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Why peri-peri chicken is possibly the best thing to come out of Portugal

Dan takes a break from silver service and heads to one of Cape Town's laid-back hidden gems.

by: Dan Nicholl | 20 Mar 2019

Here’s a list for you to ruminate over, and send in additions to (on the back of a Cristiano Ronaldo jersey): Portugal’s greatest contributions to South Africa over the years?

Nando’s is the obvious one, and with good reason – the chicken is consistently good, the brand has served South Africa well around the world, and I have a couple of mates who use the marinade as aftershave. (Geoff, Doug, you know who I mean.) Then there’s Jeannie Dee, the impossibly glamorous television starlet who, away from the spotlight sports the surname De Gouveia.

Weekends in Lourenco Marques will strike a chord with certain older readers. And there’s a case to be made for the Portuguese moustache having inspired a decade’s worth of Free State traffic cops in the 1980s. The reason for this cheerfully frivolous compilation is a lunch I had last week at a restaurant officially known as Vasco da Gama, but more commonly referred to as “Vasco’s” or the Portuguese Embassy.

vasco de gama menu

It’s more a pub that sells chicken, than a restaurant, and it makes no pretense to the contrary: a cheerfully understated place where tankards of beer bookend whatever Portuguese fare you opt for. And as well as a peri-peri chicken with a wicked bite, there’s everything from espetada, to chorizo, to sardines that a gallon of toothpaste won’t dislodge the memory of.

Dan Nicholl at Vasco de Gama in Cape Town

It’s also an unlikely place to go star-spotting, for the simple reason that celebrity firewood salesman (and former South African cricket captain) Graeme Smith owns it, with a few others, and regularly holds court at Vasco's.

I didn’t see Graeme last week but I did see former rugby player Tank Lanning, for the simple reason that we were dining together. I suspect he was christened otherwise – something terribly inappropriate for a prop, like Spencer, or Arthur, or Sheldon but Tank has stuck firmly, as it should for someone who’s opening gambit at lunch is to order two Black Labels for himself.

Those Black Labels paved the way for some wine (more on that shortly), and then half a chicken apiece, chicken that does the peri-peri cause great service – the spice is hot without being homicidal, but even more important than getting the heat right, is ensuring it remains moist. Dry chicken is a crime more chefs should be publicly flogged for, and attempts at peri-peri in lesser establishments frequently suggest the kitchen was attempting an unorthodox spin on biltong.

chicken at vasco's in cape town

But not at Vasco, thankfully – which brings me to the greatest example of them all. Ramires is a small, unremarkable restaurant on a quiet street in Guia on the Algarve, the stretch of southern Portuguese coast that’s home to splendid golf resorts, and holidaying Englishmen in football jerseys several sizes to small.

When I visited years ago, a cardboard cutout of Cliff Richard stood guard at a bottle store across the way, which I didn’t take as a good omen; and when the restaurant staff turned out to consist of Manuel from Fawlty Towers and his scowling grandmother, expectations plummeted. But Ramires had been touted as the place peri-peri chicken was invented, and perfected – and while I can’t vouch for the former, the latter is hard to contest.

Small, juicy birds bursting with spice and flavour, the meal proved an act of simple majesty that reduced a table of 12 to simpering fans – Cliff’s fixed smile notwithstanding.

What finished off the meal perfectly, however, was Portuguese wine. I’d loftily declined it until then, surmising that a bottle sold for a couple of Euros could only be horrible; turns out it can be both extremely pleasant, and some of the best value in Europe. Through the rest of that week I drank assorted Portuguese reds, kicked off by the bottle at Ramires; I can recall neither grape nor producer, merely the warm, fuzzy sense of enjoyment that swept through my Algarve wine experience. 

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There’s Portuguese wine on the menu at the Portuguese Embassy as well, including a white that I was a little less enamoured with (Tank kindly finished the bottle for me. He’s a good mate that way). But Portuguese red has won me over several times, and while I’d plump for a simple bottle over peri-peri chicken at its spiritual home at Ramires, Vasco da Gama in Green Point is closer to home, and does a fine job.

The Jeannie Dee of Portuguese restaurants in Cape Town? I suspect even Miss De Gouveia would be happy with that. 

What I’m drinking this week:

I’m on the road this week as part of the Absa Cape Epic commentary team, which means all manner of wine being sampled in between time on the microphone. A Hemel-en-Aarde overload saw Creation, Hamilton Russell, Bouchard Finlayson and Newton Johnson battle for Pinot Noir honours, but while I stew over that debate, something very different: the Saboteur white, a Chenin-led blend from Luddite, famous for their Shiraz. Made by Niels, a large, bearded strawberry blonde who’s been known to appear in public in a fairy outfit and pink Wellingtons, he’s as much a character as his wines – and this one in particular. Capped beer-bottle style, it’s a crisp, fresh expression of fun, but ready to give a big, bold meal a run for its money.

Want to see what else Dan Nicholl has been drinking? Watch his latest episode of Dan Really Likes Wine

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