“Portuguese cooking is the worst on earth. Or, at least, the worst of any warm nation on earth. Obviously, Irish cooking could give it a run. Or Polish. But in its leaden, oversalted blandness, the cuisine of Portugal is, at best, what English cooking would be if we had better weather”, Coren wrote in his piece published at the beginning of this month.
Coren also makes reference to the historic allegiance between Portugal and the UK, saying: “It is a creaking truism of international diplomacy that the alliance between Britain and Portugal is the oldest in the world. It is less often observed that the alliance is one based not on political expedience but a mutual love of soggy cod, white bread, overcooked potatoes, plain cheese, sweet wine and cold custard.”
His outspoken views – in which he also claims the food in Portuguese hotels “is never Portuguese. People are on holiday. It just wouldn’t be fair” – have been slammed by national foodies after the review spread like wildfire on Portuguese blogs and social media.
Two of Portugal’s most famous chefs, Rui Paula and Miguel Rocha Vieira, have taken to their Facebook pages to defend Portugal’s gastronomic reputation.
“I do not agree. I cannot subscribe [to the views]. I cannot understand. If there is something that we should be proud of it is of the sea that we have and the food we make. Giles Coren, I invite you to come have lunch with me one day to see one of the main reasons that gives us pride in being Portuguese”, Chef Miguel Rocha Vieira wrote on his official page.
Chef Rui Paula meanwhile deemed the article “a real offence to our gastronomic, cultural and historical culture.”
“How you can make general assumptions about something when you only know the tip of the iceberg? For a critic, awards are not a free pass to shamelessly fire off in all directions at will. Surely someone with the responsibility of clearing the good name of the culture of a people, which has just been soiled, will take action to put this gentleman in place.”
Coren’s controversial assessment of Portuguese cuisine was made in a piece in which he reviews the London-based Portuguese restaurant Taberna do Mercado.
In his review, he gave the restaurant two out of ten. This is stark contrast to other recent reviews in the Telegraph and Time Out magazine, which both gave the venue five out of five stars.
Taberna do Mercado was set up by Portuguese chef Nuno Mendes, who found recent fame as head chef at celebrity haunt Chiltern Firehouse.
Nuno Mendes also made the cover of the June 2015 British Airways in-flight magazine, Highlife, which describes him and another Portuguese chef, José Avillez, as “Europe’s Greatest Chefs”.
He was also behind the acclaimed restaurant Viajante in Bethnal Green’s Town Hall Hotel, which within its first year of opening received a Michelin star and was included in the 2013 World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
Giles Coren has previously referred to Mendes as “every restaurant critic’s secret favourite cook.”
That notwithstanding, in his latest and arguably rather scathing review on Portuguese cuisine, Coren claims he is “speaking as an expert.”
“I’ve been to Portugal dozens of times and I have never had a good meal there. But then you don’t go to Portugal for the food, do you? You go for … Hang on, why do you go to Portugal?”
Recalling childhood holidays, he reflects: “When I was a child we went to the Algarve every summer so the grown-ups could play Monopoly and drink rum and Coke, and the kids could burn so gruesomely that blisters bubbled up on our shoulders and we simmered visibly, like soups. The food was the standout awful thing even then, with sterilised milk substituting for the fresh, pasteurised stuff we were used to at breakfast, and making our Frosties taste of Dettol.
In 1975 Portugal was already past its best as a holiday destination.”
Nonetheless, the frank critic says he doesn’t want Portuguese people to be offended.
“In many ways their crap food is what makes them so loveable. And I have eaten plenty of it (…) Which is presumably why the phrase ‘Portuguese restaurant’ is not one you hear very often.”
It seems, however, an army of Portuguese food connoisseurs have taken offence to Coren’s opinions, and a torrent of angry responses has been unleashed on social media.
While the odd observer does appear to be in agreement with the opinionated reviewer, scores more, fired up Twitter with scornful views of their own.
This did not go amiss on the critic, who replied: “Judging by all the Portuguese people with 1 follower calling me a c**t this week, I think I have singlehandedly got a country onto Twitter”, before adding: “I’m so bad with technology. Where’s the ‘mute’ function that works on a whole country?”
Speaking to The Portugal News Aníbal Soares, president of the Portuguese branch of the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, said he would describe the tempest created by the critic as a ‘Portuguese caldeirada’ [fish stew] - “if it wasn’t derogatory to [the dish]” – as he has mixed “several issues that have nothing to do with gastronomy, from various eras of his life” and ultimately shown “great ignorance and totally irresponsible research.”
Referring to Coren’s “generalisation” that Portuguese hotels never serve national cuisine to foreign guests, Mr Soares said often hotel meal plans such as the popular ‘all-inclusive’ do not offer scope for ‘á la carte’ haute cuisine, but that likewise, many tourists “do not seek gastronomic experiences, but a healthy, quick meal that is not too different from their habits.”
And in response to Coren’s claims that he has eaten at various Portuguese restaurants and always with terrible outcomes, Soares quipped: “That would be his bad luck, were it believable.”
Mr. Soares – whose career in the industry spans decades and includes roles as CEO of several multinational food companies such as Nestle, in Portugal, Belgium, Angola, Brasil, as well as participating in gastronomic competitions as jury in Portugal, and France alongside internationally acclaimed chefs – said the writer seems to simply want to “denigrate” Chef Nuno Mendes, and “felt the need to attack Portugal as a whole”, which “annually sees a rise in the quality and quantity of tourists, which year-on-year increases the number of Michelin stars, and which in order to compete with the international world of gastronomy also must have a contemporary cuisine.”
The head of Portugal’s Chaîne des Rôtisseurs said he hopes positive responses from respected national and international gastronomic journalists with regard to Portuguese cuisine and Chef Nuno Mendes, prove “how misleading” Giles Coren’s article is.
He concluded by inviting the critic to “write to me – I will explain.”