I’ve encouraged you all to do this, Readers, and this time I heeded my own advice: I began my trip to Portugal with a food tour.
I didn’t do much research regarding food before I traveled to Lisbon. I knew codfish was a main staple of Portugal. Beyond that, I was ignorant of the foods I might find there. And the drinks. I was in for some very pleasant surprises.
The Portuguese joke that they have 365 different recipes for salted cod, so eat it every day. What’s surprising is that the Portuguese don’t actually fish for cod; it’s not one of the fish found off the coast. They have to import the salted codfish from the UK and Canada, and rarely (if ever) eat it fresh.
The tastiest way I had it was as a codfish cake in a tiny little establishment that was filled with locals.
One of the things I love about taking tours is all the tidbits of information you learn that you might otherwise miss. This tiny diner originated as a drive-through — back when people rode by on horseback. There is a tiled mural on display above the counter that shows its history.
We learned about a delightful little treat called a Romeo & Juliet — quince marmalade atop a slice of hard cheese. Quince is quite popular in Portugal. Who knew?
During two tours with Lisbon Riders, I learned that Lisbon is a city with a sweet tooth. Each town in Lisbon is known for a certain special pastry. In the Belem area, crowds line up for hours to taste the famous pastel de nata (custard tarts) at Pasteis de Belem.
They are definitely worth the wait, but here’s an insider tip: those people are all waiting to get custard tarts to take away. If you simply walk in the door to the seating area, there is often no wait at all.
In Sintra, where tourists flock to see the magnificently colorful Pena Palace, travellers are advised to try the travesseiro and the queijada de Sintra. Our tour guide knew we’d never remember what to order once we were inside the heavenly-scented bakery, so she advised us to simply order “the pillow and the cheesecake.”
“Eat the cheesecake first,” she said. It is dense and not too sweet — a drawback in her eyes. “That will make you heavy and sleepy, so then you need a pillow,” she joked.
Sure enough, all we had to do inside Casa Piriquita was ask for a cheesecake and a pillow and we were brought two very different pastries.
I much preferred the small, savory tartlets to the airy, pastry puff of sugar that was too much pillow for me. But then, I’m not Portuguese and rarely have a sweet tooth.
I prefer my sweets in liquid form. Namely, the sour cherry liqueur that can be found all over Lisbon, but is even more prevalent in Óbidos, where the cherries grow.
In the picturesque walled city of Óbidos, you can’t go three feet without finding an opportunity to sample Ginja – a cherry liqueur made from ginja berries (sour cherries), aguardente (or brandy), sugar, and cinnamon.
In Lisbon, I’d sampled this potent potable straight from the bottle. Legend holds that drinking 6 shots a day keeps the doctor away. I think that’s probably because you’d be passed out. It’s 23% alcohol content and does taste a little medicinal. But I love cherries and cinnamon, and brandy, so this was definitely a perfect drink for me.
And then it got better. Because in Óbidos, you don’t drink it warm from the bottle. There, they serve it in a tiny chocolate cup and you can ask to have one of the sour cherries in it as well. They’ll fish one out of the bottom of the bottle. Then you are instructed to drink the liqueur, eat the cherry, then eat the chocolate cup.
At 1 Euro per tasting, I felt it was in your best interests, my beloved readers, for me to try several different samples. I can assure you — they all tasted fantastic. And I had no need for a doctor.
I did eat some healthier fare, too, during my trip. In the beach town of Nazaré, I had an incredible pot of fish stew at Maria do Mar. The tiny restaurant was packed and nearly everyone there was enjoying fish stew with crusty sourdough bread and a glass of green wine.
Green wine (Vinho Verde) is not usually green, though it looks a little green in my picture, doesn’t it? It may be actually be white or red. It’s simply referred to as Vinho Verde because of the Minho province where this crisp, spritzy wine comes from.
I was more enraptured by all the fabulous port wine I had on my trip. Port wine comes from grapes grown in the Douro province of Portugal and only Portuguese-made Port can carry the identifying term “Porto” on the label. I’ll definitely look for that.
Sampling regional specialties is always a treat for me. I love tasting the flavors of the places I visit and eating food that the locals like to eat. Taking a foot tour at the start of my trip introduced to many of the options I could look for again while I wandered through Portugal, but by talking to locals, I learned of more foods that I just had to try — like the pastries and the fish stew.
If I ever go back, I will likely gobble down a few codfish cakes and stuff my suitcase with as much Ginja and Port as I can carry. But I know there are other things I need to taste, too. Like grilled sardines. I missed that this time around, but it seems like a good reason to go back…
Which of these foods would you be curious to try?