Friday, January 18, 2008
A Week in Portugal: Pork, Port and Pastries
Taking full advantage of my long winter break, J and I snuck off to Portugal last week. Airline tickets were reasonable, and we figured the off season in this small coastal country was the cheapest spot in Western Europe. Of course, the off season meant raindrops and shortened hours at museums, but it also meant very few Americans, the ability to explore magical castles alone, and no hotel reservations needed. We visited Lisbon, Sintra, Coimbra and Porto in a 6 day trip.
We ate and drank more than our share of Portuguese delights--primarily rustic, cozy food perfect for chilly January days. Vegetables were few and far between, though those we had--raw carrots on a salad for example--were vibrant and full of flavor. In addition to pork, salt cod plays a key role in the Portuguese diet. "1000 Salt Cod Recipes"--a cookbook I found in a local bookstore. One of my favorites of the trip was a comforting hash of salt cod, shredded, fried potatoes and onions, held together by a loosely scrambled egg. We also ate multiple lunches featuring salt cod and potato fritters--some excellent, some only so-so.
I'll let the pictures tell the rest of the story and post restaurant locations and travel details in a subsequent post. I was lucky enough to read this post by fellow blogger David Lebovitz right before we left and we followed many of his Lisbon recommendations.
Nearly every morning began with an espresso and a nata pastry--an eggy, creamy custardy filling in a flaky buttery crust. Our first two days in Lisbon, we ate this breakfast at a tiny stand-up counter in the Praca de Figueroa, the only tourists (and I the only woman) among a handful of older Portuguese men, many drinking a glass of vinho verde or local cherry brandy, ginja. The second morning I also ordered a banana, and then watched the waiter ceremoniously cut both ends off, then peel 1/2 of it and set it on a plate in front of me.
The picture above is from Pasteis de Belem, a bakery known for the best natas in Lisbon. I'd have to concur. Below is a view of the bakery's bustling kitchen.
Our first night in Lisbon, we walked around the Alfama neighborhood and found a tiny wine bar to begin the evening. At this point, our Portuguese vocabulary barely consisted of "obrigado" (thank you) so we struggled to ask if we could get a snack to accompany our wine. The waitress said no, but then a man came out of the back and began arguing with her--as far as we could tell, she didn't want to make any extra effort for the silly Americans while he insisted they could scrounge something up. J and I, embarrassed, tried to say nevermind and thought that was the end. About 10 minutes later, the waitress brings us a plate filled with various sausages and a pile of quince paste in the middle (pictured above). Starving, we gobbled the cumin and olive flecked sausages right up and when she came out again, I thought she asked if we liked it. So we both emphatically shook our heads in affirmation. Well, five minutes later we get another bigger plate with sausages and roast pork chunks. Sheepish, we also polished this off and ordered more wine. Our waitress seemed to have warmed to us by this point and as we got ready to leave, she brought us complimentary glasses of the house white port.
We spent one morning wandering the Porto central market, and found lots of pork products on display, including the sausage casings for home sausage making adventures.
A trip to Porto would be incomplete without a visit to the port wine lodges across the river from the city in the town of Vila de Nova Gaia. The wine is brought here from the eastern Douro Valley for fortification and trading purposes. The wine used to come down the river on boats but now semi-trucks suffice. Most lodges offer tours, but as it was January few were open. We settled for a tour at the large, Brit-run Taylor Fladgate and a small tasting at Sandeman. The port highlight of the trip, however, was a stop at Vinologia, a cozy tasting bar in Porto itself that specialized in ports from small producers. The extremely knowledgeable staff helped us taste tawnies, rubies and whites--a couple of which we carefully packed and brought home with us.
For more Portugal pictures, visit here. I'll post details of restaurants and other spots soon.