“Everything starts with a splash of olive oil and some garlic”

David Baião Barata was born and raised in Castelo Branco, in eastern Portugal. His mother cooked typical Portuguese cuisine: hearty soups, lots of meat, everything doused in olive oil. It was only during his studies in cell and molecular biology in Lisbon that he began cooking for himself. And it was here in the Netherlands, during his PhD, that he discovered Portuguese wine. When it comes to cooking and eating, the key word for him is together.

Castelo Branco is located on a plateau by the mountains. The soil is not particularly fertile, which is reflected in the food. “The region sustains a lot of livestock farming, but less agriculture. People there traditionally eat lots of meat: pork, chicken and sheep, and cheese too. My mother used to make this delicious soup with big pieces of meat, cabbage and beans. A lot has changed over the years, but for my parents the same applies now as it did then: meals have to be large and very filling.”

The food supply used to be largely regional. “I don’t think there’s anywhere in Europe that supermarkets have grown as much as they have in Portugal. They’re bigger and have a more diverse range than the AH XL here, for example. I do miss that; in Portugal you get fresh meat and fish in the supermarket. I never make a shopping list, I just look at what’s there.”

Army food

Barata started cooking when he went to university. “There was a canteen on campus with very basic food, a kind of military fare: rice, meat and vegetables, all prepared in seconds and often tasteless. I figured there was room for improvement. I bought some equipment and started cooking myself. Nothing complicated, just simple but tasty pasta dishes, that kind of thing. Soon a bunch of us were eating together and taking turns to cook. That’s what I enjoyed the most: cooking and eating together.”

During his master’s degree, Barata met his wife Joana, who was studying organic chemistry. He seduced her with a dish that would be his masterpiece for years to come: lasagne with shrimps and spinach, fried in olive oil and garlic. “In Portuguese cuisine, everything starts with a splash of olive oil and some garlic. In the past, rural families, like my grandparent’s, made their own olive oil. You had to estimate how much you’d need for a year; we’d go home with a barrel of about 80 litres. These days people buy olive oil in the supermarket, combined with other oils, which is cheaper.”

Portuguese cuisine = codfish

Occasionally Barata and his wife make his lasagne together, though having two sons—aged 6 and 2—complicates the act of cooking together. He likes using whatever ingredients are available; his wife is more into recipes and cookbooks. “When we have dinner parties, she usually makes the main course. I organise everything around it: wine pairings, good cheese.”

Joana is the bigger fan of Portuguese cuisine, bringing over ingredients from Portugal. “Especially Bacalhau (codfish), the traditional Christmas dish, boiled in water with potatoes and chard. I’m not into that; it’s quite tasteless. I prefer the oven version, with cream and cheese. But when we visit my parents at Christmas, we’re the guests, so we have to adapt.” When his parents came to visit the Netherlands, he surprised them with his famous shrimp lasagne. “My father didn’t like it at all—pasta with a few stray shrimps in it.” Barata laughs. “But they were the guests then.”

Three rules for good wine

For a long time, alcohol wasn’t his thing. “I just didn’t like beer or wine that much.” Then he attended a wine tasting during his PhD in Enschede. “I didn’t want to stand out, so I just joined in. Coincidentally, the tasting included four Portuguese wines. After that I really got into it. I know three wine regions in Portugal: the Douro, the Alentejo and the region around Lisbon. I prefer the fresh green wines (vinho verde); light and fruity whites from the Douro, in the north. My wife, who comes from the south, near Lisbon, prefers the wines from Setúbal region. They’re drier, sturdier and more robust. My golden wine rules are: don’t buy wine for less than five euros, make sure the bottle has a cork, and go for Portuguese, Italian or Spanish wine.”

Happy in Maastricht

Having landed a research job in Lisbon, Barata returned to Portugal with his wife and son in 2019. Their second son was born there. When he was offered a postdoc position at MERLN, four years later, they were glad to return to the Netherlands. “Return to my homeland was tough, much to re-adapt. I almost went nuts trying to import the car I bought in the Netherlands. And that’s just one example.” Will he ever go back to Portugal? “I don’t dare to think that far ahead. It depends on where my work takes me. My wife now has a permanent contract; she’d like to stay in Maastricht forever. My contract expires in ten months, so we’ll see.”

Text: Annelotte Huiskes
Photography: Paul van der Veer


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