images/features/The Art of Culinary Travel
From the Yucatán to the Iberian Peninsula, Ferrantino travelled far and wide en route from his native Apulia, Italy, to the Algarve.

Matteo Ferrantino

The Art of Culinary Travel

Italian-born Matteo Ferrantino arrived in Portugal seven years ago after a long and winding route through Europe and USA, working in some of the top restaurants along the way. With Portuguese cuisine tickling all of his taste buds, this looks set to be his final destination (for now, at least).

WORDS: Anna McNay|PHOTO: Tor Söreide| 27 February 2015

The Art of Culinary Travel

‘If I had to describe Portuguese cuisine in three words, they would be: sunny natural food.’

'IF I HAD TO DESCRIBE Portuguese cuisine in three words, they would be: sunny natural food,’ says chef Matteo Ferrantino, who works alongside Dieter Koschina at Vila Joya, one of the only two Portuguese restaurants to hold a prestigious two Michelin stars. ‘All the foods here are full of energy when you touch them. Energy from the sun. The products are really amazing. You can feel that they are good.’

Ferrantino hails from the small town of Mattinata in Apulia in the south of Italy, but he believes he has found his place in life in the Algarve. ‘I have found what I like in my life: the food, the products… I seem to have found the right place for my tastes,’ he says. And this comes from someone who has travelled and worked in Italy, Spain, the UK, Austria and Germany. So something must be right! ‘

I never saw such good fish in my life,’ he continues. ‘The quality is amazing. As are the fruit and vegetables. Bananas, oranges, tomatoes, olive oil. They’re all very good products. We get almost 300 days of sunshine per year here, and the Atlantic Ocean is a really cold sea which is just perfect for fish, as they need really cold water.’

Ferrantino’s kitchen style is modern, but he has learnt a lot of traditional Portuguese recipes from friends and colleagues, books, and visiting fish markets and farms. He likes to bring these up to date in terms of presentation, while maintaining the best of time-honoured flavours. Mediterranean in style, everything is cooked fresh, using a lot of olive oil and a lot of fruit. Fish is often lightly grilled, or served raw, with a lot of lemon, oil, and coriander, almost ceviche-style. But Portuguese cuisine also favours slow, long cooking, like stewing, and combinations of meat and fish are also common.

The single most important Portuguese food, about which Ferrantino could wax lyrical for hours, is Porco Preto, or ham made from a special race of Iberian black pig, raised in large fields of holm oak trees. They feed mainly on a type of sweet acorn called bolota, wild herbs and roots that they find between the oak trees. This diet gives them the famous 'nutty' taste and smell. There are two principal dishes which Ferrantino recommends as exemplary of Portuguese cuisine, and these both include Porco Preto as a key ingredient. The first is Porco Preto Alentejana, which means ‘black pig Alentejana-style’, and in which the ham is cooked with clams, olives and potato. The second is Cozido à Portuguesa, a rich stew made from Porco Preto, chorizo, bacon, and various other parts of the pig, cut small and cooked with vegetables and served with cabbage. Ferrantino has taken this recipe and made it his own, cooking it first in its traditional manner, before separating off the juices, which he keeps as a sauce. He then feeds the meat and vegetables to his staff, before cooking fresh meat and vegetables for his restaurant guests, and serving them in a new way with the sauce drizzled over the top. ‘Then when you eat it,’ he says, ‘what you feel in your mouth is cozido à portuguesa.’ Even the fat from these pigs is good. ‘It’s healthy. It’s not high in cholesterol, so you can eat as much as you want.’ The pigs, who roam free over a region the size of Israel, have a metabolism like hippopotamuses and regularly have to go to the water to cool down. Because of this and their diet of acorns, their meat is marbled, like wagyu beef used for teriyaki in Japan. The Japanese cows, however, are given special massages and fed on beer to bring about this effect, whereas the Alentejo pigs are naturally this way. Accordingly, their fat is unsaturated and melts away when the meat is cooked, making it very healthy. In fact, every bit of the pig can be used – even its hairs are used for terrines. ‘You can cook them for a long time until they’re really soft, add salt, pepper, and some vinegar, and press them into terrine.’ Et voilà! Or should that be e aí está!

Another animal of which no part is spared is tuna. Its loins, belly, cheek and marrow can all be put to use in the kitchen. Portuguese tuna is, according to Ferrantino, ‘the best tuna in the world’, and, every day, some 100-200 fish are sent to Tokyo to be turned into sushi in some of Tokyo’s best sushi bars and restaurants – that’s 70% of the Japanese capital’s tuna. On the seafood front, Portuguese turbot and Atlantic (blue) lobster also deserve a mention.

Ferrantino has worked with a lot of ‘celebrity’ chefs over the years, both as part of the International Gourmet Festival, and at Hangar-7 in Salzburg, where he worked alongside Eckart Witzigmann, Roland Trettl and numerous guest chefs from around the globe. One of his favourite chefs is Joachim Wissler of the three Michelin starred Vendôme in Bergisch Gladbach, near Cologne, Germany, but he also highly respects Joan Roca of El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain.

All of this stardom taken into account, he nevertheless feels he learns the most from simply taking the time to travel around Portugal and visit old fashioned Tasca Portuguesa (traditional restaurants), where there might be an 80-year-old woman cooking very traditional food and serving up petisco (like tapas). It is from these recces that he draws inspiration for new dishes. Sometimes he even discovers new ingredients, but more often it is just new combinations. If he’s very lucky, the people might be friendly enough to show him how they’re cooking too. Asked if it’s ever a two-way exchange, Ferrantino laughs. ‘At 80-years-old, a lot of these women are very set in their ways!’

Nevertheless, Ferrantino sees himself as something of an ambassador for Portuguese cuisine, and he firmly believes that it is becoming and will continue to become ever more popular: ‘Portugal is a really small country, but it is rising really well in the ranks.’ Speaking on a more personal level he adds: ‘Now is my time. I have a lot of experience and I love my job more than anything. I want to use my name around Europe.’ He’s still not sure what the highlight of Taste Portugal 2014/15 will be but he is looking immensely forward to being involved: ‘I think it will be a big and great event and I don’t think it will stop there. This is just the start. In a city like London, with such a mega business around food and gastronomy, there is scope for many projects.’

Amongst other things, Ferrantino believes London needs more good Portuguese restaurants. ‘In our restaurant,’ he explains, ‘we have a lot of English guests, and none of them wants to go back home to the UK because of the food and the weather.’ In summary, Ferrantino’s belief in his adopted country’s cuisine is unwavering. ‘Portuguese cuisine deserves to be more highly regarded internationally,’ he concludes. ‘The level is completely there.’

Matteo Ferrantino will be preparing finger food and Portuguese tapas at 28°-50°, Mayfair, Maddox Street in London, 11 March 2014.