The New Portuguese Table: Exciting flavors from Europe’s western coast
by David Leite
Publisher: Clarkson Potter, Country: US
ISBN: 9780307394415, Year: 2009
Link to publisher’s page or site
This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.

Overview

The culinary literature in English about Portugal is a bit patchy, often the work of emigrés reproducing the recipes of family and friends. The latest contribution about Portuguese cuisine is David Leite’s The New Portuguese Table. Unlike all previous books, this one sets out to innovate and modernise. Why this is the goal isn’t entirely clear, but it’s an interesting work containing tasty recipes and useful additional information from this Portuguese-American food writer.

Full review

Numerous times I’ve heard other emigrés complain that one or other book “must have been written by an Azorean”, as if the only writers on Portuguese food happen to come from the Azores, Portuguese islands far away in the Atlantic Ocean. Underlying these comments is often a touch of snobbery at the disproportionate numbers of poor Azoreans who constitute the Portuguese diaspora around the world. The New Portuguese Table has more than a little Azorean content as well, but that’s no reason to discount its value.

Unlike earlier books, Leite sets out to present “modern” versions of Portuguese traditions. The staple cod fritters (pasteis de bacalhau) become cod and prawn fritters. Beef/pork meatballs (almôndegas) become mini lamb meatballs. And typically super-sweet egg dessert ovos moles is modified to add lemon and whipped cream. There are many more examples of reworked traditions, quite a few from Portuguese chefs or some of Leite’s numerous friends. As there is still no really detailed work in English about Portuguese food, I was a little disappointed that this book seeks to innovate rather than communicate the real foundation, but I guess that is a matter of personal preference. Leite’s work is, at least, something quite different from the existing literature. To his credit, there are notes (labelled clássico) at the end of a few recipes explaining how to make the traditional dish.

Some readers will be irritated by the constant name-dropping of all the chefs and friends and relatives that Leite mentions. The self-focused narrative of recipes and exploration also gets a bit dull after a while. There is no doubt that this is “Leite does Portugal”, also reflected in the desire to rework so many dishes, and in dismissal of the Portuguese preference for rather rough olive oil (Leite says it’s a good thing that international organisations “clamped down” to force the Portuguese to produce better oil). It’s almost as if the author isn’t comfortable with traditional and sometimes simple food.

While Leite’s recipes are interesting and his commentary and background is reasonably interesting, it’s very disappointing that a section discussing the 11 regions and their characteristics omits to provide a map. There is no map anywhere in the book. Another disappointment is the rather idiosyncratic attempt at transcribing the pronunciation of Portuguese into odd “English” spellings. The author is neither systematic in his attempt, nor entirely correct in his renditions. Similarly, there are occasional mistakes in the Portuguese dish names in the book (borrego ensopado de com feijão branco) and one or two mistakes in definitions (alheira is a (originally non-pork) sausage, not predominantly a “game sausage”, and is to my knowledge most commonly described as “bread sausage” in English).

The selection of recipes is interesting and provides a good insight into the themes and flavours of Portuguese cuisine, with some new perspective. In some places, however, corners are cut or traditional dishes tweaked too far. Why replace duck rice (arroz do pato) with a risotto, rather than just improve the basic dish? Why blind-bake store-bought puff pastry for Portuguese custard tarts (pasteis de nata) and then undercook the custard, adding yet another basardised version to the excess of bad recipes for these tarts already found elsewhere?

I’m willing to recommend this book (four stars) because of its new approach and innovation, but it was almost downgraded to three stars because of the inexcusable omission of a map and the other irritations mentioned above.

This is an original review for The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf.
Main rating: 4. Recommended – good
Visual appeal: Attractive
Suitability as a gift: Quite nice
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