Saturday, October 13, 2012

Lisbon, Great Seafood and Egg Custard Tarts

Another birthday finds me in Europe, and no nicer spot could you find to host a little celebration than Lisbon.  This small country's population (about 10 million) is clustered around its two major cities, Lisbon and Oporto.  On my last trip to Portugal I was in Oporto and wrote to you about the fine port wine in city named for its golden river.  But today I'm in the capital city and here you have the best selections of food prepared by some of the worlds best chefs using ingredients from around the world.

Fresh market in Lisbon
If you paid attention in world history, you will recall the Portuguese were quite a colonial power in their day with ships traveling to the far reaches of the planet bringing home spices and foods of all types.  Combine that with occupations of this land by Celts, the Roman Republic, Germanic invasions and, in the 8th century Moorish invaders, you find a country whose cuisine is truly international. 

Food is often seasoned with small, fiery chili peppers (piri piri), black pepper, cinnamon, vanilla and saffron. Olive oil is one of the bases of Portuguese cuisine both for cooking and flavouring meals. Garlic is widely used, as are herbs like coriander and parsley. Breakfast is usually just coffee or milk and a roll with butter, jam, cheese or ham. Lunch, often lasting over an hour is served between noon and three o'clock, and dinner is generally served late, beginning not before eight o'clock in the evening.  Is it any wonder breakfast is a very light affair?

The famous Portuguese tile work is notable.
Portugal is the westernmost country of mainland Europe, and is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the West giving miles of beautiful shoreline and access to fresh seafood.  As such, seafood seemed to be featured on many menus in Lisbon, with salted cod (bacalhau) being very popular.  I'm told by my local hosts that each region has its own bacalhau recipe.

On the meat front, pork is the most popular, with preparations from roast suckling pig to carne de porco à Alentajana, which consists of pork marinated in wine and garnished with clams.  Very tasty!  Of course grilled chicken seasoned with piri piri is always popular as is a hotpot of beef, sausages, potatoes, vegetables and rice known as cozido à Portuguesa. 

Many of the desserts in Portugal are egg-based, often seasoned with spices such as cinnamon and vanilla. The most typical desserts are rice pudding with cinnamon, caramel custard (flan), and the ever-popular pastel de nata, a small custard tart sprinkled with cinnamon. It is believed that these tarts were created before by monks at the Jerónimos Monastery (Portuguese: Mosteiro dos Jerónimos) in the civil parish of Santa Maria de Belém, in Lisbon: for this reason, they are alternately known in Lisbon as Pastéis de Belém.  Anywhere the Portuguese colonized, these little tarts became and remain popular!

Pastéis de Nata
When dining out understand that many of their dessert creations have names like barriga de freira (nun's belly), papos de anjo (angel's chests), and toucinho do céu (bacon from heaven), as they were invented by nuns and priests during the Middle Ages.  So don't expect a direct menu translation from your iPhone!

View of Lisbon Facing the Sea
If you haven't been to Lisbon or anywhere in Portugal, I would highly recommend it.  It is a popular destination with British tourists so its easy to get along with only English as your language.  If you speak some Spanish, all the better.  Prices are generally lower than most of the rest of Europe, the people are friendly, there are many tourist activities and the food/wine are sublime.  Add to that a seaside destination and one of the sunniest spots in Europe, and you have the makings of a perfect destination for your next trip!

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