Alento

Text & Photography by Matilde Viegas.

Photographer Matilde Viegas is constantly amazed by how complex the story behind a warm plate of food can be. Since 2017, she has been collecting these tales from the dinner tables of strangers. As ethnographic as it is artistic, Alento seeks out the communities, relationships and traditions that shape how we eat together. It is a declaration of love to, and through, food.

Illustration School

Over the past few months during conversations with friends I had often heard her name: Karen Lacroix. I didn’t know anything about her at the time besides this name, which itself was kind of mysterious. But the mystery was quickly solved and I came to know that she’s lived in Porto with her family for some years now, that she loves food too, and most importantly that she founded a project called ‘Illustration School’—an international pedagogical platform for illustration and food as expanded fields. So, I wrote down her name intending to approach her someday and invite her to be part of Alento.

In early July, when I met Inês Neto dos Santos (who you will meet in another piece), I crossed paths with Karen. She was hosting Illustration School at the design research centre Shared Institute and Inês, who was one of the tutors of this year’s edition, was cooking in the kitchen.

I thought to myself: this is exactly what Alento is about! People sharing spaces, their food, and their time with others. Congregating around a table, sharing rather than dividing. So much of the cooking process involves separating, splitting, cutting, removing. And yet, the result of cooking is quite the opposite: it brings people together.

From the balcony overlooking the patio where the Illustration School was taking place, I peeked through the leaves of the fig tree, and I watched Lexi Smith kneading bread with the participants. A communal table, a few jars of flour, and sticky dough in everyone’s hands. They discussed how bread is not only sustenance, but that it is also a political tool.

I spent a few mornings and afternoons in the company of the tutors and participants. Curiously enough, this year the group was exclusively women, all from different parts of the globe. I spoke to a few in private, listening to what motivated them to apply to Illustration School. Most of them mentioned feeling uninspired with their jobs, or needing a break from their daily routine, or even yearning for a hands-on approach instead of our mainly digital one.

On a Thursday morning, tutors and participants had a brainstorming session to collect the stories and objects they had gathered over the week, some of which they related to on an emotional level. One girl, whose name I can’t seem to remember, shared her surprise and excitement when she saw a lemon tree for the first time. In her home country of Romania, lemons and oranges are not locally grown, but they are part of several Christmas recipes that people make during the holidays. We then discussed the legitimacy of the term ‘local’ and what it actually means: is it something like Portuguese lemons growing in people’s backyards? Or could it be the imported lemons needed for the holiday sweets that every single household will have on their Christmas table in Romania? Discussing the physical implications of ‘local’, versus its historical and emotional dimensions led to an open discussion about the current vocabulary used in food.

Then, someone wrote this little three-word sentence: ‘Perfecting the perfect’ and it struck me how much of a metaphor food was for our everyday lives. Our relationship with it, how much thought we put into it, an obsession, a soothing companion, or simply, a necessity and nothing else.

Inês Neto dos Santos

This is Inês, in a coffee shop where we met for the first time, explaining to me what her work consists of. Unfortunately, I can’t quote her exact words but they were something along the lines of “sharing a message through food,” and “using fermentation as a metaphor of a life cycle: we take something from the soil, we subject it to time and the environment, we ingest it and eventually give it back to the soil.” The process is entirely dependent on Earth and its lifeforms.

Inês is a multi-disciplinary artist based in London. At only 27 years old, she holds a bachelor’s in design from London College of Communication and a master’s in visual communication from the Royal College of Art, London. As soon as she finished college, she began waitressing at the E5 Bakehouse, then pushed her way into the kitchen. Two years later, she was working in the Little Duck Picklery, where her culinary world finally expanded to embrace fermentation.

Her presence is calm and discreet, someone who is unmistakably introverted and kind, but you would be surprised by the amount of energy, passion and imagination she has. During her master’s she realised that she wanted to use her performance and installation pieces as a way to get people closer and more involved in her practice. She quickly realised that the way to do this is to find a common ground: food. An essential part of our lives used as a vehicle for art. She began hosting her own supper clubs called ‘Mesa’ (a Portuguese word for table), where she collaborated with artists across London to build an event in which her food pieces would be adapted to the theme of the artists’ works.

Inês believes in the emotions and memories attached to food; she tries to materialise them through the fermentation process. In every fermenting vessel, she harnesses particles of air from the area, so that the place itself will affect the transformative process of fermentation.

At some point, while we were washing dishes, I asked her about the side effects of using food and cooking as your main practice, and the consequence this has on her daily food regime. She told me about her boyfriend taking over their home kitchen, leaving her to rest or work on her projects. But she still misses cooking simple, comforting dishes to nourish herself. Her current favourite is a chickpea stew, prepared with a ridiculous amount of onion and half a glass of white wine. I prepared it a couple days after we met, relishing it as I ate it with sourdough bread.

 

Diogo Teles & REKKI on a Sunday 

Meeting Diogo is proof of the power of social media: someone referenced REKKI to me, then I found a Portuguese guy working there as project manager. While stalking him online, Instagram showed me we had one friend in common (a girl I’d never actually met irl but who cares) and she put us in contact. I suggested flying to Amsterdam, to meet him at REKKI’s headquarters. 
 
Diogo took a week to answer me. I thought this meeting would never happen. He simply answered, “I am flying to Portugal with my family this week, come and visit us at my parents’ house.” So, on a Sunday morning, I went on a two-hour trip with a bunch of strangers (Diogo’s friends) heading to Salvaterra de Magos.

 

You must be wondering who the hell is Diogo, and what REKKI is. ‘REKKi is a free mobile app that lets you order and chat with any supplier’. Sounds easy, right? But what they achieve with the app is something that no one has ever done before: an effective interface (think something like UberEats for restaurants) where you choose a supplier, check their inventory and make very specific orders (like which cut of salmon you want), all within the same app. This eliminates the need for late night calls after service is over, and organises the orders for each supplier in a comprehensive way.
 
Now, going back to what this is really about: arriving at Quinta da Lagoa means being brought inside, straight into the kitchen by Diogo’s mother Natércia. His father José is by the pool preparing Gin and Tonics for everyone. They are an energetic and bubbly couple. Natércia instantly memorised my name, calling me as she showed me her octopus rice, the blackberries from the bush just around the corner, and a small aromatic garden she had planted some weeks ago.
 
The table was set for over 20 people. A meal intended to keep us nourished throughout this slow Sunday. Big Sunday lunches are part of everyone’s imagination, whether they have experienced one or not. I was thinking how much of a change it must be for Diogo and his wife and kid, flying from Amsterdam to Lisbon and being received with arms wide open. Meals have a different meaning in Portugal, they are not about ingesting food in an almost obligatory way. They are about reunion and congregation, keeping bonds alive and thriving. There’s no need to call two weeks in advance asking to come over. At home, you can just show up and expect everyone to be there, happy to see you. Everything happening in the kitchen, around the table. Food, home and family: three things intertwined, reminding us of childhood and bringing us a promise of sustenance and comfort. This is what vacations mean to many of us living abroad.