When summer hits the Iberian Peninsula, everyone starts eating cold tomato soup. Spaniards, of course, prepare gazpacho — the pinkish purée that’s often served smooth enough to be drunk like a shot. Meanwhile, across the border, the Portuguese make arjamolho, which is essentially gazpacho’s fraternal twin. The key difference is the texture, arjamolho’s being similar to a that of a chunky salsa; it’s a rustic dish often served alongside other local staples such as grilled sardines. But for the 28-year-old textile artist Vanessa Barragão, a native of the seaside Algarve region of southern Portugal, arjamolho is the main course. “It’s like a soup,” she says, “but at the same time a salad.”
The Portuguese textile artist Vanessa Barragão, back in her hometown of Albufeira.
Over the past four years, Barragão — a trained fashion designer who realised, while receiving her master’s degree in fashion design at Lisbon University, that she didn’t want to make garments after all — has become one of her country’s most in-demand young artists. “I decided, ‘O.K., this is not for clothes but mostly to put on the wall,’” she recalls. Her work since then has focused on tapestries and rugs, which she makes using materials discarded from textile-industry factories. For her tapestries, she works atop a jute canvas, applying the threads via latch hook, needle felt, macramé and crochet until they resemble the vibrant, varied landscape of a coral reef. Her signature piece thus far is also a map of the world; it hangs, at more than six feet high and nearly 20 feet long, in London’s Heathrow Airport and took Barragão five months to complete. She’s currently finishing another large tapestry for the 3HB Hotel, soon to open in the Portuguese city of Faro, just down the shore from Albufeira, where she was born and recently returned. “I had 10 years living out of here,” she says from her light-filled studio near the coast. “I lived in Lisbon and then I decided to go to Porto and then thought, ‘I’m done.’” Her reasons for going back were simple: Less traffic. More time to work. Sunny weather. “I can walk everywhere,” she says. “I have the beach. It’s a better life.”
She also has her family; her mother and grandmothers have worked alongside her on artworks, as has her younger sister Telma, who manages Barragão’s studio. (Telma also grows tomatoes, which proves especially useful during arjamolho season.) Barragão has realised that she doesn’t need the big city in order to do her work — “Instagram is the main way people find me,” she says — and with a schedule booked more than a year in advance, she’s hardly hurting for clients. In a moment of worldwide hunkering down, she has found what so many of us seek: success and tranquillity, close to home.
Like most of the best summer dishes, this one has just a few ingredients.
5 ripe tomatoes, peeled and diced
1 onion, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
Cucumber, minced (optional)
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons vinegar
1 tablespoon salt
Oregano (to taste)
1 loaf stale sourdough bread, cut into one-inch cubes
1. Place cut tomatoes in a large bowl, followed by the onion, garlic and (if using) cucumber. Lightly mash together with your hand. Season with oil, vinegar, oregano and salt. Taste and adjust if needed.
2. Pour about four cups cold water into the bowl until it has the consistency of a light soup. Stir. Taste again to check the seasoning.
3. Serve with the bread cubes, stirring them in like croutons. The goal is to have a chunky texture without letting the bread get too soggy.
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