Fishy Business

I’m convinced that Portugal is the California of Europe. There are several reasons why that’s so, but at the core there’s only one word: geography. If Columbus had sailed west from San Francisco, he would actually have got to the Indies.

The ocean currents in both the Atlantic and Pacific are similar, but there is one major difference  between the two oceans.

Size matters. A Google Earth composite of the Pacific and Atlantic.

The Pacific Ocean is huge, so much so that land is hardly visible in the left hand globe. The Admiral of the Ocean Sea would have sailed the northeasterly winds, going south with the California Current, rather than the Canary Current. The Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria would then have headed west with the North Equatorial Current, reaching the eastern border of Asia. To get back, instead of the Torna Viagem that he learnt from the Portuguese, Columbus would have gone north along the east coast of Japan with the Kuroshio, the Pacific equivalent of the Gulf Stream, and returned home using the North Pacific Current, pushed east by the Roaring Forties.

Of course, if the Perfect Prince lived in California at the time, he’d have beaten the Admiral to India.

The moderating influence of the ocean currents blesses both California and Portugal with wonderful weather, typical of a Mediterranean climate—and allows the two areas to grow vines and citrus fruit. Like a son who left home and travelled far in search of wealth, California became rich as Portugal became poor.

Perhaps as a consequence, the urban pressure, traffic, and number of people in southern California affect quality of life in ways from which Portugal is exempt. And because California is so affluent, it’s a magnet for immigration.  It became so appealing during the great depression that many were turned back at the border. Woody Guthrie immortalized the diaspora of the dust bowl with the following lines:

California’s a Garden of Eden
It’s a paradise to live in or see
But believe it or not
You won’t find it so hot
If you ain’t got that do re mi

If you found that tune a little slow, try Ry Cooder for a change of pace.

With all this influx came crime, inner city ghettos, and gangs. Many writers have described these darker sides, each in their own way. I’ll mention two. The first is Eddie Bunker, who spent most of his life in jail, and wrote books where pain shows through every line. He ended up trying his hand at acting, and has a cameo role in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.

The second, much better known, is James Elroy. His stories of LA in the fifties and sixties are seminal, and distilled into the movie LA Confidential. It came out in the same year as Titanic, but for my money is by far the better film.

Grilled squid, serves four or more. If squid sounds a bit rough, you can always choose calamari. Don’t let the water fool you—the red wine is off camera.

Given the geography, the fish in California should be as good as in Portugal. And the fish in Portugal is the best in the world. But it doesn’t seem to work that way. In the US, meat is king, and fish translates mostly into salmon and tuna, and for the more wallet-conscious, tilapia.

The incredible range available in Portuguese fish markets, including sea bass, all sorts of bream, swordfish, tuna, flying fish, grouper, stone bass, sole, and maybe fifty others that don’t even have names in English, doesn’t have a parallel in California. Added to that, Portugal has one of the highest fish consumption rates in the world.

Hard at work, mussels hanging from ropes harvest the riches of the ocean in southwest Portugal.

In many restaurants the first thing you see when you walk in is a coal-fired grill. Most people in the US and northern Europe associate barbecue with meat, but in many parts of Portugal, fire means fish. In the southernmost province of Algarve, which is warm all year, the fish barbecue is an institution.

Once famous for the caravels of Henry the Navigator, the Algarve is becoming the home of a new industry, called offshore aquaculture. Far enough from the beautiful beaches of the Portuguese south coast, deep enough to ensure there are no environmental problems, millions of shellfish are grown to market size in a matter of months. The lateen sails of yesteryear are replaced by new discoveries, closer to home, but no less profitable.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.



One Response to “Fishy Business”

  1. Miriam Says:

    Beautiful. I´m so sure that Portugal will find the way to wealth, again.

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