Highlights from Portugal
Flavors and facts from my first solo travel experience
Easter in Spain means extravagant parades, ceremonies, and (for us non-religious folk) time off during the earliest and loveliest days of spring. For me, this turned into an opportunity to do something I have always wanted to try: traveling solo. After worrying that eating alone at a restaurant would be uncomfortable, that walking through the streets of an unfamiliar city would feel isolating without the company of a friend or loved one, I decided to bite the bullet and spend the week traveling through Portugal alone. While there were some moments of solitude on this trip, I actually found it to be an empowering experience.
I was on my own schedule and I made every decision. I paused on the little details I would have overlooked otherwise, like vibrantly painted doors crumbling with age and tiny vines just starting to peek out of the soil and reach towards the sun. I also found that I was never really alone unless I chose to be. I met new people every day, learned their stories and told them mine. I met a girl who has a mutual friend in Ireland and another who lives just two blocks away from me in Madrid. Moments like these certainly made the world feel smaller and less intimidating.
I arrived in Portugal with only a vague idea of what the food would be like: seafood, cured meats, rice dishes, and lots of tasty wine. I guessed it would be similar to Spanish food, given the proximity and shared history of the two countries. I admit it, I didn’t do my homework beforehand. I let Portugal surprise me.
My travels took me to Porto, Coimbra, Lisbon, and Sintra. Given that I only had a week, I think I was able to get a good taste of Portugal. Here’s a small sample of what I tried.
It would take a lot of conscious effort to avoid bacalhau, or salted codfish, while in Portugal. It is truly ubiquitous in Portuguese cuisine, so much so that it’s earned the nickname “fiel amigo,” or faithful friend. The tradition of salting codfish as a means of preservation dates back centuries but it grew in significance in Portugal during the 17th and 18th centuries. Since then, overfishing in the harbors of Portugal have led to a total collapse in the local supply, so today the cod is imported from Norway and Iceland in exchange for Portuguese oranges.
According to the Portuguese, there are 1,001 ways of preparing bacalhau. I was able to try only seven or eight, and even that seemed like a lot of variation. I had it roasted in olive oil, creamed with cheese and potatoes and spread on bread, stewed with Iberian ham, minced into croquetas, mixed with rice and tomatoes, and more. At one restaurant in Porto, I tried three different styles in one sitting: in stew, in a small pie topped with a fried egg, and as ceviche.
Maria Lhau Lhau’s mission, according to its menu, is to reimagine cod in new and exciting ways. They look to the past for inspiration while also looking to the future to ensure that cod continues to be enjoyed for many generations to come. Every single item on the menu contained cod except for the desserts. Their passion for cod, at first a little baffling, became more and more understandable with each dish. It was an impressive demonstration of how versatile this simple ingredient can be in Portuguese cuisine.
My favorite preparation of codfish was bacalhau a brás, pictured here. It contains chunks of salted codfish, sautéed onions, and shredded potatoes, all mixed together and bound by scrambled eggs. I tried it for the first time in the Barrio Alto neighborhood of Lisbon, where the dish is said to have originated. After that meal, which also featured an abundance of white wine and belly laughs, this was all I wanted to eat.
When I saw pictures of Francesinha on the menus of touristy restaurants on my first night in Porto, I was struck with confusion and fear. Confusion because I had never seen anything like it before. It’s a sandwich but the cheese is melted over the top and then the whole thing is smothered with a bright orange mystery sauce. Fear because I knew I needed to try it and I knew I was going to like it.
The more I learned about it, the more I felt validated in that first impression. The sandwich is filled with “all the kinds of meat,” according to the man behind the desk at my hostel. All of them? Really? The sauce on top is a mixture of tomato and beer. Whose bright idea was this? I imagined a drunken man-toddler mixing extra packets of ketchup with a PBR, as a dare or perhaps a moment of sheer genius, and then dipping his burger in it and jumping out of his highchair shrieking “EUREKA!”
It was my first meal in Portugal. I cut into it like a steak and inspected the first bite thoughtfully. It looked like ham, sausage, and ground beef all melting together under a sticky blanket of cheese and hot lava beer sauce. It flew in the face of my entire approach to food, which is mostly meatless and free of white bread and cheese except for special occasions. It was insanely delicious. I ate the whole thing. I dipped the french fries in the sauce, like the locals around me were doing. When I ran out of sauce, they brought me a tiny pitcher of it to re-stock.
Francesinha quickly became a memorable favorite. Though it’s nothing like anything I’d ever tried before, I think what really hooked me about this meal is that it served as a reminder that food should be fun. It doesn’t follow rules, it wasn’t created with my palate in mind. As an outsider just passing through this city, it’s easy to make snap judgements about a place. But as I mentioned in my last post, traveling quickly teaches us that our way isn’t the only way, that our rules don’t apply everywhere. My confusion around the existence of this dish dissipated the moment I tried it and I kicked myself for judging it so quickly (although I was still somewhat fearful as to what it was doing to my arteries).
Francesinha is showcased all over Porto; it’s a meal that truly belongs to this city. And the locals absolutely love it. Restaurants prominently display posters claiming they’ve earned the title of Best Francesinha in Porto. Each one guards its own secret recipe for the sauce, and locals debate their virtues. Everyone has their favorite Francesinha, one that’s just to their liking.
Pastéis de nata (or pastéis de Belém)
Skipping ahead to dessert (or breakfast? Sometimes it’s hard to know). I had heard about pastéis de nata before arriving in Portugal because a friend had sung their praises to the tune of “I think I had a million of them in one weekend.” They looked to me like little cheesecake tarts, so I knew I would likely fall victim to whatever addictive properties they contained. Natas are actually more of a custard tart. The filling is sweet, eggy, and dense, and tastes almost like caramel to me. The shell can range from pie dough consistency to that of a light and buttery croissant. They can be served hot from the oven or at room temperature, topped with cinnamon or sugar or both, and they pair perfectly with a strong espresso.
Pastéis de nata were everywhere in the cities I visited: at bakeries, grocery stores, beer kiosks, pop-up stands, cafés, bars, and anywhere with a little extra counter space to fill. Wherever people gathered, natas were within reach. They’re eaten at any time of day, first thing in the morning or as a dessert after dinner or with a mid-afternoon coffee. It’s not my fault, then, that there were at least a few days on this vacation where I had one between each meal, usually with an espresso. For only an extra Euro, it was impossible to refuse just one more.
The story behind their creation is wonderfully strange. During the 18th century, in the convents and monasteries of Belém in Lisbon, eggs were in high demand because the whites were used to starch clothing, like the nuns’ habits. The leftover yolks were repurposed to make pastries like this, and the nata was born. Towards the beginning of the 19th century, the pastries became an important source of income for the monks, as monasteries were closing down one by one due to the “Liberal Revolution” of 1820. The original treat came from the bakery Pastéis de Belém, which has been serving the pastry ever since 1837 and currently makes 23,000 per day! This is why you may also see the treat called pastel de Belém.
Apparently there’s a bit of a rivalry between the pastéis de nata and pastéis de Belém. The pastéis de Belém camp claims that their favored pastry still upholds the original recipe, while pastéis de nata are a slightly bastardized version of the real thing. According to our tour guide, though, the discrepancy is similar to the Coke versus Pepsi debate: people are passionate about their drink of choice, but no one can really tell the difference in a blind taste test. Similarly, residents of Lisbon in particular will tell you that one is better than the other, but to the untrained eye (tongue?), they’re both just delicious pastries.
After living in Spain for a short time, I’ve become completely enamored by wine. It’s fascinating to me; the history, the process, the science and the guesswork, the subtleties in flavor by grape varietal and region, all of it. However, unless you have the cash to dish out on tastings or frequent evenings out at wine bars, wine can seem inaccessible. In fact, in some contexts it can seem intentionally exclusive. I’ve done a fair amount of reading and even hosted a wine tasting where I printed off aroma wheels and helpful adjectives to identify the flavors and sensations of the different wines. While all in good faith, this accomplished little other than thorough inebriation. All this is to say: I’ve found that, when it comes to learning about wine, it helps to have an expert in the room.
For this reason, I was eager to book a wine tour in Porto (see note at end). I knew a little about port, the dessert wine named after this city where it originated. I knew it was sweeter and more alcoholic than most wines but I wanted to learn what in particular made it so different from the other red wines I’d become more familiar with.
A small group of us gathered at Croft Port, which claims to be the oldest wine cellar in Porto, for a tour of the facilities and a tasting of the three types of wine produced there. The guide explained that port wine began to gain popularity abroad during the 17th and 18th centuries, when Britain was at war with France and was therefore barred from importing French wine. British wine makers came to Portugal to facilitate trade, which is why many wineries in Portugal have British names, including Croft.
The guide also described the many factors that make port stand apart from other wines. For example, the grapes used in port come from a hot, dry region along the Douro River in Portugal. This climate causes the grapes to be especially small with thick skins and high in sugar. The resulting wine is therefore thicker in texture and sweeter than wine that comes from grapes which weren’t quite so strained for water. The sweetness is carefully maintained in port wine because the yeast is killed early in the fermenting process, so the sugar is not completely digested.
Furthermore, the storage of the wine has a huge impact on the final product. The typical “ruby red” port is stored in enormous barrels that can hold up to 50,000 mL of wine. These massive containers are essential because they keep the fruity concoction from oxidizing over time. The larger the barrel, the smaller the surface area and the less the wine is exposed to the air trickling through the wood. This maintains the red color as well as the fruitiness of the wine, so a ruby port will be “fruit forward,” tasting strongly of red cherry and raspberry.
In contrast, wine that is stored in smaller barrels will take on a more golden brownish color due to the higher rates of oxidation. This variety of port is called “tawny.” While tawny ports lose their redness and fruitiness, they imbibe some characteristics of their wooden barrels. For this reason, tawny ports have woody and nutty notes in contrast to the fruit of their ruby red counterparts.
For me, it has always been a challenge to taste a wine and know for sure whether it’s fruity versus floral. Try as I may, I can’t detect the many of descriptors used to differentiate one wine from another. At times, it seems to me that the people making these claims, writing the tasting notes on the back of the bottles, are making it up. But in this case, I was able to differentiate between the red fruit of the ruby and the nuttiness of the tawny. While the differences are quite drastic, it felt like a small accomplishment. I may not be any closer to becoming a master sommelier, but it was encouraging to realize that, when equipped with the right information, I could actually identify between two types of wine produced by the same grapes under the same roof. Maybe I’m better at this than I was giving myself credit for (doubtful, but maybe).
Last but not least, I had to include a snippet about Portugal’s vinho verde. I was looking forward to trying the famous “green wine,” expecting it to be green in the literal sense. Instead, green wine gets its name from a region in the far north of the country where the grapes are grown. In stark contrast to the region that grows grapes for port wine, this area is lush and verdant. The grapes it produces are large, watery, and not very sweet. For this reason, vinho verde is very light and acidic and pairs perfectly with seafood (which, as discussed above, is easy to come by in Portugal!). While it may not be green, vinho verde still a singular, delicious white.
Note: If you’re interested in the wine tour in Porto, book directly through City Lovers here! I booked mine through a third party website and got ripped off. Womp.
Bonus Adventures in Portugal!!