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Cuisine, Culture and Heritage in Lisbon on a Food Tour with Eating Europe.
‘What do you know about Portuguese cuisine?’ asked our guide, Beatriz Pestana, at the start of a long afternoon exploring Lisbon’s food culture. Salt cod, seafood, pastéis de nata were some of the responses. All true, but we were about to discover that there is more to the Lisbon food scene than custard tarts and fish. Although we ate both during the course of an afternoon tour, we experienced much more: the Lisbon most tourist do not get to see. This is the joy of the Eating Europe food tours, now also operating in Rome, Florence, Naples, Amsterdam, Prague, Paris, Strasbourg and London. I enjoyed their excellent London tour years ago before the company had expanded as much it has now, so I had high hopes for a Lisbon food tour.
I was pleased to have taken the food tour on my first day in Lisbon as Beatriz’s insights enabled me to enjoy the rest of my stay in the city with eyes open to what she had shared.
We met in a central square in downtown Lisbon, in a neighbourhood called Baixa. Beatriz was engaging, warm and enthusiastic, encouraging us to understand the areas we were walking through. We were to eat where Lisboetas eat rather than standing in line with tourists all clutching their travel books open to the same page.
We hadn’t walked far when Beatriz stopped on an intersection. She asked us to look around and choose which building we thought might be a hidden palace. We were stumped until she pointed out that the one straight ahead had a crown carved onto its façade high up towards the roof. When a level 8.9 earthquake rocked Lisbon in 1755, much of the city was destroyed and this 16th-century palace was badly damaged. When rebuilt, Lisbon’s first casino was housed there and it kept a low profile so people would not know what was taking place in the building. Casa Do Alentejo has been on this site for the past 100 years and it is now used for food presentations and parties.
In contrast to the plain exterior, the interior was a riot of colour, Moorish style created by walls filled with beautiful azulejo tiling. Visitors to Lisbon are immediately struck by the beauty of the tiled buildings from the modest to the spectacular, but I had not seen the interior of a building quite like this one. We went up to the second floor which Beatriz described as ‘a hidden gem of Lisbon’. It was decorated in 19th-century style and is used for celebrations such as Carnival.
Following a brief tour, we were ushered through a passageway to the taverna on the ground floor. The restaurant specialises in cuisine from the Alentejo region which lies between Lisbon and the Algarve in the south-central/ southern part of Portugal. Doors opened onto a central courtyard with a large olive tree where the lunchtime trade was busy. Due to the heat, we ate indoors which was blissfully cool. We were served long glasses of cold Portuguese beer or Cerveza as Beatriz instructed, keen to teach us the rudiments of Portuguese. Portugal has two different brands of national beers. We tasted Super Bock which is from Porto in northern Portugal. The Lisbon area produces Sagres. 60% of Portuguese prefer Super Bock, a light, blond beer with 5.2% alcohol.
The beer was most welcome on a very hot day and was served along with plates filled with beans. These were Tremoҫos, or Lupini beans, explained Beatriz, often eaten as a snack with a beer. They were small cream coloured beans, uncooked, soaked in brine. Beatriz showed us how to eat them by biting off the skins which are discarded. They tasted very salty and no doubt lead to the sale of many more beers as do salty snacks in all cultures be they crisps, nuts or olives. Throughout the rest of my stay in Lisbon, I noticed people eating these with their cervezas.
After we had begun to get to know the other group members over our beers, waiters appeared with our first course. As pork is the cheapest protein source in Portugal a lot of the meat is eaten and Beatriz was keen that we taste a traditional dish.
We tucked into carne de porco Alentejana, fried pork with lots of garlic which was tender and very tasty. But what was that long, quenelle-shaped item served alongside? Beatriz encouraged us to guess but none of us won the prize for group know-it-all. She explained that it was made from bread mixed with a lot of garlic and coriander and then fried in the sauce of the meat – that accounted for it having a lovely rich flavour. Usually, Portuguese food was quite heavy, she said, but this dish was refreshing as it was served with orange slices that cut through the richness.
Time to move on, everyone now chatting amongst themselves as we walked uphill into an area called Mouraria which, Beatriz explained, used to be the Moorish neighbourhood and one of the oldest in Lisbon. This was far more of a local area than a touristy one and we were able to get a good look at where some Lisboetas live. We also began to see some of the street art that Eating Europe advertises as part of this tour.
Lisbon is ablaze with street art and Beatriz explained that the government pays artists for their work, presumably to boost visitor figures as street art is very popular, but perhaps also to revive certain areas that are in need of some refurbishment. There was a time when Mouraria was not a safe area to wander about but it certainly does not have that feeling today. It is now a multicultural area with Asian supermarkets, African restaurants and a very different vibe to the downtown area of Baixa.
As we walked Beatriz encouraged us to look down at the pavements which are often cobbled and patterned. Calҫada Portuguesa is Portuguese cobblestone and very much part of the culture. She took us to see a church where the cobblestones represented the shadow of the church. For five minutes in summer, the shadow of the church falls exactly onto its representation in the cobblestones. For the rest of my trip to Lisbon, I derived a lot of pleasure looking down at my feet and trying to decipher the meaning of some of the patterns in the cobblestones. Smarter shops have their names mosaiced into the paving stones.
Our second stop was in the shade of some large trees outside a tiny eatery called Jasmim Da Mouraria. Here two brothers have set up shop in a tiny cubbyhole on the ground floor of a residential building. This is a very local spot that tourists would never find unless they were in the know.
We savoured glasses of a white wine, Tem Avondo, which comes from the Alentejano region of Portugal and is so local that it is not sold in shops. Tem Avondo means ‘it’s enough’ which you say when the wine is being poured. It was beautifully light and crisp and the best wine I drank throughout my trip to Lisbon. We learned to toast in Portuguese, saúde. Along with this gorgeous bottle, we tasted salade de bacalao, a salt cod salad served with black eyes peas and olive oil. Having eaten a rather good roasted salt cod the night before, I was intrigued to discover a totally different way to prepare this national fish of Portugal.
Although bacalao is an essential part of Portuguese cuisine, there are no cod on the coast as the water is not cold enough. The fish is obtained in Canada or Norway. In the 15th century, Portuguese sailors discovered cod and salted it heavily so as to preserve it and bring it back to Portugal. Since then it has been the national fish. The Portuguese do not eat fresh cod. To cook salt cod it needs to be soaked in water for three days so that the salt is removed sufficiently. Portuguese people say there are more than 365 recipes for codfish. Every family has their own way to prepare the fish which is also served at Christmas. Beatriz’s grandmother prepares it with a lot of olive oil and makes a mayonnaise with the sauce of the fish.
We could have sat chatting under the trees all afternoon but there was other food still to eat. Staying in Mouraria we climbed further uphill to Cantinho do Aziz. As Mozambique was once a Portuguese colony, its culinary heritage has influenced the cuisine with Mozambican restaurants being popular in Lisbon. The family that runs this restaurant hails from Mozambique and lives above the restaurant. Apparently, the curries are ‘to die for’ and those in the UK who fancy a taste can make their way to Leeds where a branch has recently opened.
The Indian spices were originally brought to Mozambique by Portuguese sailors returning from Goa – also a Portuguese colony – since Portugal had first discovered the sea route to India. The owner, Aziz, came over to talk to us and explained that the peppers for his Piri-Piri sauce come from Mozambique. We were served chamoҫa – a samosa – which is a traditional Mozambican snack. It was perfectly crispy and filled with minced meat. It had a very good flavour but just in case you wanted to add some heat there were tiny bowls of fiery red Piri-Piri sauce.
I made the mistake of taking a taste – some of the Angolan beer served – lighter than Portuguese beer – was needed to cool my mouth down. Aziz told us about his business and the food that has become very popular such as prawns cooked with banana. Definitely on my list for my next Lisbon trip.
On we walked through Mouraria looking at street art as we went. Another interesting art project can be seen on the exterior of homes in Mouraria where photographs of the residents have been printed onto walls.
Beatriz taught us to look up at the lampposts which she pointed out had different numbers of glass panes. Four panes indicate a standard locale while seven sides indicate an area of importance. We were able to admire a great deal of tile work on the facades of buildings. When Lisbon was rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake, tiles were placed on the buildings to hide some of the cracks and also to provide insulation from the summer heat.
Our next stop was a Fado house where the owner was part restaurateur, part musician. The double doors close to reveal panels of street art painted by an artist friend.
We ate an estofado do carne, a tender, slow-cooked beef stew in a tomato sauce along with mashed potatoes – Portuguese comfort food, explained Beatriz who said this was the sort of food her grandmother cooks for the family Sunday lunch.
The owner came to our table with his Portuguese guitar (a hand-made, tear-shaped instrument with six double strings) and performed fado. Fado is a distinctly Portuguese style of music born in Lisbon and occupies a long and distinguished part of the cultural history of the city. It generally takes the form of songs that conjure up nostalgia and melancholy, saudade as it is called in Portuguese. The lyrics talk of feelings about what one has been experienced, lost and one would like to recapture, all the while aware that will not happen. It always involves metaphors so one has to listen carefully to the words. For non-Portuguese speakers, the sentiments are made clear by the tone of the singer’s voice and the depth of feeling with which they perform. Beatriz encouraged us to attend a fado evening in one of the many venues in the area and when I did just that, it was, in fact, both an entertaining and moving experience.
Beatriz took us to the street where fado was born. Originally it was sung mainly by sex workers or fishermen’s wives. On the walls were pictures of the most important Fado singers. Amalia Rodrigues was the most famous fado singer of the 20th century and was able to do a world tour singing fado. This was especially significant as it took place in the era of the Portuguese dictatorship when women were not allowed to leave the country without their husband’s permission. Many of the songs now performed in fado houses were created by Amalia Rodrigues.
Our penultimate stop was high up in the Alfama neighbourhood which affords panoramic views over Lisbon which we enjoyed from a viewing point next to the restaurant. We looked out over the bridge that spans the Tagus river, the same designer as the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, as well as the Christ figure up on a distant hill, copied from Rio to commemorate how the power of the Portuguese dictator prevented Portugal from participating in WWll.
After taking our fill of photos, we retreated from the sun into the cool interior of São Jorge Restaurant where we sat on very comfortable leather banquettes at sleek marble-topped tables.
By now I had imbibed a bit too much alcohol but could not resist a few sips of the Vino Verde that we were to taste. This translates as green wine and is made from grapes that are still green and unmatured. It is a variant of sparkling wine and is very fresh. The wine was called Dacasa and is produced north of the Duoro valley. It was served in a coupe supposedly because the Queen of Portugal had a nose too large to drink from a fluted champagne glass.
More food was served – this time three fish tapas on a slate tile. The first was a bacalao brandade on a tiny toast, the second a fried sardine (eating the head was optional) – along with a dab of wasabi mayo. While bacalao is eaten all year round, sardines are only fished in the summertime. The third was known as little fish of the garden and was actually a tempura green bean. Historically this was served when people could not afford to buy fish but still wanted to present a dish that resembled a goujon of fried fish. They said we are eating our fish from the garden. Beatriz explained that the Portuguese never use the word ‘tapas’. The correct term is petiscos which means small plates.
I had hoped that we might complete the tour with a pastéis de nata. Beatriz took us to Pastelaria Santo António, that won the 2019 award for best custard tart. As I like to do my research properly I later set about making my own judgement, and tasted several of the other famed pastéis de nata in the city and can report that the offering at Pastelaria Santo António really did take the biscuit. We added a shake of cinnamon and powdered sugar as is the tradition in Portugal. The pastry was crispy and buttery, flaking in the mouth, while the deep yellow custard was barely set and flowed out into the mouth, mixing with the pastry in a most satisfying mouthful.
Pastéis de nata have become wildly popular all over the world and can be found nowadays as far from Portugal as China. In Lisbon, they are available everywhere. There is a story behind the name as visitors will discover.
The pastries were first created in the Jerónimos Monastery in Belém, now a suburb of the city. There they are called pastéis de Belém and can only carry this name if made in Belém. Elsewhere in Lisbon, they are called pastéis de nata. They were originally made inside the Jerónimos monastery in the 19th century. The nuns used a lot of egg white to starch their clothes which left them with leftover egg yolks. Next to the monastery, there was a sugar refinery where the sugar cane that came from Brazil was processed. The owners gave free sugar to the nuns in exchange for prayers for their souls. The nuns combined the sugar with the egg yolks and some cream to create the custard. A few years later some French nuns came to this monastery and they brought their pastry-making skills. The nuns decided to combine the French pastry with the custard and created the custard tart. When the Portuguese monasteries were dissolved in 1833 the monks sold the pastries to make their living. The sugar refinery became what is now the oldest bakery – established in 1837 – that sells the pastéis de Belém.
Sadly, I was too full and a bit tipsy by the end of the tour, so I did not think to buy some extra pastries to take back to the hotel. But in truth, a pastéis de nata has to be served warm and fresh. It doesn’t travel well. You have to travel to it. If you go to Lisbon, you simply have to eat at least one a day. Even better, join the Eating Europe tour and you will leave with sweet memories of having tasted the very best.
The Lisbon Food Tour included six food tastings of which four included alcohol. An afternoon of walking, talking, learning, eating and drinking all in jolly good company with an enthusiastic and informative guide – the Eating Europe Lisbon tour was a highlight of my trip. Just don’t make early dinner arrangements – you may have to go back to your hotel to take a nap.
An evening tour begins in August.
Eating Europe run tours in various cities across Europe. Check their website for more information – www.eatingeurope.com
We’ve also tried the Eating Europe food tour of Paris and a potted version (due to lack of time) of the Eating Prague tour, which you can find more about in this feature about food in the Czech Republic and of course, we’ve tried a couple of the Eating London tours including this one in and around Brick Lane
Disclosure – I was a guest of Eating Europe on this trip. All content is editorially given.