Beyond Seafood: A culinary tour of Portugal
Good restaurants are seemingly around every corner; however, we were especially proud of these four finds.Zarazuela Baixa, Lisbon This bakery, open since 1968, serves gluten-free options of many Portuguese pastries, including Pastel de Nata. Comoba Chiado, Lisbon If you need a break from meat and seafood, this airy restaurant and coffee shop offers delicious vegetarian and vegan dishes, smoothies and coffee (of course). Maria Catita Alfama, Lisbon With a homey feel, this corner restaurant serves up delicious local dishes with dialed service. Be sure to try their beef, any of it, or the grilled lobster with shrimp risotto. Mar d’Estórias Lagos If you’re going for dinner, stop by in advance to do some shopping in the curated, Portuguese-made shop downstairs, and make a dinner reservation. There is a rooftop bar that’s fun for an afternoon snack, but the interior dining space is delightfully warm and intimate for dinner.
Based upon the anecdotes shared by recent travelers, I understood Portuguese food to be good but not great. My low expectations were further fueled by my lack of education. How about you, what’s your favorite Portuguese dish? Or, perhaps, can you at least name one Portuguese dish? Me neither, at least until my daughter and I traveled there for a vacation this past July. Instead of blah, we were met with ridiculously fresh ingredients, bright flavors and enough variety to not repeat a dish, unless by choice. And the culinary world has taken notice, with 26 restaurants in the country having Michelin stars, three of which were new additions in 2019.
Instead of going the haute cuisine route, we stuck to more rustic offerings, and enjoyed every meal without breaking the bank.
With a relatively temperate, coastal climate, Portugal is able to grow a diverse array of crops. In fact, many of the plants and flavors now synonymous with Portuguese cuisine were actually transplanted by early populations and brought home by far-reaching Portuguese explorers. Coffee, lemons, oranges, olives, grapes, potatoes, rice, tomatoes, tropical fruits, nuts, peppers and even the popularity of spices like cinnamon and curry, all date to Moorish and Roman settlers and subsequent trips to Africa, Brazil and beyond.
No doubt our trip, which centered around the areas of Lisbon to Santarem to Obidos, and Lagos in the Algarve region, coincided with summer’s bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables, the latter of which can sometimes feel lacking in Portuguese menus, according to other visitors. Potatoes, tomatoes, kale, cabbage, carrots, onions and garlic are featured prominently in local dishes. While lightly pickled carrots were a common meal accompaniment, and all of the vegetables could be found in soups, stews, and salads, hot weather had me craving fresh tomatoes that, as my grandmother would have said, tasted like real tomatoes. Served sliced and piled high on plates with onions, grated cheese, or just olive oil, the presentation was simple yet so delicious. Our timing was also in the midst of melon season. Oblong, whitish in color, and large, the melons we consumed weren’t overly promising from the outside but, once the long cut was made to get inside, the flesh was fragrantly sweet, juicy, and delicious served as breakfast with espresso, an appetizer wrapped in a salty local ham, and as dessert, best eaten outside or over a kitchen sink.
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Portugal is truly known for fish and seafood. Served fresh, canned, dried, in stews, in rice dishes, as pate, grilled, boiled, fried and in countless other preparations, it may take a lifetime to try all of the country’s seafood recipes. We gave it a good effort though! From clams with pork, to caldeirada (a stew of potatoes, tomatoes, onions fish and shellfish), tuna and anchovy pates, roasted cod, canned octopus, codfish pastries, Bacalhau à Brás (the national dish of shredded, dried cod served with scrambled eggs and shredded potatoes, which is surprisingly comforting if you had too much vino verde and porto the previous night), lobster rice and roasted prawns served the way they should be, in the shell and with heads — we were impressed. Also, I now understand how Portugal has the highest annual European consumption of seafood per person (an average of 125 pounds!).
When we wanted something besides seafood, roasted chicken, duck rice, pork in mustard sauce, a vast array of cured meats and sausages and a massive Rubia Gallega beef steak cooked in olive oil and garlic were there to satisfy. Although, I had to draw the line at snails. While they aren’t something I would usually order, unless they were in a good paella, if served I’ll eat a snail or two, even if just to be polite. At a typical two-hour Portuguese lunch with friends, I met my match. We were presented with a plate of boiled snails, probably 100 of them — each no bigger than my pinky nail — and a jar of toothpicks. You ate them by biting the head and pulling or using a toothpick to dislodge them from the shell. I went with the latter option, which was fine until I kept pulling. And pulling. Hoping for a tiny morsel, what I had on my toothpick was going to require several hearty chews. Or, you could simply pop it in your mouth and wash it down with an entire glass of wine. I tapped out after one, but my daughter gamely made her way through a few dozen snails, no wine necessary.
Cheese was a ubiquitous presence at mealtimes, and it was delicious. From the firm, fresh cheese similar to ricotta but milder, to gooey, aged varieties, we said “yes” to all we could. Since I don’t know the names of any of the ones we sampled (no judging, Portuguese is a challenging language!), my recommendation is simply to take a leap of faith and eat up.
And then the pastries, oh, those pastries. Pastel de Nata — mini tarts made with layers of flakey dough and filled with an eggy custard — originated in Belem, and are available throughout Lisbon, thankfully. Almonds and eggs are common ingredients in many of the pastries, with citrus coming into play to offset the inherent richness. While I don’t often (ever) sit on a hot beach and crave a Berliner doughnut filled with custard, Bola de Berlim is a not-to-miss oceanside treat. Vendors wandered the beach in Lagos selling them, and my daughter declared she was in heaven at first bite. Good, bakery-fresh bread is offered at every meal, and you simply don’t want to turn it down.
Not only is it worth the calories, it serves an essential purpose in sopping up Portuguese olive oil, rich stew juices, pates and apricot jam.
Amanda Rae is on vacation this week. Allison Pattillo is an Aspen-based food writer and editor.
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