Walking My Way Through The Flavors Of Lisbon
Having been in Lisbon for a few weeks now I’ve been seeing a lot of the same dishes or ingredients featured in cafés and restaurants throughout the city. I decided to enlist a local guide to help me piece together the components that are native to the Lisboan dinner table.
The first thing you notice when you look at Lisbon on a map is that it’s surrounded by water. In fact, 90% of the population lives on the coast. This, coupled with the country’s sea-faring past makes it easy to understand why fish plays a major role in the Portuguese diet. Curiously, the fish most featured and prepared in the widest variety of ways is one that isn’t even native to its waters. Codfish is a cold water fish and therefore, it’s found most often in the waters of Scandinavia and Canada. However, back during the discovery times codfish was the easiest to preserve. You’ll see salted cod everywhere you look in Lisbon, smell it every time you walk into a supermarket, and bump into every time you walk into a delicatessen. Nowadays there are literally hundreds of ways to prepare the fish but the most common comes in the form a fritter. Plentiful cod meets the humble potato, it gets formed into a fritter and dropped into a fryer. You can find cod fritters lined up next to croissants during breakfast and you can even find restaurants that sell nothing but cod fritters. I’ve yet to enter a traditional restaurant that doesn’t have these fried morsels predominately on display.
From Ocean To Sea
While the body of water that surrounds the country is the Atlantic Ocean, the diet is still considered to be Mediterranean. With the Mediterranean diet comes an abundance of bread, cheese and olives. Whether it’s an appetizer or a meal unto itself, you don’t have to go far to find someplace to serve up a plate of local cheese, fresh bread and a large dish of olives. The two main types of cheese are a soft, sheep’s milk cheese known as mountain cheese, and a more firm, stronger one referred to as island cheese. Both have been granted Protected Designation of Origin status in the EU. The Portuguese are proud of their cheese and, while you find cheese on virtually every menu, there are never more than these two types to choose from. A curious accompaniment to the firm cheese is a quince paste – the solidified membrane of the quince fruit. The cheese and the paste are cut into equal-sized pieces and served together to form a savory-sweet match made in heaven! With cheese, naturally you have wine…
Red, White and Green
All Portuguese wines are made with any number of grape varietals and they’re classified by region. So instead of a Merlot or a Sauvignon Blanc you have Douro Valley wine or Alentejo wine. While you’ll notice subtle flavor differences among wines from a particular region, within each region the flavor profile is uniform. They are overall very palatable wines, and while they are increasingly gaining international acclaim, they are still very affordable. A glass in a typical restaurant is usually anywhere from 2 to 5 euro, and you can buy a bottle in the supermarket for the same price.
In addition to red and white wine there’s also something called Vinho Verde, or greet wine. Green wine comes from the Vinho Verde denomination in Northern Portugal, and only wine that comes from this region can be names as such. This region is characterized by its climate and the grapes are harvested before they are matured. The fermentation of the young grapes causes a fizziness, and the result is a very light and fresh sparkling wine – perfect on a hot day with cod fritter or island cheese.
While those of us who are pescatarian can eat well in Lisbon, not all is lost for the carnivores out there. The meat of choice for most Portuguese people is pork, and one of the most common ways you’ll come across it is in the form of cured ham. Even though I didn’t indulge in any, my guide explained how the king of ham – Pata Negra – is a true delicacy on the Iberian Peninsula. In order to be classified as Pata Negra it must fulfill 3 requirements: it must come from a specific region, the pigs must feed on acorns from October to December, and it must be cured for a minimum of 9 months and up to 5 years. While cured ham is more commonly known in Spain, it’s curious to know that the majority of the Pata Negra variety comes from Portugal because they have more forests of oak trees.
As we meandered our way through the streets we took a journey through what is one of the oldest and likely the most multi-ethnic neighborhood in the city – Mouraria. The neighborhood was always popular stopping point for European emigrants fleeing the continent. Immigrants to Europe also found a home on these streets. The Portuguese empire consisted of several colonies across the globe, and through food and through marriage Portuguese culture evolved. Today in Mouraria you can a diverse representation of nationalities, with restaurants representing the food from Brazil and India to Mozambique. We stopped at a Mozambican restaurant to try eat samosas and drink cashew juice as a way to appreciate that, while not traditionally mainstays in your average Portuguese restaurants, the tolerance and acceptance of the all people has always been important in defining the city of Lisbon.
Mouraria is also the part of the city were Fado was born, and while not related to the food culture of the city, it certainly defines a large part of its culture at large. While learning about the 3 ‘divas’ of Fado and understanding the differences between Fado from Coimbra and Fado from Lisbon, we stopped in at a neighborhood stronghold and sampled a local liqueur call Ginjinha. Ginjinha is a beverage made from sour cherries that was introduced in the 19th century as a cough suppressant. While it was quickly released that the sweet stuff did little to curb the common cold, the liqueur had staying power. Given it’s sweetness it’s better served with dessert, however there are those who will have it at any time of day and at any stage of the meal. Ginjinha is another item you’ll find on the menu in every traditional Portuguese restaurant in Lisbon.
The only thing you see more of than salted cod as you make your way through the city are pastel de nata, or Portuguese tarts. There seems to be a bake shop on every block, and in every window an abundance of baked goods heavy on the egg yolks. Religion has always played an important role in the history of country, and the vestments of the clergy deserved special attention. The whites of the eggs where used as starch for the robes, leaving a surplus of yolks. In order to put the yolks to good use, and in turn create a revenue source for the church, the monks of the Jerónimos Monastery in Belém created the recipe for the revered Portuguese tart. It’s said that the recipe is not written down anywhere and is shared among only a privileged few. While not an overly complicated pastry, I’ve certainly had my fair share of these little delicacies so far and each one tastes slightly different than the next. The conclusion of our food and culture walking tour was at one of the oldest pastry shops in Lisbon, dating back to 1829. It’s been in the same family for 6 generations and as you would expect, they make a mean Portuguese tart. Paired with an espresso made with beans from the family’s plantation in Brazil, I had the perfect ending to my walk through the most traditional flavors on the streets of Lisbon.