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The perfect book about Portugal, for Christmas or any other occasion

LucyPepper`How not to starve in Portugal` by Lucy Pepper, a book review by James Mayor

I recently read the best book in English that I have ever read about living in Portugal, or rather I ate it up, practically in a single gargantuan sitting. `How not to starve in Portugal` is by Lucy Pepper, an English writer and artist who has been living in Portugal for the past seventeen years and tasting every Portuguese dish on and off the menu.

This is by far the most hilarious account of `living abroad´ in any country I have yet come across. Please don`t read it on public transport, you will certainly miss your stop and possibly also be arrested for uncontrollable laughter.

Intrigued by her vivid tale of Portuguese life, I decided to meet Lucy Pepper for coffee at Teatro Taborda in Mouraria. She told me that seventeen years ago she fell in love with a Portuguese man with whom she has been living in Portugal ever since. In those days, Portugal was not yet the fashionable place to visit that it has since become and Lucy found herself living in a community in which she was practically the only foreigner. The best way to communicate and make friends in this strange new society was to learn Portuguese as fast as possible. Food and cooking were the vehicle which would make this possible.

Lucy affirms with passion that she is an immigrant, not an ex-pat. For her, being an immigrant involves a deeper level of engagement and integration with the new country in which you are living. Lucy not only speaks and writes Portuguese with ease, she also relishes grappling with a new culture: the skirmishes with incomprehensible points of view, the experience of initial rejection, the revelation of an entire treasure chest of new ways of thinking, the pleasures of ironic observation and finally the `victory` of being accepted and loved for whom one is: a foreigner, but above all a friend.

I suspect that cooking has played a central role in Lucy`s life for several reasons: like any artist she enjoys selecting and mixing the different elements of her composition, but I feel that for Lucy food is more like the potter`s clay: a physical and sensual material that always involves risky experimentation. Sometimes the pot may wobble and collapse, or else it may be a triumph and bring delight to the beholder. Lucy cooks for her two girls, her husband and her friends, and then writes about these creations, plunging us, like an Anglo-Portuguese Gunter Grass, into a bubbling pot of texture, colour and taste. She brings to life all the mysterious sausages, exotic soups and endless eggy pastries that crowd Portuguese cooking. Like guests at a party, we find it increasingly difficult to detach ourselves from Lucy`s buffet and giggle in complicity as she invites us to share yet another bolo.

As I have said, food is the central character in this lovely book, but it is far from being the only one. We meet many delightful neighbours, such as Dona Dorinda and Senhor Antonio-vizinho, learn everything we always wanted to know about the bata, the Portuguese house coat, share Lucy´s frustrations as she deals with local builders, hospitals, schools, driving habits and so on. She has very little time for the condescending attitude of the neo-colonialist and `How not to starve in Portugal` is sprinkled with Lucy`s affection for people and the quirky Portuguese spirit.

´How not to starve in Portugal` is the perfect gift this Christmas for anyone who loves Portugal or who is thinking of visiting this country. I wouldn`t be surprised if you wanted to buy a second copy for your own enjoyment!

In addition to writing about food and her life experiences, Lucy Pepper illustrates, paints, creates Podcasts and writes a weekly column for ´Observador`.

www.lucypepper.com


`How not to starve in Portugal` is published by Penguin Random House.

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See also: 'From Portugal, Stories of Saudade and Other Things... stories beyond sardines and pastéis de nata'From Portugal, Stories of Saudade and Other Things... stories beyond sardines and pastéis de nata'