Sunday, April 29, 2012

Cataplana in the Algarve

The Algarve is dotted with small coves and beaches, such as Praia do Carvalho in Lagoa, which offers sheltered sands and crystal-clear water
The Moors’ conquest of the Iberian peninsula in the 8th century still resonates in Portugal. In the southern coastal province that they named “al-Gharb” – today’s Algarve – the new settlers built walled towns and castles, planted rice and citrus trees, and influenced the native cuisine in the shape of the cataplana, a
cooking utensil still used today to prepare Portugal’s finest seafood dishes.
Like the brimming paella pan or clay tagine pot, the sight of a waiter bearing the burnished, domed copper cataplana immediately signals the arrival of a dish that’s firmly rooted in place – in this case the long, alluring coastline of the Portuguese Algarve. The iconic shape of the cataplana – like a hinged, lidded wok – is as recognizable as the golden sands and rocky coves of the region itself, and, as the clasps are released, the steam within rises like wisps of cloud into the azure Algarve skies. It’s a fanciful image, but there’s a real majesty in both the dish and its presentation that goes far beyond a simple seafood meal.
The word “cataplana” refers to both the cooking vessel and the dish, and to add to the confusion, there is no single dish represented by the name. The most typical – and some would say most authentic – preparation is an amêijoas na cataplana (cataplana of clams), where clams are steamed in their shells along with chopped onion, tomato, garlic, paprika, a little piri-piri seasoning, and strips of presunto (smoked ham) and garlicky chouriço sausage. It’s a wonderful combination, with the melded flavors and juices retained during cooking within the sealed cataplana. But it’s by no means the only cataplana dish available, as many restaurants offer versions using other shellfish and fish, particularly lagosta (lobster), gambas (shrimp), pescada (hake), and tamboril (monkfish).
Common to all good cataplanas are the quality and freshness of the prime ingredients, and that’s where the sunny, sea-facing Algarve comes into its own. It’s one of Europe’s finest resort regions, more relaxed than the heavily developed Spanish costas and featuring an undulating 125-mile (200-km) coastline that’s synonymous with both fantastic beaches and terrific seafood. Away from the well-known resorts, on the wilder, far western stretches beyond Lagos or the idyllic eastern sandbank islands between Faro and Tavira, you’ll find hidden grottoes, isolated beaches, and charming whitewashed villages that still retain echoes of their Moorish past, and small fishing ports with lively local fish markets that are centuries old but still play a central part in daily life. Rather like the cataplana itself, you only need to lift the lid to discover all that’s best about the Algarve.
Charcoal-grilled seafood, from sardines to lobsters, is a feature of life in the Algarve, and its tempting smell wafts along the coast

Best Places to Eat Cataplana
Don Sebastião expensive
Don Sebastião is a welcoming restaurant on a central cobbled street in the western resort of Lagos, whose owner believes that for cataplana, simple is best. His enduringly popular amêijoas na cataplana (clam cataplana) is presented in the traditional copper vessel and sticks firmly to the basics: small local clams cooked with tomato, onion, garlic, peppers, and a splash of white wine, with presunto (smoked ham) and chouriço (garlic sausage) added for body and flavor. The chouriço, incidentally, makes an early appearance in any meal at Don Sebastião, served as a hot, sliced, and flaming appetizer, doused in medronho, a local firewater made from the fruits of the strawberry tree (which taste rather like lychees). You can eat outside on the cobbles, which is the best way to get a flavor of lively Lagos, though there’s a warm, rustic interior too, as well as a rather fine underground adega (wine cellar), which the waiters can usually be persuaded to show off at the end of a meal.
Rua 25 de Abril 20–22, Lagos; open noon–10 PM daily;
The two-handled copper cataplana has a hinged lid and seals
completely, retaining all the flavorsome juices of the ingredients

Also on the Algarve
In Lagos, dine on the rooftop terrace of the Estrêla do Mar (+351 282 769 250; moderate).
The restaurant couldn’t be better placed for the ingredients for a cataplana – it’s right on top of the fish market. In Tavira, the stunning Pousada de Tavira (; expensive), a boutique hotel fashioned from a 16th-century convent, has an excellent restaurant that puts a contemporary twist on regional dishes like the cataplana.
Also in Portugal
Many of Lisbon’s inhabitants escape to the nearby coast at the small fishing port and resort of Ericeira, where the unpretentious Mar à Vista (+351 261 862 928; moderate) is the best place for cataplana. Farther north, the Atlantic-facing resorts of Nazaré and Figueira da Foz are both traditional summer boltholes for Portuguese families, with lots of great seafood restaurants. Try Figueira’s renowned shellfish specialist, Caçarola II (; expensive), which serves a fish, shrimp, and clam cataplana.
Around the World
Outside Portugal it’s rare to find a genuine cataplana, cooked in the traditional copper utensil, but London’s oldest Portuguese restaurant, O Fado (; expensive), prepares a monkfish-and-mussels version in the correct manner.
What Else to Eat In Algarve
The classic sight – and smell – of the Portuguese coast is smoke rising off rows of salt-flecked sardines being cooked on an outdoor charcoal grill. Fresh fish, notably robalo (sea bass) and dourada (bream), get the same treatment, while atum (tuna) – a significant Algarve catch – is often baked in an earthenware dish with a caramelized onion sauce (atum de cebolada). It’s also well worth trying the delicious fish stew called caldeirada, but for a thoroughly Portuguese experience, there’s no beating arroz de marisco served with an Algarve seaside view. This is a spicy, souplike combination of rice and shellfish (clams, certainly, and perhaps also mussels, crab, and shrimp), garnished with cilantro and served with a simple salad.
Three Days on the Algarve
Don’t spend all your time on the beach, however tempting. It pays to explore the less-visited inland areas too, particularly the pretty Serra de Monchique (Monchique mountains) in the west and the shores of the Rio Guadiana, the river that forms the border with Spain, in the east.
From Faro airport, head east to the lovely riverside town of Tavira, which has a fish market, some fine boutique accommodations, and a line of simple riverside restaurants. Then catch the ferry across to the sandy beaches of the Ilha de Tavira (Tavira island).
Make attractive Albufeira your next base. Its magnificent cove beaches are within easy reach of town. Take a side trip by car up to the old hillside village of Alte for lunch, and return via the medieval walled town of Silves.
Visit the western headland of Sagres, with its historic fort and dramatic beaches. North of here along the western, Atlantic coast, as far as Odeceixe, lies a series of remote beaches and youth-oriented surf resorts, backed by the mountains of the Serra de Monchique.
Getting to Algarve
Faro international airport is used by many holiday operators and budget airlines. A car is the best way to get around, though there is a useful train service between Lagos in the west and Vila Real de Santo António in the east.
Where to stay in Algarve
Hotel Lagosmar (inexpensive) is a traditional, family-run guesthouse in the centre of the busy resort of Lagos.
Pousada de Sagres (moderate) is a quiet retreat in the far western Algarve.
Casa Três Palmeiras (expensive) is a wonderfully sited cliff-top villa above the beach near Praia da Rocha.

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