Time to break up the normal programming around here and share an experience a bit out of the ordinary. Time for a food tour recap. After 4 months of traveling in South America, D and I made the hop over to Europe – you see, for us, June is synonymous with warm weather and blue skies – something Buenos Aires was not exactly providing us with (more like overcast days of 40 degree F temps). So, after almost a full 2 years away (23 months, but who’s counting) it was time to head back to Europe, with our first destination being Lisbon.
Being the food obsessed traveler that I am, naturally the first thing I looked up in Lisbon was a food tour. Luckily Taste of Lisboa was easy to come across, so it took me no time at all to sign up for a 4 hour walking food tour of the downtown Mouraria neighborhood.
What exactly is a food tour you ask? It’s a personally guided intimate tour of the traditional food of that country, with a lot of different stops where you get to sample the local cuisine as well as hear the historical and cultural significance of that food. Pretty much a historical and cultural food lesson. With a lot of food and alcohol. So think happy afternoons.
On the appointed date I met Miguel, my food guide, as well as my other food tour guest – a young couple from New York, a solo tourist from Germany and a mother, friend, daughter trio from Texas. The eight of us were ready to go.
After a brief history lesson the square that we were in Miguel led the way to our first stop – a grocery shop which sells fish on one side, fruits and veggies out front and meats and cheese inside on the right. Portugal has had an intimate relationship with cod for hundreds of years – dating all the way back to the discovery expeditions in the 15th century, and while there is no cod whatsoever in Portuguese fishing waters the people continue to love and cherish this fish. It is said that there are anywhere from 365 to 1000 different cod recipes in the Portuguese kitchen.
You can still find the dried cod (as it used to be salted hundreds of years ago for preservation purposes) everywhere in the city, and after a good soak in water (or even milk) the fish doubles or triples in size. The cod currently is bought from Norway, Iceland or Canada. I found this fact to be the most incredible of all. How could a country with a ton of seas have it’s most popular fish not be found in any of the local waters?! And if you’re looking for a proper cod delicacy it seems cod fish face is where it’s at. As Miguel explained to us, a classic quote the Portuguese say is that “cod fish is our pig of the seas” alluding to the fact that they eat every single part of it (tongue, stomach, fact, etc).
Once we moved into the other part of the shop we learned about the standard cheeses and cured meats of Portugal. Their most popular cheeses include queijo Serra da Estrela, made with raw sheep milk, queijo de azeitao and queijo ilha from the Sao Jorge and Sao Miguel islands, made with raw cow milk.
In terms of sausages there are two that are unique to Portugal – farinheira, with the base being flour and seasoning, and alheira with the base being poultry and bread. A fun fact Miguel shared with us is that both were invented during the Inquisition, a time when authorities would go door to door checking if people were Jewish, and one way of doing so was to see if those people had sausages in their homes. Well the Jewish people cleverly invented their own sausages made without pork to trick them, and so these two types of sausages came to be. Though you have to watch out nowadays some of them are in fact made with pork or other meats.
After an awesome intro we were all ready for our first tasting – olive oil, wine, bread and jam. The bread is made with rye and corn and the Texans in our group quickly mentioned how it reminded them of their corn bread back home, though of course not as dense and sweet. With a dip into the organic premium olive oil this was a perfect first sampling. Olive oil is extremely important in Portuguese culture and currently half of it is being exported to Brazil (which has provided a nice boost to the economy in recent years).
As for the wine we tried it was super smooth and not to heavy – an easy wine to drink. One awesome thing about Portugal is that you can get a great bottle of wine for no money at all. The wine we sampled only costs 5.50 euros (about $6 USD) and was a very nice one.
The highlight of the sample was of course the cured ham, coming from the black pig (known as the Iberian pig in Spain). Miguel told us that there are 3 rules for it to be called black pig ham: 1) it has to be a specific breed of pig 2) the pigs need to eat acorns between the months of October and December 3) and the ham needs to be cured for at least 9 months. The one we tried was cured for 24 months and goes for 65 euros per kilo ($33 usd per pound). It was absolutely incredible – super tender and lightly smoked. Just perfect.
After our first sampling it was time for stop number 2. We sat down outside on the terrace and were treated to cod cakes and a glass of vinho verde. The cod cakes are made with shredded cod soaked in water stewed with garlic, olive oil, mashed potato, parsley, and pepper, then shaped into mini ovals and deep fried.
They were soft on the inside and lightly crisp on the outer fried coating and delicious. This is a classic Portuguese appetizer or snack.
The vinho verde is a lightly sparkling summer wine with a lower alcohol percentage of 9-11%. Historically this was called vinho verde (which means green wine) because the grapes were harvested when they were still green, before they were ripe and because they were bottled young the natural fermentation process allowed for a light carbonation. Now of course everything is harvested at normal times and the fizzyness is artificially added. Bummer. Prices for a vinho verde can range from 2 euros all the way up to 18, so either way it is always a cheap wine. This wine is produced in the North of Portugal where the weather is a bit cloudier so the grapes do not get as much sun and therefore have less sugar in them, leading to a lower alcohol percentage in the wine. This is by far my new favorite wine and you must seek it out wherever you live!
Time for stop number 3 – a traditional Portuguese tavern. This place started as a coal shop, then when electricity appeared in order to survive the coal shops turned into taverns, servicing quick meals. The one we stopped in was over 60 years old, and is currently run by the son of the original owner. This would be the spot where we would sample various cheese, quince paste, the alheira sausage and a classic Portuguese sandwich – the bifana. The heart of this sandwich is a grilled pork steak that has been marinated in garlic and wine. It is served sandwiched between two pieces of hearty bread with optional mustard and house made piri piri spicy sauce. Naturally I loaded on the condiments and got quite the kick a spice with my first bite. Spicy food lovers will love the piri piri sauce which is made with red chili peppers, whiskey, lemon juice, garlic and onion.
On our way to stop number 4 Miguel gave us an awesome quick history and culture lesson regarding Fado in Portugal. And then we were ready to sample Portugal’s favorite liquor – Ginjinha – made with sour cherries heavily mixed with sugar and then aguardiente. It is served in shot form with or without a few sour cherries at the bottom of the glass. The owner of the tavern bar where we tried it has a favorite make his own recipe and they bottle it and ship to him. This wasn’t exactly my favorite alcoholic beverage – as it reminded me of years of behind force fed cherry couch syrup as a child, but I did love trying the local liquor.
From there it was time for a bite to eat, and so we stopped by an African restaurant serving food from the 2 islands Sao Tome e Principie. While I only knew of Brazil as being a major former colony of Portugal’s, it turns out the country had a ton of other colonies all over Africa and Asia as well. For this reason you will notice many different ethnic restaurants dotted all over Portugal, as these were former colonies. Fun fact: Macau was only given back to China in 1999 (only 17 yrs ago)! To help cool down we started with a mini cold beer. As Miguel explained a big beer can start to get warm and lose its carbonation too fast, so instead they prefer mini beers here – perfectly carbonated and cool until the last drop. Pretty brilliant if you ask me. Our appetizer was a fried fish cake – a mix of different fish and dough made of breadfruit (a fruit I was not even familiar with).
Then it was time for even more alcohol (yes alcohol is a big part of the Portuguese culture, luckily for me), so it was on to a wine shop. Here we got to sample three different port wines – fortified wine strictly produced in the Douro Valley in Northern Portugal. This wine shop had wines of all prices and years, even going back hundreds of years with a price tag of 1,600 euros a bottle). And no, we did not get to sample that one.
Instead we sampled a white port wine, a vintage red and an LPB red. The vintage wines are only made during good years with the best grapes, so at times there can be a gap of several years between vintage bottling. The LPB is a cheaper version of a vintage port, the taste is similar but not as full. The wines we tried had alcohol content of 20%, and I have to go with the white port as my favorite, though I did enjoy all three.
For the serious port wine connoisseurs be sure to try the Dows 2011 Vintage Port – as it won the award for best wine in the world, but priced at 300 euros a bottle isn’t within my budget!
To finish off the food tour our last stop, of course, had to be for coffee and dessert. As we entered the magical pastry shop Miguel shared the history of the famous Portuguese dessert – pastel de nata. This was a dessert created and sold by 19th century monks in order to provide for themselves when the Portuguese kind cut funding.
The priests invented this recipe and when all the convents and monasteries eventually closed this priest sold the recipe to one man, who now sells these in one specific location as the pastal de belem, all others in the city are sold as the pastel de nata. This is an egg tart pastry, with an incredibly smooth and rich custard baked into a flaky and soft puff pastry style dough.
It is rich and light all at the same time. Just perfect with an afternoon espresso and as a final stop on the food tour.
Overall I had an absolute blast on the Taste of Lisboa food tour with Miguel as my guide. Along with a great set of other food tour attendants we had a wonderful afternoon learning all about the food culture in Lisbon and Portugal. Food is such an integral part of understanding and getting to know a foreign culture, so a food tour makes for a perfect introduction into a new country. And you’ll get tons of tips for other places to eat/drink and what to try. An added bonus.
If you’re ever in Lisbon Portugal, do not hesitate to sign up for a food tour!
**Thanks to Taste of Lisboa for hosting me of this food tour. As always all opinions expressed here are my own**