Friday, 3 February 2012

Port and Custard Tart

On this day in 1488 Portugese navigator and explorer Bartholomew Diaz (now referred to as Bartolomeu Dias) sailed around the Cape of Good Hope, travelling further south than any European before him. He was hunting for a sea route to India, so precious spices could be brought back more cheaply than by following overland trade routes. Although he didn’t reach India – apparently his unhappy crew forced him to return home – he proved it was possible to travel to India by sea, and the charts he drew helped Columbus and Vasco da Gama on their voyages.

Diaz named the area at the southern tip of Africa as Cabo das Tormentas (the Cape of Storms), because of the awful weather. However, King John II of Portugal, who had ordered the trip, was optimistic that Diaz’ discovery would open up a new and profitable trade route with the east, so he called the area Cape of Good Hope, or Cabo da Boa Esperança.

In 1497 Diaz sailed to India with Vasco da Gama, and in 1500 he travelled with Pedro Álvares Cabral on a journey which saw the discovery of Brazil, before the expedition made its way towards the south African coast, where Diaz died in a shipwreck during a fierce storm off the Cape.

I thought the statue of him on the South African High Commission building in London (see above left) is interesting, because he looks just like the Portugese soldiers or sailors who appear on the bronze plaques and statues made in Benin City (where modern Nigeria is), which I studied as part of an OU course. The bronzes were largely created during the 15th and 16th centuries (when the Portugese empire was at its height), and some show Portugese visitors alongside the kings of Benin. .They were made from bronze bracelets, which traders from Portugal exchanged for slaves.

Anyway, I felt Diaz’ voyage of 1488 should be marked in some way, so I may have a go at making pasties de Belem, or pasties de nata (that’s Portugese custard tarts in English), which were first made by monks looking for a way to use left-over egg yolks, because they used egg whites to starch clothes and clear the sediment from wine. Wine, of course, would be another way to celebrate – providing it is Portugese. Or some port might be nice.

Meanwhile I am going to sit and read Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘Sonnets from the Portugese’, so-called because Robert Browing called her his little Portugese. And for a musical accompaniment there’s Wagner’s ‘The Flying Dutchman’, since the ghostly vessel is supposed to haunt the stormy waters off the Cape.

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