The gift came from George Sandeman - of the eponymous Port house - as a memento of a visit to his legendary Oporto cellars. And, yes, there was port to be drunk. Quantities of it. White, tawny, ruby, some fine vintage and (as a parting contest to try and match the alchemy of the master Sandeman blender) my own concoction, sent on to me at home with my name on the label: "Blended by Simon Hopkinson". Except that I failed miserably to mix the correct concoction. A message in a bottle: "Could do better. See me".
Whenever I am in the region of my favourite foods, I behave as if demented. In Cornwall, I have to find the very best pasty and the very best clotted cream. Further afield, it will be andouillettes in Troyes, saucisson and Saint Marcellin in les halles of Lyon, olive oil in Provence and the finest tripe dishes in Madrid. Whenever I return to my home town of Bury in Lancashire, I always make for Jackson's black puddings on the market, and also pick up some crumbly Lancashire cheese from the adjoining stall. When staying for a week in Norfolk earlier this month, I ate asparagus almost every day.
So whilst spending a few days in May with friends in northern Italy, I got used to eating the legendary culatello, an almost unknown food here, which is a small and tender muscle - the very best part - of the pig's leg that makes prosciutto di Parma. But I failed miserably when it came to finding some to take home. So we had to resort to Peck in Milan (without doubt one of the very best food shops in the world - even better than Fauchon in Paris).
Salt cod in Oporto, however, was no problem. Slabs of it fill small shop windows, its odour - a particularly niffy one - drifting down the street.
"I think there's one just around the corner," I muttered to my good friend Lindsey Bareham. The vendor cuts through the stinky-salty, board-stiff planks of it with a well-honed, serrated knife of band-saw calibre. But it don't come cheap, and there are varying grades from the super-duper whole fish and prime central cuts down to the stringy and fibrous side and tail pieces, all priced accordingly.
One of the finest salt cod dishes I have yet to eat (I admit to only three servings) was the one we were served in the Douro valley, where the Sandeman company has a beautiful house in which they entertain visitors. It was here, incidentally, that I had my first taste of the drink they call "Splash". Quite delicious. Take a highball glass and fill with ice. Pour over a generous slug of white port, add a slice of lemon (or lime, perhaps) and top up with tonic water. Very refreshing and very moreish. My wine merchant friend, Mr Bill Baker, of Reid Wines in Bristol, who makes exceptionally fine drinks, introduces a sprig of fresh mint or two into his Splash - and a good idea it is, to be sure.
The dish of salt cod that was served chez Sandeman was simply grilled over a charcoal fire with, I suspect, partially cooked and halved potatoes. This feast arrived in flat terracotta dishes, swimming in the fruitiest olive oil with lumps of garlic. Both fish and potatoes were well burnished from the heat of the coals. A healthy squeeze of lemon (at my request) was the only embellishment.
To find good salt cod in the UK is not that easy, so I would urge you to bring some home from foreign holidays (Spain, Northern Italy, Southern France and all over Portugal are prime areas ). Otherwise, search out Spanish or Portuguese shops in London and other major cities. Garcia, in London's Portobello Road (0171-221 6119), is where I get my fix.
The famous dish of brandade le morue (salt cod puree) from the south of France - Nimes et environs, in particular - is most often eaten at Easter and Christmas. And, cost permitting, with the very first black truffles of the season at Christmas. The affinity of the pungent truffle with the equally pungent whiff of salt cod, garlic and olive oil is sublime. And, with that combination in mind, a suggestion here for those of you who may be taking holidays in the Italian region of Umbria this summer.
Flaked salt cod with truffled poached egg and Italian summer truffle, serves 4
Salt cod always needs to be soaked in several changes of cold water for 18-24 hours before use. However, do not over-soak, as part of the pleasure of eating salt cod is its distinctive saline hint.
The dish photographed on the previous page used fresh black Perigord truffles. However the Italian summer truffle (tuber aestivum) can be used in exactly the same way. Put some very fresh eggs in a Tupperware container with a tight lid, together with a couple of summer truffles (these are a fraction of the price of the Perigord black, albeit not necessarily cheap, but a couple of small ones go further than you think). Leave for 24 hours minimum, preferably longer, before using. What happens is that the flavour of the truffle permeates the egg through its porous shell, resulting in an egg of quite the most extraordinary flavour.
550-700g/11/4 - 11/2 lb dried salt cod, pre-soaked weight
4 very fresh eggs, embedded with 2 small truffles for a minimum of 24 hours
4-6 tbsp good quality fruity olive oil, not necessarily extra virgin
3 cloves peeled garlic, crushed and coarsely chopped
freshly ground black pepper
a little freshly chopped parsley
juice of 1/2 lemon.
Put the soaked cod (as explained above) into cold water to cover and, very tenderly, bring the merest simmer. Cook for 5 minutes and leave to cool in the water until it is lukewarm. Lift out carefully with a fish slice and lay on to a plate. Tip off any excess water and go to work on lifting off the flakes of fish from any bone, cartilage and skin with your fingers, being particular over any small spindly bones; a tedious and frankly messy job but imperative to do it well.
Chuck out the skin, bones etc and break up the fish into regular-sized flakes. Take a large, preferably non-stick frying pan and pour in 2-3 tablespoons of the olive oil. Warm through and add the garlic. Stew the garlic very gently until softened and just starting to turn golden. Add the flakes of cod and turn through the oil, adding a little more if it seems too dry. Grind in a healthy amount of pepper and keep warm.
Poach the eggs in slightly vinegared, simmering water. Scrub the truffles with a nail brush or similar and relieve them of their jet black, crenellated surface using a potato peeler. Keep these peelings to flavour a rich gravy for poultry at another time; keep wrapped up in the fridge in a scrap of clingfilm.
Stir the parsley into the salt cod and gently re-heat. Spoon on to small warmed plates and spread out slightly (a nice flat plate of food for a change, rather than the more recently vogueish stack-and-build affair). Put an egg in the centre of each plate, slice the truffles thinly over the surface using the traditional truffle slicer or a potato peeler, and spoon a little more olive oil over the egg if you think it appropriate. Squeeze over some lemon juice and eat at once, together with good bread.
The soup that preceded the marvellous salt cod and potatoes in the Douro, Caldo Verde, is almost the national dish of Portugal - apart from salt cod, that is. In the market in Oporto, I noticed great piles of minutely shredded greens at each and every vegetable stall. LB was at my side, wittering on about finding some good, fresh garlic (which we did, we did). But, being the queen of the soup world that she is (her book A Celebration of Soup, Penguin, pounds 12, is a must for every serious kitchen bookshelf), Lindsey immediately knew where these teetering verdant heaps were destined for.
Caldo Verde is one of the most fabulous soups I have tasted for some time. In essence, it is potatoes and cabbage; in reality it is much, much more than that. The recipe that follows is from Lindsey Bareham's book, which, in turn, she pulled from Jean Anderson's definitive book, The Food of Portugal.
Caldo Verde, serves 8
In Portugal, the cabbage used is one called couve gallego. Use kale or savoy cabbage to replicate the real thing. Incidentally, the Italian cabbage, cavolo nero, now a little more available here, might be just the ticket. Whatever you decide to use, however, do try and shred it as finely as you dare. On a personal note, I loved the soup without the traditional addition of some sliced garlic sausage. If you prefer to add this, introduce it at the same time as you put in the cabbage.
4 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 large clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
6 large floury potatoes, peeled and chopped
2.3 litres/4 pints cold water
175g/6oz sliced garlic sausage such as chorizo (optional)
212 tsp salt
plenty of freshly ground black pepper
450g/1lb cabbage leaves, trimmed of coarse stems and hand-sliced, filament- thin (do not be tempted to use a food processor here, it tears and destroys the fibres of the cabbage)
Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil and saute the onion and garlic for a couple of minutes until they begin to colour slightly. Add the potatoes and pour on the water. Simmer gently until the potatoes collapse (we say "lobbed" in Lancashire). Meanwhile, and if using, fry the sausage over a low heat in 1 tablespoon of the oil until most of the fat has run out. Drain on kitchen paper for a minute or two.
Ladle by ladle, work the potato broth through a vegetable mill (mouli- legumes) into a clean pan. Add the sausage, salt, pepper and cabbage, and return to the heat for anything between 5 and 10 minutes, simmering until the cabbage is tender. Check for seasoning and stir in the last of the olive oil. Serve in large soup plates with good bread, such as thick slices of toasted sourdough