Across the UK, Portuguese cuisine isn’t so much having a moment as a renaissance. Heading out for a dish of piri piri chicken and fries at a certain casual dining restaurant chain has become habitual for many, and Chardonnay drinkers are waking up to the joys of a lighter, less hangover-inducing alternative to pair with their spiced chicken dishes in Vinho Verde.
Now, on the first floor of a lofty Victorian building, just a stone’s throw from London’s Borough Market, Jake Kasumov and (half-Portuguese) Marco Mendes have opened the city’s first Algarvian restaurant, to introduce diners to the traditional food of that region.
We spoke with the business partners and self-confessed “expert eaters” to discover what sets Casa do Frango, and the food of the Algarve, apart from the wider Portuguese culinary tradition.
We also get a definitive answer on how to cook the perfect piri piri chicken. Spoiler: the answer isn’t “cheeky”.
The starter: How it all began…
For Jake and Marco, it was a shared desire to bring the incomparable taste of traditional Algarvian grillhouses to a wider audience that sparked this passion project.
Jake says, “on a trip to the Algarve, I tasted the traditional way of cooking chicken using piri piri and it was incomparable to anything you can find in London (including Nandos!) It requires bringing years of technique and tradition, that have been perfected by the Portuguese for centuries.”
“The key is using charcoal or wood and never gas. We also use 3-4 month old chickens, which weigh in around 900-1100 grams” (for reference, a supermarket average would be 1.5-1.6 kilos).”We then butterfly the chicken, cooking it flat. The smaller chickens allow us to cook it evenly throughout, without losing any of the juiciness.”
Marco also explains the role that his heritage has played in developing the restaurant, “the technique of butterflying smaller chickens over wood originates from the area of Guia in the Algarve.
It’s where I grew up, and it’s where I have been eating that chicken since I was a very young boy. It’s where we have taken all our inspiration from. Jake and I really researched and developed in order to understand how to approach this style of cooking, and discover how much of a process it really is.”
“The other really exciting thing for us is that we didn’t have to import the chicken from Portugal, which would have been a huge drain on the environment and also logistically very difficult to achieve!
We are very proud to be able to source free range meat that’s been locally sourced — without compromising on the authentic Argalvian taste.”
The main: What you should be ordering…
Casa do Frango translates literally as ‘House of Chicken’, so diners can expect to have their cravings for the most classic piri piri items on the menu satisfied. However, if you are in the nation’s minority and don’t like chicken — or have quite simply had enough of it — Jake and Marco are very proud of their alternative menu choices.
For Jake, a firm favourite is the African Rice. “It’s such an interesting dish, because there are no set recipes for it — but loosely it is chicken, mixed with rice and peas with spices. It’s kind of a mix of everything!
It was originally used in restaurants as food for the staff, and its name originates from the fact that a lot of the kitchen workers in the traditional restaurants were from various Portuguese Colonies, and they would be the ones cooking it.”
“Our interpretation comes with grilled chorizo and peas, and it’s really quite special. The saltiness and crispiness of the chorizo, the sweetness of the plantain with the rice is lovely!”
Marco says that for him, it’s the Octopus Rice which gets his taste buds tingling, “it’s a dish which was re-interpreted by our food director here when we went on a research and development trip to the Algarve and took our whole team.
It’s proved really popular, and we are really proud of it because you wouldn’t find it on a traditional concept menu, and you can’t find it on any other London menu at that price.”
The palate cleaner: Piri piri’s remarkable history...
Piri piri is shrouded in rather more mystique than one might expect. With an array of rumoured origin stories to its name, we wanted to know the experts’ opinion. Marco explains, “piri piri is effectively a Portuguese cuisine sauce, which is a combination of chili with bay leaves, peeled citrus, salt and pepper, oregano and garlic all mixed together.”
“It’s a recipe that originated in Portugal, but which was then introduced to the Portuguese colonies at the time, so places like Mozambique, South Africa and Angola.”
In fact, there is no definitive historical point at which we can say piri piri was first created, but the understanding is that the origins itself came from South America. Something which might surprise even the most devout piri piri connoisseurs, is that the popularity of piri piri in Portuguese cuisine actually originated as late as the 1907s.
Marco explains that its surge in popularity at that time also helped the area to develop. “The Algarve itself was a very poor area and sparsely populated, and in the early days, one wouldn’t actually grill a chicken because that would be seen as a waste. You would cook it whole, then use the remains for a soup and make the most of the whole animal.”
Now, the majority of the Algarve’s tourism demographic is made up of English consumers — so it’s no surprise that the food is proving so popular in London.
The dessert: Getting tipsy on Vinho Verde...
The dedication to bringing diners an authentic taste of Portugal at Casa do Frango does not end with the food menu, the wine list has been agonised over, and is a point of particular pride for Jake and Marco.
“It’s been a real pleasure to pair our menu with a Portuguese wine list, and one wouldn’t necessarily expect to see our choices being paired with chicken dishes. The producers we have worked with were really excited to help us in creating a great, paired menu.”
“We are so proud to have a Portuguese wine list, and particularly proud to have represented several different regions. We hope that this will expose people to Vinho Verde to people for the first time properly in London.”
Is it sacreligious to enjoy a cocktail with your Algarvian fare? Marco laughs, “I don’t think anything is sacrilegious when it comes to pairing with piri piri! I think the beauty of the Algarve is that it’s an area of Portugal which is so relaxed and it’s all about slow living. There are no rules!”
We’ll raise a glass to that.
Looking to learn more? Here are the answers to the questions you’ve always wanted to ask as sommelier…