Portuguese food

Despite being a foodie, I almost never blog about food. And I almost never take pictures of food.  But it would be remiss of me not to at least mention some aspects of the food we had in Portugal. Food is, of course, regional and our culinary experience was based on spending time in Lisbon, the Algarve, and Setúbal peninsula. I am looking forward to trying different foods in other parts of the country on our next trip.

As someone raised in Hong Kong who thinks Cantonese cuisine is one of the pinnacles of gastronomy, I really love and appreciate the emphasis on freshness, especially with respect to the seafood (which I also love and is my primary source of protein). That, and my fondness for soft, doughy, pillowy, eggy baked good means that Portuguese cuisine is a big win for me (unlike, say, Kazakh cuisine). Incidentally, the origins of all these eggy sweets comes from the convents and monasteries. The nuns/monks used the egg whites to starch clothing and the remaining egg yolks were utilized in baked goods.

It seems like the only pastry tourists know about is pastéis de nata (literally, cream pastry), which is unfortunate since there are so many other tasty Portuguese pastries (more on that later). Macau’s proximity to Hong Kong meant that I had been exposed to and ate Portuguese egg tarts quite a lot. But now I got to try it in the motherland! Had we not rented a car and if Belém was not somewhat on the way out of town to the Algarve, I would not have endured the 40 minutes each way on public transportation for these things. But events aligned and I wanted to see if all the hype about the egg tarts from Pastéis de Belém was warranted.

The birthplace of pastéis de nata was Mosteiro dos JerónimosThis picture offers a better perspective of the monastery’s size.

Where it all began: Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, a stone throw’s away from Pastéis de Belem

Arriving first thing on Saturday morning meant we did not have to deal with lines.

The famous Pastéis de Belem.

Upon entry, I noticed locals having their bica and pastry standing up at the counter. I like that this place in every tourist guidebook also caters to locals as well. Pastéis de Belem makes many other baked goods besides their famous pastéis de nata. The staff cranking these babies out work behind a large glass screen, which allows visitors to see them in action. Hopefully the glass screen does not make them feel like zoo animals.

Cranking pastéis de nata all day

The pastéis de nata looked good, but not extraordinary. That is, until we bit into them. The pastry was layered and flaky, and the custard warm and of perfect consistency. I would say, when warm, these egg tarts were the best I had on this trip. If they are cold, there are a lot of other places that produce just as good pastéis de nata.

Humble looking pastéis de nata bely their deliciousness

The space is huge. Clearly Pastéis de Belém caters to big tour groups

As I said earlier, I hope visitors to Portugal try more than just pastéis de nata, as there are many other delicious pastries. Sintra has their delicious queijada de SintraAnother one is pastéis de feijão (bean pastry). Pastel de feijão usually comes in the form of a round tart with a marzipan-like filling (I know, kind of like queijadas). Fábrica Pastel de Feijão in Alfama has a different take on these.

Outdoor seating

Scott and Eric stumbled across this place totally by chance. When Scott waxed lyric about this place, I was, as usual, slightly skeptical. The pastel de feijão was outstanding. At €2.50 each, they are not cheap by Portuguese standards. It is a good way to prevent me buying them by the half/one dozen.

A totally different take on Pastel de Feijão. I like how the cardboard holder is optimized to transport the pastry and eat from one end.

Empires were built by the bean

Okay, enough of doces (sweets). The savory foods were what really got me loving Portuguese food. We had so many good experiences in many restaurants that I can’t list all of them. I think Portuguese food is quite simple in its preparation, but I enjoyed almost all the fish and shellfish (especially cuttlefish and octopus (polvo)) dishes I had. Arroz de polvo was our revelation of the trip. We had no idea about the dish before we arrived in Lisbon, and got to have it in octopus central (Santa Luzia and Tavira in the Algarve). It has also been cool to practice speaking Portuguese at the Portuguese fishmongers here (they are Portuguese American and speak perfectly fluent English; they are just humouring me most likely).

Scott’s friend, Erich, kindly booked us a table at the Michelin starred restaurant, Loco. We had the 18 course (they call them “moments” – yes, a bit gimmicky) menu, which is a record for me. There were a few standout dishes. I am not keen on land meat (okay, okay, a pig on an aircraft carrier doesn’t count) but still tried all the meat dishes. I admit, I had to pass almost all of the beef tongue to Scott and Erich.

This is actually choco (cuttlefish) with vegetarian “caviar”

One of the standouts for me: red fruit (including tomato) with red pepper sorbet

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Incidentally, we had really excellent Indian food in Lisbon. There is no shortage of Indian, Tibetan, and Nepalese restaurants. I did find it a bit strange to see quite a few of these restaurants serving Italian food as well e.g. Indian Italian, Nepalese Italian. Is this a think in Portugal?

It seems like vegetables don’t play a starring role. I find this odd given what wonderful produce Portugal has. Even the vegetables as sides to the protein were kinda lame. The only vegetable dish/side I remember (because the rest were so insipid) is cenouras à Algarve (delicious). I will trying to seek out Portuguese vegetarian options next time round.

To me, Portuguese food is simple in its preparation. But that does not mean it is not super delicious. I think the simplicity of preparation techniques allows ingredients to shine. I am looking forward to eating new foods and old favourites on our next trip to Portugal.

 

Climbing under castles

I love revisiting a place and seeing it from a different perspective. In this case, I returned to Sintra only a few days after I first went there, to check out the climbing a bit. This was my first (and only) climbing experience in Portugal, and it was a nice introduction.

Routes right under Castelo dos Mouros

The routes were short (the longest route we did was three short pitches), and sport climbing, but thoroughly enjoyable with some pretty great views. I mean, how many crags have a view of a castle??!

View of Palácio da Pena from a belay

Being July, we only climbed for a half day before it got too hot.

View of Sintra from another belay. You can see the Quinta da Regaleira in the left foreground

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the granite here. Certainly there were some dirty parts, but the routes that were clean had great rock.

Some quality rock here

Sintra is noticeably cooler than Lisbon. So while it was a warm day, I was super glad not to be in blazing hot Lisbon. We did not see any other climbers, which made for a great climbing experience. I guess that is not too surprising given that climbing is not hugely popular in Portugal, and this area is also not super popular. I’ll certainly bring some light climbing gear with me the next time I am in Portugal.

Setúbal region

A totally chance and serendipitous encounter with an Uber driver in Lisbon led me to contact him again to hear his suggestions for excursion ideas, with him as tour guide/driver. Tiago’s very first suggestion was Sintra, but as we were already going there on Sunday, I asked him for other ideas, preferably those off the usual tourist map. He quickly responded with the Parque Natural da Arrábida and Setúbal region, and proposed a rough itinerary of Azeitão, Setúbal, Sesimbra, and Cabo Espichel. The plan appealed to me as I was keen to see places farther afield of Lisbon and different geographies. Since Scott had to work on Monday, it was just Tiago, myself, and Erich (Scott’s friend who lives in London, who hopped over to hang out with us for a few days).

Península de Setúbal

This map shows Cabo Espichel

We crossed the Tagus over the Ponte 25 Abril (the suspension bridge that makes everyone draw associations between Lisbon and San Francisco) to get to the Península Setúbal, stopping in the town of Azeitão first, to tour the Jose Maria de Fonseca winery, the oldest table wine company in Portugal. Tiago insisted we have some tortas de Azeitão beforehand, making me regret eating a few pasteis de nata for breakfast already.

Tortas de Azeitão. More flour/sugar/eggy/canela combinations

Mahogany barrels on the sides, oak barrels down the middle

Notice the heavy cobwebs. The spiders are actually welcome, to help control the bugs that would otherwise eat at the barrels.

Setúbal is actually an active port and fishing town.

A HAND-le (haha). A typical door handle in Setúbal.

Lunch in Setúbal was a large affair. The town is particularly famous for its choco frito (fried cuttlefish).

Almoço begins…

I had never seen cuttlefish so meaty and fat before. It was delicious.

Look at how FAT those cuttlefish are.

Delicious sardines to wash the cuttlefish down…

After lunch, we made our way towards the beach town of Sesimbra, with a few stops along the way.

Interestingly, the name Sesimbra is of Celtic origin (Cempsibriga). Tiago thinks Sesimbra is actually nicer than the Algarve, although less well known, even amongst the Portuguese.

View of the beach in Sesimbra from afar.

Sesimbra is pretty much your typical, local beach town. It was nice to see it untouched by foreign tourists.

Another view of Sesimbra.

We drove up to see another Moorish castle and the church Nossa Senhora do Castelo, before making our way to the final stop of the day, Cabo Espichel. The chilly, windswept plateau with its deserted church and structures and dark cliffs was quite the contrast to Sesimbra.

These used to be rooms for pilgrims

You can see the different strata in the rock

All in all, it was a long and enjoyable day seeing places not usually visited by tourists. I also got one long Portuguese language lesson out of it from Tiago, who was incredibly patient and took the time to speak slowly and correct me. He said it made him so happy that I was making the effort to learn and speak Portuguese. That kind of response is great motivation to continue to speak and learn a language that isn’t the most common/popular (okay, excluding the 208 million people in Brazil. Brazilian Portuguese sounds pretty different too).

 

 

 

 

Sintra – Disneyland for castles

Sintra is a UNESCO World Heritage site located less than an hour by train away from Lisbon (trains depart from Rossio station in Lisbon). Despite its proximity to Lisbon, its noticeably cooler microclimate and lush setting make for a distinct contrast to Lisbon.

The place is quite the trip! I had seen pictures of the Palácio da Pena online, so had kind of expected the tutti-frutti exterior of the place. But I was surprised by the contrast between Palácio Pena and the other sites, namely Castelo Dos Mouros (Moorish Castle). I was also surprised that the trip occupied more of the day than I thought it would (not in a bad way).

(Source: Google Maps)

I hate lines and having to wait unnecessarily, so I was keen to get to Sintra not too late in the morning to avoid even more crowds. In opposition to Scott, I also insisted we have a rough plan for the trip. It seems that most people hit the three main sites in the following order, moving up in elevation: Palácio Nacional de Sintra, Castelo Dos Mouros, and then Palácio da Pena. Since I thought Palácio da Pena and Castelo Dos Mouros were the priorities, and I knew I probably would not have interest in seeing three palaces/castles in a day, and I prefer walking downhill, I suggested we start at the top of the hill at Palácio Pena, then head down to Castelo Dos Mouros.

First, we had to fortify ourselves with coffee and queijada, a pastry specific to Sintra. Everyone knows pasteis de nata, but I actually prefer the marzipan like filling of queijada, consisting of cheese, sugar, and eggs. The Portuguese actually use cheese in quite a lot of their pastry fillings, and I’m a fan.

Queijadas de Sintra

The day started off windy and overcast, and I think that made the colours of Palacio Pena look less vibrant than I expected. But the place was still a bit of a riot. The palace is considered a national monument in Portugal (and one of the country’s Seven Wonders), and is a pretty striking example of 19th century Romanticism, whimsy, and Moorish influence.

It was a bit windy (Photo: Erich Schlaikjer)

After touring the interior, we headed down the hill to Castelo dos Mouros.

View of Castelo dos Mouros from Palácio Pena. There are rock climbing routes on those slabs below the castle.

Lingering clouds

The walls of Castelo dos Mouros reminded me of The Great Wall

Looking up at Pena Palace from the Moorish Castle

The Quinta da Regaleira had not been on our radar at all, until our Uber driver told us it was his favourite place in Sintra. It was also a geocaching site, which was incentive enough for our friend Erich to go. Surprisingly, it was the site with by far the longest lines of the day.

The geocache is down this well. Somewhere. Or was it in the other well?

Heading down into the abyss (Photo: Erich Schlaikjer)

The main house of the Quinta da Regaleira

We were all pretty knackered by the end of the long day, but Sintra is well worth the excursion if you’re in the Lisbon area. I even ended up returning a few days later for some rock climbing on those slabs near the castles.

View of Castelo dos Mouros from town

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lisboa – initial impressions

Overlooking Lisbon from the East.

Olá, from Lisboa. I actually enjoy learning and practicing Portuguese with patient locals. After the initial phase of learning the non-intuitive pronunciation, I think I am getting the hang of the language pretty quickly.

Before arriving, I read comparisons made between Lisbon and San Francisco. Aside from the Ponte 25 Abril, hilly/steep terrain of the city, and a cool breeze, to me, Lisbon is nothing like San Francisco. I wonder how locals feel about the comparison. Do they even care?

Ponte 25 Abril.

My first impressions of Lisbon were not great. I thought, and still think, the place is very run down, especially for a Western European capital. There are so many examples of once clearly grand buildings in varying states of neglect and disrepair, which is a bit sad.

So many examples of buildings like this in Lisbon

I was surprised to see buildings located in the main commercial and tourist area of the city in such poor states.

This building is right in/near the commercial/tourist area of town.

Building facades are covered with azulejos (tiles), a result of the Moorish influence. This makes for a colourful cityscape.

Azulejos everywhere

The pavements are also covered in small tiles. On some pavements, the tiles are uneven, in others, the tiles are polished, smooth, and even. I found out that I fuckin’ hate them when it is wet. I was slipping and sliding and falling as I descended steep slopes, and felt like I was walking up scree (one step up, two steps down) when I walked up tiled slopes. Obviously my inability to have a perfect gait/left foot placement is a factor here, so something to note if I am ever in Lisbon in the winter (rainy) months.

Arco da rua augusta e statue of King San Jose I

I had/have quite a bit of time for my impressions of the place to be shaped and change. As a fish and seafood lover, the fish/marisco-heavy cuisine suits me well, as do the pastéis de nata – what we called Portuguese egg tarts in Hong Kong. And when you get tired of bacalhau and Portuguese food, there are some other kick-ass cuisines in town, like the Indian and Japanese food.

I can see how someone could like the “grittiness” of the place, and perhaps see its potential and opportunity. I do not know enough about Portuguese politics/economics/business development to know if this potential will be realised.

The enjoyment I derive from a place is never through sights, monuments, etc. etc. It is from engaging with locals, the feel of a place to me. Most Lisboans speak perfect English, but quite a few got a kick out of this Asian girl trying to practice her Portuguese with them. And a few of them have been patient enough to converse with me and correct me. One particularly patient and nice guy said it made him so happy that I was making the effort to learn/converse in Portuguese.

The  Lisbon region has some nice sights to see, of which I will write about in future posts.