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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Cakes and desserts
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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