The headline will take a few paragraphs to get to. Please, bear with me as I unfold a bad experience that eventually did come good. Whatever happens to you, there’s always a pearl hidden somewhere in the tough, rough shell – you just have to find it.
Some years back we flew to Lisbon for a week, told by many hip friends that it was an upcoming ’happening’, must-visit place. For us, in our first 48 hours, we had decided it was not. Bad meal followed poor meal. Restaurants even proudly displayed their fish in small refridgerated window displays – fish, that were way past eat-by date, with sunken eye and dull palour, only the glass pane stopped the smell escaping into the street outside.
Remember what the Chinese wisely say – if fish smells of fish it’s not fresh. Fish should smell of the sea. They also say one can’t taste salt off a dry finger – I don’t get that one.
In one place we ordered bacalau – we asked how it was prepared, given this nation is proud to boast they have 365 recipes for salt cod, ie one for every day of the year. Our day was bad luck day - “boil-id” said the waiter proudly. It was a vile dish of ‘boil-id’ bacalau with ‘boil-id’ potatoes complete with grey eyes (the potatoes, not the fish) - no olive oil, no egg, no olives, no roasted peppers nor onion - just the fish, complete with skin and bones, and potatoes leaning towards the grey, the giveaway they were cooked sometime earlier. With bacalau a favourite to Joy and I, this was an experience if ever there was. This one is ours made in London.
We were in an attic flat on one of those streets with the small furnicular trams they like to show when they advertise Lisbon. Admittedly, we were there pre-Expo ’98, which saw the city spruced up and redeveloped to greet the world. A couple of places – one near the main station serving small whole chickens roasted to order after sitting in a large stainless steel bin of coarse sea salt; another a belle-epoque grand café with excellent coffee in elegant surroudings. They stood shoulder to shoulder to hold up a flag for Lisbon’s food and entertaining.
One rainy afternoon out walking we also ‘discovered’ – as in ‘fell on by accident’ – the official Port Institute where we were invited to sit on big squashy sofa’s choosing vintage ports by the glass from all the great houses of Oporto at a heavily subsidised fraction of their real value. We were mindful of the truism that after three you stop tasting the finer points of anything – I learned back when from a tea taster in the City of London. I think I stopped at my splendid fifth glass – the older the vintage, the more they turned towards the tawny and were none the worse for that. Little wonder the Belgians enjoy tawny port as an aperitif to winter meals.
Shops local to our attic studio sold little fresh food – excellent bread and sealed plastic bags of cavolo nero, ready sliced for their national soup – caldo verde mentioned in a previous post. Ready sliced meant the cabbage was floppy and dead – cavola nero has become an English farmers’ market staple - just whatever do people do with it?
After a three days we could stand it no longer and we quit for the hills above Lisbon – to Sintra, which had been the summer retreat for smart Lisboans in the 18th century. It felt good as soon as we stepped off the train.
We checked into the quinta (literally an estate house) we’d found, up the hill past the famous gothic house and the splendid Palacio Real. Arriving at the quinta, we were enthusiastically greeted by the lady of the house and her two uniformed staff. Grand living at affordable prices. That evening the food took a turn for the better. Cafés in the town served good coffee and huge choices of fresh made tiny cakes, including these renowned pastel de nata served in any London coffee bar with any cred these last 10 years. If you buy them to take home, I strongly advise you warm them in a gentle oven for optimum enjoyment.
Back to Lisbon for our last night in an indifferent hotel below the Castelo de Sao Jorge – then early next morning we taxi’d to the airport, relieved for the first time in our lives to be returning to London – or better said, quitting a country. At the ticket desk the girl kept typing on her computer and sucking in breath – after what seemed like an age, she pointed to our tickets – we were there 24 hours early. I remember banging my head on her desk with a combination of rage and upset – tickets on a flight to London for that day were hundreds of pounds a piece so, with no option available, it was back to Lisbon for yet another day.
We agreed to be positive and make the best of it – we left our bags at the same hotel which mercifully still had a room – they having shared a well placed laugh with us about our error.
We took a tram not knowing nor caring where it went – it stopped in Santa Maria de Belém, about 6 kms from the city centre at the mouth of the Tagus river. It’s where Vasco de Gama set sail for India. We ate in a highly rated restaurant – things looked good when they brought us fresh sliced, perfectly marbled presunto (the Portugese take on Spain’s Jamón Serrano) with our apéritifs – so good, it was probably from the Alentejo region which also produces some of the country’s finest red wines. I’d sold them for a Portugese friend some years before.
The meal was good, but we’ve forgotten quite what we ate all these years later. The bill arrived – the most expensive item by far was the plate of presunto. Nobody told us we had to pay for it – we’d adopted the habit that such pre-dining rations were always gratis. I’ve since learned that ‘presunto’ in Brazilian Portuguese street slang means ‘corpse’ – a chilling cross reference if ever.
With no spoken Portugese there was no chance of discussing this expensive treat – but it was excellent, so we paid up and left, chalking it up to our odder dining experiences.
We explored Belém – the beautiful church, the water front, the tower, the monument to sea faring explorers and more. Looking for a coffee, we fell without knowing onto the internationally famous Casa Pasteis de Belém – the spiritual home of the pastel de nata.
It’s reckoned the pasteis (plural for pastel) egg tarts are at their extreme best here. People will queue for an hour or more just to get a table in the many rooms. Others stand three, four and five deep to be served by the box at the pastelarias (shop).
More research told me that the pasteis originated from the nearby monastry – Belém translates as Bethlehem – the Portuguese are not slow to baptise their first born boys as Jesus. The monastries would have superfluous egg yolks as the whites were used daily to starch the nun’s habits – or to clarify their wine. The recipe got sold to a nearby confectioner in 1820 and the rest is history. The Casa Pasteis was opened in 1837 – some time later.
They are served warm with a light dusting of sugar and cinnamon – sachets of the mixture are given to those buying take-out from the shop. Smart ladies, we were thrilled to see, actually spoon out the egg custard leaving the pastry case neatly to one side as a symbol of frugality. Most took sugar in their coffee though. Some even took an aguadiente on the side.
The Belém recipe is so precious it remains an absolute secret – made since the beginning in the 1830s by a few carefully chosen bakers who make the custard and pastry in a locked room. The uncooked custard and pastry are then finished outside by a second tier of bakers, none of whom know the recipe, nor technique, but who one day hope to be promoted to that inner sanctum.
Having eaten pasteis there and in London – a Portuguese friend even has the special machine to twist the flaky pastry dough and sells hers to Portuguese cafes around London - the Belém ones were truly something special. This story is no hype – it’s entirely true.
Portugal – what else can I add? You disappointed on our first visit, but made good in the end with your custard tarts in ‘Bethlehem’, all thanks to our mistake at the airport.