Meals on Wheels: in Portugal with the Marco Polo.
From Fiji to Los Angeles.
Tanned, designer stubble and always smiling: Louis Tikaram could easily pass as born-and-bred Portuguese – yet the 29-year-old top chef who works in his own “E.P. Restaurant” in Los Angeles is originally from Fiji. That’s where he learnt to cook: “In the kitchen with my grandmother”, he tells us proudly. “My grandmother’s family had roots in Fiji, India and China. The cuisine in our house was equally colourful. I inherited my love of cooking from her”.
Today, Louis is not cooking in hectic Los Angeles nor on the gorgeous Fiji islands. The kitchen is a picturesque view point in the north-east of Portugal: it is a Mercedes-Benz Marco Polo which is parked at a view point. From here, there is a wonderful view of the Douro region, one of the best wine-growing areas in Portugal.
Chilli, chorizo … rancho!
“It’s more spacious than I had thought!” exclaims Louis about the interior of the Marco Polo while finely chopping chillies, onions and garlic at lightning speed with a practised hand. These are ingredients for today’s main course: rancho, an extremely hearty stew and one of Portugal’s numerous delicious national dishes. “Food means everything to me. It is a way for me to express myself – to show where I am from and who I am”.
The secret of a star chef.
While the rancho is simmering away on the gas stove in the Marco Polo, Louis lets us in on the secret of the delicious stew: “The rancho is really very easy to prepare. The intense flavour comes from the many different types of vegetables, the spicy chorizo and the spices, such as paprika, salt, pepper and ginger. I added a little chilli too, to make it a little more spicy”. Good ingredients aren’t everything though explains Louis.
“As a chef, you always have to be open to new flavours and cultures. Which is why it is very important for me that I travel a lot and try new things”. The Fiji-born chef fell in love with Portugal immediately: “I love the people and the mountains here. And the wines – especially the port. The Portuguese are wonderful, just like their food”.
Top wines from Douro.
The scent of strong spices, seared onions, chillies, olive oil and garlic is intensifying in the bright kitchen area of the Marco Polo. Our gaze wanders out of the big windows, over the beautiful landscape of the Douro valley, through which the Douro river winds like a snake towards Porto, where it eventually flows into the Atlantic. Wine has been grown in Alto Douro in the north-east of Portugal for over two thousand years. In 2001, the region was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The climate, the good soil and the many hours of sunshine make the Douro red wines vivid in colour, full-bodied and rich in tannin.
The chef and the winemaker.
The Niepoort family’s vineyard is also located in this melting pot of traditional cuisine and wine enjoyment. In the 19th century, the family moved to Portugal from the Netherlands and ever since, the “Niepoort Vinhos” wine cellars have been producing some of the best wines in the Douro region. One member of this traditional wine-making family is a guest today: Verena Niepoort enters the Marco Polo – and she has brought several bottles of Niepoort red wine with her. “It goes perfectly with rancho”, she says, laughing while skilfully opening the bottle.
A perfect dinner in the Marco Polo.
After a delicious meal with lively conversations about wine-growing and tradition, the evening slowly draws to a close. It has started to rain outside, but that doesn’t bother anyone in the comfortable interior of the Marco Polo. They are reflecting on the merits of the camper van: “I would never have thought that the Marco Polo has so much space for cooking”, declares Verena, surprised.
Louis is clearly also taken with the Marco Polo: “The workmanship is high quality and the equipment is practical: in addition to the gas stove, the tap and the fridge are a real help when cooking fresh meals. And combined with the delicious aroma of food coming from a camper van and not from a big kitchen, it is almost a little surreal. A brilliant experience”.