Gabriella samples soul-saving sausage and other Iberian delights at Taste London

While we Londoners are happy to pop out for anything from Italian to Indian, Portugal has always been slightly over-looked on the London restaurant scene.

Now an initiative from AHRESP (the Portuguese hospitality & catering association) is aiming to spread the word about Portuguese gastronomy to food lovers, chefs and restaurateurs.

That’s the reason we’re trekking down to Tobacco Dock on a rainy Saturday night, ready to discover how Portuguese cuisine extends beyond a cheeky Nandos.  

Taste Portugal, as the initiative is knows, has taken up residence in the basement of the historic warehouse that is playing host to this winter’s Taste London festival.

In contrast to the wintry weather outside we receive a warm welcome, with a series of stands designed to take you on a culinary tour of Portugal.

Like many good recipes, we kick off with olive oil. Like much of Taste Portugal the goal here is to get foodies and chefs thinking about Portugal when in the past they may have defaulted to Italy or Spain.

Portugal has an impressive heritage when it comes to extra virgin, having scooped  gold medals for more than 10 years at the’Olive Oil Oscars’ –  the Mário Solinas awards for international oil.

There’s a good variety of oils here, with staff on hand to talk you through how the different areas of Portugal produce different styles and flavours of high-quality oils. There’s a distinctive bitterness about all my favourites here that would lend themselves to drizzling over salads for those in search of something a little different.

After oils, it’s eels – we are in east London after all. Eels are a staple of Portuguese cooking, most usually whipped up into a stew. Today we’re having them flavoured with a little oil, some garlic and tomato.

The result is not what I expected. Very tasty and more like sardines or mackerel than any eels I’ve sampled in the past. These eels come in cute little retro tins and served on a small piece of toasted bread they make an interesting canape.

Next up we enjoy sausage and cheese. Alheira sausage, is known as the Sausage that Saved Souls. Legend has it that the recipe comes from the times of the Inquisition – when Jews in rural areas who had converted to Christianity to avoid expulsion from Portugal invented a sausage that could be made without pork, allowing them to continue with a kosha diet while not arousing the suspicion of local inquisitors.

Alheira has now come to mean any sausage made with bread, paprika, and garlic and has become very much a part of mainstream Portuguese cuisine with a taste and texture not unlike that other Iberian favourite, Chorizo.

The sausage pairs nicely with creamy Serra da Estrela cheese. Made in the highest mountains of Portugal, this cheese contains only three ingredients:  salt, thistle and raw sheep’s milk from a specific and indigenous breed of sheep known as Bordaleira.

We wash this all down with an extremely drinkable Cabernet Sauvignon and a sparkling white that compares favourably with Prosecco or Cava. Again the message is that foodies should be encouraged to try a Portuguese option as a break from the norm.

No foodie tour of Portuguese would be complete without Bacalhau: the dried, salted cod that has become synonymous with the country’s cuisine.

When I’ve tried Bacalhau in the past, it’s always been just that little bit too salty for my taste. Fortunately there are two top Portuguese chefs on hand to pan fry the fish in front of your very eyes with olives, caramalised onions, chives and eggs. The result is much more palatable – reminiscent of kedgeree and very, very moreish.

The Taste Portugal initiative has lofty ambitions to get diners and the catering trade to take a break from the culinary beaten track and sample the delights of Portuguese cuisine and ingredients.

Clearly that won’t happen overnight, however I certainly found it an informative, eye-opening and mouth-watering tour of a nation that is working hard to put itself on the culinary map.