So there’s this thing in Portugal. A really quite endearing character trait of the people (and they have many such traits to choose from). It could be loosely described as eagerness to please, but it’s both more charming and more dangerous than that. If you ask a Portuguese to do something – anything at all – the chances are they will say without hesitation, “Yes, of course!” As in, “Yes, of course I can do that! And of course I know how to do it! No problem!” At the absolute outside, if they REALLY can’t do it themselves, they will have a brother, sister, cousin or trusted friend who DEFINITELY can.
It took me a while to figure out that their capacities don’t always quite match their claims. One notable example was when I asked one of the hotel gardeners in my team if he knew how to repair a section of the irrigation system. “Of course! No problem! Leave it with me!” he said. It should have been a simple and quick job, but I found him still on it nearly two hours later, struggling away with a blow-torch and various superfluous joints and accoutrements. I asked him to leave it, as gently as I could, and called in a (genuine) irrigation technician to fix it the next day.
I had to experience quite a few examples, with different people in different contexts, before it became clear that this was in fact a part of the Portuguese makeup. I guess it’s a combination of the aforementioned desire to please with a certain sense of personal (and national) pride. There’s a fabulous verb in Portuguese – desenrascar – which has no equivalent in English, but means something like a capacity to get oneself out of trouble; find a solution in a tight spot with little or no resources; an ability to “fix it”. It says everything about the Portuguese approach to problem-solving. They think on their feet, they find the quickest and cheapest way, they make do and mend, finding the “that’ll do” solution. (There was a great Wikipedia entry on the subject which has since been deleted, but fortunately someone saved it and put it here).
A favourite ancecdote of my engineer father-in-law touches on this. Imagine there’s a screw loose somewhere: the Portuguese will find anything – a penny, a paperclip – and tighten the screw there and then, whereas the German will send off special-order to whichever country it may be for the precise model of screwdriver for that screw, and wait the three months it takes to receive said screwdriver before tightening the screw. This is great sometimes – you can get a machine going again, patch over a hole in the road, and carry on working. But there are numerous such patchings that will need to be redone, ad infinitum, and a small extra investment of time and/or money in the first place would have resolved the problem permanently…
Anyway. Getting to the title of this blog, by far the most memorable lesson in this “Yes, we can!” approach was the case of my wedding cake. I had the whimsical notion that, instead of a traditional giant white frosted behemoth, it would be fun to do a Croquembouche – that frou-frou French invention of towering profiteroles, filled with melt-in-the-mouth crème pâtissière, topped with lashings of caramel and encased in elegant strands of spun sugar. My mother had had one at her wedding, and it struck me that it would be chic and fun and different. We were having our reception in the hotel where I worked (the same one of the irrigation incident), and the head chef, who was Swiss, assured me that this would be a fine idea. He seemed to know what I was talking about, and he seemed to know what he was doing. I requested a series of other favourite desserts – among them, forest-fruits cheesecake and lemon tart – and felt confident I was in safe hands. I didn’t realise he planned to order all these sweets with a Portuguese bakery who had previously only ever supplied traditional Portuguese goods, although at the time, still not being quite conversant with “Yes, we can!” and the real implications thereof, I might not have worried even then.
I was in fact so reassured by the head chef’s confidence that I never even thought to take a peek at the cake before the day. So when it came time to bring out the cake and distribute it to assembled dear friends and family, we were somewhat surprised to see the kitchen doors open and a trolley appear supporting what can only be described as a heap of plain-looking profiteroles covered, apparently, with grated Red Leicester cheese. It wasn’t cheese, of course, but “Fios de Ovos”, loosely translatable as “egg threads”, a Portuguese confection made of eggs and sugar and present in many of their finer desserts, but certainly bearing no relation to either spun sugar or caramel. I was too gobsmacked to be upset, and my newly-minted husband and I made the best of the situation, finding fun in the fact that un-sticking the profiteroles from each other required some force, resulting in theatrical “throws” onto the serving plates. When I got around to tasting the things myself, I was disappointed but not surprised to note that “crème pâtissière” had been understood as “margarine and sugar” by the bakers. The other cakes were similarly off base; all of them overly sugary, with unnecessary glazes and gelatinous toppings.
Our wedding day overall was a beautiful, colourful, musical, sunny and magical time – and the rest of the food was really special, so I have tried hard over the years to forget about the cake… or at least, not to regard it so sorely. But I often find myself wishing I had done things differently – either liaised more closely with the suppliers, or chosen something less ambitious (or simply more traditionally Portuguese).
Saturday was my birthday, and although heavily (HEAVILY, and painfully) pregnant, I decided to bake myself a birthday cake. Various people suggested ordering a cake, and were baffled by my resistance to the idea. And in fact, on reflection so was I, until I remembered the Wedding Cake. Portuguese birthday cake most usually consists of a very soft sugary sponge covered in very sugary margarine-y icing, and I wanted a cake my way. I’m pretty sure there are excellent cake-makers out there who would do exactly the cake I wanted, but at short notice and for such a small gathering (it was literally just an immediate-family tea), the idea of having to sift through them to discover which would REALLY do the job and not just SAY they could seemed unnecessarily stressful. So I baked myself a flourless almond cake, slathered it in raspberry jam, drizzled a lemon-zest cream over that and topped it off with fresh raspberries. Confession: the lemon cream was really supposed to be buttercream icing, but it didn’t whip up (damn you, UHT cream!) – it all tasted just as I wanted, though.
Happily, looking back on the Wedding Cake episode today, I finally got some closure. I was looking for images of Croquembouche to illustrate here on the blog what I had in mind at the time – and I was somewhat surprised and amused to discover that, actually, most of them are pretty ugly! The prettiest I could find, shown here, took a LONG time to find and still fall short of what I have held in my mind all these years as the “ideal” Croquembouche. So I’m left with the realisation that my expectation would likely never have been met even under ideal circumstances, and chuckling at how it’s niggled at me all this time.
And finally, there’s great comfort to be had in knowing one is not alone in one’s experience – I stumbled upon the wedding cake pages of the reliably amusing Cake Wrecks blog, which ALWAYS helps put things in their proper perspective. If nothing else, it proves that the “Yes, we can!” attitude, while definitely a national “thing”, is far from unique to the Portuguese…
So here’s to you, bakers Portuguese and worldwide, and your endearing, well-meaning but sometimes just a bit misplaced will to fulfill the job (if not the brief!), whatever it takes.