They made, we ate: Portugal is an untapped gem, rich with community and culinary delight

ERICEIRA, PORTUGAL — They cooked on charcoal grills in restaurant entranceways and, in one typically narrow street, in the hallway behind the kitchen — inside the restaurant. At home, they cooked outside on grills and indoors on cooktops and ovens.

For a week straight, they made, we ate. They made, we ate. It was a small gathering of Nieman fellows from our 2010 class — nine in all, including four teenagers — but it was a hungry one and, true to form, a thirsty one, too.

The fish went by the names of salted cod, sardines and a buttery wonder called dourada. There were shellfish  too — clams, mussels and mango-sized prawns served in a garlicky sauce that was worthy of all those calories, especially when sopped with crusty Portuguese bread.

At a seaside restaurant called Furnas, named for the rocky shoals outside the restaurant, we ate a crustacean

Percebes from the Ericeira restaurant Furnas. “It tastes just like the sea.”

the Portuguese revere — a creature called percebes that looks like something out of “Alien” but tastes exactly as our marvelous hostess, Joana Gorjão Henriques, promised it would: “just like the sea.”

Because no seaside eating adventure is complete without a contribution from our surfer pal

Isabel, minding the chicken for me — and translating Celsius to Fahrenheit.

Spike, one night I made Steve Pike’s lemon chicken with the help of Joana’s sister, Isabel, a fabulous cook. We melded the flavors of South Africa and Portugal (though, I think the recipe originated with a Brit), which seemed apt for our international group.

But mostly we noshed on seafood and pork — the Portuguese are serious about their chourico and linguica — all of it locally sourced. Isabel treated us to her octopus rice, starting with a pressure cooker (sign of a very serious cook), two octopi and one half of an onion unchopped. “Believe it or not, no water,” she said. It was delicious and, like the mystery crustacean, it tasted exactly like the sea.

Dinner with Luis at his remarkable home near Ericeira.exactly like the sea.

Portuguese food is amazing, including the prices. We bought sausage and chicken from the butcher who broke the meat down in front of us, and I paid less than one euro for a dozen yellow plums at a farmer’s market. Portugal may have the third highest unemployment in Europe, behind Greece and Spain, but we saw very few signs of it, even in the inner city. At an old printing factory turned entrepreneurial center in Lisbon, a shoemaker and designer (think Danskos but funkier) told me her business was going great guns and gave me an interview about why she refuses to offshore her product for my book.

We wondered why more people don’t vacation in this largely untapped European gem. Other than the couple from Northern Virginia I met in the airport, we saw no other visiting Americans the entire week.

These are Fontinhas (translation: small fountains) from a cute little cafe called Aroma a cha in Ericeira. They look like Pastel De Natas, but owner Maria Gracio told me they were a happy invention she and her partner made by accident one day when they were missing two ingredients. “All the people said it has almonds in it or cheese, but it doesn’t,” she said, carefully leaving out what it does have in it.

You can buy a top-notch espresso and the country’s ubiquitous pastry, the custard-filled pastel de nata — for less than two euros combined. The nine of us regularly ate out for less than 10 euros each, even at A Velha Senhora, the trendy tapas restaurant in a funky Lisbon neighborhood, where we’re told a decent two-bedroom apartment rents for around 600 euros a month. (Anthony Bourdain waxed his usual profane and poetic about eating his way through Lisbon here.)

But the thing that most struck me about the Portuguese was their inclusion of family in nearly everything they do. Friday night dinners involve multiple generations of children, copious amounts of wine and, rare for our own family of four, total immersion togetherness with no cellphones or text messages mucking up the scene. In the beach village of Ericeira, where Joana’s family has summered since she was a child, kids roam the tiled, café-dotted streets at night amid a multigenerational backdrop that feels safe, secure and vibrant in an almost-big city way.

We ended up spending more time with Max, our own 18-year-old who’s soon to leave for

Max in the monastery, Mafra.

college, than we had in months, probably years. (That may have had a little bit to do with Joana’s gorgeous teenage nieces, who gathered with us most nights.)

There was also the matter of the drinking age in Portugal, where Max was legal and enjoyed more than his share of Joana’s mohitos, which she begins by crushing sliced limes with sugar in a pitcher using only a wooden spoon (a long process that explains why her biceps are tougher than squid). Her father Luis shared his ginginha, a special family-recipe liqueur he makes with morello cherries. It doesn’t taste like the sea, but sipping from the bottle he kindly sent home with us will remind me of it and his modern, architectural wonder of a home, designed by Isabel’s husband, Zé Mateus.

While we cooked and ate for hours each night, we walked it off during touring centuries-old castles and cathedrals. (Lisbon is known as the city with seven hills, and navigating its ceramic-tiled sidewalks requires total attention and sure feet.) At  a monastery in Mafra, I lit a candle in memory of a young man I’m writing about at the request of his grieving mother. In Évora, we toured the creepy but oddly comforting Capela dos Ossos, with walls covered and decorated with human skulls and bones. Life is fleeting, the bone chapel reminds us with a welcome that

Dem bones, dem bones at the Capela dos Ossos, Evora.

translates to: “We, the bones that are here, await yours.” People actually travel from abroad to get married there.

We followed the surfers to the beach, where the breeze masked a sun that turned Max lobster pink, with thanks to Martha, our Boston traveling pal, for concocting him a black tea sunburn tonic. She also ventured out with 14-year-old Will at midnight to gather fallen lemons from Luis’s neighbor’s garden. When life gives Martha lemons, she stays up half the night making lemonade. (She also took three of the four kids off to Spain for a day while the rest of us played on another beach.)

Then there’s our other Boston traveler, Lisa, who could not leave “The World” (a program she co-anchors) behind, interviewing half the people we met — even the sardine

The sardine who gave his yummy life for us had no comment, despite Lisa’s persistent questioning.

bones on our plates. (They had no comment.) She spent the better part of a week in mythic search of the village fish lady, culminating with a foot quest on our final day in Romeirão with instructions that we should pick her up mid-morning in the village crossroads, which had us all shaking our heads, worried we’d never find her. But sure enough, there she was as we crested the hill, waiting for us next to the statue of a saint. (The fish lady was not available for comment, either, though word had spread across the tiny village that the American reporter with fabulous hair was looking for her.)

Joana with her mother and sister, Lisbon.

Teresa’s cookbook — and, yep, I’ve already asked for the beet salad recipe.

In Lisbon our last night, the trip ended with a dinner lovingly prepared by Joana’s mother, Teresa Fiadeiro, who consulted her handmade family cookbook to prepare Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá, a dish featuring codfish, hard-boiled eggs, potatoes and black olives, along with a remarkable salad of apples and beets.

They made, we ate, and the tasty memories kept coming, just like the sea.

The gang at A Velha Senhora, a tapas restaurant in a Lisbon neighborhood so cool (and reasonably priced) that it hasn’t made the tourist destination lists — yet.

I [Heart] the Hub

Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: I “graduated” recently from Harvard University, along with honorary doctorates Meryl Streep and David Souter and about two dozen new BFFs, aka Nieman Fellows. I put the verb in quotes because technically we don’t earn degrees or graduate; we audit Harvard classes and attend thrice-weekly programs and seminars at Lippman House, the program’s home base.

Monica, Audra, me and Janet at our faux graduation.

We earn “certificates,” which were handed out to us the week prior by Harvard President Drew Faust, who encouraged us to become the leaders of the new-media world. Faust spoke openly and engagingly, including about what it was like for her to travel abroad as a representative of Harvard and be “treated like a head of state.”

I can’t say we’ve been received as heads of state, but the Nieman Fellows have been feted and fed and saturated with enough intellectual fodder to last a lifetime, as I’ve tried to describe on this blog. We’ve been plucked from disparate newsrooms (and home offices) across the world and thrown into a challenging, welcoming environment that’s designed to send us back to our communities with renewed vigor and curiosity.

Among the things I’ve learned:

The Beeb (center) took me and Janet on an equally grueling hike in Quincy recently.

• How to serve a drop-ball in squash, a game I’ve become so enamored of that I’ll play even if it means re-aggravating the sciatica I pulled during my first time out last fall. (Props to my squash mentor, Martha Bebinger, who set a terrible example early on by diving for every single shot.)

• That Harvard professors were accessible not just through their lectures but also over drinks and dinner. Special thanks to Africa historian Caroline Elkins and public health professor Kathy Swartz, who were especially adept at dispelling the myth of the aloof, pinky-raised Hahvahd scahla.• That only Americans would add M&M’s into trail mix. This tidbit is courtesy of skinny South African pal Janet Heard, who also taught us our new favorite exclamation: SHAAAAAAAaaaa! It translates loosely to: Wow! Or, holy shit! Or, somebody get me a stiff gin-and-tonic! (In the realm of our dozen-plus goodbye gatherings, sending off the South Africans will be the hardest. They are the Scarecrow to my Dorothy; I’ll miss them the most.)

• That it’s possible for a municipality to spend twice as much per capita per school child than the norm, but only if it has pothole-riddled roads that would rival any Third World country. (Note to incoming Niemans: If you’re thinking of buying a new car, wait until the year is over. Our suspension is totally shot.) No wonder the Massholes are so crazed behind the wheel.

• That children continually surprise you. Max, the sullen 16-year-old, was so angry and depressed when we got here that he “quit” school on the second day. (We talked him into going after lunch.) Now, of course, he doesn’t want to leave — although we did have to bribe him with $10 bucks to participate in the year-end Nieman Kids photo. Eleven-year-old Will, on the other hand, told me at the end of the first day of school that no one talked to him at recess. “But that’s OK because that’s always how it is on the first day of school when you’re the new kid,” he added. (I covet his level of maturity, I really do.) Three days later, he was elected class rep by a bunch of kids who still like to tease him about his “country accent.” But now, he’s the one in our family who most wants to return home to Roanoke.

• That my husband happily carved out his own role as a so-called affiliate. Not only did Tom work full-time while sitting in on regular classes. He also had a mini-premiere of the film he co-produced, “A Gift for the Village,” with velvety-smooth narration by Nieman Lisa Mullins, anchor of BBC’s “The World” program. He gave his own sounding (life/work story) in May — and had everyone in the room laughing. He also initiated our buddy Steve Pike into the world of

Tom and Steve in Colorado -- or was it Vermont?

Landon Brothers: taking Steve to Vermont to snowboard with his crazy brother Mike and later to Colorado, to snowboard with his even crazier brother, Rich. He did untold favors for people here, just as he does back home — from video editing to technology training to printer-unjamming. And now he’s busy trying to figure out how we’re going to pack everything we brought up here into that 16-foot Penske truck, plus a couch we bought in the fall, plus a hutch and seven dining room chairs given to us by our Nieman pal Anita Snow. (They’re mementos from her AP days in Mexico City and Havana and, unfortunately for her/fortunately for us, they won’t fit into her tiny, ultra-expensive new apartment in New York, where she’ll be covering the United Nations for AP – but we will, when we come to visit!) Oh, and while we packed we helped the South Africans throw a braii (barbecue) to herald the opening of the South African World Cup. SHAAAAAaaa!

Gary Knight, our fearless default leader, on our winter outing in Stowe, Vt.

• And lastly, that I really, really hate goodbyes. It’s why I’ve been putting off writing my last Nieman blog entry. I’m one of those who likes to leave the party fairly early — while it’s still going strong — with a thank-you hug to the host and a quick exit out the back door. About half our buddies have already taken off for various points across the globe, from Kandahar to London to Toronto to NYC. We also miss our favorite Zimbabwean princess, MIT journalism fellow Firle Davies—known across the commonwealth for shouting “F—ing savages!” at passing cars who inadvertently splashed her and her tail-slapping Lab, Jessie, as they trudged through the cold Cambridge rain.

Will, the Zim Princess and Tom in Elkins' Africa course. "I didn't understand any of it," Will said. "But now I've been to Harvard."

We gave Firle an “I [Heart] Boston” T-shirt as a going-away gift because she so did not [Heart] Boston, especially the weather. But even she’s reported, via e-mail from her thatched-roof home in Harare, a growing fondness for the place. I think it’s us she misses the most. . . although it may also be our steady electricity. And her daily Bikram.

No ironic Boston T-shirt necessary for me; I do love the Hub (you gotta love a place that officially nicknames itself the Hub of the universe) — but not for its pomp and grandeur.

I love it because of all the great people I’ve gotten to know so well, so quickly here — a rarity in middle age. Or as our default leader Gary Knight put it the other day at maybe the seventh going-away gathering of the month: “This kind of friendship will probably never happen again in our lives.” (He’s the default leader because he and his fantastic journalist/wife, Fiona, have ended up hosting the most parties. And though I’m older than Gary by a couple of months, I’ll always see him as a kind of big brother/journalism adviser/shrink.)

Friendship like this is something to be grateful for, and to hang onto, as we leave the Hub and head back to our far-flung locales and beloved old friends, and set about realizing what a gift this year has been.