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Food and music in Coimbra, Portugal:
A second guest post from Natalie; now I’m even more envious than ever that she went to Portugal while I stayed at home to catch up on some work!
I talked a little about that first meal in my last post but frankly I think it deserves a bit more attention… To start with the setting was very strange, under glaring strip lights in a fairly nondescript function room that felt more like an office than a restaurant about 30 tables were set out, each with opulent decoration and a fully lit candelabra (which one guest at another table proceeded to knock down onto the tablecloth during a particularly expressive Portuguese gesture). The food was served swiftly and totted up in the end to five courses including an amuse bouche and two different entrees; by the end I began to regret the amount of traditional corn and raisin bread I filled up on at the start of the meal!
We kicked off with spoonfuls of tuna on a bed of polenta served alongside an amazingly frothy clam and lobster cappuccino, which I would happily swap my morning Starbucks for!
Following this was a creamy Vichyssoise made with sweet potato and featuring a real Portuguese staple: the sardine, which was so soft it melted away in your mouth leaving behind a surprisingly delicate flavor.
After this followed a very different sort of fish, a great slab of grouper, which is a creature I have never considered eating before, but served with sweet basil sauce on a bed of roasted peppers I was pretty well converted to enjoying the robust flavor of this fish.
Continuing on we had lamb next, which was delicately spiced and deliciously soft and tender resting on a bed of pink potatoes, another novelty for me, which tasted pretty much like their white counterparts but did add a splash of colour to the plate.
By the time they brought over dessert I wasn’t sure I was quite up to it. After a tiring flight, four courses and too much bread I was not looking too kindly on the chocolate cannoli filled with pistachio cream and served with pistachio ice cream with raspberry coulis. Once I’d had a few bites of the crumbly chocolate and fluffy pistachio cream however, I rather conveniently found that there really is always room for pudding!
Whilst the top chefs of Portugal are certainly pulling their weight I was really impressed with the quality of everyday food available in the city. One of the most surprising things in Coimbra is the lack of any recognizable chain. In a Europe that seems increasingly homogenous there was no Starbucks, no McDonalds in fact the only brand name I saw wandering around the town was one branch of Mango tucked away in a street otherwise filled with local, independent businesses.
The food served at most small cafes is cheap; a light meal can cost 3 euros, fresh and delicious. A rich, golden yellow soup is eaten at the start of each meal, made from whatever vegetables are in season it was a strangely refreshing start to lunch even on a hot summer’s day. Meals we enjoyed included a local dish of savoury rice with duck, a light vegetable quiche and sandwiches filled to burst with spiced tuna, dressed salad, boiled egg and herbs. A shorter break for tea was always accompanied by another local tradition, the egg yolk custard pastries created by nuns who needed the egg white for starching their wimples! There were so many variations (in the end I think we tried 7) as each convent developed its own recipe, jealously guarded from their rivals.
Whilst staying in Coimbra I was lucky enough to attend two concerts in the open-air theatre in the botanic gardens that belonged to Quintas das Lagrimas, the hotel we stayed in. The first was a newly written short opera Os Sinos da Maciera, a comic piece with a serious environmental undertone about a prince transformed by the spirit of nature into a bear for failing to win the heart of the girl he loves. The performers entered into the lighthearted spirit of the show with gusto, tenor Mario Alves gamely donning a pair of fluffy bear ears to indicate his transformation much to the delight of the audience. Sitting out in the early evening sun, exotic trees from the botanical gardens all around, it was a lovely way to spend a few hours.
Our second trip to the outdoor theatre was a rather grander affair. The Lisbon based Glubenkian Orchestra were playing and as night fell the visitors, more formally dressed this time, picked their way across the lawn to find their seats. Performing Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream the musicians attacked the score with gusto and the addition of an actor performing sections of Shakespeare’s text in Portuguese added a sense of theatre and story to the concert. The audience and the orchestra were so obviously enjoying themselves that by the time the famous wedding march rolled around the conductor was literally leaping up and down as the audience enthusiastically hummed along! A perfect choice of music for such a beautiful night, which sent me whistling to my bed.
- TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932, www.flytap.com) flies from London Gatwick to Porto from £126 return including all taxes and charges
- For more information on Centro de Portugal visit: www.visitcentro.com/en/
- For more information on Portugal visit: www.visitportugal.com
I travelled as a guest of Centro de Portugal