Azeitão cheese, fig jam and almond tart

When Célia Pedroso, co-author of Eat Portugal, invited me to join one of her Culinary Backstreets Lisbon food tours, I jumped at the chance.

As well as being a well-established foodie, she knows the city intimately so who better to lead the way to Lisbon’s gastronomic highlights? Over the course of six hours, she took us to some of the city’s oldest grocery stores, backstreet tascas, fancy restaurants and trendy food halls.

Having lived in Portugal for many years, much of the typical Portuguese food and drink wasn’t new to me, although there were some novelties. What stood out was the quality of the samples we had. Célia certainly has a knack for finding top notch treats as well as atmospheric locations.

Use this code: FOX5 to get 5% discount on Culinary Backstreet Food tours
Tasting presunto in a traditional grocery store in Lisbon
Tasting presunto in a traditional grocery store in Lisbon

Snacks and starters

We started the day with one of my guilty pleasures, a prawn rissole. They can be a bit greasy at times but the ones from Café Nicola, a Lisbon icon with original 1930s decor, are just right. Although I’ve scoffed hundreds over the years, I had never appreciated the work that goes into them until Célia explained the painstaking process of making and rolling the thin dough that encases the prawns and sauce.

Rissões de camarão. Prawn rissoles
Rissões de camarão. Prawn rissoles

When one of my companions on the food tour likened torresmos to pork scratchings, I knew I would be less keen on them than the rissoles.

More substantial than British scratchings, these crunchy, fatty snacks harbour traces of actual meat and are best washed down with a beer. Especially if you add piri piri (chilli sauce) and your mouth is on fire like mine was!

Torresmos, Portuguese pork rind snacks
Torresmos, Portuguese pork rind snacks

I’ve eaten plenty of presunto (jamon in Spanish, cured ham in English) over the years but it came as a pleasant surprise to appreciate the difference in taste and texture between the soft, melt-in-the-mouth 24-month pata negra and a darker, harder 40-month ham.

The setting helped; Manteigaria Silva is an old-time grocery store that specialises in cheese, hams, cured meats and bacalhau (salted cod). As you might imagine, a concoction of aromas hit you when you walk in and Célia has a tale or two to share about the store.

24-month and 40-month cured ham, aka presunto
24-month and 40-month cured ham, aka presunto

Another new one on me was the pastel de massa tenra at Michelin-starred chef José Avilez’s restaurant inside the opera house. Essentially, it’s a deep fried beef pasty.

That may not sound appetising but the pastry puffs up like a blotchy rugby ball and is light and crispy, a perfect complement to the savoury meat inside.

Pastel de massa tenra, beef pastry. Inside view
Pastel de massa tenra, beef pastry. Inside view

It would be a crying shame to come to Lisbon and not try queijo de Azeitão, a local version of Serra da Estrela cheese and best served when young and gooey, with a dollop of fig jam.

It was one of the best things I ate on my first ever trip to Lisbon and I’ve been addicted ever since. My photo doesn’t do it justice – this one was so runny it dripped through the holes in the bread.

Azeitão cheese, fig jam and almond tart
Azeitão cheese, fig jam and almond tart

Percebes (goose barnacles), on the other hand, are something I was wary of for years. Named for the shape of their claw-like tips, they are notoriously dangerous to harvest and look intimidating. Under that thick black skin lies soft pink flesh that tastes more like the sea than anything I’ve ever had before or since but I’m not in a hurry to eat them again.

Percebes. Goose barnacles
Percebes. Goose barnacles

Main meals

Lunch was in a typical no-frills tasca complete with locals on their lunch break, televisions on in each room and wine served by the jug. We had the best arroz de pato (duck rice) I’ve had yet; this one was not overly greasy and had plump juicy raisins and turnip tops in it.

The recipe comes from Tibães in the north of Portugal. Even the alheira de Mirandela (poultry sausage) was missing the odd aftertaste that I’ve come to associate with it, possibly because it was deep fried.

Find out how to order in Portuguese restaurants

Arroz de pato à Tibães. Duck rice, Tibães style
Arroz de pato à Tibães. Duck rice, Tibães style

Cakes and desserts

Portugal’s custard tarts, the pastel de nata or pastel de Belém, are so widely known that they are a compulsory ingredient on almost any food tour (except the Porto food tour I took).

After lunch, we squeezed past the queue to a space in front of the glass-fronted preparation area at Manteigaria. While we munched on warm creamy tarts, skilled hands deftly moulded pastry cases and poured the custard mixture into them.

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Although tempted, I declined a second custard tart, knowing there was more food in store.

I gave up on almond tarts a while back, finding them rather dry and nothing to get excited about. The one we tried at By The Wine has made me reconsider. Crunchy, light and caramelly, this was perfection.

Célia offered to send me the recipe (which is also in her book) but I’m rubbish at making desserts. I’m much better at eating them.

As if all this wasn’t enough to send my calorie intake sky high, we ended up in a gelateria. Not the famous Santini but Gelato Davvero, a more recent addition to Lisbon’s Italian-style ice cream providers. Unable to decide between the salted caramel and the requeijão (soft cheese like ricotta) and fig, I had both.

Sheer piggery but so much fun.

Salted caramel gelato
Salted caramel ice cream

Drinks

As well as the aforementioned beer and a couple of coffees, we also managed to try a variety of Portuguese wines and a liqueur.

As a long-time fan of ginjinja (cherry brandy), I was relieved to find that the tiny bar we had ours from has escaped imminent destruction. The building, like many in Lisbon, is to be converted into tourist accommodation of some kind but locals successfully petitioned to save Ginjnha Sem Rival and the renovation will have to work around it.

2 glasses of ginja with cherry
2 glasses of ginja. Ask for ‘com’ (with) or ‘sem’ (without) cherries.

Wine, of course, is best paired with food so our Azeitão cheese and the almond tart were accompanied by sweet, citrusy moscatel de Setubal, a firm favourite with me.

Vinho verde is young, ever so slightly fizzy wine that is dangerously easy to drink and goes particularly well with seafood. I chose to see it as my reward for eating percebes.

Rows of moscatel wine and aguardente, By The Wine, Lisbon
Rows of moscatel wine and aguardente, By The Wine, Lisbon.

Just in case you think it was all about alcohol, we also stopped at an organic grocery store for a herbal tea to cleanse our palates between indulgences.

Get a 5% discount when you book a Lisbon food tour with Culinary Backstreets by using my code, FOX5.

If you’d prefer a more hands on experience, read about my Lisbon Cooking Class.

And if you’re into culinary experiences in other countries, check out the food tours on One Weird Globe.

This article has my tips for top places to visit in Lisbon

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15 Comments

  1. Which Culinary Backstreets tour is the one you describe in this article?

    1. Hi Sheilah, I think they’ve changed the tours since I did this – it doesn’t match the descriptions online. Any tour with Culinary Backstreets would be amazing though, I’m sure.

  2. I think Portugal’s custard tarts, the natas, were one of the first foods I fell in love with in Portugal. MMMM! After months living in and exploring the Algarve we’re planning a visit to Lisbon in April and a food tour sounds like a great idea! Thanks for the tip Julie. Anita

    1. Author

      You’re welcome. I’m going on another one on Saturday so I’ll let you know how that goes, Anita. Hope you’re enjoying the Algarve 🙂

  3. Great recap, Julie! I love just about everything you tried on your food walk, including Percebes. Don’t know pastel de massa tenra yet, though, so that is now on my list. Yum!

    1. Author

      It’s delicious, Anita. The percebes aren’t so bad but they’re not my first choice of food 🙂

  4. Great piece oozing with flavour and I want to sign up soonest – so a quick link to the site is the only thing missing from your literary menu! By googling I can find lots of their other tours but not this specific one for some reason…..

  5. Thanks for this, along with all the great info on your web site. We’ll be in Lisbon for a week in May, part of a month long seeing/eating Portugal trip, and will certainly visit some of the locations.

    1. Author

      I hope you get to do so, Don. Let me know if you discover any real gems that you think I’d appreciate.

  6. What lovely descriptions of the food!

    1. Author

      Thanks, Elizabeth 🙂

  7. Yum! I am looking forward to Portuguese food in the Alentejo in April!

    1. Author

      You’re in for a treat, Candy!

  8. A piece that made me feel distinctly hungry when it arrived on my iPad whilst contemplating breakfast choices here in the UK.

    Self and GF ate well during our week in Tavira two weeks ago and we’ve even found tastes of Portugal now that we’re back in Yorkshire.

    Pastellas are now available in our local Co-Op and Sagres beer in Sainsbury’s and Morrisons too…

    Will do for now until our next visit to Portugal!

    1. Author

      Glad you had a great time in Tavira and have managed to track down some Portuguese goodies to tide you over. My mum is always happy when she finds Sagres in her local supermarkets 🙂

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