The only two-Michelin-star chef in Portugal calls her “grandma”; the others go to her for advice. Almost 60 years after taking television by storm and 30 years after releasing the bible of traditional Portuguese cooking, Maria de Lourdes Modesto never stops.
An 85-year-old woman falls ill. Pneumonia. The mild Portuguese winter can be cruel. It’s not the cold; it’s the rain, the damp, especially by the sea. Against her wishes, the octogenarian takes a course of antibiotics. It isn’t enough. She takes a second one, and tells the doctor: “You have to get rid of this for me, because I’ve still got a lot to do”.
The anecdote is both true and recent. And anyone who knows her will testify: Maria de Lourdes Modesto, gastronome, leading connoisseur and promoter of traditional Portuguese cooking, still has a lot to do.
Right now, she’s busy with a new book. The editor wants it as soon as possible; she can’t even foresee the end of it. The problem isn’t the theme, or even the content. She’s going back to comfort food, the same she used to make at home back in the 50s and 60s and which today, in a world of “chefs”, spherification and gourmet dishes, is coming back into fashion. The question is how to do it well: to explain, to justify, to contextualise. “For everyone who reads a recipe and is able to follow it, there’s someone else who asks, ‘Why?’ So I explain.” It’s a lot of work, she bemoans. But she can’t see any other way of doing things. Falling ill is a stumbling block. “I really couldn’t face the computer. Then I realised it was because I had quite a serious case of pneumonia. I was floundering. Really floundering.”
In practice, the book will represent a return to her early days on television, at the suggestion of people who probably don’t even know she was once a TV star. The programme was called Cooking and was broadcast at prime time, on the only public television channel. Lourdes Modesto, the Julia Child of Portugal, grabbed the limelight with what for some was a series of chances and for others was a host of talents.
It all began in 1958, at the French Lyceum in Lisbon, where she’d been teaching Home Economics for eight years. After seeing her perform in a Molière play, a cultural programmes’ assistant invited her to take part in a television show. She could do whatever she wanted. She decided to take artichokes to show how to prepare them and suck out the flesh, on live television. She caused such a sensation that the programme director wouldn’t let her leave. “Mário Castrim, a critic who normally gave us a lot of grief – which was usually well deserved –, wrote: ‘At last, someone who knows how to talk has come on to television,” she recalls. “No-one taught me. It was all spontaneous.”
We chat on a windowed balcony overlooking the garden. In the quiet of the suburbs, only half an hour from Lisbon, Migalha, a little dog with bows and black curls, makes up for her owner’s deafness with a hyperactive state of alert. Not being able to hear is her great limitation and, perhaps, the only one. In black high-top trainers, it’s easy to see why in the 60s they used to say she was like a “girl from the future”. Outside the window, there’s a huge bird of paradise plant. Inside, we’re amazed by the supernatural orchids. Gardening is something else she takes pride in. “That one”, she points to an example with well over a dozen white flowers, “is the weirdest. It’s been flowering constantly for almost three years.” The secret, she will reveal, is for them to get warmth as well as cold – the climatic conditions of that winter garden.
It’s here that “the guardian of the fire”, as she was called by the critic José Quitério, receives her visitors. “Youngsters”, who seek her out for their Master’s theses – and who ended up giving her the idea for this new book (“I came to the conclusion that people miss things, but don’t know how to make them”). And also respected chefs, such as Joaquim Figueiredo, who’d been there the day before. Considered one of the pioneers of modern Portuguese cuisine, he heads a small hotel and restaurant in south-west France. “When he comes back to Portugal, he always spends an afternoon with me”, she says. There’s a story behind their history. “He wanted to meet me because in [Traditional Portuguese] Cooking there’s a recipe I describe exactly the way his mother used to make it. It’s a simple thing, some potatoes in a pot, from Beira. He must have felt nostalgic when he read the recipe. I gained credibility. I became part of his life.”
While television made her into a star, it was the books – and one in particular – that lifted her up to Olympus. For the brilliant chronicler Miguel Esteves Cardoso, she is the “Goddess of cooking”. And Traditional Portuguese Cooking, released in 1982, is the bible of national gastronomy – in addition to being a huge success, with over 400 thousand copies sold in a country of only 10 million inhabitants.
Never imagining the success that was in store, fear was her predominant feeling at the book launch. It had been a long time coming. Over 20 years. First, collecting recipes from all over the country (criticised for the way she made certain dishes on television, she launched a recipe competition). Then, mulling over them. Travelling, visiting the correspondents, learning from them. “Every time I talked to someone, I realised the recipe was something really important for her. That it was part of her history, of her family’s history. There were people who cried when they talked about the food their grandmother used to make”, she says. “I was terrified about writing the book.”
It took a doctor’s brain tumour diagnosis to make her decide to go ahead. “I thought: ‘Right, I’m going to die and I haven’t written the book. That’s dreadful. People have been so generous. I’ve bothered them by phone, in writing…’” The diagnosis fortunately proved to be wrong, but it worked. Three years later, the heavy volume was in the bookshops, published with the help of a first-class team, from the photographs by Augusto Cabrita and Homem Cardoso to the design by the exceptional Sebastião Rodrigues.
How does she feel when she looks at the book today? “I think I could do better”, she replies, with the anguish of perfectionists. As hesitant about accepting compliments as she is about claiming the credit, she agrees that all cooks buy “Cooking”, as she calls it. And that not long ago a young 17-year-old sent her a “wonderful letter” via email, saying that she loved the book and she “wanted to be a great chef in the future”. “I thought it was so funny. I sent it to my list of people connected to gastronomy and I wrote, ‘Will history repeat itself?’”
The goddess’s grandchildren
The “story” is that of José Avillez, 36 years old, perhaps the best known Portuguese chef ever, with two Michelin stars for Belcanto and five restaurants in Chiado, Lisbon’s most up-market area. “Avillez also began with a chat like this, here, on this balcony,” she explains. She started introducing him as “grandson”, to which he would retort, attentively, “my sister”. Today, he calls her “grandma Lourdes”. They talk on the phone and by SMS. When he won his second star in 2014, she was worried more than anything else. “I thought about the pressure”, she says. But Avillez is an exceptional person. He has a set of extraordinary qualities. He doesn’t stop. He’s got a lot of common sense. He’s intelligent.” She stops and adds: “There are a lot of other chefs I really like, too”.
It’s easy to understand how careful she is about what she says. Despite the description, she’s one of the most influential figures on the national gastronomical scene. Being fair is a concern. She praises Vítor Sobral – TAP’s on-board chef –, Leonel Pereira, Miguel Castro Silva, all working cooks. “My problem is I have to munch. I like to eat. I’m not satisfied just with tasting.” She believes that traditional food is getting better, but thinks it’s a shame that young cooks don’t devote themselves more to tradition. “They claim to start off with traditional Portuguese flavours, but then they change them so much that people can’t find them…”
For her, cooking is something serious. She prefers home-cooked meals, simple but good, and served at the right time. Among her group of friends she’s the only one that has tea, she laughs. “I’ve got a real sweet tooth. I love making jam. I start off with pumpkin and keep going till I get to quince jam,” she says. But “you have to do other things, read other things. Not only from the trade; literature, too.” The Portuguese novelist Mário de Carvalho is one of her favourite authors. To take things easy she does handiwork. Knitting. “It’s the best thing there is to relax.”
An 85-year-old woman recovers from pneumonia. She’s got a curriculum that’s difficult to match. It includes an essential work verging on the eternal. She’s an advisor for young chefs. Even so, she never stops: making plans, working, creating. What drives her after a 60-year career? “When I got married, my husband couldn’t believe it: ‘Aren’t you capable of doing nothing?’ I find it difficult.”
She surrounds herself with active people. She doesn’t want to be isolated. And, then, there are facts we don’t even want to find arguments against. Food is health, it’s affection, it’s pleasure. “What could be more important?”
text Joana Stichini Vilela photo Paulo Barata
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