Tara O’Brady is the author of the bestselling cookbook Seven Spoons and the award-winning site of the same name. A food writer for The Globe and Mail, O’Brady is also one of the culinary hosts for the upcoming Portugal River Cruise. Learn more at GlobeandMailCruises.com
You’re one of the co-hosts for July’s cruise, and you were on the South of France cruise last year. From your experience, what makes them special?
The Globe and Mail cruise experience is truly exceptional, and I say that not only as a host, but also as a fan of the other journalists on board. The trips are unparalleled in the opportunity to learn from the Globe’s newsroom; to hear journalists speak in small-group settings, engage in conversation, and ask questions. The dialogue was eye opening and inspiring. As a host, the cruise was a chance to spend time with readers. It was an honour to engage with guests, sometimes teaching, sometimes simply taking in the experience together. It is a particular joy to introduce someone to their new favourite recipe, or to be a part of a fond memory. What’s more, it was the rare chance to to connect with readers beyond the written word. The spontaneous back-and-forth, their perspectives and opinions, all are a gift to me in the work I do.
You’ve been to many of the spots on this River Cruise before, can you tell us a bit about them and what makes them unique?
Portugal, especially exploring the Douro Valley by boat, is a journey without analog. There is a fascinating tension between old and new − in culture, art, architecture, and even the landscape. Though nestled in Spain, vistas somehow feel more untamed. The hillsides hug closely to the banks of the river in a way that makes you feel truly surrounded by them. The foliage and rocks verge on the prehistoric. Against that, we have the palaces of Sintra and Pena, straight out of fairytales with the ornamented ceilings of the former, and the crayon-box palette of the latter. At Casa Mateus there is a striking formality juxtaposed with wildness.
Do you have a favourite or a place you are excited to go see?
When we were planning the cruise last April, our time in Porto was rushed. I was so taken with the energy and sprit of the city — as well as the vibrancy of the restaurants — and I look forward to truly getting to know it. With the Port houses and streets rising around the ship, I can’t wait to step off board and explore.
As a food writer you must be excited for the culinary experience. What stands out about Portuguese cuisine?
Since Portugal had colonies in Asia, there is a very specific exchange and blending of culinary traditions. (It was the Portuguese that brought potatoes to Goa; the Indian Vindaloo is a version of carne de vinha d’alhos). While colonization is a difficult history, the cultural legacy is an undeniable point of pride for the Portuguese, and that global influence manifests itself in unexpected ways, referencing Asia, Africa, and South America. Portuguese cooking is also fiercely of its native place; with an emphasis on local products, treated in straightforward preparations to best showcase the specific qualities of those ingredients. Techniques are meant to highlight the meal, not the chef. I’m looking forward to some of the best seafood — on the scouting trip, we had astounding octopus in Lisbon and on board. I want sardines over an open fire, and salt cod fritters with the crisp coating giving way to lush interiors. I have been craving a fresh pastel de nata, with the pastry still warm and the custard deeply bronzed and delicious.