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Portugal: The young man and the taverna

Once upon a time, Grandpa Francisco was the proprietor of Baleal’s very first shop. Today, his humble business has evolved into a hip eatery, blending Portuguese tradition with surf-culture. Samuel, the late Francisco’s grandson, is the brains behind the enterprise.

Samuel gazes out over the Atlantic. It is stormy today, the sea looks tempestuous. He can hear the occasional laughter of children, as they grab the last of the day’s waves before the sun sets. They hurl themselves skillfully into the white water on their bodyboards, desperate to catch the next wave.

The sky dissolves gradually into a palette of pastel yellows and oranges, lending the pale sand an even whiter, even brighter effect. The scene is at once familiar and dear to Samuel: the sea, the sand and the surfer kids. He has sat here and looked out at this view since he was a young boy himself. In those days, he would have been served by his grandfather. That’s now history, but a pleasant memory.

Samuel sits on the terrace of his little tavern, the Taberna do Ganhao, in the sleepy little fishing hamlet of Baleal. The town lies directly on the Atlantic, just 80 kilometre north of the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, and for much of the year it remains relatively unknown. Every October, however, it plays host to the Surfing World Championships, prompting an enthusiastic tribe of long-haired, broad-shouldered surfers and hangers-on to descend. For those few days each year, Baleal finds itself suddenly in the limelight. This sort of attention is unsought by Samuel, who is more content with the sort of illumination provided by the little candles he sets out each night on his café tables, just as his Grandpa did before him.

The story of the little tavern begins back in 1957. Two brothers, Francisco and Marquez, decided to create some sort of business from their parents’ old house. A holiday let? A restaurant? They eventually opted for the latter, and in the process created Baleal’s very first tavern – one of its kind among the Peniche restaurants. In those days, it was all about offering simple things that helped to make people’s everyday life easier, to provide a service to the locals. “One part of the building became the Taverna, the other a traditional village store, where people could buy fruit, rice and milk“, Samuel explains, glancing around at the now-busy street.

As befits an authentic fisherman’s tavern, the restaurant was built by hand, with friends from around the village all pitching in to help. And Francisco and Marquez created their own little empire in that traditional, white-painted building in the village of Baleal. They even had a telephone – the first in the whole region – a real milestone. Samuel remains proud of that early achievement to this day. And when he talks about it, a special little smile brightens the corners of his mouth. The brothers’ partnership did not turn out to be an enduring one, and by 1962 Marquez had departed. Francisco however carried on, pouring out endless glasses of wine and selling all manner of large and small essentials – until his death in 2001. From that time the doors of the tavern remained closed, its story untold.

“It was a project at my school that ended up bringing the Taverna back to life”, explains Samuel. His eyes light up. What would his grandfather have made of it? “Project Modern Taverna” was the name he had given to his assignment. Inspired, he sought the help of his friends and set about bringing his project to life. One old friend, a tattoo artist, designed the logo, whilst others helped with the renovations.

“We rearranged the layout a bit. Now there’s a kitchen, a slightly more finished decor and a proper terrace“, Samuel says. The entrance is guarded by a rustic fisherman, complete with sailor’s tattoos, beard and pipe. Is it Samuel‘s grandpa? Hardly. He grins again. But an apt symbol, for what the Taverna represents: something traditional, with a real story behind it, but given a new lick of paint and a fresh beginning.

The sun has now gone down and the terrace at the Taberna do Ganhao is crowded. Inside the restaurant, the gentle hum of conversation at the tables blends pleasantly with the background music. Samuel stands at the counter, the kitchen busy behind him. It is a full house. Like every night. The crowd is mixed. There are the surf students, famished after an exhausting day’s surfing instruction, who welcome an easy evening in the tavern. There are the families who hadn’t felt like cooking in their holiday apartments tonight and so decided to try out the little place everyone has been telling them about. And then there are the locals from Baleal and the neighbouring district, from Peniche and Ferrel, who return to the Taberna do Ganhao regularly. One thing they all have in common: they want to try the dish that the tavern’s gastronomic owner is becoming just a little bit famous for: Octopus, prepared in a variety of ways. “The Portuguese customers are the trickiest. They are simply never satisfied and always find something to grumble about“, Samuel observes, smiling faintly to himself. Perhaps he is no different himself. Perhaps herein lies the secret of his success.

“All of our produce is sourced locally, from this region. Only the tuna comes from the Pacific and the Azores. But the octopus is caught right here, right on our doorstep.” Samuel relates this with pride, as the chef passes two beautifully-presented plates into his hands. “Mesa três“, he shouts, hurrying the restaurant owner off in the direction of table number 3. One of the best in the restaurant, it is a small, round table in the furthest corner. There, where the entire wall is covered in wine barrels and where the old telephone, which the villagers used to make their very first phone calls, still stands. Today, the telephone is purely decorative, but it serves as a poignant reminder of the tavern’s past.

Every last table in the tavern has been booked. Just like yesterday. And the day before. Outside, by the entrance, still more people linger, waiting for that elusive empty table. Baleal had been lacking this sort of tavern, the sort of place its proprietor had always imagined, for many years. There still isn’t much in the way of choice. Peniche restaurants? Just one or two fish restaurants and a snack bar on the campsite across on the headland are given here in this area. “In my opinion, Portuguese cuisine really is the best there is,” Samuel declares, glancing with modest satisfaction at the empty plates as he returns them to the kitchen. There is rarely anything left behind. Why would there be, when everything is so freshly prepared in the kitchen. Is he ever tempted to take up a place at the stove himself? “No, I couldn’t do that. Spending all day in the kitchen? No way. Maybe one or two hours, but that’s enough for me.” No, Samuel is not a chef. But he is someone with a special skill: someone who has been able to bring back to life the business that his grandfather devoted so much effort to building. And in doing so, he has created a modern tribute to his grandfather’s legacy, laced with a special something that keeps his tavern in the minds of visitors long after they have left.
It is late into the night by the time the Taberna do Ganhao finally closes. Finally, quiet descends. Samuel sits down on his terrace one last time. He looks thoughtfully out into the night, savouring the peace ahead of the next day’s storm. The weather is going to be fabulous again.

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