EN VOYAGE – Christmas in Lisbon – Part 1

Here we are, post-holidays, totting up the excess calories consumed, complaining to our colleagues about endless meals with relations and reading about diets that really get rid of those extra pounds. A futile, inescapable ritual repeated with monotonous regularity year after year. The annoying thing is that, when faced with our favorite dish or a pudding that promises to assuage (however ineffectually!) our momentary discomfort, someone always jumps up to remind us with false propriety that it would be a serious mistake to break the dull but healthy rules of staying in shape.

For those of us who belong to a world sick with opulence, learning to think of food in a different way, as a pleasure to be enjoyed responsibly and wisely, while listening to our bodies’ needs, may present a considerable challenge, a milestone to reach. It may mean accepting the regular occurrence of Christmas holidays, abandoning ourselves with our loved ones in the pleasure of a ritual in which food plays a profoundly symbolic role.

But there are those who would like to restore to Christmas its true sense of sharing, caring for the suffering, love, solidarity and friendship. The Community of Sant’Egidio is a lay catholic charity organization (in the sense that no priests attend, even during prayer) that works to meet the needs of the weaker members of society. The volunteers are not required to be Christians: what’s important is that they share a desire to help the ‘last’—people who will be ‘first in the Kingdom of Heaven’ but here on earth but have a hard life as social outcasts, with small gestures that help to build peace. Like the Christmas lunch for the homeless and the poor, held this year in a hundred European cities.

The Lisbon Community is not very numerous, but is growing, and this year the person in charge, Isabel Bento, manage to hold a real feast day for the homeless mendicos and the children of Azinhaga dos Besouros, a poor area in the northwest outskirts of Lisbon.

Isabel gathers together her group of volunteers on December 23 to explain how the day will be organized, in meticulous detail: tasks include laying and serving at tables, cooking, keeping the conversation going, wrapping and handing round gifts, “because it’s important for everything to seem like a real Christmas party. This is our way of giving meaning to the Gospel”.

The lunch is held at the church of Sao Paulo, at Cais do Sodré, behind the Avenida XXIV de Julho—a straight road along the seafront furrowed with the shiny rails of the tram that goes west to XXV Avril bridge and the Torre di Belém. The large metal Mercado da Ribiera building that houses a lively, colorful, chaotic display of vegetables and fish on weekdays is now closed. You feel that atmosphere of desolation and abandonment in the streets typical of holiday mornings, when only the desperate or the few with specific work to do are up and about early.

Preparations are underway in the large parish room, where the soupa canja is ready. It’s a soup made from finely-chopped chicken and rice flavored with spices from the colonies of Africa, India and Southeast Asia which have become an integral part of Portuguese cuisine. The soupa is the traditional starter and the meal would not be complete without it.

Ninety individual servings in foil dishes are delivered, containing the main dish, masa (pasta), a gift from Michele Guerrieri, chef of Mezzaluna “the temple of Italian food in Lisbon” (rua Artilharia Um 16). Guerrieri is Neapolitan-American, having left Naples for New York when he was a child. At 14 he began washing dishes in Long Island until he opened his own business, Manninos. Circumstances brought him to Lisbon where he created a style of cuisine that was a subtle fusion of Italian and Portuguese. His recipes are inspired by the aromas of his native cuisine, harmoniously blended with local products, like pimentinhos doces recheados com morcela (roast peppers with black pudding stuffing) or rigatoni con leitão assado e queijo da Serra da Estrela (rigatoni with roast pork and cheese from Serra Estrella), in which the pasta is served inside the concave cheese and mixed together until the creamy pecorino (from raw Bordaleia sheep’s milk) gives it a silky texture and sweet yet pungent flavor.

The food offered by the Community is a real Italian meal – penne with meat sauce cooked in the oven with ricotta and mozzarella. This dish is greatly appreciated, along with the frango a jardineira, stewed chicken with potatoes, peas and tomato sauce prepared by Trattoria Cozinha Maria of Campo de Ourique.

The homeless folk arrive in small groups, with the hesitant air of those who are used to being unwelcome. They shake hands with the volunteers who smile and wish them “Bom Dia, Bom Natal!” They have tidied their hair and carefully buttoned their coats but the streets leave indelible signs: the grayness of the sidewalks is reflected in their skin, etching deep lines, ageing faces and bending shoulders. It is hard to guess their ages, they all seem old.

The meal ends in the late afternoon, and the mendicos leave, each holding a colored package, happy with their unexpected gift. Perhaps they begin to think they might have friends. Pperhaps they can count on these strange people who approach them without fear or disgust, in their moment of need …

Adapted by Ailsa Wood

Photo by Camilla Cassottana

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