Monday, 30 September 2013

West is Best: Lisbon Part 2

While the traditional cuisine of Portugal could never be described as fancy or refined, I love the simple combinations of uncomplicated ingredients and bold flavours (even if the surfeit of fried meat and fish may eventually cause even the most hardened lettuce-avoider crave a nice plate of greens after a week on Iberian shores).

With my own food memories from this beautiful country ranging from sardines straight off the boat, strewn with handfuls of crunchy sea salt and grilled over the barbecue; the waxy boiled potatoes, doused in butter; fuzzy-skinned almonds and figs picked and eaten straight off the tree; wobbly baked custards doused in bittersweet caramel; cinnamon flecked rice puddings; bottles of icy vinho verde that fizz on your tongue and snifters of sweet ruby port at the end of an evening, it's no wonder that I was keen to crack on with eating and drinking my way around Lisbon.

On family holidays to the Algarve when I was younger there was always at least one meal of crisp-skinned spit roasted rotisserie chicken to look forward to. Maybe it is nostalgia, but the chicken always seemed juicier and more ‘chicken-y’, with its faintly unnerving, corn-fed yellow hue. As a child just a little salt and lemon was all the seasoning I needed, but by the time I was approaching my teenage years I had been introduced to the delights of piri piri sauce, hot and fragrant with copious amounts of bird’s eye chillies and garlic.

Of course, a famous high street restaurant chain means we are never far from spicy chicken burgers and bottomless soft drinks now, but there is still something special about eating it here in Portugal, and of the many purveyors in Lisbon, Bonjardim is reputed to be the best.

Yes its busy, yes the service can be brusque and yes, you will probably be serenaded by an accordion player and asked if you want to buy a colourful hat or a beaded bracelet from the salesman that patrol up and down the Rua das Portas de Santa Antao, but at just 13 Euros for a whole bronze-skinned, sticky chicken to share between two, it’s all well worth it.

As well as the poultry, provided with communal pots of piri-piri and paint brushes for extra applications of sauce, we chose chips (Portugal’s fried potatoes must rank up there with the best) and a mixed salad. We also tried a (giant) dish of old-fashioned creamed spinach, which appeared faintly menacing with its nuclear green shade, but turned out to be the surprise hit of the night; the earthy, spiced vegetable toned down with liberal amounts of creamy béchamel. Rather odd, but very addictive.

Almost opposite Bonjardim is the Casa do Alentejo, home of the society of the Alentejo people (a Portuguese region ’beyond the Tagus’) in Lisbon. From the inauspicious frontage of the building you could be forgiven for walking past, but this place is well worth a visit, even if it’s just to look around the stunning Moorish interior.

As well as marvelling at the stunning courtyard and staircases we also enjoyed a meal in one of the beautiful azulejo- tiled rooms upstairs. The strip-lighting is harsh, the room is pretty noisy and food is simple, but this was one of the best meals of our trip.

We both chose the Alentejo pork with clams, one of Portugal’s most famous dishes. Rather confusingly this is supposed to have originated in the Algarve, but disputed origins aside we both quickly demolished the sticky, slow-cooked meat, briny bivalves and cubes of fried potato. As is common with many Portuguese restaurants, green vegetables were nowhere to be seen, but they did offer a large pudding menu to please the Ewing.

I chose the brilliantly titled toucinho do céu, or heaven’s lard, so named as it would have been originally made with pork fat (and, I presume, tasted heavenly). This was a light almond cake, soaked in sugar syrup and with a little citrus zing at the end that, thankfully, lived up to its name.

The Ewing was swayed by the Sercia cake, an Alentejan specialty made with eggs, milk, sugar and cinnamon. Normally served with prunes from Elvas (greengages preserved in a sugar syrup), this was given a twist by being accompanied by some fantastic, inky and rich prune ice cream, not often a word you would associate with the much maligned dried fruit.

A great evening was rounded off with complimentary shots of Alenjento mint liqueur, the perfect way to freshen your breath after dinner, while getting you even more hammered.

Possibly the highlight of the ourwhole trip was our dinner at Don Pedro in Cascais, a seaside town half and hour along the coast from Lisbon. This tiny little, picture postcard, restaurant, tucked down a cobbled alley behind the town hall is a spot well worth seeking out. As we were the first to arrive (booking is recommended) we got the pick of the tables in their courtyard, and quickly got stuck into bottle of freezing Vinho Verde in the shade of the cherry trees. 

While this tucked away setting might be rather romantic, it’s also rustic, friendly and, stupidly, cheap. We shared some gigantic, lemony piri piri prawns, with plenty of bread to dunk in the fluorescent spiced oil, to start, followed by cod fish ‘Don Pedro’; a platter laden with two huge salt cod fillets, smothered in peppers, onions and olives and served with the best boiled spuds I have possibly eaten, plus puds, port and wine for about 30 Euros a head.

Puddings were forgettable – crème caramel had turned to sweet scrambled eggs, and the base of the almond tart far too thick and solid– and there was a veritable slick olive oil keeping our cod main afloat - but with a glorious 2008 LBV port to round off our mean, and such a wonderful setting, it was easy enough to forgive.

Another little gem was fishing tackle shop-cum-trendy bar Sol y Pesca, down in the trendy Cais do Sodré. While this funky little hole in the wall originally sold rods and floats to fishermen, it now sells fish and wine to the beautiful people.

The concept is a simple one -  select your choice from colourful selection of tinned fish and seafood lining the walls, and they'll serve them to you with baskets of corn bread, fresh lemon and a cold beer or glass of vino.

We enjoyed a selection of tuna belly, octopus and smoked sardines, washed down with a bottle of red from the Douro, while we watched them paint the street outside an alarming shade of pink. No. I've got no idea either, but the fumes from the paint, plus lots of booze, made for an interesting walk back up the hill home later.

Our penultimate day saw us make a hot and sweaty trudge from the Castelo down through the narrow streets of the Alfama, ending up at the Estrela de Se, by the cathedral, for a late lunch. A lovely dark and cool spot, with its discreet 19 Century wooden booths decorated with beautiful azulejo tiles, offering a small menu of simple lunch dishes and tapas-type bar snacks.

I chose the alheira, a type of Portuguese sausage, made (usually) chicken and bread. Although its name derives from the Portuguese word for garlic (alho) it was originally invented by the Jews of Portugal, who attempted to deceive the Portuguese Inquisition by hanging the, porkless, sausages in their smokehouses to throw them off the scent. 

While I loved the story behind this dish, I found the filling of the sausage itself a bit too 'paste' like and lacking in seasoning. Great chips, though, and the Ewing enjoyed her plate of cured meats and cheeses, including a very nice goat that went perfectly with our bottle of vinho verde. 

While we hadn't planned any fancy meals during our trip, walking past the window of Solar dos Presuntos (the House of Ham), - piled high with lobsters, clams, and of course the obligatory legs of glistening ham - necessitated a change of plan. And with reservations made, and wearing our best bib and tucker, I was very much looking forward to our visit. 

Things got off to a good start with plates of green olives, crusty bread with garlic butter, sheep's cheese and salami. Of course, the piece de resistance was the cured mountain ham the restaurant takes its name from- shaved into wafer thin pieces that dissipated into a cloud of smoked porkiness as I draped them over my tongue.

There was a slightly awkward moment when the Ewing nearly managed to break the i-Pad as she was scrolling through the wine list, but thankfully it unfroze in time for us to pick a nice bottle of red from the Dao. If you aren't sure what to drink the handy apps allow you to match wine with your food, search by region and price or choose a recommended bottle (although one of their top choices did seem to be a Matteus rose, Hmmm).

My cabrito al forno (roasted kid) was quite brilliant. The meat had been marinaded in a spice paste before roasting and was a perfect mix of crisp and fatty, there was even some baby goat ribs to nibble on. The only downer was the double dose of carbs; sides of both rice and boiled spuds, as nice as they were, proved rather too much, with only a solitary wheel of orange and a couple of strips of pepper contributing toward my five a day.

The Ewing also enjoyed her feijoada de marisco, a seafood stew with prawns, clams and white beans in a tomato sauce, served in a hefty portion alongside heaps of fluffy white rice but sans any greenery (aside from a sprinkle of parsley). 

Needless to say, with second helpings of our mains being offered to both of us, puddings were out of the question - although we were given strong coffee and two red carnations to finish the meal. Resolutely old school, but still rather sweet.

Lunch on our trip up into the mountains was at Restaurante Regional de Sintra, a reassuringly old-fashioned and dependable sort of place, tucked in a side road to the ornate Town Hall, a few hundred metres from Sintra’s train station. The menu is a roll call of solid classics and I felt compelled to order the Beefsteak Portuguese Style, which came wrapped in cured mountain ham, doused in a glossy gravy and topped with crisp discs of fried potato.

The Rough Guide had given a mention to the seafood crepes, which the Ewing ordered and tucked into with as much gusto as is sensible with something that was served from the kitchen at a temperature hotter than the sun’s surface. As well as large Atlantic prawns decorating the top and clams nestling in the tomato-tinged béchamel there ware, rather bizarrely, strands of retro crab stick strewn throughout, which only made her like it more.

Although the Ewing’s not the most gracious sharer, we had agreed to swap our dishes half way through lunch, for a proper take on surf and turf. As the house wine was 4 Euros for a half bottle, we could also swap between red and white when we swapped plates. Now that’s democracy in action.

Forget about big Macs and Whoppers while in Lisbon. The favourite Portuguese fast food is the bifana (pork) or prego (beef) roll, served on crispy bread, with lashings of yellow mustard. The best bifanas are reported to come out of the kitchens of Bire Gare, next to Rossio train station. They offer a full menu of steaks, rice and seafood, but most people come here to stand at the counter, drink cold Sagres and eat hot bifanas.

Our sandwiches, one of each, were as heavenly as promised. The prego featured a steak of tender and well seared meat, while the bifana was magnificent; juicy and sloppy and stuffed with strips of pork. Those who fear for their arteries should probably avoid looking at the frying pan full of dripping in which meat is cooked that can be seen through the front window. Rather sobering (even after all the lager we had consumed during the evening), but utterly delicious.

Predictably, old Ronald has decided to cash in on the slice of the action, electric billboards advertising the ‘McBifana’ were all over the city on our visit. While I can’t vouch for their (in) edibility, I can vouch for the bifanas at Bire Gare, who also make fabulous suckling pig croquettes - like a crispy pancake full of sweet, shredded pork - and crispy salt cod fritters, too.

With the fresh fish and seafood, local wine, and delicious cakes and ice creams consumed during our stay (and the very reasonable prices, to boot) my opinion of Portuguese food has only been cemented. And for those who can't face another sardine, jump on tram 15 up to the Alfama, grab a cold Sagres, and enjoy the wonder of a view like this.

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