When Austrian chef Hans Neuner first arrived in the Algarve some 15 years ago, none of the high-end restaurants there used local ingredients. Now his restaurant, Ocean at the Vila Vita Parc resort in Porches, which started as a classic European restaurant that relied heavily on French produce, is leading the way with Portuguese products, especially those from the country’s sunny South Coast.
Sustainability is at the heart of everything they do at Ocean, which if you haven’t guessed by now, is a seafood restaurant, albeit one with two Michelin stars, one of only two, two star restaurants in the region. In fact, from the dining room you can view the wild Atlantic through a stunning panoramic window, which brings you closer into the experience of eating it.
All the fish and seafood Neuner and his team use is single line or hand caught, and what’s more, any that isn’t used is passed on to the resorts nine other restaurants. Neuner has formed a strong relationship with local fishermen and producers over the years and relies on their knowledge to make sure he is serving the best sustainable and seasonal produce. Only some meat and certain spices – Neuner likes to infuse his Portuguese cuisine with touches from his travels, including from Asia, South America and his native Austria – are sourced outside of Portugal.
“If [the fishermen] don’t have it, we don’t have it. We live with what they provide. That makes it easier because they always sell what they get,” he says. “They tell me what’s allowed and what isn’t.”
Having arrived in Portugal with no experience of Portuguese food, Neuner is creating a modern Portuguese cuisine at Ocean, whilst respecting and reviving Portuguese culinary traditions and ensuring those supplying his restaurant get a fair deal.
“I didn’t know anything about [Portuguese cuisine], so I had to learn, which I did also with team members: you meet their parents, they invite you to their homes, the grandmother cooks ... step by step I went into understanding how they think about food. [The Portuguese] travelled all over, they brought plenty of things home – they brought tempura to Japan! They have a great history of cooking, it just got forgotten I think over some years.”
Here then are some of Hans Neuner’s favourite ingredients to work with, from the Algarve and beyond.
These rock clinging molluscs, also known as ‘goose barnacles’ in English, are hugely sought after on account of their incomparable sea taste, but are notoriously dangerous to harvest. Indeed, barnacle hunters run the risk of being swept into the sea or smashed onto rocks whilst trying to collect them.
“We get them from our fish-supplier that gets them from the men who harvest them near Sagres in the Algarve and Alentejo,” says Neuner. “This is one of the most difficult ingredients to harvest, so the price per kg ends up being quite expensive. We use them from end of May until middle of October.”
At Ocean they’re cooked in seawater with bay leaves, and currently are served as part of a colourful dish with mussel broth, and red peppers that have been ribboned and grilled to the texture of fresh squid.
Native to Mexico, the Nopal cactus also grows in the Algarve, at or around Vila Vita Parc in fact, where Neuner and his team harvest them when the fruit of the cactus is ripe. Wearing thick gloves, they cut the biggest leaves (the nopales), later removing the spikes and the “big green part,” in order to get to the jelly, which gives consistency to sauces, such as a light green pepper-nopales cream. The bitter notes pair perfectly with grilled local octopus.
These striking and sweet crustaceans are caught in the Tavira area of the Algarve, around an hour’s drive from Vila Vita Parc. “We get them very fresh from our fish supplier, says Neuner. “He delivers them to us on the day they are caught, which is not common. We serve them raw, like carpaccio or briefly sautéed on a ‘plancha’ and with sweet corn. We get awesome quality, because they come from just around the corner.”
These sweet-tasting lobsters from the Azores in the mid-Atlantic are very rare; in fact, the restaurant can only often get them for three days every three weeks. They’re worth the wait however: cooked in seawater, they’re served with blood orange and a little Goan curry.
This funnel-mouthed and jawless fish, which in Neuner’s view “looks like an eel with nine eyes,” is a traditional dish in the North of Portugal – a tradition that is rapidly dying out and which the chef is trying to revive. At Ocean they serve it as a snack, using the fish’s blood and some vinegar. The fish arrives in the kitchen alive, but one wrong cut and the whole fish is unusable: if the bladder is punctured the meat becomes very bitter. “It’s a bit like fugu [the notoriously poisonous Japanese puffer fish], except it won’t kill you,” jokes Neuner.
Moray eel is a typical fishermen’s dish from the Algarve and the Alentejo. “It´s elegant and the skin is quite fatty and has an intense taste when served fried, as a snack,” says Neuner.
However, it’s unlikely any of those fishermen have seen it served quite like it is at Ocean: the flesh, which has been cooked using traditional methods, and the fried skin is placed on top of the glass of a photo frame, under which the black and yellow spotty skin of the eel has been flattened out.
“[The eel] is not that expensive – but also not always available. We use them from June to December,” says Neuner.