I am sitting in a cafe with my back to the clatter and splash of the fish market. Before me – in blue-sky Panavision – the wide, heat-hazed, island-dotted Ria Formosa lagoon is in constant motion, a brilliant white sun glinting off its chuckling waters. On the sandy seabed revealed by the ebbing tide, stick figures are bent into upside down U shapes. They are digging for clams, for Olhão, on the Algarve, is Portugal’s clam capital.
I am eating my bodyweight in clams (amêijoas). I am in my element and up to my elbows in winey, briny, heavily garlicky clam juice. The dish is called amêijoas à Bulhão Pato – after 19th-century polymath, poet and gourmet António Raimundo de Bulhão Pato – and every simple cervejaria and taberna here serves it.
Bulhão Pato was a Portuguese pre-Raphaelite, if you like, prone to Byronic rhapsodising, celebrated for both his ultra-romanticism and his appetite. Nobody knows for sure why the dish is named after him, save that he loved food, and that clams à Bulhão Pato is most definitely a dish for food lovers.
On that limpid June day 15 years ago, this food lover fell for Bulhão Pato’s clams, and for Olhão, in a big way. I was still loitering in that quayside cafe much, much later (and contemplating yet another pile of shells) when, the tide having turned, the gangs of clam diggers shouldered their hoes and rakes and set off for home. Their work, I would learn, is very rough on the body – broiling sun overhead, rheumatic cold seeping into your joints from the clammy sand below. Yet they were cheerful and bawdy, a sunny reflection of this tough, vibrant fishing town.
Falling in love while sucking and nibbling the sweet, yielding meat from clamshells isn’t any harder than making the dish itself, for clams à Bulhão Pato is Portuguese fast food: three minutes max from pan to plate. And in my case, three minutes to decide that if that was fast food, I’d linger there … And that one day I’d open a taberna serving shells a go-go – clams that taste of the tide – and, perhaps, persuade a shell-struck fool or two to fall in love with this place too …
And I did! Chá Chá Chá opened in April 2018, a minute’s walk from Olhão’s celebrated fish market, and serves fresh, locally dug clams every day.
• Travessa do Gaibéu 19, Olhão, on Facebook
Amêijoas à Bulhão Pato
Serves 4 as a starter (or one greedy food writer)
1kg clams, rinsed clean of sand or grit
5 cloves of garlic, skin on, lightly crushed with the back of a knife
A good slug of good olive oil
A supermarket bunch of coriander, stalks and leaves separated and snipped
250ml white wine
Heat the olive oil in a large lidded frying pan until medium-hot, fry the garlic until coloured on all sides, then add the coriander stalks.
Increase the heat, and add the clams and wine. Cover and cook for two minutes, giving the pan a good shake from time to time.
Add the leaves, stir them through, and serve with sturdy bread, or even french fries to soak up those juices.