touches some red and yellow peppers before choosing the best ones. “To select fish, the smell is very important. As for vegetables, gently touch them. Also, just ask the sellers what’s best today.” Obviously, it helps if you’ve built up a good relation with the local producers over the years. Luis agrees: “I always buy at this stall because apart from the Aljezur sweet potatoes, all the produce comes from the guy’s own garden.” As we move on to admire a stall with herbs and spices, the bright colours of apples and oranges make way for an intense aroma of ground ginger, paprika powder and herbal teas. The Americans are in awe: “Everything here seems like it has come straight off the field. It’s a bit, well, different from where we live,” one of them states. “It’s a typically Portuguese experience,” Mariana confirms. “As a kid, going to the market on Saturdays was the highlight of my week; at every stall the ladies would offer me food!”

When it comes to food, you can’t get more Algarvian than the cataplana. “It’s a lot like the Moroccan tajine and works a bit like a pressure pan,” explains Luis. “Nothing is lost, all steam and juices stay in and that’s why it’s so important to use good ingredients.” Today we’ll be making a seafood cataplana, but other possible options include one with free range chicken, and an octopus and sweet potato version. There’s even a veggie option with goat’s cheese. Mariana’s favourite dish isn’t cataplana though; it’s sopa de tomate, a rich soup with figs, tomatoes, chorizo, poached eggs and fried potatoes. “You can only make it in summer when the figs and tomatoes are ripe. It’s an interesting mix of salty, sweet and crispy.” And of different Portuguese regions, as Mariana’s grandmother had her roots in the Alentejo while her grandfather was born and bred in the Algarve.



Back at Monte do Álamo, we collect the onions from the organic garden, where also melons, lettuce, tomatoes, carrots and basil can be found. In the kitchen, Luis shows us how to cut them without having to cry (the secret: pour a little vinegar on the knife beforehand). He also stresses the most important thing when it comes to cataplanas: slicing the ingredients as thin as possible. This is because the cataplana doesn’t get stirred at all when it’s cooking. Instead, we build it up in layers, a bit like a lasagne. First the clams, then the onions, the tomatoes, and finally the potatoes, which are followed by some coarse sea salt flakes. This process is repeated and topped off with the peppers, a rather large glass of white wine and plenty of olive oil. Then the cataplana is closed and put on the hob. The fish and shrimps, cleaned apart from their head (for the taste) and their tail (for decorative purposes), only go in when the potatoes are cooked.

Cutting the veggies isn’t too difficult and the cooking class soon feels more like an informal get-together; preparing a meal while exchanging tips and recipes. Mariana and her sister Inês (39, pictured below on the left), who’ve joined us in the kitchen, share tales of their childhood and Portuguese produce. For the dessert, Inês instructs us to grind almonds, carob flour and sugar in a blender and mix this with an egg white, which will release the oil from the almonds. We make truffles of the paste, some with added Medronho, and cover them in sugar, ground almonds or carob powder. But what if you can’t get carob powder in your home country? “Just use cocoa with some sugar,” answers Inês. Mariana: “We always try and suggest alternative ingredients. For example with our national dish bacalhau à brás; as it isn’t very likely they’ll sell bacalhau outside Portugal. If you can’t get dried cod, just use chicken instead.”



When the cataplana is cooking, the wine comes out. With an appetizer of muxama de atum and fresh cheese on bread, topped off with olive oil and herbs, the conversation is mostly food related; moving from Portuguese Medronho berries onto American cranberries. Despite the fact we’ve known each other for only three hours, it feels like hanging out with friends over lunch. Another bottle is opened and talk turns to table etiquette, education, politics, travelling, cultural differences and the economy. Mariana: “The crisis wasn’t all bad. Before it, I felt that many traditions, also in the field of gastronomy, were being lost. After a lot of Portuguese people lost their jobs in the cities, they went back to their family home and continued their family business, focussing on keeping the cultural heritage alive.”

Heading outside, we continue Mariana’s family’s tradition of all eating at one big table. She explains: “We’ve always had extended family meals; my grandmother would get all eight of us together and cook for everyone, even lunch, every single day. It was very homey and I still do this nowadays. Even breakfast; I start the day by sitting down for an hour, talking and eating eggs and toast.” I think about my own breakfast; usually a bowl of yoghurt and very large milky coffee, quickly eaten behind my computer while checking my emails. Somehow Mariana’s version sounds more appealing. And way more sociable. Mariana smiles: “To me, food is very important. I don’t rush and I don’t eat just for eating; I enjoy both the food and the company.” An important lesson learned. Not only do I now know how to cook a delicious cataplana, it has also been a long overdue introduction to the Portuguese culture of taking the time for your meals and, most of all, enjoying life.




When to go?

Whenever you want, although Taste Algarve closes one month a year in winter time, usually in November or December. It’s necessary to reserve in advance; all details can be found on their website.

The minimum amount of participants is 2, the maximum is 10.

What you’ll be cooking, depends on the season. All ingredients are seasonally, so don’t expect any chestnuts and pomegranates in summer time or tomato dishes in the middle of the winter.


For whom?

For everyone who wants to learn how to cook cataplana or other Algarvian specialities. This workshop is also great if you want to experience a piece of Portuguese traditional family life.

Children can also participate in the cooking workshops and vegetarians are catered for as well. In case of any allergies or dietary requests: check with Mariana beforehand.

No previous experience needed, aprons and all ingredients are provided. Do bring a healthy appetite!


See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine September 2017


Posted in Food, This month we try.