Erin and I spent a long weekend in Lisbon catching up with uni mates and generally eating and drinking our way around the city. The sun shone, the sangria flowed and we all fell in love with the city. Lisbon certainly is now up there with our best ever city breaks. I couldn’t recommend it enough. But the most important bit… The food was rich, intense and salty and pretty damn good. Here are my five culinary highlights.
1. Oh the tarts!
I’ve never been to Portugal before but I have eaten a Portuguese custard tart in London, and even had a go at making my own a couple of time. This didn’t adequately prepare me for quite how delicious and copious they would be. Even the smallest and least-likely looking café had absolutely superb tarts. We couldn’t agree on quite the right thickness of the flaky puff pastry, the exact level of crispiness or the precise squidginess of the custard that made the absolute perfect tart, though we had a good go at trying all the variations. They were all slightly different, but they all were awesome.
2. Pata Negra
When we weren’t stuffing our faces with tarts, we could quite often be found sharing a plate of cheeses (served with a yummy sweet pumpkin jam) and cured meats. The Portuguese cheeses were very special and often sold whole. They are typically about 6cm in diameter, often quite young and a mixture of goats, sheeps and cows milk. But the highlight for me had to be some 2-year old Iberico ham, known in Portugal as pata negra (black pigs). We tried it at the start of an epic 4-hour food tour through the city. It was as good as it gets.
3. Padron Peppers
I love Padron peppers. Hot, green, salty, sweet, grilled deliciousness. I know they are not Portuguese (I believe they are grown in north-west Spain which is pretty close) but we ate them enough in Lisbon to get a mention. The spiciness was noticeably variable and we took to playing padron Russian roulette. I lost. But I didn’t care.
I briefly learnt Italian at school. And after a just a few weeks we had a lesson on “Food and Drink”, as you do. I still remember being amused at the word “baccala” appearing on my list of food vocab that I was expected to learn. The translation was “dried salted cod”, something so far any previous experience of cod at the time (fish fingers or fish and chips) that I thought the Italians (or more particular my Italian teacher) were mad.
And then twenty years later I read “Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World” by Mark Kurlansky and I realised I was wrong. Cod flesh is very low in fat so it dries well without going rancid – something that was discovered many centuries ago. You dry it with salt, it goes almost rock hard and will keep for years without refrigeration before you re-hydrate (soak and re-soak to remove some of the salt) and then cook. Salt cod has had a massive role in the history of human exploration – it sustained travelers as they literally crossed the world, it has triggered revolutions had such a massive part to play in the economy of Europe that it is thoroughly unsurprising that it has its own word. In Lisbon it’s called bacaloa, it’s a big thing and we ate it in lovely fried croquettes.
And finally, staying on the fishy theme… As well as salt cod, there is a massive culture of tinned sardines and other tinned fish. We spent a lovely couple of hours in one of the sardine cafes of Lisbon. The menu is epic. List after list of tinned fishes. And the walls are covered in rows and rows of the beautifully designed and colourful tins. We had no idea where to start but loved the waiter recommendation of a tin of smoked sardines, followed by some tomato & chilli sardines. Absolutely great with small hunks of bread and a glass of beer.