I was fumbling clumsily with the quenelles of veal tartare in the de Brito kitchen in late May this year. I silently blamed the spoons, but clearly it was all me. This warm, food loving family had invited Jelle and I to dinner and to watch how some of the more traditional dishes were made, and I did not want to disappoint.
“Oh, that’s good, that’s fine” Miguel said gently to me. He and his girlfriend Rita were working around each other, exchanging a hug and kiss now and then and making me want to swoon in the presence of love like that.
We shared a feast around the dinner table, of veal tartare, green bean tempura served with a creamy tomato and basil dipping sauce, traditional seafood soup and a rich, lemony and buttery rice pudding. The family, who formerly owned a farm spoke with us about the state of food in modern society, a topic Miguel and I touched on on the 11 th of May when we first met.
“One of the dangers of the twenty-first century is forgetting where our food comes from” Miguel said.
I was pleasantly surprised to find a fresh faced young man sitting in front of me in Estrela Park, a mutual friend having connected us while I was based in Lisbon. Miguel’s family are hunters, and literally gatherers – a family in tune with nature and with the concept of growing produce and nurturing the environment to provide food. Having moved back with his parents while recently taking on employment as an air steward, his passion remained focussed on food. He trained and worked as a chef and told me that if it was viable to sustain himself through private cheffing, he would. The Portuguese economy has been particularly hard on the youth, even the well educated and resourceful youth.
But there was something else about Miguel too, something unexpected – a warmth and kindness that traversed the 30 centimeters of physical space between us on our first meeting and made me believe this stranger when he offered to cook for us. I knew he meant that we would be welcome. I walked home from our meeting feeling slightly different. Feeling like this gamble to live in Europe for three months would be okay, we’d be okay. We were with friends.
I know Miguel had plans to move out of his family home and implored us to visit soon at his and Rita’s soon-to-be ‘new place’. Miguel contacted me when his plane got to Hamburg on one of his assignments and asked for restaurant recommendations. I could tell he missed the luxury of those daily, wholesome meals he shared with his family. He praised his mother as an incredible cook, from whom he took inspiration. Mrs de Brito in turn said that Miguel had a finesse and touch that she could not emulate.
I never saw Miguel for our follow-up “cozido” date. He wanted to cook us a traditional Portuguese stew made of offal and chourico – simple but delicious. If you follow my twitter feed you’d know I’m an adventurous eater and I could not wait for the reunion. But time and travels later and the next thing I knew, I was on a plane home in the middle of July.
“See you in Cape Town, I hope” I texted Miguel. “You and Rita must come to stay with us”.
At the end of last week I got a series of messages from a mutual friend explaining that Miguel had passed away in a spear fishing accident.
Miguel would have turned 30 this September.
Rest in peace, dear friend.
Rita, I want you to know that your wonderful, darling man touched us with his kindness, his grace and his incredible sense of empathy. A man who will treat strangers with love, for no more reason that a connection over food or a mutual friend is a rare and precious thing. I witnessed him speak to you with softness as you drove us home that day, praising your brand-new knowledge of the roads in Lisbon. He mentioned you within minutes of us meeting and told me how he’d love for us to all get together. Miguel radiated pride when he said that you are a girl who can kill a chicken and take care of yourself. “Who can do that nowadays?” he asked me. True, very few. Not me.
He arranged the dinner at his parent’s house so that it would only start when you got home. I only know of your relationship what I witnessed in our few meetings and our emails and tweets, but I know for sure that Miguel truly loved you.
No one can expect you to be strong, but for those times when you may feel far from it, draw on that love.
Miguel’s Green Bean Tempura
This is Miguel’s Green Bean Tempura, known as Peixinhos Horta (fish of the garden).
You may not know this, but the Portuguese introduced tempura to the Japanese. You can read more about the history of tempura here (article is a bit scanty). Many restaurants serving local Portuguese cuisine will feature this on the menu.
Note the Portuguese use runner beans and not the beans we refer to as ‘green beans’ or French beans. But these will work too. Just do not use a very mature green bean – may not cook well on the inside.
Miguel and Rita have a more complicated version of this dish, in a refreshing orange salad, you can find that here.
+ – 350 g runner beans, cut into 0.5 cm strips, lengthwise
150 g flour
1 t baking soda
150 ml soda water, chilled or beer
1/2 t dried oregano
salt and pepper to taste
vegetable oil, for frying
In a mixing bowl, add all batter ingredients and whisk well with wire whisk till smooth.
Dry the beans with paper towels.
Coat in batter.
Add oil to fill a medium sized frying pan, to about 2.5 cm, heat to medium-high.
Test the temperature by adding one bean and if it rises and puffs up, the temperature is right. If not, wait a little longer.
Add beans, but do not crowd the pan. Fry for a minute or two, until golden and crisp. Turn and remove with tongs.
Leave on paper towels to drain.
When all beans are fried, serve with a tomato and basil soup or sauce to dip – it really makes the dish.