Eating my way across Portugal

Meps with a bowl of steaming soup in LisbonWe boarded the train from Coimbra, Portugal, to Lisbon, and we found people already sitting in our ticketed seats. As they reluctantly moved to their own places, one of them asked me, hopefully, “Are you sure you want these seats?” Then I realized we had ended up in one of those rows at the center of the car where you have to sit facing a total stranger, with nothing, not even a table, between you.

A few stops later, a young woman with a magazine got on and sat across from me. Luckily, she spoke English, so we settled into a pleasant chat as the sun set and the scenery rushing past the window was replaced by darkness. Was this our first trip to Portugal? What had we seen? What did we like best?

And most importantly, “How do you like the food?”

Barry and I looked at each other. “Welllllll…” we dissembled.

The truth was, we absolutely loved some of it. We are normally not coffee-drinkers, but several times a day, we would stop at a cafe for a galão, which is a small shot of espresso served in an 8-oz glass with a lot of steamed milk. Occasionally, I got brave and ordered a meia de leite, which is similar, but served in a coffee cup. It has a little more coffee than the galão.

Barry studies the cell phone over a galaoWe also loved the pastries, and every bakery had dozens of choices (this photo shows the one from Pasteis de Belem, a restaurant dating back to the early 19th century). It was so hard to choose, and then harder to order. First, I’d mangle the pronunciation of the coffee, and then I would point to my pastry. The person behind the counter would take out a white ceramic plate, put a paper liner on it, put my pastry on it, and hand it to me.

Then Barry would point out his pastry, and they would repeat the process. The problem is, he usually eats half again what I do. So he would be ready to point at a second pastry, but they would have turned around by then. It’s a cultural fact: In Portugal, it’s one person, one pastry. So there was Barry, shifting from one foot to the other, trying to get their attention to order another one, and that wouldn’t fit on the tiny plate, anyway. When he finally did communicate his wish, they’d be looking behind us, wondering where was the third person?

We also had discovered the wonderful cheese and cheap artisan breads available throughout Portugal. In Evora, we had bought sausage, olives, and oranges — all delicious items to have for a mid-day snack or lunch. Then we ran into another cultural “issue.”

Pasteis de BelemIn Portugal, people do not walk around with Doritos or 32-oz Big Gulps or Frappucinos. As a matter of fact, the only people we saw eating in public were the ones sitting at sidewalk cafes. We had just emerged from the market, triumphant, with our bread, cheese, garlicky sausage, olives, and oranges. But we had a problem, having already checked out of our hotel room. Where could we actually sit and eat this stuff?

Barry suggested furtive orange-peeling or sausage-slicing on a park bench in a city square, but I vetoed that. I finally dragged him, frustrated and starving, to the city park, where we discovered dozens of picnic tables, deserted in the middle of winter. Aha! Where there are picnic tables, it must be OK to have a picnic. It was a memorable one, sitting in the shadow of a medieval wall, watching flocks of migrating birds and one lone butterfly.

So we were able to tell the woman on the train that our breakfasts and lunches were delicious. And we raved about the wines we had tried, usually a 375 ml half bottle that cost a whopping $3.

She pressed us for more. Had we eaten bacalhão? What other dishes did we like?

Vinho verdeWe’d had excellent food for New Year’s eve … but it was at a French restaurant, Les gouts du vin. Our first dinner in Portugal was a home-cooked meal, prepared for us by Carlos, our friend in Lisbon. But Carlos called it “Italian fast food,” so that wasn’t Portuguese, either. It was a terrific alho e óleo, garlic and olive oil tossed with pasta. Carlos’ version included broccoli, one of my favorite foods, and grated cheese, one of Barry’s favorite foods.

Away from Carlos’ help with language and cultural interpretation, though, our meals were often more surprising than tasty. We would walk round and round, trying to figure which restaurant wasn’t a tourist trap. Once seated, I’d be juggling my glasses, the menu, and a tiny pocket dictionary while the waiter stood over us, impatient for our order.

Every meal began with bread, and then the entree was served with both rice and potatoes, and not a green vegetable in sight. It hardly seemed worth it to order a salad and face the iceberg lettuce and out-of-season tomatoes. In one place, I ordered a Brazilian (not Portuguese) feijoada, then gobbled the collard green garnish with more delight than either the meat, beans, or white rice.

The dishes that were tastiest were the ones drenched in cream sauce. There was migas, a sort of stuffing made from bread crumbs and cream sauce. And we loved the bacalhão, the dried salt cod, when it was prepared as an au gratin dish with potatoes, cream sauce, and cheese. At one restaurant, I asked for the recipe for that one. The cook not only wrote it down, she took me into the kitchen and showed me how it was made. Not bad, considering my lousy Portuguese.

Portuguese feijoada at Ossos in Coimbra In Coimbra, Nelson took us to a place called Ossos, which means “bones.” I had trouble reading the menu, because it was handwritten in a very old-fashioned script. Although we share the same Latin alphabet, I’ve often noticed that people from Europe write some of the letters and numbers differently.

Anyway, the three of us decided to have the signature dish, ossos, as an appetizer. Nelson was placing our order for the appetizer and three entrees with the proprietor when the man became rather agitated, letting loose a torrent of rapid Portuguese I couldn’t understand.

The waiter walked away, and Nelson turned to me and Barry, laughing. “He says two entrees is plenty of food, and he wouldn’t let me order the third dish!” Luckily, we were planning to eat family-style. The bones — actually pieces of vertebrae — had meltingly tender meat, and the chanfana (kid) and Portuguese feijoada were excellent. The waiter was right, it was plenty of food.

Perhaps the woman on the train was expecting us to say, “It was great! We loved every bite!” Instead, we really considered our answer, and it gave us a chance to think about the experience. The lack of fresh vegetables was seasonal — after all, it was winter. The servings of rice, bread, and potatoes seemed shocking, because we’ve been avoiding such processed carbohydrates lately. But people in Portugal seemed healthy and trim, so it must not be a problem for them.

Fresh cheese with homemade jam on top The main problem was just the surprise factor, not being quite sure what we were ordering. As a result, our experiences were hit or miss — one night, Barry would have some lovely casserole, and I’d have a dry pork chop. The next night, he’d have a piece of fish full of bones, and I’d have a delicious stew.

Luckily, there was always dessert to set things straight. From a simple piece of fresh cheese slathered with homemade jam to a piece of honey corn cake drenched in port, the desserts were stellar. Our dinners in Portugal may have been hit or miss, but the desserts never, ever missed.