Tackle the Portuguese tinned fish trend, long for a leitão and pay respects to the pastel de nata on a food walk beyond the obvious
If you’re obsessed with the three S’s, then you need to put Lisbon on your go-to list.
Lisbon is the promised land of seafood, sardines and sweet tarts.
In recent years, the Portuguese capital has slowly but steadily made its presence felt among the ranks of Europe’s great culinary capitals and attracting growing numbers of dedicated gastronomes from across the globe.
Once you are actually in Lisbon and can sample the city’s vast array of edible and drinkable delights, it’s hard to fathom how it has taken so long for the rest of us to catch on to the fact that this city is just plain to-die-for delicious.
With just two full days in Lisbon, we wanted to spend a good half day delving deep into heart of the city’s burgeoning food scene and cover as much gastronomic ground as possible so we contacted the lovely Célia Pedroso.
Célia, a food writer and the author of Eat Portugal, the Essential Guide to Portuguese food, now in its third edition, heads the outfit Eat Portugal and offers culinary walks in Lisbon as well as gastronomic experiences in the Eastern Algarve.
We met her at 11am at the entrance to Mercado da Ribeira, a snazzy food hall situated in the Cais do Sodré neighbourhood, the launch pad for our market tour showcasing Lisbon’s best petiscos, or Portuguese tapas. Funded by Time Out, this spacious culinary haven opened in 2014 and has caught on like wildfire among Lisboêtas who lunch.
There you can find the fuss-free yet delectable creations of Lisbon’s leading chefs all under the one roof.
Selected food stores and restaurants maintain permanent stalls here and the exteriors are outfitted in exactly the same way – all black-and-white.
Mercado da Ribeira is particularly beloved of young locals, with sizeable groups of friends gathering at the long, pinewood communal tables to chat and chow down in the early evening.
We took a seat atop tall stool chairs together with our fellow food tour participants, Beatrix and George – a lovely couple from Germany, while Célia headed off to the stalls.
It was a Monday, when the fish markets are closed as fishermen don’t go out to fish on a Sunday, therefore “we won’t be eating fish and seafood today”, she explained.
Célia swiftly returned with a plate of fluffy little sandwiches made with bolo do caco, a bread that hails from the Portuguese island of Madeira, and filled with the Portuguese sausage chouriço plus a good lashing of garlic butter.
We sampled a couple of divine soft cheeses, accompanied by quince marmalade, from the stall representing Manteigaria Silva, a revered traditional deli dating back to the late 1890s.
Queijo Alentejano Monte da Vinha, a strong, creamy artisanal cheese made in small quantities with sheep’s milk, was definitely our favourite.
Queijo de Azeitão, produced with raw sheep’s milk coagulated with the cardoon thistle flower hails from the village of Azeitão, a village on the foothills of the Arrábida mountain range that is situated 35 kilometres south of Lisbon. With an edible rind, it was more understated but also delicious.
It was at Mercado de Ribeira where we also had our first taste of Portuguese presunto pata negra, the highly sought-after cured Iberian ham produced with the meat of black pigs that are fed a steady diet of acorns, which they adore.
“Portuguese pata negra is actually better than the pata negra you will find in Spain,” Célia noted with a smile, as we relished the wafer-thin slices of ham.
“The reason is that, in Portugal, the pigs need to eat acorns for a longer period – at least six months – in the wild.”
There’s actually a running joke in Portugal that Spain buys Portuguese pata negra and markets it as Spanish, she explained.
Célia had selected a light, slightly sparkling Portuguese vinho verde, which literally translates as green wine, but actually means young wine as the grapes used to produce this white wine are not quite yet ripe. Vinho verde is slightly green in colour, has an alcohol content of about 10 to 11 percent and doesn’t contain sulphites.
This dry, crisp white was made with a blend of grapes including Alvarinho hailing from Minho, a lush wine-producing region in the northwest of Portugal, and it worked perfectly with the delicate flavours of the cheese and pata negra.
Subtle vinho verde is also the best Portuguese wine to serve with fish and seafood, Célia noted.
“Portuguese wines are among the most under-rated. Portugal has more than 300 indigenous grape varieties. You can find good wine throughout the country and not just in the Douro Valley,” she said.
“Many of my clients tell me that they don’t experience headaches with Portuguese wine. Maybe, it’s due to the lack of sulphites.”
Next came tasty Goan-style curry chicken samosas by Michelin-starred chef Miguel Laffan, as Célia explained that the cuisines of former Portuguese province Goa and Portugal have influenced one another.
When a plate of lightly battered and fried green beans – peixinhos da horta – arrived at our table, served with an onion, mustard and mayonnaise dip, we immediately thought Japan. But it was the Portuguese who influenced Japanese culinary tradition, introducing tempura, which means seasoning, in the 16th century, Célia revealed.
“We don’t eat a lot of vegetables but we do eat a lot of beans in Portugal. Green beans are often served with tomato rice as a main dish,” she said.
It was time to depart and our next foodie destination was an unusual one. Rua Nova do Carvalho, also known as the pink street, is where young Lisboêtas come at night to party at the bars lining the pedestrianised thoroughfare that was once the stronghold of sailors passing through and the ladies who loved them, albeit for just one night.
The five of us took a seat at a low table inside a colourful café-bar adorned with tackle, fish rods, wooden tackle boxes and dried puffer fish. On the opposite wall, the display cabinets are filled with gorgeously-packaged cans of tinned tuna, sardines, squid and other sea-borne delights, all of which are listed on the menu, hoisted on a tiny fish rod.
Once a tackle shop, this is now a super-cool spot that helped spearhead the gourmet canned fish trend which took hold in Portugal several years ago and is still going strong.
“The Portuguese love to have fish all the time. However, during the dictatorship, the roads were not good on the mainland and life in the villages could be really difficult, so tinned fish became a major industry,” Célia said.
“However, in the 1980s, tinned fish fell out of favour, but now it’s in vogue once again.”
The first bar to serve tinned fish tapas-style, it attracts young people both before and after their club hop. Proprietor Henrique Vaz Pato has even written a cookbook with recipes riding this unlikely fish trend.
We sampled tuna from the Azores islands with red peppers and olive oil and spicy piri piri sardines, with a glass of vinho verde, that is available on tap. “It’s the high quality of the fish that makes the difference, compared to that of other countries,” Célia said.
Continuing the canned fish theme, Célia took us to Loja das Conservas (House of Canned Goods), where we pored over the dozens of design-savvy tins of fish and seafood, that make ideal gifts for family and friends. There was even a fish replete in top hat and suit.
An enormous mural that takes up an entire wall pays tribute to the ladies who worked tirelessly in the fish canning factories over the decades.
We stopped in briefly at a deli and watched as a man swiftly sliced salted cod, known as bacalhau, into pieces for a customer who would take it home to prepare Portugal’s national dish.
Finally, it was time to sink our teeth into a leitão, a roast suckling pig sandwich served with gravy. We sat at a small café, hidden in a side street in the Baixa quarter, frequented at lunchtime by people working in the vicinity.
I felt for the sole waiter, who was rushed off his feet serving the succulent sandwiches together with glasses of glorious fresh pineapple and mint juice, refreshing in the warm November sunshine. I doused my leitão with hot piri piri sauce, to Célia’s mild shock, and dug in. Roast pork can sometimes be a bit dry, but this was just heavenly.
We also tasted a Portuguese-style prawn rissole: super-thin pastry filled with prawn, béchamel and a dash of parsley, coated in bread crumbs and deep-fried.
Our stomachs had registered more than full but Célia insisted we pop in to one of Lisbon’s oldest café-restaurants – the regal Martinho da Arcada – to try the city’s “best salted cod cake”. We joined locals waiting in line for their scrumptious little pastéis de bacalhau at this charming old-school haunt.
Portugal is renowned for its port, so our next stop was a wine shop and bar high up in Baixa where we tasted three different types of port.
Unaware that white port even existed, we sampled this sweet tipple made with skinless white grapes together with white chocolate. “White port goes well in cocktails or served with ice and tonic in the summer,” our young host explained. “But, if you open the bottle, you need to finish it within six months.”
We tried tawny port, the best-known port of all, with a piece of milk chocolate. “Tawny port makes for the best gift as it lasts for a year,” said our host.
However, it was the deep red-hued ruby port, matured in small oak barrels, that was not too sweet and proved the most interesting. “If you open this, you need to drink it in one week,” our host insisted, noting that it’s their best-seller.
Our final stop on the tour was Manteigaria, a café-bakery which bakes and serves the classic Portuguese custard tart known as pastel de nata and coffee; nothing else.
As we nibbled our cinnamon-dusted pastel de nata and sipped on a bica – Portuguese-style espresso – chased up with a sip of the traditional cherry liqueur ginjinha, I was curious about the fact that suited executives were stopping in for the ubiquitous sweet and a caffeine hit. “The Portuguese love sweets and everyone has at least one pastel de nata every day. People stop to have one at mid-morning or in the afternoon,” Célia explained.
It’s heartening to see that culinary traditions are alive and thriving in Lisbon.
We watched a young pastry-maker in the open kitchen cut thick wads of butter and carefully place them in the pastry dough, while an older, more experienced colleague deftly dispensed just the right amount of custard filling into dozens of little pastry shells before swinging the giant tray into the oven.
Luscious Lisbon, we’ll be back for more. That’s a promise.
To book a culinary walk, visit Eat Portugal