I’m not a real connoisseur of fine dining, but I do enjoy trying out new tastes and exploring local foods, especially when I’m travelling. Portugal provided lots of opportunity for that when my friend and I went there in late March and early April.
I had heard about the Ribiera Market in Lisbon and we explored it on our first morning. There was a scary-looking dead fish eyeing me in the fish market section. (We later learned it was a black swordfish, a tasty white fish.) We ventured into the large food court with an assortment of medium priced to high-end food choices. With the barrage of new sights and sounds, I was overwhelmed by all the choices. I had my mouth ready for some seafood and opted for seared scallops topped with a mango sauce. They were pricey at 10 Euros for three large scallops, but very tasty.
That evening we headed to the neighbourhood grocer located near our guesthouse and picked up some local cheese and sampler bottles of port wine. We asked the shop owner if she could recommend a good restaurant with some local dishes. She engaged two young men, one of whom spoke English, and, after further discussion with them and another eavesdropping customer, we settled on a nearby restaurant. One thing to remember is that appetizers of cheese, olives, patés and bread brought to the table before you order is not free. I had a simply prepared grilled tuna with side of potatoes, carrots and spinach, and glass of house wine. It was all very tasty and reasonable at 18 Euros.
We loved heading to the local markets where there was an array of colours–growing plants, beautiful tropical fruits such as loquats, kiwi, papaya and mango, fish that we didn’t recognize, local cheeses, olives, dried herbs, and dried fruit and nuts. The dried fruits, nuts, olives and cheese made a delicious snack or light lunch on our travels. In Tavira, on the southern coast of Portugal, my friend bought some insomniac tea to take home. The proprietor mixed it up from various baskets on display in her stall.
Whenever we needed a break, we stopped for café au lait and pastel de nata (custard tart) available throughout Portugal. My friend was the taste-tester and gave them a rating from 1 to 10. We never got below 7 and managed a few times to reach the gold standard. The best had a light touch to the pastry and a creamy custard filling. We saw people heading off to work with a shot of coffee and a tart.
Another favourite that became a regular treat was freshly squeezed orange juice. In Portugal they have these wonderful juicer machines where whole oranges are thrown into the machine. We also bought fresh oranges that you had to eat over the kitchen sink, or with several napkins as they were dripping with the sweetest-tasting juice.
One of the best meals was at an Indian tandoori restaurant in Tavira called the Kohinoor. We had chicken with mango sauce, aloo gobi curry (a cauliflower and potato dish) and freshly made garlic naan bread. I had a Cobra beer. All of this cost only 25 Euros for the two of us. We opted for an early dinner and there were no other customers, so we had an interesting conversation with the Southeast Asian waiter and staff about their difficult life as immigrants in Portugal. At the end of the meal, we got to see the tandoori oven and meet the chef and other staff. It was a wonderful ending to our stay in Tavira, a place I’d highly recommend.
We took a side trip to Evora, in central Portugal, east of Lisbon and enjoyed some traditional dishes for lunch with our tour guide. He explained that many of the dishes evolved from using the “leftovers” and less desirable cuts of meat or fish that were available to people. Our guide, who worked as a sommelier in France, ordered a lovely red wine to start. This was followed with fish bread soup where we broke bread into the bottom of the bowl and poured the soup over it. It had a light, delicate flavour that our guide told us was made from dogfish, a type of small shark.
Another traditional dish that our tour guide ordered had an unusual combination of pork and small neck clams, and is called carne de porco à Alentejana. It was served in a two-tier clay dish with another pork dish that I think was barbequed.
We had hoped to taste grilled sardines, but unfortunately it was not the season for them. We did have a tasty sardine paté. Of course sardines were available in those beautifully decorated tins you find for sale in the tourist shops. I brought home several cans to give away to friends and family.
Since tripe was a specialty dish of the Porto area, I tried a tripe stew with bits of sausage, white beans, potatoes and onions in the stew. I thought it was rather bland. On a cool, rainy evening I enjoyed a delicious kale soup with chorizo and a dollop of olive oil swirled on top.
Of course, being in Portugal one has to taste the port wine. Most evenings we enjoyed our port wine samplers before bedtime. The port winery tour in Porto provided lots of information on the various styles of port and the tastings of three selections left us a bit light-headed. It was unfortunate I had no room in my suitcase to take a bottle home!
The meal that I enjoyed the most was a steamed, seafood dish. Cataplana is named for the copper-plated, wok-shaped pan in which it was cooked. The dish contained crayfish, mussels, clams, prawns and squid for 13 Euros. My friend and I shared a tomato, mozzarella and arugula salad. We later discovered that the restaurant was known for its homemade pasta alla forma, but I was more interested in tasting as much fish and seafood as possible, so didn’t regret my choice.
Lessons for Canadians
I think that Canadians could learn a lot from the Portuguese about eating and cooking locally available foods. They make full use of their local ingredients while they’re in season. Fresh tomatoes, greens, and other produce were readily available and utilized in salads and soups. Creamy local cheeses made from goat, sheep and cow’s milk provided lots of choices. All the food was simply prepared, used local ingredients and gave true meaning to “slow food.” We enjoyed quiet conversation, without the blare of music in restaurants and cafes and we never felt rushed to leave. No cell phones interrupting the joy of eating and the company of friends. Great lessons that some of our restaurants need to take into consideration.