Yesterday’s Children, Tomorrow’s Chefs

Words: Teresa Castro Viana

To what extent do the memories of our childhood influence us when we choose our career? How do the recipes and traditions of days gone by make it to the table of our most modern restaurants? Inês Beja, Nuno Fonte, Cristiano Barata and Aurora Goy, young chefs who recognise the importance of a place for the aromas and tastes of the past in the food of the future, share their answers with us.

Cristiano Barata

Chef at Mercantel in Aveiro, Cristiano Barata’s childhood memories take him back to Rebordãos, the village where he grew up in Bragança. “Dinner at my grandparents’ house was always, without fail, at 7pm, right next to the fireplace, which was to keep us warm as much as it was to heat soup or grill chouriço and alheira sausages, which my grandmother had pulled down from the wooden platters lining the black kitchen ceiling.”

There were enormous wooden containers for flour and sugar, and for the dough to rise. From the wood-burning oven came Portuguese transmontano meatloaf, rye bread and local pastries. “As I didn’t like the meats for the meatloaf, I asked my great-aunt to make one without meat for me,” he remembers.

Convinced it would be “impossible to reproduce the recipes and the taste sensations of yore,” Cristiano decided, as an adult, to become a chef. He studied at the since-shuttered Tante Marie school in the south of London, far from home, and to this day considers his liking for an open fire his trademark. “Whenever I light a wood-burning fire, memories of my grandmother on my mother’s side come flooding back, and recently my father.”

These days, he’s in his element with potatoes stewed with tomato, cod leftovers with meat, their fins and tails, fire-roasted goat and a “mirandesa veal steak from my northeastern transmontano roots.” As for the cakes, he learned to make them with his mother. “Since I was a kid, it was me who beat the eggs, always with the same yellow Siemens whisk, a wedding gift from my godfather, my mother’s brother,” he shares. “That famous Siemens whisk has already made, without a doubt, more than 400 sponge cakes,” one of his signature dishes.

Inês Beja and Nuno Fonte

The career path of Inês Beja and Nuno Fonte, chef-owners of DeRaiz in Rebordinho, Viseu, is closely tied to their gastronomic memories. It is there, on a voyage to the past, where they seek the quintessential flavours that marked their childhoods. “I lived with my grandmother for part of my life, and we’d make olive oil biscuits, massa tenra pastries, crème brûlée, pumpkin jam, marmalade and compote,” explains Inês. “Another memory I have is of the pig slaughter and the smell of smoked sausage.” Nuno, meanwhile, remembers the green eggs of his grandmother Raquel, a constant on the dinner table that “were gone the moment she set them down.” As for his grandmother on his father’s side, he remembers the vegetable garden with its greens and fruit.

For this very reason, you’ll find at DeRaiz dishes from their grandparents’ recipe books kept at the entrance to the restaurant, and made with regional or at least national ingredients. They are prepared just like their grandmothers did, such as with iron pans, which bring out the same delicate flavours in the dishes. As for the green eggs, these are now done differently, “to ensure the green part is really green, whereas those of grandmother Raquel has a yellowish tinge.”

Trained in hotel management schools, Inês in Seia and Nuno in Lamego, they’ve seen customers get emotional over some dishes, “because their mothers and grandmothers made them in the same way.” The massa tenra pastries made by granny Nazaré and granny Raquel’s green eggs are menu classics, even if other dishes also take them back. For Inês, her mother and aunts’ cozido à portuguesa stew, made according to her grandmother’s recipe, where the meats were not salted; for Nuno, his maternal grandmother’s apple tart. “She’d make the tart with very little sugar, and let the dough get hard. We know that on paper it’s wrong, but it’s the only way I like it because it reminds me of my childhood memories.”

Aurora Goy

Though born in France, Aurora Goy’s attachment to Portugal meant she would move to her mother’s home country six years ago. In 2018, she opened Apego in Porto, a restaurant where seasonal products and harmony of ingredients were paramount. “I think my cooking, being seasonal, is very influenced by my parents. They had a vegetable patch. They never bought anything out of season. They produced a lot themselves and ate what the earth gave them,” she says. “And what doesn’t work for me, doesn’t work for the restaurant. I don’t cook in a traditional way, nor is it super contemporary. It’s more comfort food.”

Such as the ratatouille, “a memory so strong, despite being such a cliché,” the liver and the calf’s head her father used to make. “My dad always cooked at home. He was very organised, very methodical. Moments together were spent shelling beans and peas,” Aurora remembers. Also, the transmontano meatloaf, which she ate whenever they went on holiday to Candedo, a village in Murça, is reserved a special place in her childhood memories. “My cousins’ grandmother used to make these big meatloaves for the grown-ups, and little ones for us.”

Even so, not only certain flavours that have stuck in her memory. Certain smells, for Aurora, are synonymous with feelings of comfort and birthright: the tall white galão and freshly-baked bread, which takes her back to her holidays in Portugal, and sautéed onion and garlic. “My dad got cooking really early, and I’d wake up with the smell of onion in my nostrils,” she remembers.

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