Martin Klein meets José Avillez

How did bacalhau make it to Lisbon?

The city stretches out before me in all its glory. Behind it flows the Tagus River, which is almost as wide as the sea at that point. I have some time to spare before meeting Portugal’s most famous chef, so I take a look around. Up here on the Elevador Santa Justa, I can see immediately why many people consider Lisbon to be the world’s most beautiful city. The Elevador is a carefully restored, cast-iron lift with a viewing platform. It links the central district of Baixa with Chiado, an artists and shopping district at a higher elevation. To my right, I can see a large and imposing building. That must be the art academy with the National Museum of Contemporary Art. José Avillez’s flagship restaurant Belcanto is located right in front of it. A little later, we are sitting in the dining room of the Belcanto, where the 37-year-old José could be mistaken for one of the artists from the academy next door: he’s slim with wide shoulders and wild curls. He tells me about the great fire that destroyed the district almost 30 years ago and about the magnificent reconstruction by another famous Portuguese artist, the architect Alvaro Siza. We’re trying José’s menu together, prepared by his chef David Jesus. This gives José the chance to try his own menu from the guests’ perspective while talking me through each of the dishes.

To begin with, Jesus serves a handful of stones. One stone has been marked with some caviar: a wafer-thin, crispy cocoa-butter crust hides an intensely aromatic cream of cod liver and bacalhau. I ask José why Portugal is so famous for its bacalhau (salted cod). After all, the fish is mostly caught in the North Atlantic. José responds by asking me who I think discovered America. Apparently, there is evidence to suggest that fishermen from the Iberian Peninsular regularly caught cod off the coast of Newfoundland hundreds of years before Columbus even set sail. Because it was easy to dry sea salt in Portugal’s sunny climate, the fishermen could take it with them on their trips and easily preserve their catch on the way home. Norwegian stockfish is air-dried, due to a lack of sunshine and, thus, sea salt. For his cod praline, José cooks a fish stock that breaks all the rules of classic haute cuisine. Whereas the bones of turbot and sole only have a very faint fish aroma, the aroma of the bacalhau is very strong. This bouillon is steaming. However, the lemon and orange recapture the rustic aromas and give the cream its freshness, while a splash of port makes it slightly sweet. But a few more sub-stages are required until the cream becomes a magical stone. Although his stint at Ferran Adrià’s elBulli helped José to develop his own, technically sophisticated cuisine, the result is always a concentrated blend of Portuguese flavours. Hardly surprising. After all, José studied corporate communications and wrote his final dissertation on the image and identity of Portuguese gastronomy.

José also distils the essence of a rustic classic for his “Cozido a portuguesa”. With the chunky pieces of meat and sausage of the national stew dish he cooks a very dense broth The trick is to add a handful of chickpeas, which not only lend the broth their flavour but also make it slightly thicker. Three smoked specialities from Lisbon are essential for the aroma: Morcela (black pudding), farinheira (flour sausage) and a local type of chorizo. José will bring all three with him when he visits us in Salzburg. The plate of cozido gives off a profusion of smoky and meaty aromas. But it’s little more than a clear broth containing spring vegetables and a small cabbage leaf. However, José does hide a little piece of meat underneath: papada from the Iberian pig. Like secreto de cerdo iberico, this unusual cut of pork cheek didn’t arrive in Central Europe until the successful rise of Spanish gourmet chefs. Slow-cooked in a vacuum-sealed pouch, the papada transforms into a melt-in-the-mouth miracle that reminds me of wagyu. Unfortunately, it just looks like a white cube. Many guests in Salzburg might even push it to the edge of their plate. José and I aren’t quite sure what to do: will it suffice to train the service team how to assuage the guests’ misgivings? Or should we chop the papada into small pieces, which would preserve the flavour while lowering the reluctance threshold. On the other hand, many guests come to Restaurant Ikarus precisely because they are keen to try the unusual ingredients and creations of our guest chefs. Most of our guests even tried Heinz Reitbauer’s calf’s brain with medlar oil – although apprehensive at first, they were full of praise afterwards.

The following day we visit Mercado da Ribeira. The former wholesale market hall is just a short stroll away and, like the Elevador, is a wonderful example of lofty iron architecture. Here, we not only find the freshest skrei cod but also the famous red Carabinero shrimp from the Atlantic off the coast of Portugal. José buys some for a dish that has made him famous: carabineros in rosemary ash. To prepare it, we peel the tails off the prawns without removing the heads. We toss the carabineros in actual rosemary ash before frying them in olive oil. But before serving them, we scrape off the remaining ash residue and sprinkle on some crumbs of black, puffed rice that has been smoked over rosemary needles. The black and grey crumbs taste how you would imagine rosemary ash to taste – only much better!

Recorded by Hans Gerlach

Belcanto

Largo de São Carlos, 10
1200-410 Lisboa 
Portugal

Tel.: +35 121 342 0607

Web: www.joseavillez.pt

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