Megan Abbott

Interview: Leo Carreira

Megan Abbott
Interview: Leo Carreira

Originally published on suitcasemag.com

While it is true that Londoners know more than a thing or two about food, there are still a few cuisines that we haven’t quite got to grips with. Take Portuguese, a cuisine awash with creative traditional dishes and regional diversity. While we chow down on bowls of ramen as big as our heads and tuck in to our Peruvian breakfasts, the exciting world of Portuguese food has evaded us somehow. It is a cuisine that relies on good quality – fish fresh from the catch, ready to be barbecued with giant salt crystals, hearty suckling pig, wild boar ragout, grilled sardines, spiced octopus salad. All washed down with a cold Arinto white or gusty Douro red from the country’s sprawling wine regions.

So it is a good job that the cunning folk over at roastery and event space Climpson’s Arch have Portuguese chef Leandro Carreira as their latest resident, showing us a thing or two about this unfamiliar and exciting cuisine. Since October last year, Carreira has been cooking up a storm under the railway line at his first solo venture, L.C. This rising star hails from Leiria, in the centre of Portugal. He has worked at some of the world’s best restaurants, and cooked alongside luminary chefs like Nuno Mendes and James Lowe. With his food, an electric mix of traditional Portuguese recipes and inventive new flavours, Carreira is leading a growing curiosity in the cuisine. His food focuses on dishes from lesser-known parts of his country, spiked with rich flavours. The menu scales the map from week to week, with dishes like duck fricassee with cinnamon, quail with mushrooms a la Northeastern Tras os Montes, and egg and tomato stew with fava beans and chorizo, in the style of central Ribatejo. His residency at Climpson’s Arch is nearing its end, but Carreira has a whole lot of projects up his sleeve. It seems now is the time for real Portuguese food to hit Londoners square in the face. And Leandro Carreira is more than happy to oblige. Here he explains his love for the food of his country, and lets us know just what we’ve been missing this whole time.

“My good friend recently called Portugal “A sleeping gastronomic giant”.” He tells us. “I think he’s right. But it looks like it is about to wake up.”

Describe the food culture in Portugal

We have some of the most incredible talent and produce in the world- the finest seafood, cured meats, local produce, wines and young chefs- but still Portugal’s food culture is widely underestimated. Its potential has not yet been fully exploited. Out in the regions, and particularly in rural areas, simple, traditional menus still dominate. But in Lisbon, Porto, the Algarve and in wine regions such as the Douro, there’s far more choice, style and invention. 

How would you sum up Portuguese flavours in three words?

Cod, garlic and oil!

What is the most important meal of the day in Portugal?

We don't really do breakfasts, as we stay up so late and eat so much, so by mid morning we nibble on mountains of pastries from local pastelarias with a bica (espresso) Lunch is probably our most important meal. We have it pretty late on in the day and they are long and hearty affairs! Traditionally workers take 90 minutes for their lunch break but at the weekends this can stretch on for hours and hours. Meals and snacks roll into each other, by late afternoon we are back on the sugary stuff. 

Give us three dishes that encapsulate Portuguese flavours for you personally.

Salted boiled pork bones with corn bread. Portuguese ‘cozido’ wide variety of charcuterie; vegetables, meat, bones and snouts, pig’s feet and ears all go into the pot. Pigs are precious, and in Portugal nothing is ever wasted. 

Amêijoas à Bulhão Pato – what could be more simple or more delicious than a big steaming bowl of clams with big chunks of sizzling garlic with coriander?

Is it important to you to open people’s eyes around the world to Portuguese food?

I left Portugal over twelve years ago and worked in six or seven countries – Switzerland, Ireland, Spain and the Middle East. After travelling around Europe for a while, I decided to return to my Portuguese roots. For me it is very important to open people’s eyes to Portuguese food as it is still a relatively undiscovered cuisine. For years tourists have just been travelling to areas such as the Algarve and Lisbon, but the rest of the country has been largely undiscovered…until very recently. I am enjoying doing my bit in spreading the word, from my corner of East London. 

How would you describe the food in Leiria? Describe your family kitchen growing up? Was it typical?

It is a very small place but the traditional food is good. Leiria is in the southwest of Portugal so our diet was largely based on fish and shellfish. My dad always said “I may not have a Mercedes, but we will always have nice food at this table.”

What was your favourite dish growing up there?

Bacalhau Lagareiro is a classic dish made using cod, salt-baked potatoes and lots of garlic and olive oil. Lagareiro is the Portuguese word used to describe the workers of olive oil presses, so unsurprisingly this recipe is about putting the best quality olive oil at the centre of the dish. For me, this is one of those simple combinations of flavours and textures that characterizes Portuguese food.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about Portuguese food in England?

Nandos is a phenomenon here in the UK which means that people’s perception of Portuguese food is limited to piri-piri chicken….which isn’t even close to the truth. 

Do you think it is misrepresented here?

Yes very much- there is much more to Portuguese food than custard tarts (no matter how much I love them!) 

Leandro Carreira’s Food Guide to London

Best breakfast in London

Sadly, I'm never up in time for breakfast….one of the cons of being a chef is that you’re constantly working late nights with little time for early morning dining. When I do get time off, my wife and I head down Broadway Market or the Pavillion close to our house.

Best lunch/dinner in London?

Taberna do Mercado. Whenever I have time off I go and see my friend Nuno Mendes for lunch…that really is my kind of cooking.

Best Portuguese tarts in London?

Taberna do Mercado’s custard tarts are perfect- just like at home…maybe better.

Favourite bar at the moment?

Our round table at L.C, is where I do most of my drinking these days. In the summer we are going to do a bar menu so people can come and have a glass of Portuguese wine with some simple snacks, something we are guinea-pigging on my wife and our friends at the moment.

Favourite market in London?

Broadway Market as it so close to where we live and always has such a great buzz. I also like what Miranda York is doing down at Druid Street Market- bringing lots of new producers and chefs together, with great beer served alongside.

Best food shop?

Bottle Apostle in Victoria Park has a great selection of hard-to-find Portuguese wines and its also right on our doorstep. The Asian shops in Shoreditch, along Kingsland road are pretty amazing too- always something new to discover.