The Roman Legacy on Portuguese Food + Cuisine (Food Series on Portugal – No. 1)

Food Series on Portugal—More than just Bread & Wine                     

To indulge my curiosity in the history of Portuguese food and cuisine—given my Portuguese roots—I dive into Portugal’s rich past. In a Food Series on Portugal, I will explore in separate posts the influence and legacy of the Romans, Moors, and Europe’s Age of Discovery. I will also share my experience with unique foods and dishes of São Miguel, the largest of 9 volcanic islands in the Azores where I spent my childhood before immigrating to the San Francisco Bay Area with my family. These food stories, along with others focused on Portugal and its diaspora, are meant to wet our appetites into the influencers of Portuguese food and cuisine.

I do not shy away from Portuguese bread and wine, the two main staples of Portuguese cuisine. But, there is so much more! As we will discover, Portuguese cuisine is considered Mediterranean, yet its simple, rustic foods with unforgettable and rich flavors make it distinctive.

Join me in this gastronomical journey. ♣ 


Romans in the Iberian Peninsula 

The Romans ruled the Iberian Peninsula for six hundred years with the first invasion around 210-219 BC. The Romans established a capital in Olisipo (modern day Lisbon) in 60 BC that became the Roman’s strategic administrative center for the province of Lusitania, and rooted Christianity in Portugal during 3 AD. By 5 AD when the Roman Empire had all but collapsed, the Romans had built an extensive network of roads, bridges, and aquaducts; established a legal system; and brought Latin, leading to the Portuguese language.

The Roman road network in Portugal is considered the largest civil engineering feat from Antiquity in the country, and many of these ancient Roman roads are still in existence today.  There are significant Roman sites throughout Portugal.

Original pavement from the ancient Roman Military Road built in first century AD in the Iberian Peninsula, connecting Braga (in modern day Portugal) to Astoria (in modern day Spain). This 320K road was called Via Nova (New Way), and the section that crosses modern day Peneda-Gerês National Park in Portugal is called Geira.
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Ancient Roads (red lines on map) in the Roman Empire, including in the Iberian Peninsula (located on the mid left side of the map) that connected modern day Portugal and Spain. Photo source: Wikipedia
Roman site in Óbidos, the name probably derived from Latin term oppidum, meaning "citadel" or "fortified city." The municipality had its origin in an early Roman settlement near the foothills of an elevated escarpment.
Roman site in Óbidos, the name probably derived from Latin term oppidum, meaning “citadel” or “fortified city.” The municipality had its origin in an early Roman settlement near the foothills of an elevated escarpment.
The most well-preserved Roman site in Portugal is in Conimbriga, a short drive from the university town of Coimbra, with a large limestone Roman road; striking ruins of houses with evidence of rich mosaics, fountains and courtyards; and one of the largest Roman residences discovered in the West (House of Cantaber) with its own baths and gardens.
The most well-preserved Roman site in Portugal is in Conimbriga, a short drive from the university town of Coimbra, with a large limestone Roman road; striking ruins of houses with evidence of rich mosaics, fountains and courtyards; and one of the largest Roman residences discovered in the West (House of Cantaber) with its own baths and gardens.
The Roman Temple of Évora constructed around the first century AD in Évora along with remains of city walls and a significant aqueduct.
The Roman Temple of Évora constructed around the first century AD in Évora along with remains of city walls and a significant aqueduct.
The Roman bridge of Catribana in Sintra (Northwest of Lisbon) is one of many well-preserved Roman bridges in Portugal.
The Roman bridge of Catribana in Sintra (Northwest of Lisbon) is one of many well-preserved Roman bridges in Portugal.

Agriculture

The Romans started agriculture in the Iberian Peninsula by building large farming estates (latifúndios, Roman villas) that produced olives, olive oil, grapevines, wine, grains (like wheat), onions and garlic—all in existence today in Portugal’s traditional and regional foods and cuisine.

These large Roman farming estates were located mainly in the region to the south of the Tagus (Tejo) River, considered the third largest grain-producing area in the Roman Empire. Today, these farming estates are still present, especially in Alentejo in south central Portugal (Algarve is to the south and Lisbon is to the north) where half of Portugal’s wine and cork is produced.

Farm in Alentejo. Photo credit (original in color): http://farm5.staticflickr.com/4003/4...57aa446a_b.jpg
Farmland in Alentejo.

Wheat (Trigo)

The Romans introduced wheat (and barley and other grains) that was used to make bread (pão), the main staple of Portuguese food today. While cheese, wine, pork, and other foods are eaten regularly, bread is eaten daily. To signify the importance of bread to Portuguese everyday life, the Museu do Pão (Museum of Bread), situated in Seia (in northwestern slope of Serra da Estrela, the highest mountain range in Portugal) is dedicated to bread.

For centuries, Portuguese breadmaking relied on the use of sourdough as a leavening agent. Some Portuguese breads still use sourdough today while others are made with the more recently discovered Baker’s yeast. Depending on the preparation and texture of a type of bread, Portuguese breads can be called cakes (bolos).

Interestingly, bread is still the main ingredient of typical recipes in Alentejo—where the Romans introduced wheat and built large farming estates as mentioned above—including in bread soups like açorda. While bread is the main ingredient, açorda is of Arabic origin, dating most likely to the Moors. (More on the Moors and their influence in a future blog in this Portuguese Food Series.)

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Açorda à Alentejana, a traditional soup originating from the Alentejo region made with bread, garlic and eggs.  Photo source: Foodfromportugal.com

There are many Portuguese types of bread today. While each region may have its own local bread, most Portuguese breads are made with one or more types of flour—wheat, corn, rye and oat—with wheat as the most common. Let’s take a look at some pãos.

Pão de Trigo (wheat bread), a crusty loaf traditionally baked in a wooden oven made from wheat cereal, is found throughout Portugal but more typical in the south.

Pão de trigo (wheat bread) is traditionally considered a peasant's bread.
Pão de trigo (wheat bread) is traditionally considered a peasant’s bread.

Papos secos (rolls), originally baked in brick ovens, is the most popular bread eaten in Portuguese homes and restaurants. The roll is crusty on the outside and very soft in the center. Its shape is uniquely Portuguese and made mainly from white flour today.

Portuguese papos secos are rolls crusty on the outside and soft in the center.
Portuguese papos secos are rolls crusty on the outside and soft in the center.

This smaller bread is not only for breakfast, but used in sandwiches (super delicious with linguiça), as a side for soups and stews, and because of its soft center, ideal for dipping and absorbing sauces. It is eaten throughout the day.

A favorite in restaurants (as an appetizer) and at home (for breakfast or anytime) is to serve papo secos with Portuguese queijo branco (also known as queijo fresco) with Portuguese pimenta moida (red pepper sauce).
A favorite in restaurants (as an appetizer) and at home (for breakfast or anytime) is to serve papo secos with queijo branco (also known as queijo fresco) with pimenta moida (red pepper sauce).

Pão de milho (corn bread) is an artisan-style bread usually made with wheat and corn flour, and believed to originate in the northern region of Tras-os-Montes e Alto Douro.  Pão de milho is an artisan-style bread usually made with wheat and corn flour, and believed to originate in the northern region of Tras-os-Montes e Alto Douro. Unlike other bread dough, scalding hot water is used to pre-cook the corn flour that speeds up the cooking, and the dough does not need to rise for hours. I have memories of eating pão de milho baked by my dad straight out of the oven, smothered with butter dripping down the sides.

Pão de milho is delicious served with butter straight out of the oven.
Pão de milho is delicious served with butter straight out of the oven.

Most enjoy this artisan bread with Portuguese caldo verde, a popular soup in Portuguese cuisine, made with Portuguese couves (kale), potatoes, olive oil, salt, onion and Portuguese linguiça—a smoke-cured pork sausage with paprika, garlic and pepper. Linguiça is less spicy and less firm than Portuguese chouriço that can also be used in making this tasty soup.

Caldo verde (green soup). Photo source: Portuguesediner
Caldo verde (green soup). Photo source: Portuguesediner

Grapes (Uvas) and Wine (Vinho)

Ancient civilizations had an impact on grape growing and wine production in Portugal, but the Romans the most.

Today, there is a large array of native grape varieties (castas) in Portugal, producing different Portuguese vinhos under the Portuguese appellation system of Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC). Each Portuguese wine region has certain castas that are authorized for wine production in that given region. An alternative way to look at Portugal’s wine regions is to separate the northern regions that include Douro, Dão and Bairrada from the central and southern regions that include Alentejo, Ribatejo and Estremadura.

As noted earlier, agricultural production in the southern regions, including in Alentejo, is dominated by large producers influenced by the Roman estates in contrast to the northern regions with small producers. Let’s look at Alentejo (in the south) and Douro (in the north) as two distinctive wine areas.

The Alentejo wines are of the highest quality, and this region leads Portugal’s wine production with half of the country’s wine.

Romans used clay amphoras (talhas de barro) to make wine which is still in use today in Portugal and referred to as the Alentejo style wine.
Romans used clay amphoras (talhas de barro) to make wine still in use today in Portugal and referred to as Alentejo style wine.

The wine in this area is traced to the time of the Romans as Roman winemaking used large clay amphoras (talhas de barro) for fermentation still used today in this area, referred to as Alentejo style. The other red style wine produced in this region is more modern and fruit intensive, and responsible for making the Alentejo one of Portugal’s most important red wine regions. Large companies—including Sogrape and Aliança—have invested heavily in modern, commercial winemaking in this region, increasing attractive wine production to meet higher demand than supply from this region.

Grape vines everywhere in Alentejo.
Alentejo covered in grapevines.

There is archaeological evidence for wine production in the Douro region dating to the end of the Western Roman Empire during 3rd and 4th centuries AD. Key to this wine production area is its microclimate as well as the Douro River that allowed the Romans to transport wine and other goods in the Iberian Peninsula.

The city of Porto alongside the Douro River.

Today, the Douro wine region is best known for port wine (vinho do porto), produced exclusively in this demarcated area in picturesque quintas (farms) on vertical slopes stretching down to the Douro River. Port is a fortified wine, made by adding Portuguese style brandy (aguardente) that stops the fermentation and leaves residual sugar in the wine, increasing the sweetness and alcohol content. Port is Portugal’s best known distilled alcoholic beverage, and the country is the global leader in quality port production. This area also produces non-fortified table wines.

Port is produced mainly from a handful of castas (grape varietals), and has several distinct styles, including Ruby Port (your standard red port), Tawny Port (blended port of red grapes that gets its ‘tawny’ coloration name from the duration it has aged), Vintage Port (your top quality port from a single harvest, aged in wooden barrel with only about 1% of all ports worthy of a vintage label, and not to be consumed younger than 15 years), and White Port (your non-traditional port made with white grapes).

A rabelo boat (barco rabelo) was used to transport port wine from the Douro Valley to the city of Porto. While they are used today only for dsplay and cultural activities, they add to the historical significance and landscape in the area.
A rabelo boat (barco rabelo) was used to transport port wine from the Douro Valley to the city of Porto. While they are used today only for display and cultural activities, they add to the historical significance and landscape in the area.

Port wine can be paired with many different kinds of food. It is most commonly served at the end of a meal (usually dinner) with a selection of cheeses, dried fruits, nuts and sweet desserts (including chocolates) or then as an after dinner wine.

While vinho verde is not a wine region or a grape varietal, a focus on Portuguese wine would not be complete without vinho verde. This wine originates in Minho in the far north of Portugal which has been producing wine since the Romans. The Romans Seneca the Younger and Pliny made reference to vines in the area between the Douro and Minho rivers. There are many small growers in Minho unlike the larger estates in the Alentejo in the south.

http://www.chicagotribune.com/dining/drink/sc-food-0821-wine-vinho-verde-20150819-column.html
Vinho Verde very popular among the Portuguese. Photo source (original in color): Chicago Tribune

Vinho verde literally translates as green wine, and is a young wine to be consumed right after bottling. This region is populated mainly by small growers and the vines were grown traditionally on high trellises or poles (vinha de enforcado). This practice, no longer popular for cultivation and harvesting, allowed the farmers to grow other fruits and vegetables under the vines as a food source for their families.

Vinho verde can be white, red, and rosé, and there are 30 different grape varieties allowed in the vinho verde DOC with a handful of white and red grapes considered the best to cultivate. This wine can be consumed as an aperitif or with a light or more sophisticated meal. This inexpensive wine is very popular with the Portuguese, and a staple in restaurants and in homes.


Olives (Azeitonas) and Olive Oils (Azeite)

The olive tree has been a part of the Portuguese agricultural landscape, dating back to the Romans.  While there are many claims for the oldest olive trees, an olive tree in the Algarve is about 2000 years old according to radiocarbon dating.

There are more than 30 different varieties of olives native to Portugal.

Variety of Portuguese olives.
Mix of Portuguese olives.

Galega, a small dark brownish black olive, is the most prolific. Galega olive trees are grown for olive oil production but they also make very tasty table olives (my favorite!).

Olives are served regularily as an appetizer or alongside dishes.
Olives are served regularily as an appetizer or alongside dishes.

Like great wine, the soil and climate can make olives and olive oil world class. Olive cultivation and olive oil production centers in six major regions in Portugal—Alentejo Interior and Norte Alentejano, Moura, Ribategjo, Beira Interiora and Trás-os-Montes—with Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) in the production of olive oil.

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Photo source: Saloio A popular Portuguese olive oil consumed by the Portuguese diaspora.

A forecast dated February 17, 2016 anticipates that olives for olive oil production could be as high as 765,000 tons in Portugal, the third largest harvest in the last 75 years. Portugal is ranked in the top 5 of the best olive oils produced in the world, and Portugal is the main supplier for olive oil to Spain as well as to other countries that sell olive oil under their own labels.

The Portuguese take olive oil very seriously. It is essential to Portuguese cuisine for cooking and flavoring meals. Olives are eaten as appetizers, served alongside dishes, and used in many Portuguese dishes, including in the cod dish Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá.

Olives are used in Portuguese cuisine, including in this cod dish called Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá.
Olives are used in Portuguese cuisine, including in this popular cod dish, Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá.

The Olive Oil Museum in Moura, located in the Altentejo, is dedicated to Portugal’s olive and olive oil history and industry. 


A glimpse of Portugal. (From top left to bottom right: Street in Óbidos; old street car in Lisbon; fruit market in Algarve; wine barrels in front of Porto Cruz port house; restaurant promoting sardines, grilled fish, tapas and wine on its menu; outside patio at Porto Cruz for wine tasting and nibbles; Casa Oriental in Porto (closed in January 2016 but hopefully will re-open) that sold tea, coffee, chocolate and other delicious dry goods and produce.

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Map of Portugal. Source:
Map of Portugal with the Azores and Madeira. Source: Maps of World

**All photos and images are copyrighted work of Venilde Jeronimo unless otherwise noted.

8 thoughts on “The Roman Legacy on Portuguese Food + Cuisine (Food Series on Portugal – No. 1)”

  1. Hello Venilde, congratulations on your article. It was very interesting to understand that so many Portuguese dishes and ingredients have a common ground.

    In the end, you mentioned the centenary grocery shop “Casa Oriental” from Porto. Which as we knew it, is permanently closed. We fell that is of you best interest to know what happened, feel free to read our article on this subject: http://www.amasscook.com/en/casa-oriental-fechou/

  2. Thank you for the wonderful article and pictures and recipe links! Very enjoyable. We are definitely visiting the Museum of Bread! Please come to Corner Cafe in Newport anytime for a meal- keeping Portuguese food traditions alive and well in this city by the sea!

  3. Thank you for such an interesting writing. My grandfather came from Murtosa. He and my father and uncles sold grapes in the fall here in New Jersey. As a child I spent many weekends at the grapeyard where they came in by refrigerated freight trains. My summers were spent helping him bottle gallons of wine he made from the grapes they sold. I was in Portugal many years ago and ache to return and meet family still there. As I cook Portuguese dishes I grew up with I enjoyed learning where and when the olives, oil, bread started. My mother was Italian and so now I understand the strong influence of her origin had in my father’s country. By the way, Casal Garcia has been my favorite wine for years.

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