Have you ever known someone, or some place fairly well and one day realize that you only knew that person or place by their nickname? (I’ve often told my American friends and family that the majority of people in Portugal that know me, and who I went to school with, who I spent countless nights bar hopping with, might only know me as “O Americano”…Which in some cases isn’t necessarily a bad thing… :))
I had that experience in the summer of 2021 with a locale that I had spent a considerable amount of time at as a kid… For the overwhelming majority of my life I never knew that Morraceira existed. I mean, I knew it existed just not by that name. I don't ever recall hearing that term until last summer when it was brought up in passing in a conversation with Zé Alberto, my mom's cousin, about how we were going to join him and my Mana Irene (my mom's cousin), her parents and my cousins, for lunch at the "salgado," the name that I recognized. I later on went and did my research about this “new” name and now in hindsight, I feel like an idiot for never asking what this vast expanse of land was really called since every other road near our home in Lavos had its own official name as there were so many distinct little parishes and sections of Lavos alone.
Naturally, o salgado (which when applied to food means “salty”) was not the official name. I'm sure it was always referred to that way because of the salt flats you'll find there, many now defunct, some converted into other aquaculture ventures like fish farming. I remember staying overnight at the salgado with my dad, Zé Alberto, and his son, my cousin Márcio, to set up nets across the inlet, or vein of the river Mondego that didn't go directly toward the mouth of the ocean, the Foz, as in Figueira da... So this inlet or tributary would have a submerged net stretched across that would catch the fish, which the locals knew well, that they would be running in the middle of the night, and then we'd get them from the net into Zé Alberto's fish farm found on the Morraceira-side bank of the tributary.
Back in the day, when he still owned his own viveiro (a fish nursery) every day Zé Alberto would have to go open the doors, to let fresh water in, and then once again after work or before going out for a drink, once again. Or maybe it was the other way...nonetheless, he was there quite a bit and sometimes when he would pick up me and Márcio at the Ginásio Clube Figueirense, from basketball practice, we'd stop by with him to take care of the task. It was a normal everyday part of my life for a number of years, and just like everything else in our lives, one day things just stop being common occurrences and are relegated to past memories that present you with your humanness when you stop and let your emotions take hold and feel the passage of time welling up in your eyes. Saudades… Of something so mundane, rural, smelly, that I'm sure I belittled and scoffed at in my immature 14-year-old brain.
As a father now, showing his wife and kids around the area 25 years later, it was a much different experience. Morraceira, now dignified with nomenclature, was a location of wonder, yet still rural, dusty, smelly, and still with the saltiness to the air. As we made our way for lunch, first to my cousin Ana's place so that we could follow behind her, the maze of one-way roads on Morraceira (if we can call them that), would be impossible for us to navigate having never driven to this new building (it belonged to a friend of Zé Alberto and was a bit more scaled up than the one I had spent nights at). Lunch was fantastic, sardinhas com broa, salada com pimentos verdes, febras grelhadas, it was even more special because it was my birthday, something I'd not remind any of my cousins of, as I'm not one for personal festivities. I remember my Mana Irene at one point came to the realization that it was my birthday and gave me some shit for not having mentioned it...but she gets me, always has, and so she understood. It was a wonderful time.
We got a walking tour of the place with Zé Alberto, who clearly loved being out there, but felt sorrow for the fact that it was a dying area, at least in terms of its aqua-cultural clout from the salt flats and fish farms that at one point were massively important economic activities for the people of Figueira da Foz and its environs.
"Epá, é trabalho muito duro, e os jovens, ninguém quer partir o corpo a fazer isto." (Man, it's hard work, and young people, nobody wants to break their bodies doing this.")
But he also pointed out that there was some new activity at another of the flats because some wealthy Portuguese expat in Luxembourg pumped some money into a salt production project. You could tell it was a newer venture as the buildings seemed rather modern. The vast majority had been there for many decades, in the very least.
As we stopped at Zé Alberto's friend’s salt flat, he brought us close up to the natural pans in the midst of salt production as water sat evaporating in the summer sun. My kids got a live demonstration of where, maybe at some point, the saltiness in their Portuguese cuisine came from. It was one of the most genuine experiences of our lives and it came so unexpectedly and from a place of warmth, of someone just wanting to share from the depths of their soul, something that they loved.
That's the most Portuguese description I could give you of what being in Portugal feels like. The vast majority of people want to show you a good time, as they understand good times. But in my experience, almost always, they’re not wrong.