My family is eager for our upcoming vacation to the western Algarve in Portugal contemplating everything from the food to the people we’ll soon see. But when I asked my oldest son Zack what he was most looking forward to, he said “the smell”. Now let me elaborate a bit, because although intangible, the “smell” in this region is not only distinct but inspiring in a myriad of ways, including culinary (I’ll get to that in a bit!).
Our journey is a long one, starting in Newark airport, with an overnight flight to Lisbon, then several hours clearing customs, getting our bags and rental car, followed by a nearly 4 hour car ride south. With periodic stops for shots of espresso, we do everything we can to stay awake as we drive through splendid hills and valleys, with jet lagged hallucinations of pre-historic dinosaurs roaming wild. But after several hours, when we cross from the countryside into the seaside province, the windows get rolled down and we inhale the therapeutic air — our entry into the home stretch!
Wild rosemary and sage, cultivated since Roman times, combine with arid air to create a distinctive herbal aroma. It’s impossible not to get inspired to cook (and eat!) in this region, where citrus, almonds and figs have grown for thousands of years. It’s a land that intensifies taste buds and inspires kitchen creativity.
We pile into our vacation kitchen to create various meals together with local ingredients. Here’s a sampling: grilled chicken and potatoes infused with lemon, rosemary and garlic; crostini with goat cheese, fresh figs, almonds and honey; baby clams steamed with garlic, lemon and fresh garlic; and freshly squeezed orange juice and lemonade at every meal. The Algarve aroma which permeates our vacation has a Pavlovian effect on hunger and desire to cook.
When we leave, Zack will wash several shirts and hang them outside to dry so that he can bring home the Portugal scent (it actually works!) and then hides the line dried clothes so they don’t get washed back home. I’m proud my son can recognize something as elusive as a “smell” as the thing he most looks forward to. Bingo Zack! You are recognizing one of the true pleasures of life.
Here’s the simple yet outrageous appetizer I make often using Portuguese rolls, fresh figs, olive oil, honey, almonds and goat cheese. I’ve made it at home, with just a simple bite beaming me (thanks Scottie!) to my terrace where I will soon be sipping wine and enjoying a sweet and savory treat amidst the Algarve air.
Fig, Goat Cheese & Honey Crostini
6 Portuguese Rolls (day old are fine), sliced in half
1/8 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 ounces creamy goat cheese (a brie goat works nicely too but remove the hard rind)
4 ripe fresh figs, washed and sliced
2-3 tablespoons local honey
2 tablespoons crushed nuts (almonds or pistachios)
Pre-heat the oven to 375.
Brush the bread with olive oil and lay sliced figs and goat cheese. Toast until golden and the cheese has softened for about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and drizzle honey and sprinkle chopped nuts on bread. Serve immediately and enjoy warm with a glass of green wine.