By Boeing: 1713 miles
By Boris Bike: 7.6 miles
In Britain we have a charming habit of labelling an area ‘little (insert random country)’ if it has more than two shops of the same cultural origin. So in Lambeth you kind find ‘Little Portugal’, a cluster of restaurants and delicatessens on a kink in the road between Vauxhall and Stockwell. Of a summer evening it is a throng of al fresco dining and small, ceramic fires. But this isn’t a druid convention, far from it, just hungry customers looking to apply a charred finish to their Chorizo laid across earthenware dishes.
We struggle to get a table and are invited to perch on narrow stools at the bar as the squat, moustachioed locals do, watching football. I order Portuguese stout and we are invited to peer into a glass cube layered with many and varied pastries. We ordered several, hoping they may contain meat or cheese in some form. The assembled crowd were a mix of noisy, jolly, bustling Portuguese families interspersed with cosy couples and culinary adventurers. The walls were bedecked with football scarves, photos and memorabilia. I imagine they put on quite a show for Portugal World Cup matches.
We order the chorizo beacon, partly for taste, partly for warmth and partly for light. The waiters enjoy setting them ablaze. The flames rise higher and in closer proximity than you suspect is legal, and this rebellion excites the compliant English. Salty, laced with fat and oozing oil they take some eating.
We are a nation of explorers like they are, our souls drawn to the sea and the opportunities beyond distant horizons. They have championed the moustache longer than we have, we must concede that, but in many other ways there is an affinity between us. Their style is elegant yet reserved their music indulgently nostalgic and their fondness for a deep furrowed cord worthy of Henley’s best.
After what must have been close to half an hour and several verbal cannons to the lackadaisical waiters we were led to small, cramped table outside. We ordered some red wine and the chorizo and tried to ignore the fact the waiters were ignoring us. It was Iberian hospitality at its complacent best. When you order strips of salt encrusted pork belly an extended wait is an agony no western medicine can tackle. A vegetarian diner next to us, who had oddly chosen to eat with a Lycra clad cyclist, was presented with our chicken croquettes. A further delay. We were eventually served with a flurry of stooped apologies.
I guess with their usual clientele spending every waking moment in the bar it doesn’t really matter when their orders arrive. Each meal appends to the last and blends into the next. They may as well just keep on bringing tapas and it can all be settled when the will is divided. But for a casual visitor this casual approach is frustrating. The British have a certain expectation, though we’d rather not voice our reservations. Who knows what the average American would make of the service. I imagine the embassy, soon to move close by, will process the complaints.
This attitude explains the success of Nandos. It has Portuguese taste in the form of piri-piri aplenty, but with a western, systemised approach to serving. That is to say what is ordered is then served, surely one of the earliest modules at catering college.
But this reflects a very British attitude to dining, that it should be an experience allocated strict parameters of time. It isn’t the evening’s entertainment; it proceeds and more than likely frustratingly delays the evening’s entertainment. That, at least, is the culture of an older generation. But in Portugal an evening is dinner with friends and family. The food plays a part but it isn’t the focus. In this sense it was a truly authentic experience.
Having said that, we didn’t risk a further delay with pudding so grabbed a few custard tarts in a delicatessen a few doors down and ate them on the way back to the station. Shortly after this visit we had a holiday in Madeira and discovered for the first time the vertical hanging carnivorous joy of Espetada: skewers of marinated beef, pork of chicken, hanging from a metal frame that dominates the table. Naturally the Portuguese are renowned for their seafood, particularly the sun baked cod of bacalhau. But for simplicity, taste and a communal spirit I’d endorse the espetada.