Archive for the Portugal Category

Portuguese Pastries

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Small, tempting bakeries called pastelarias dot every block in Lisbon.  They feature sweets with creams and custards.  I appreciated that a lot of them were bite-size…so I could try more!

Pastel de Nata

The pastel de nata is probably the most famous of all the Portuguese pastries.  At a bakery on Rua do Loreto, it was my lucky day to find a fresh-out-of-the-oven tart.  The warm custard, golden from its eggs, was both firm and as creamy as pudding.  It was rich, but not too sweet.


In Sintra, a beautiful daytrip from Lisbon, I had a queijada at the long-named Fabrica das Verdadeiras Queijadas da Sapa (Alameda Volta do Duche 12).  Technically a kind of bite-size cheesecake (made with fresh cheese, flour, cinnamon and sugar), it tasted like the world’s best snickerdoodle.


The travesseiro from Casa Piriquita (Rua das Padarias 1, Sintra) was also heavenly.  It had an airy pastry exterior and was filled with another perfect cream.  This cream was almondy with the consistency of lemon curd.


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Principe do Calhariz, Lisbon

Porco a Alentejana

At Principe do Calhariz (Calcada do Combro 28-30), I should have considered it foreshadowing when the waiter brought me a steak knife for the porco a alentejana, a traditional dish of garlicky pork with clams.

This place was packed with locals, seemingly happily eating their meat.  Yet, when I looked around, it looked to me like the vestiges of overcooked pork, chicken, or steak on their plates.  The steak at the table beside me could have been bounced on a basketball court.

After that first meal in Lisbon, I started keeping my eye out for the meat wherever I went.  Peering into churrasqueira windows, it consistently looked done, done, done.

I wonder if this is a cultural difference?  Do the Portuguese prefer their meat to be completely cooked through?  If I were to go to a fancier restaurant, would I find the same extremely well-done steaks?  I ran out of time in Lisbon so I am curious to hear about other carnivorous experiences there.  Anyone?

Sopa a Alentejana

Sopa a alentejana, a traditional garlic soup, originates from the same town as the pork and clams.  At Principe do Calhariz, a generous amount of sliced garlic was added to chicken broth.  On top of the bowl, there was a poached egg, along with several hunks of crusty bread.  When I punctured the yolk, it exploded into the broth.  Like oil in water, the yellow stayed separate.  The rustic bread sopped up pretty swirls of broken yolk and broth.  Fresh parsley added a little green.

Food in Porto

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Philly’s got cheesesteaks.  Chicago’s got Italian beefs.  Porto’s got francesinhas.

Francesinha Sandwich Francesinha Sandwich

In Porto, every time I would tell someone that I am a culinary student they would ask me if I had eaten a francesinha.  While I had read up on what to eat in Portugal, somehow this sandwich was not on my list.  When I asked where to get a good one, I was directed towards any bar.

The bar I picked was filled with older men, as all bars in Spain and Portugal seem to be after a certain hour.  I ordered the francesinha “especial” which adds a fried egg on top.  I figured that I was probably only going to have this sandwich once; why not make it as especial as possible?

My francesinha came on two slices of Wonderbread-like white bread.  Stacked between the soft slices, I found bologna, salami, pounded thin steak, Jimmy Dean-size links of peppery pork sausage, and bacon.  All of the above was drenched in a spicy gravy, made with beer and brandy, which tasted strongly of the alcohol involved.  I then had it all topped off with that egg.

This pork filled, beer-gravy sodden sandwich is commonly consumed for lunch, but I’m glad I tried it at dinner.  After only eating half of it, I was ready for bed.

Porto, Portugal

My favorite food in Porto was actually another sandwich.  Available in most bakeries and cafes, the lanche is made from two pieces of delicious, soft, golden, eggy bread.  It reminded me of challah, but was sweeter.  The sandwich is usually filled with jamon york (the least fancy ham in Iberia; it’s like any lunchmeat you’d find in the States) and cheese.  Once, there was also a piece of salami.  It’s often served at room temperature, straight from the window tray.  If you’re lucky though, they might smush the lancha on the grill or press it in a panini machine.  Then, the cheese gets oozy and the sweet bread gets more dense.  It is the perfect lunch to eat as you walk towards the next port lodge or run to get your train.

Bacalao Con Natas

Taking a break from port tasting, I had a delicious lunch of bacalao con nata.  Flakes of salt cod are stirred into a creamy béchamel, topped with a bit of grated cheese, and then baked in the oven until the top is toasty.  It’s comforting in the way of tuna noodle casserole, but more sophisticated.

Caldo Verde Couve Greens

I ate three nearly identical bowls of Caldo Verde while I was in rainy Porto.  Each time, it had a water-based broth, thinly thickened with a bit of potato.  The soup’s namesake verde came from a chiffonade of couve.  These greens, similar to kale, are grown in Portugal and Spain.  (I saw market produce stands which sold the greens, pre-cut into fine strips and displayed in generous piles.)  A single piece of meat was also included in each bowl: a round of chorizo, a narrow piece of ham, or a chunk of fatty bacon.  Whichever the chosen pork piece, it flavored the broth and added one luxurious bite to the soup.  At its heart, caldo verde is a recipe of economy.  It takes a bit of potato, some greens, and a little meat and stretches their flavor as far as it will go.

Arroz a Portuguesa Porto, Portugal

Late on my last night, I stopped in a small bar, busy enough, on my way back to the hostel.  It was pouring rain so I just wanted to find a place.  I knew I’d chosen well when I realized that the husband worked the front while the wife handled the kitchen.  I ordered the Arroz a Portuguesa.  Pieces of meat (a little bacon, a couple chunks of stewed pork, a bite of chorizo, an inch of blood sausage), cabbage, carrots, and pinto beans, were ladled on top of white rice, and covered in gravy.  It was a tasty, homey, and filling final meal in town.

Port in Porto

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Across the river from Porto, connected by a pedestrian-friendly bridge, is Vila Nova de Gaia, home to the port lodges.   While the grapes are actually grown on man-made terraces that were built into the nearby Douro Valley, Vila Nova de Gaia has ideal weather for the aging process.  Once upon a time, in order to call your drink “port” you had to have a lodge in this little town.  This historic consolidation makes learning about port exceptionally easy.

Via Nova de Gaia

Port is a fortified wine.  It was originally created to help wine survive transportation from Spain to England, the biggest producers and buyers of port.  After the grapes are crushed, the wine begins to ferment.  When about half of the sugars have turned to alcohol, usually after about three days, a fortifier is added to the wine.  While brandy was originally used, it is now typical to add a clear, flavorless, grape spirit of around 77% alcohol content.  This halts the fermentation process while much of the fruits’ natural sugars still remain.  The resulting port wine is both sweet and high in alcohol, typically around 20%.

There are several types of port:

  • White port is made from white grapes.  The first white port, Chip Dry, was made by Taylor’s in 1934.  As the story goes, it was once common to give the field workers sherry to drink during the hot harvest time.  That year, because they were running out of sherry, they decided to make a white port using the white grapes and give it to the workers.  Happy accident, all of the major producers now make a version of white port to sell.  Unlike rubies and tawnies, whites may be classified from extra dry to extra sweet.  Typically served as an aperitif, they should always be well chilled.

White Port

  • Ruby port is made from red grapes.  It is aged in huge oak casks, sometimes as large as 20,000 liters.  The large size of the vat means that there is little contact with oxygen through the wood’s pores.  Because of the slow and slight oxygenation, the ruby ports keep more of their original fruit flavors and dark red color.  Ruby ports are typically paired with soft cheeses and rich desserts.  It goes especially well with chocolate.

Casks for Ruby Port

  • Tawny ports are also made from red grapes.  However, because they are aged in much smaller barrels, there is more contact with oxygen through the pores of the oak.  As the wine ages, its color changes.  The older the tawny, the lighter the color will be.  The flavors also evolve because of this very gradual oxidation.  A typical tawny might have notes of dried fruits, nuts, cinnamon, toffee or coffee.  It is commonly matched with light desserts and hard cheeses.

Casks for Tawny Port

  • Vintage ports are made from exceptionally good harvests.  After about two years in the large oak casks, a ruby wine is tested to see if it might age well is a bottle.  Only two or three harvests per decade are pronounced vintage-worthy.  If deemed good enough, these wines are then bottled without being filtered.  The grape skins and pieces add to the complexity as the wine ages for ten, twenty, thirty, or even forty years.  A vintage bottle should always be decanted before drinking.  Once it is opened, it should be drunk quickly.  Having aged in a bottle, it has not been exposed to oxygen like the ports aged in wood.  Once opened and exposed to air, the taste will change quickly.

Vintage Ports

  • Late Bottle Vintages (LBVs) are made every year from ruby ports.  They get their name because they are aged in the large oak barrels for four to six years, instead of only two years.  They are filtered before bottling so they do not need to be decanted.  LBVs can be drunk immediately or aged for up to seven years.  Some call these wines the “vintage of the poor.”