At Home with Portuguese Appetite in Johannesburg

Try as I might, Johannesburg is just not the place this Capetonian can ever feel at home in. I was reminded of this on a recent visit, two days in which I could just as well have spent on Planet Jupiter, such were the number of un-Capetonian experiences.

Minibus taxis actually indicating before changing lanes on the highway between downtown Johannesburg and Centurion, for example, was a foreign occurrence of the out-of-body kind.

Another weird habit they have in that neck of the woods is that when one orders a certain wine, the waiter actually understands the name you have uttered. Yes, he or she will smile, walk away and retrieve the bottle of Vrede en Lust Viognier without the quaint Capetonian practise of dumbly grinning before asking you to point out your order on the wine-list.

Mama Cesco and Me.
Mama Cesco and Me.

There also tends to be an alarming shortage of hipsters in Johannesburg. By day two I was having withdrawal symptoms caused by the lack of greasy beards being prodded in my face, a paucity of tattooed limbs and the dearth of female underarm hair peering out from body-hugging T-shirts.

For two brief hours I was, however, treated to an experience that made me feel right at home. Cesco’s, an atmospheric eatery out in Strydom Park, has the look, feel and ambience of Dias Tavern, Cape Town’s finest Portuguese dining establishment and my home-from-home. Walking in, I scoped the cheap furniture, the loud sporting memorabilia, the grotty old soaks sipping Castle Draught and the hand-written specials board. It was lump-in-the throat stuff.

The proof is, obviously, in the food. A plastic menu told the tale of the usual Portuguese suspects – chouriço, calamari heads, trinchado, chicken peri-peri and espetada. But first, Joaquim Sá and I ordered a bottle of Casal Garcia to get the stomach juices stirring.

Starters were caldo verde soup and chicken giblets, served with two massive freshly baked white rolls the size of malformed baby heads. The soup was perfect, the green cabbage having been poached in chicken and vegetable stock before Mamma Cesco had added the pieces of potato and slices of savoury chouriço.

I was rocked by the chicken giblets. These delicacies, plucked from the lower throat of the chicken, had been gently simmered in a tomato and paprika liquid, with bay-leaf and white wine also joining the medley of flavours.

That Tripe.
That Tripe.

Correctly cooking chicken giblets requires the skill of a female moustache trimmer and the patience of a Danish virgin. Underdone giblets are glandular atrocities, slimy and putrid things tasting of puppy eye-balls. Overcook them and they become as tough as the worn scrotum of an 86-year old wildebeest bull.

Mamma Cesco had done a perfect job, cooking the giblets to a texture which was firm to the bite, yet gave way easily to reveal an unctuous fatty, fleshiness perked by the cooking sauce.

To the Cesco’s blackboard specials, and Tripe Portuguese was ordered by both Sá and I without the slightest hesitation. It had begun to rain outside and the sky was grey, which made it perfect weather for eating this kind of hearty fare.

The dishes arrived and Sá and I dabbed at our eyes with paper napkins, such was the emotion. It was all just so damn perfect.

This tripe had been cooked the way it is done in the eastern parts of the Alentejo region and not in the more familiar style of Porto. This means no beans or slices of chouriço. Just mounds of cow, pig and sheep stomach, braised for half a day in white wine, olive oil and wine vinegar.

It was a beautiful thing, and in the habit of true Portuguese men we sat about eating our tripe without saying a word, save for me telling the joke about the cork stopper, the tango dancer and the Indian. The three different type of offal had blended seamlessly to form a symphony of flavours and textures. Rich and silky soft, the food was as earthily aromatic as a fine red wine from Burgundy. Each mouthfeel had a depth of tastes, all meaty and creamy and soulful, everything complemented by the accuracy of the cooking.

The last morsels were devoured, the sheen of the fatty sauce staining our mouths as the final bits of meat were eaten in between bites of white crusty bread.

Finally, a chicken peri-peri was ordered to ascertain the status of Cesco’s on the Portuguese eatery scale.

It arrived next to a mound of golden fried potato wedges, which I found a bit disturbing. Potato wedges are a bit dandy and poncy for a place like this. Like Dias Tavern, Cesco’s should be serving real, long, greasy chips.

Wedges and chicken peri-peri.
Wedges and chicken peri-peri.

In any event, Sá and I were not going to allow a potato to get in our way. The chicken was a bit pale in appearance and I missed the charred crust a well-done fire gives this classic dish. But maybe Cesco’s griller was on sardine-scaling leave.

What the chicken lacked in appearance, was certainly made up on the flavour count. The flesh was tender and moist as a Lithuanian beach volleyball player in Game Seven, and the taste perfectly combined a more-ish lemony freshness with a zesty back-burn. The latter was a bit much for Sá who cried “agua dente” after the first two bites, leaving me to polish of the fiery bird with my two amigos Casal and Garcia.

A fine meal on every level, affirming that home is indeed where the appetite is.

·       Emile Joubert

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