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Lisbon Story: Why You Must Go Part II – The Food

February 17, 2012

If M.F.K. Fischer were Portuguese, this quote would have read, “First we eat eggs, then we eat everything else.” The American author of well-known gastronomical classics such as How to Cook a Wolf, With Bold Knife and Fork, and  The Art of Eating is not, however, without her famous egg line.  “Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg before it is broken.” Well, if an egg before it is broken is an intimate affair, an egg after it is broken may be one of the most public of joys, one of the most communal of foods. Eggs bind. Eggs emulsify. Eggs give protein and fat and nutrients. Eggs give color. And eggs, in their very public, very celebrated life in Portugal, serve as the foundation to daily gastronomical delights. In most national dishes you’re likely to find (or have the potential to be told that it is at least possible to add) an egg. Although I didn’t have my camera strapped to my side for every eating experience (GASP if you know me), I can recall them with great excitement. Most famously of course, Pastel de Nata, egg tarts. There’s boiled bread in egg yolks and sugar (which I received a lesson on from Marta’s aunt), egg yolks and sugar raw (doubleGASP if you are the USDA), egg yolks and sugar slightly boiled then pressed into a pan, egg yolk custard in the center of doughnuts, egg yolks somehow caramelized and hardened on the outside of pastries, egg yolks in the center of cake, egg yolks egg yolks egg yolks. Marta attempted, unsuccessfully, to wax poetically about the brilliant use of egg yolks in her home country while acting as our summer egg farm manager, but I failed to heed her descriptions until I touched foot on Portuguese soil. Only now do I understand.

But more than this, I understand a passion for food that courses through the veins of the Portuguese people, especially regional food. If Americans think we are driving the truck on the local food movement, they’d better realize we’re walking slowly behind in the dust of others long-gone before us (to confirm, the Slow Food Movement came out of Italy, not New York or Portland or San Francisco as some of us might be leery to learn, and I’m convinced Italy was representing a great family of European eaters in their anti-McDonald’s Manifesto). Portuguese know how to eat. They wait long hours before doing so (most families seemingly eating somewhere between 8 and 9PM) and take eating as a very serious affair. I was warned by numerous family members at a “small” (maybe 30?) family gathering of the Cabrals that if I wanted food, I had to fight my way in and get it. They weren’t kidding. Well, all of this to-do over food was particularly pleasing to my sister and I, since food, too, courses through our veins, and since we agree with Mary Francis Kennedy that first, we eat.

Speaking of eggs, these pasteis (plural for little egg custard tarts, best served hot), proudly called Pasteis de Belém since they originated in 1837 in Belém, Portugal (now a municipality of Lisbon), cannot be beat. I met a Portugese woman on a plane back from France, and her first question was, “Have you had Pasteis de Belém?” Not, have you seen downtown Lisbon, have you visited our squares, have you tried our regional dish of…., but have you had these special little egg tarts that are the original egg tarts in all of Portugal? Every guidebook, every blog, every Portuguese person will point you in the direction of Belém, to which you are invited to ride the above ground electric tram, all for these steaming little buttery tarts. I admit my initial suspicion–can it be more than a tourist trap? If half the world knows about them, are they any good? It is a rare day and age when a good or service can live up to its legend, or when a company can maintain its quality in the face of popular demand. Well, let’s just say, I think I ate 6. And don’t hesitate to go straight there off the plane (Marta does, sometimes, no doubt!).

One of our favorite stops was in the medieval UNESCO world heritage town of Évora in the Alentajo region, where the winding, slightly hilly cobblestone streets, picturesque to the eyes, did try to capture our car around a few tight turns. Here, on our last morning, we came upon a little pastry shop. Now pastry shops of every make and fashion are easy to find in most every Portugese city and village–ranging from those that are posh and trendy to those that are old and tattered, those that claim hundreds of years in service, to those down a sleepy ally that are laid back enough for an old cat to watch an even older man sip his dark afternoon espresso–every kind of place you could imagine. But this pastry shop that we came to, Pastelaria Conventual Pão de Rala, (pão meaning bread) in this little town, spoke of a pace all its own, one that was determined by the amount of time a person could savor each little nibble of heaven. No wonder, since the recipe which is its namesake dates back to the 16th century! In my limited research (since I don’t read Portuguese) I found the following:

The origin of the “Pão de Rala” is related to a visit of young King Sebastian to the monastery of St. Helena do Calvário in Évora. So this recipe dates from the sixteenth century and became popular throughout Alentejo, though with local variants. (http://en.lifecooler.com/)

Well, this local variant, apparently made famous by such a quaint, little place, is quitethe bread. In an effort to order Pão de Rala, we had to point to the sign and then point to the case that gleamed full of vibrant yellows and smelled of smoldering sugar. Essentially a cake, Pão de Rala turned out to be a slightly nutty morning sensation filled with (of course) sweet strings of egg yolks and a light residue of orange. Most beautiful of all in this little patelaria was how the local cakes attracted such a quiet, lovely crowd–a man sat solemn and gruff by the window “reading” his paper while clearly secretly enjoying people-watching his neighbors and soaking in the eastern sun, ordering cake after cake to stretch out his morning affair; two women chatted in the corner incessantly, sounding to us in our own eavesdropping like the speed of lightning since Portuguese, foreign to our ears, is similar to a rhythm-filled song when it is spoken with emotion, which is most often. One of these women made her way over to us, as intrigued by our intrigue as we were by the song and smell of the place. “Vous êtes français?” she asked? This wasn’t the first time that we were mistaken for French instead of American, but the third. “Non, nous sommes Américains!” “Ahh, American!” she exclaimed. “And how did you find us?” We chatted for a while, until I finally asked to take her photograph, as taken with her beauty as she was with our genuine delight. Again and again, the people coupled with the cuisine gave us much reason to deepen our affection for this place. No doubt it will yours too, when you visit!

Another such time where the people undoubtedly made the experience was that of engorging ourselves on our absolute favorite meal while in Portugal at a restaurant we also accidented upon down Rue Travessa das Nunes in Évora during a quiet afternoon. What’s funny is that we don’t know the name of the dish (if you are reading this and are Portugese, please educate me!)…but we do know what it tasted like. It tasted like sheer bliss. Like childhood, like afternoons in Rhode Island peeling muscles off the mossy rocks when the tide was low and then running back to the motorhome to boil them in tomatoes while the pasta was prepared al dente. It tasted like long evening meals at the picnic table by the fire, dogs running around in their dusk play. And it tasted like the newness of our experience in Portugal, all simmered down into one familiar pot.

Ranking pretty high on our list were about, say, 15 other meals (maybe 20? did we eat that many? most likely…), but I cannot fit them all into this post lest you exhaust yourself completely and never return to this URL… BUT, I hope I have convinced you that the food+the blue skies is reason enough to point your plane (ticket) in the direction of Portugal next time your vacationing is Europe-bound (no, I am not being compensated for this message by the Portugese government, nor by my Portuguese ancestors. Maybe a little by my Portugese friends who absolutely love and are proud of their country and skies, among other things). That said, I cannot leave you without brief description of two other eating experiences. That would be seafood in Cascais (of which you have already seen its blue skies, if you are a reader of this blog), and the soul-satisfying simplicity of a traditional Alentajo soup. Indulge your eyes, and your mental stomachs.

As a reminder, Cascais is a town about 30 minutes east of Lisbon, accessible by train line. Like many seaside towns, Cascais boasts out-of-this-world local seafood (is there any other way to have it?). Luckily enough for us, we were in the presence of true foodies who know how to sniff out a good meal that goes far deeper than decor or location, foodies that can distinguish subtle similarities in good taste, good ingredients and a solid love of good food at a local dive as well as they might at a high-flatulent diningroom (I shall propose that as the next iteration of the definition of a “foodie” at the next big New York City I Declare Myself a Foodie event…wait, isn’t that most all events these days? Someone pass on the memo.) These foodies were none other than Marta’s cousins, Filipa and Pedro. After wandering for a few hours up and down the coast (and stopping to get local handmade gelato–guess what my flavor was! GORGONZOLA! I know, awesome, right?), Filipa phoned Pedro to scout out the best afternoon meal. The final pick? Cervejaria Eduardo das Conquilhas. My loose translation: Eduardo’s Brewery of Cockles. (Please again, patient Portugese friends, correct my wrong translation here if need be…).

Well, in good faith of his name, Eduardo did provide some good brew and some damn good cockles. I mean, finger-lickin’, shell-suckin’ good. I mean so good that Jewells and I would have to fight over who would lick the plate after each of our tiny little cockle shells were meticulously cleaned. Now, you may not have grown up near the ocean. You may be like Jason, who is right now reading this and saying, what’s a cockle? That sounds a little cock-eyed…is that a real word? Well folks, “cockle” is in fact a real word for a real darn good thing. Cockle is a delicious little bivalve that grows in the ocean and prepares itself to be eaten by the likes of you and me (and other intelligent sea predators who are able to pry them open). In the poetic words of wikipedia (which, if you are a smart fellow, you won’t trust unless you do your own background research in a good old encyclopedia or from your local fish monger…): Cockle is the common name for a group of (mostly) small, edible, saltwater clams, marine bivalve molluscs in the family Cardiidae. There, doesn’t wikipedia make you feel wicked smarter? Not really…however, trust me when I say that Eduardo’s cockles in their sweet, salty garlic broth sprinkled with cilantro, were of the kind that cause one to go delirious with delight. These cockles are the kind of delicatessen that can cause a proper man to put down his proper fork and knife and suck up the last bit of salty ocean water from the dish right in front of his well-to-do in-laws (I didn’t actually see this happen, but I was imagining it while we were ravenously demolishing the shelled lunch before us). And the sweet, small shrimp! Ahh, the sweet, small shrimp! Well, I what shall I say? I suppose I’ve raved enough about the cockles that you will believe me when I say that you have nearly never tasted a shrimp this sweet and delicious. Never. Go see Eduardo. Tell him the American girls who couldn’t stop slurping and who were so overwhelmed with joy for the little dive that they had to take photos with the waiter sent you.

And finally, a soup I will share, a simple soup. This soup we had on New Year’s Day. This soup cleared my mind and helped me usher in the new year with a deep desire for the kind of simplicity that it was an exact testament to. A simple broth of water, spinach, garlic, cilantro and cheese, easily boiled for less than 20 minutes. It was Confucius who said “Life is really simple, but men insist on making it complicated.” (No, I didn’t remember that from reading it in college, for I’ve forgotten what I read of Confucius in college…but yet I am a wise googler…and I am proud that Confucius was wise enough to know that women insist on un-complicating the world around us. Thank you, sir.) And thank you, oh Mother of Zé, as you will always affectionately be known as to us, for making us this splendid soup.

So, as M.F.K. Fischer said so wisely, Primeiro que comemos, então fazemos tudo o resto…Thank you, M.F.K., for the reminder of this great truth that even in our travels, first we delight ourselves in the gastronomical culture of the places we are guests of. Yet another good reason to set your sites on that little Western European slice of land and sea called Portugal.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. carly permalink
    February 17, 2012 8:19 pm

    officially drooling. I too went on a mad hunt for portuguese egg tarts, but on the little island nation of Macau, off of Hong Kong, which was colonized by Portuguese traders in the early 16th century.

  2. April 1, 2012 11:39 pm

    Pasteis de Belém!!!!! heaven.

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