Not long ago, we dispatched travel blogger Heather Cowper on an anonymous review trip to the enchanting Hotel Heritage Av Liberdade in Portugal’s capital. Not only did she produce a terrific hotel review, but she also gave us a whistle-stop tasting tour of the city’s eats…
There are so many things I could tell you about our trip to Lisbon. Maybe fado music, the mournful mixture of folk and blues that is sometimes lively, sometimes sad, with lyrics of longing and lost love and being far from home. I could warn you about the pavements, with stone mosaics in patterns of black and white that threaten to twist your ankle unless you kick off your heels. I could tell you of the elevadors, the miniature trams that take you up the steep hills of the city and reward you with amazing rooftop views.
Or I could give you a sampling of the food, with its links to the land and the sea, Portugal‘s African colonies and the spice-scavenging Portuguese explorers. Our long weekend in Lisbon turned out to be a ravishing ramble through the city’s gastronomic delights.
It’s the pastéis de nata that encapsulates the taste of Lisbon for me, those sweet tarts with a crisp pastry shell enclosing a warm, vanilla-perfumed mouthful of custard and as much cream and eggs as they can cram in. They’re on sale in every pasteleria, but the best place to buy them is the famous Antiga Confeitaria de Belém cake shop near the Monastery of Jerónimos. At all times you’ll find crowds waiting to buy their pastéis, or to sit with a coffee and devour them in one of the rabbit-warren rooms at the back.
The bakery maintains a carefully cultivated mystique about the recipe sold to them by the sisters at the nearby monastery and the special room where the secret is held, known only to their top chefs. Although I enjoyed the pastéis we ate at the Antiga, I think the miniature versions served for breakfast at Hotel Heritage Av Liberdade had a slight edge in them for sheer creamy can-I-have-another? lusciousness.
If you’re here at Christmas, try bolo rei, or ‘king cake’, baked to celebrate the coming of the three kings to visit the baby Jesus. It’s a ring of sweet dough with a hole in the middle, studded with brightly coloured crystallised fruits. Traditionally you’d have found a fava bean or metal charm inside the cake, and whoever got it was the ‘king of the day’ – that was until the spoilsport bureaucrats of the EU banned it citing ‘safety reasons’. We bought one as a gift for some friends in Lisbon without realising the history behind it. I was attracted by the brightly coloured fruits on top that reminded me of the foil sweet wrappers that our kids used to decorate their crowns for the school nativity.
Another staple of the traditional Portuguese menu is the bacalhau – dried salt cod. Although the cod is actually fished from colder climes, it became a typical Portuguese dish, especially for those who stick to the Catholic tradition of fish on Fridays. Our experience of salt cod was as a mixed blessing, mostly firm, meaty and flavoursome chunks of fish, but on a bad day it can have overtones of tasteless old leather. At Casa do Alentejo, in the backstreet just round the corner from our Hotel Heritage Av Liberdade, we had the best of it. Large chunks of firm, salty fish were served with red and yellow peppers and onions, cooked to melty perfection in fruity olive oil to make a delicious salt and sweet combination. Another way to try it is in the little morsels of pastéis do bacalhau – small fried croquettes containing a mixture of potato and fish, served as a starter.
When you walk by some restaurants you might be forgiven for thinking that you’re passing a fishmonger or even an aquarium, with the extravagant displays of lobsters and other seafood on ice in the window. We couldn’t leave Lisbon without a plateful, and managed to squeeze it in at Cervejaria Trinidade in the Chiado neighbourhood. This cheerful, bustling place was once a monastery, then a brewery, and now serves fresh seafood and a wide range of beers in the traditionally tiled former refectory, overlooked by a mural of jolly monks. We enjoyed a simple meal of giant prawns, bread and salad, washed down with beer, proving that fast food needn’t be a disappointment.
Still on the fishy theme, I never really felt any ardent desire for a tin of sardines until we sheltered under the window blinds at the Conserveira de Lisboa on the hill up to Castelo de Sao Jorge. We were seduced by the old-fashioned shop with shelf upon shelf of sardine tins. Half the appeal was the colourful kitsch paper that the lady of the back of the shop was wrapping around each tin. They stocked every variation on tinned sardine, tuna, anchovies and other tinned fish; we were so charmed we had to buy a few for presents, hoping that the recipients would share our new-found sardine addiction.
If you want an alcoholic taste to remember, try the cherry liqueur sold from tiny booth-like shops in the squares of central Lisbon, such as A Ginginha, opposite the burnt-out church of San Domingos. On a warm evening you can stand outside, milling with the locals taking a nightcap. Sometimes they’re even served in chocolate cups for added sweetness. We decided to stick to the port that was served at Hotel Heritage Av Liberdade – after a long day sightseeing it was a perfect way to unwind relaxing on the comfy sofas by the bar. If you’re a port aficionado and want to try one of the many different varieties, then I’ve heard that the Solar do Vinho do Porto (the Port Wine Institute), in the Bairro Alto is the place to go.
On another visit I might come back with tales of the soupy arroz dishes of rice studded with seafood, or the pichana steak from Brazil, or the spicy grilled piri-piri chicken, or the African-influenced food from Cape Verde, Mozambique and Angola, or a plate of fresh grilled sardines eaten in one of the seaside resorts near Lisbon. But that will have to be a tale and a taste for another trip.
Antiga Confeitaria de Belém 84–82 rue de Belém
Casa do Alentejo 58 rua das Portas de Santo Antão, 58, Downtown
Conserveira de Lisboa 34 rua dos Bacalhoeiros 34,
Cervejaria Trinidade Rua Nova da Trinidade, Chiado
A Ginginha 8 Largo de Sao Domingos, Downtown
Solar do Vinho do Porto 45 rua de São Pedro de Alcantara, 45, Bairro Alto
All photos by Heather Cowper
You can read more stories from Heather’s trip to Lisbon on her blog at Heather on her travels, as well as photos, videos and podcasts from all the places she’s visited around the world. Heather’s also on Twitter: @Heathercowper.