It’s fitting that the recipe for the most iconic of Portuguese shellfish dishes, Ameijoas Bulhão Pato (clams Bulhão Pato style) is barely a recipe at all, more of a note on the back of a napkin. After all, Portuguese cookery nearly always spurns the fancy and highfalutin’ in favor of the stripped-down and elemental.
Portugal: A country of fishermen
Nowhere is this more apparent than with seafood. Portugal, jutting out into the Atlantic, has historically been a country of fishermen above all, and to this day it has the third highest per capita seafood consumption rate in the world (only Japan and Iceland eat more).
The markets here are filled year-round with fish and shellfish of the highest quality, and this already curated selection of the best is further winnowed down by the sharply discerning eyes of the local home cooks.
Clams Bulhão Pato: Perfect simplicity
What to do when you have scoured the market and found the Platonic ideal of a fish or a clam? You treat it with respect. Food cultures that have abundant fresh seafood tend to favor the simplest preparations, but they fuss over every detail.
You wouldn’t think that there could be much to say about some chunks of lobster tossed in warm butter and plopped into a white bun. But in New England, where I spent most of my life, people argue endlessly about the minutiae of the correct ratio of butter to lobster, how big the chunks should be, what type of bun is acceptable, and where the lobster should come from.
Great Japanese chefs spend entire careers perfecting what seems at first glance to be simple slivers of raw fish. Simplicity is deceptive; restraint is not easy; sourcing is an art form.
So it is with this streamlined concoction of garlic, coriander, and clams. The key is good olive oil and the freshest, sweetest clams. This is no place for big, meaty steamers or quahogs. Go for Manila clams or littlenecks.
And what of the moniker? Pato is “duck” in Portuguese, but the dish is in fact named after Raimundo António de Bulhão Pato a 19th-century politician, poet, essayist, and gourmet. In that latter capacity he perfected, transcribed, and championed classic Portuguese recipes, including this one.
Bulhão Pato lived much of his life in Trafaria, on the south bank of the Rio Tejo, directly across from Lisbon. Trafaria has vast mud flats that in Bulhão Pato’s day were a prime source of excellent clams.
Clams are still abundant there, but sadly, decades of industrial pollution mean that they cannot be eaten unless they are processed and sterilized. Nowadays the best clams come from other river estuaries along the Atlantic coast.
Recipe: Ameijoas Bulhão Pato
- 2 pounds clams (the smaller the better)
- 3 tbsp. fruity olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 3 tbsp. white wine
- Half a lemon
- 2 tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro, plus one sprig left whole
- Put the clams in cold salted water to cover, let stand for one hour, then drain.
- Heat the olive oil over medium heat and add the garlic. Sauté just until softened, about one minute.
- Add the sprig of cilantro and the white wine, and bring to a boil.
- As soon as the liquid hits the boiling point, add clams, reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer just until the clams are open, about 10 minutes.
- Uncover, sprinkle the chopped cilantro over the clams, and taste for salt (it likely won’t need any).
- Serve immediately, squeezing the lemon over top. Soak up the juices with crusty bread.
The bright, summery flavors cry out for light-bodied, pure, mineral white wine. Loureiro and Arinto, two grapes that are widely grown in the southern part of the Vinho Verde region, would be great.
Mike Healan is a Lisbon resident, recovering lawyer, natural wine lover, and fan of all things Portuguese (except the bureaucracy and the taxi drivers).