Monday, November 15, 2010

Portugal: The land of my ancestors, bacalhau, and pastéis de Belém

    If you have been reading my posts, you may have noticed that I have been quite the busy bee.  Traveling all over Europe, taking full advantage of being on a continent that is half the size of the U.S. with plane tickets for even less then that (5 Euros!).  This puente took me to Portugal, more specifically to Porto and Lisboa.  I feel that this country is highly underrated, it is just stunning.  I almost didn't want to go back to Madrid.  I must confess though, that being Brasilian with Portuguese ancestors, does play a role.  My great-grandfather was Portuguese with blue eyes (although that's the extent of my family's knowledge of him).  Needless to say, I felt connected by family, history and language.  It felt exhilarating to speak Portuguese, I didn't realize how much I missed it.  I already am making plans to go back!

     My first 2 days were spent in Porto and yes as the name indicates this city is famous for Port wine.  There are several Porto caves that give tours and tastings.  Luckly (didn't have to spend money) and unluckly (didn't get to bring anything back) for me I couldn't buy any of Portugal's amazing wines or liquors.  Portuguese airlines don't understand the need for foodie travelers to bring back these sort of culinary treasures in their small carry on bag.  I learned that 3 types of Ports exist, a white, a tawny, and a ruby.  I enjoyed all of them but I think the white wins.  It is sweet and citrusy, very refreshing as a dessert cocktail.

The food, unfortunately, was less memorable. It was too heavy for my own taste. I had the strangest meal of my life there. It was steak with melted cheese on top, thinly cut french fries on top of that and topped with cooked cabbage. It wasn't that it tasted bad, I just wasn't sure what to make of it. I had to order a salad to counter the greasiness of the fries. My waiter, Ricardo, mislead me with his recommendation.

In Lisboa, the food improved considerably. They really love their pastries and bacalhau (salted cod). Portugal is the highest consumer of bacalhau in the world- that's how you know they really love it.  However, the fish I most enjoyed was whole grilled sardines.  I can't begin to explain the amazingness that happened in my mouth with the first bite.  This was the kind of food I had been waiting to taste.  To me, it symbolized Portugal more than bacalhau because it was fresh from the sea and cooked simply on the grill with olive oil and salt.  It was one of those rare times in my life where tradition and culture ran through the entire dish.  So delicious, so satisfying, I need to eat more.

I of course cannot forget to mention the famous pastéis de Belém.  People just come to Portugal to eat these cream filled pastries.  The line is straight out the door and once inside you have to wait like a vulture to get a table.  All your morals go out the window, basically you don't let the 80 year lady go ahead of you.  In my mind, I thought "well she has had them before, probably for the last 80 years."  These pastries have a thin crust, similar to phyllo but not quite as delicate with a custard filling.  The best part is they come out fresh, piping hot.  Most enjoyable with a cup of coffee.

As with everything, my trip was coming to end but there was one more thing I had to try- The Francesinha. I had been avoiding this dish since the beginning of my trip for reasons none other than it looked like a heart attack on a plate.  But how could I call myself a foodie or a food researcher if I didn't try this iconic Northern Portuguese dish.  I only had one night left and dedicated it to finding the best damn Francesinha which happened to be at Capa Negra.  Basically this sandwich can be classified as a heavyweight grilled cheese.  There was steak, hot dog, ham, mortadella, another meat I couldn't identify and cheese, all topped with gravy.  Now this might seem extravagant but I didn't come close.  Try it with fries and an egg on top.  Eating it was pretty anticlimactic, I don't think it will be something I'll crave in the future or eat again.  Mission complete.

Leaving Portugal was more difficult then I had anticipated. While I was there, I felt connected to my family which later led to a wave of homesickness when I returned to Madrid. Don't get me wrong, I feel EXTREMELY grateful for this opportunity abroad, but there are those days when you just want to be back home with all the people you love and care about. Also, these emotions had to do with the uncertainty of my living situation and feeling like I had lost control of my life. My parents (love those guys) reminded me to "remember where my feet are" and to "keep on doing the footwork" (a lot of feet references). Essentially, enjoy the time I have right now and keep doing things I need to do and don't worry about the rest. This lesson keeps recurring in my life and is a difficult one for me to accept. As always, they were right and everything worked out in its own time.  Portugal taught me to let go.


  1. Ahhh, yummy! I'm glad to hear about your Portuguese adventures, especially since I've got a Lisboa trip in a few weeks (thank you, Easy Jet!). I had heard about the infamous bacalhau, but never the sardines.