It was my first trip to Lisbon in over 30 years and I was thrilled to be traveling back to one of my favorite cities with great food and excellent chocolate. No time for planning. The phone call came in, arrangements were made within two days, and then I was off.
I sort of remember Lisbon being a smaller, sleepy, more romantic city, but I was in for a surprise. Lisbon is the vibrant capital and the largest city in Portugal, with a bustling population of around 2.8 million inhabitants. Greater Lisbon is the wealthiest region in Portugal whose GDP is well above that of the European Union, producing 37% of the Portuguese national GDP. It is also the political center of the country as seat of government. It is an exciting place to be.
There is a lot of history to discover in Lisbon; it is everywhere you look. It was under Roman rule from 205 BC, when it was already a 1000-year old town. Julius Caesar made it a municipium called Felicitas Julia, adding to the name Olissipo. The area was ruled by a series of Germanic tribes from the 5th century until captured by Moors in the 8th century. In 1147, the Crusaders re-conquered the city for the Christians. Since that time, it has been a major political, economic and cultural center of Portugal.
I love the foods of Lisbon because they are inspired by the sea and so many of the dishes contain fish, especially, a national favorite salted cod. A lot of the food is just the simple fare of fishermen and farmers. In my four-day visit, I managed to enjoy fish, meat, rice and potatoes (usually fried) combined with olive oil, wine and plenty of warm hospitality and friendship—the older the better, as the Portuguese proverb goes. I was surprised that Portuguese food, especially in the capital, is generally inexpensive and served in large quantities, with €8 buying a hearty meal in an outdoor café and under €25 in most of the upper end restaurants in Lisbon.
What I truly loved was starting my day at breakfast which I enjoyed at a café or pastelaria (pastry shop) located across the street from my hotel where hot croissants and other such pastries were freshly-baked and served along with a cup of espresso to wash it down. I am not a big strong coffee drinker, but I did discovery um galão—Portuguese Coffee, which is a milky coffee beverage served in a glass. I topped my cup each morning with broken pieces of dark chocolate, making it mocha-style.
As always, I packed in as many tastes and flavors as I possibly could. For lunches I sampled various soups, such as the caldo verde (a thick vegetable soup) or sopa à alentejana (a garlic and bread soup with a poached egg in it). I also tried a great rice, fish and shellfish soup. I rediscovered that the fish and shellfish dishes are unsurpassed in Portuguese cooking. I tried anything and everything offered from crabs, clams, barnacles, prawns or crayfish to mullet, tuna and the ubiquitous bacalhau (dried, salted cod). Portuguese bacalhau can be cooked in many different ways and is much tastier than it might sound, particularly when cooked as bacalhau à Gomes de Sá with potatoes, onions, olives and hard-boiled eggs. I usually don’t care for the types of sardines (sardinhas) found in the United States, but I found that they are close behind bacalhau in popularity. They don’t come packed in a can but are grilled or barbequed. There is great local soup, arroz de marisco, which is a bit like a seafood risotto crossed with a soup.
Most meat entrees I sampled were served with piri-piri sauce, a sizzling chili concoction very popular in both Portugal and in many South American countries. No churrasco (barbequed chicken) was so very popular there were whole restaurants dedicated to preparing it. Pork in Portugal is from unique, pot-belly pig whose extended stomach can touch the ground (kind of like me at the end of this trip). The meat from pork is rich, tender and flavorful. I tried it cooked with clams (porco à alentejana) and simply grilled—both great.
So what about chocolate you ask?
The largest food retailer in Portugal, Jerónimo Martins, created the Hussel candy stores which I found to be a real chocolate temptation. They offer over 300 permanent and 200 seasonal items. Everything from gumdrops, fruit drops and lollipops, gourmet chocolate truffles (packed in fancy boxes), chocolate-coated almonds chocolate bars and chocolate cookies.
There is a wonderful two-week long annual international chocolate festival in the Portuguese city Óbidos, located about 40 miles (70k) to the north of Lisbon. It is usually the first and second week of February just in time for Valentine’s Day. The festival is both exciting and entertaining for both adults and children. After all, the world’s most popular food is dark, sweet, rich and delicious—it’s chocolate, of course. There are chocolate sculptures, fashion shows, recipe contests and lots of chocolate eating. So, whether you like deep dark, velvety milk, rich semi-sweet, deep bittersweet or creamy white, you can fill that gap of indulgence and then some with chocolate treats from all over the Portugal.
One of the dishes that I fell in love with was a Portuguese Chocolate Tartlet which had been one of the festival prize winners. I love finding a national treasure recipe and enjoy sharing my discoveries with our readers. These chocolate tartlets can be a great change from a traditional Thanksgiving Apple, Pecan or Pumpkin Pie. They are quick and remarkably easy to make. I think these are the most wonderful tasting chocolate tartlets I have ever tasted. They are fantastic served with ice cream, whipped cream or crème anglaise. Try out this recipe for Maladassas, Portuguese Doughnuts, as well.