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A Taste of Portugal

I’m writing this article while sitting on a bus about an hour from crossing into Spain, leaving behind our wonderful month in Portugal. And as I’m pondering Spain, it occurs to me that I forgot to write about a very important part of our Portuguese experience . . . the food! So, before we arrive in Malaga, (our home for the next month) . . . let’s dive in.

The food in Portugal was wonderful! And that’s just the first superlative that comes to mind - but it was also fresh, clean, amazing, fantastic, delicious . . . and the list goes on. As you might imagine, seafood is plentiful along the coast. Fresh cod and tuna, along with sardines, squid, and octopus are staples in the Portuguese diet. And if you are new to octopus, it’s well worth trying it. Sardines, on the other hand, are probably more of an acquired taste. People either love them . . . or they don’t. They have a very strong “fishy” flavor. Chances are if you like anchovies, then you’ll be good with sardines.

Lagos has some of the very best food we’ve had anywhere! Because it’s such an international town, along with its authentic Portuguese restaurants, they also have Indian, Italian, and Spanish restaurants that were amazing. We’d consider returning to Lagos simply to eat!

What really caught our attention in Lisbon was the irony of its food scene, which of course has excellent food options. There are two areas of Lisbon that are responsible for bringing forth some of the best and most iconic food in this gritty town and I like to think of them as The Tale of The Debauchery and The Divine, or as Carla likes to say: the “Tarts and Vicars”. I will explain . . .

It begins with the monks at the Jeronimos Monastery in Santa Maria de Belem, a little town right outside of Lisbon. In the 18th century, it was common practice to use egg whites to starch nun’s habits, which, naturally, left the monks with a tremendous number of left-over egg yolks. To use them up, they baked them into the delicious and iconic custard tarts known today as Pastel de Nata, whose original recipe is still a secret, and which are popular all over Portugal and especially in Lisbon. And if you haven’t tried them, the custards are simply off the charts delicious, and best to try at their birthplace: Pasteis de Belem. They were designed as two-bite custards, and I can eat one after the other, especially when they are fresh from the oven. Necessity does breed amazing (and tasty) innovation.

The irony continues today with the once seedy and dilapidated red-light district in Lisbon, Rua Nova do Carvalho, which was the city’s hotbed for gambling, crime, and prostitution. Then, in 2011, they started painting the street pink, hoping to transform the neighborhood, and it worked. It is known today as “Pink Street”, and has become a fun, hip, and very trendy area of Lisbon with amazing bars, restaurants, and clubs. That’s quite a turnaround!

This juxtaposition, how on one hand, born out of its red-light district, Lisbon is birthing some of its trendiest new restaurants and bars, and how the resourcefulness of a few monks birthed Lisbon’s most iconic pastry seems so fitting for the character of this bohemian, counterculture city. Those two worlds typically never touch . . . except in Lisbon - the melting pot of Portugal - where creativity, imagination, and ingenuity can be found in the most unusual of places.

As our bus now crosses the border, we look forward to what Spain will bring . . . and we will have our eyes wide open, and most likely our mouths as well - always ready for the next bite of whatever delicious food comes our way.

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