Portuguese Food Road Trip

Days 3-4-5 – South of Lisbon, Portugal

I sort of specialize in border crossing, even triple border point. One of the highlights of my career in border-crossing was between Hungary and Slovakia, in a rented car. Epic. The one on foot at the triple border point between Slovakia, Ukraine and Poland still gives me the shivers. The one here and now was quite good, as it is a tiny tiny border, basically crossing a bridge. No custom station. Just a bridge and a guy with goats. Some goats had their legs hindered by rope, for, you see, “these buggers like to escape, especially this smelly one”, that was the old shepherd guy speaking, in a mixture of French (a little), Spanish (some) and Portuguese (a lot). And yes, it did smell like goat, even from inside the car.

Our first taste of Portugal was a failure. We wanted to get coffee and went into the first town we saw (Barrancos, I think) and got rebuked quite brutally. The town actually was a labyrinth of sort, with very steep roads littered with cobble stones. They do like their cobble stones, the Portuguese. We needed to get to another town (Santo Alexio de Restauraçao) where my legendary stubbornness (or tenacity, you chose) prevailed and this time we got our coffee. It was a tiny place (again) and when I got out to fetch the camera in the car I missed the door and walked in the living room of one very puzzled old lady. Her dog was nonplussed and I retreated with a lot of “Desculpa!” (“Sorry!”)

But fewer adventures in language and more food! Some people are going to be disappointed if I do not partake in sharing the menus. Oh, did I mention the landscape was amazing with a lot of cork oaks (Quercus suber) and olive trees (Olea europaea subsp. europaea) and grey pigs in liberty, far from the big pigsties of the previous days. I love pigs, though the rumour has it that if you fall drunk close by one nobody will hear from you ever again. Or maybe I read too much pulp-fiction.

I am not a theme-trip kind of person (not kidding, food is not a theme, it's a life style) Click To Tweet

The menu, yes.

First Portuguese lunch was in Serpa and consisted of some Cod fish dish (which will soon become a habit) Pataniscas Bacalhao com Arroz, Espargos and Favas com Chouriço (Salted Cod Turnovers with Rice, Asparagus & “fève” with Chorizo, in French, though my editor says it’s called “broad bean” in English) in a stew with the local spicy sausage. The whole thing was delicious and the red wine was strong and fruity and very local as well. I did not see the bottle, as it came directly carafe-d, I suspect it never saw a bottle in its life. The speciality of the town was some sort of cheese cake but made in the form of small cupcakes. We were too full to try it so I cheated and took the picture the next day during breakfast (Come on, you can snort at me, it’s fine…)

The rest of the day was spent in search of accommodation for the night, which proved a little more difficult than expected but we ended in a full flat (with no heating!) in Villa Nova de Milfontes provided by another old lady. I also specialize in old ladies. Hmmm, that could be very badly interpreted. Well, it was all good as the flat was on the coast so we could wander through the old town, down by the beach. All these cities have an old town with a castle. Plenty of castles. And lighthouses. I am not a theme-trip kind of person (not kidding, food is not a theme, it’s a life style) but we saw loads of lighthouses and castles. In the old town then, close by the castle, in Villa Nova de Milfontes we found the Restaurante Morais and had a large pot of Arroz de Polvo cooked for us. It is a stew of rice and octopus in tomato sauce and probably some bell peppers. I ordered some Vinho Verde and we were quite pleased. The stew took some time as it was obviously made fresh, we could hear some loud stomping coming from the kitchen (and some swearing I do suspect, my Portuguese is still very rough) as the octopus got hammered, for tenderness you see. I was very interested in the Porto (port wine) collection of the owner but it was “Collecçao Privada” unfortunately. Nonetheless he offered a glass of the red kind, as the Moms got the white kind for aperitif. Lots of “Obrigado” (Thanks!”) were exchanged.

The next day we got a nice selection of pastries for breakfast at the local bakery and got on our way for the next round of seashores, lighthouses, convent of doom and hell and the end of the world (!?) and, of course, more cod fish.

Before I get to the juicy details of the menu, I have to tell that we stopped in Sines which sports a very nice although strange elevator that takes you from the seaside (and beach and harbour) to the, yes, old town and castle. Then you can go down by some wooden platforms and stairs, probably very deadly when drizzling and high wind. But the weather was conciliatory and I metaphorically shook hands with Vasco da Gama, I mean, Admiral Vasco da Gama (1469-1524). I could picture myself singing Os Lusíadas! For the culturally challenged, he was the first one to go from Europe to the Indies, via the Cape of Good Hope.

a massive convent being built there because two drunk sailors saw a lady on a horse that turned out to be a dinosaur. What?! Click To Tweet

By following funny names on road signs we ended up in Lagao de Santo André, a lagoon. Incidentally, or so was I told by the waitress at the restaurant, “They” change the water of the lagoon once a year and it was happening in two days. She was quite excited about the whole thing. Who “They” are she did not say. Unfortunately we did not stay to witness that, also because the place was, honestly, pretty dead. The restaurant, Chez Daniel, was famous for Enguias or eels. So of course, I had a dish of Enguias Grelhadas com Batata Cozida e Salada Mista (Grilled eels, boiled potatoes & mixed salad). The flesh of the eel is so rich, it was grilled without any seasoning so I could get the full taste. On my left was an old man, very nicely dressed for it was Sunday after all, who was apparently having the lunch of a lifetime with a eel stew (did not remember the actual name). The Moms had some cod fish, and she mentioned fearing to turn into one at some point. The place was packed. And I did not get to meet Daniel as he was the late grandfather of the current owner.

After that we wanted to get a place to sleep close by Lisboa in order to get to the city by mid-afternoon with minimal driving (and passing yet another lighthouse and a bunch of castles, indeed). I noted on the map a ferry line, and if you know me you know that I cannot resist ferry lines. So we went up the peninsula of Tróia (very very ugly resort by the way, with tall, shitty concrete buildings and a golf course, all in all a dreadful place, really) and ferried for about 25 minutes to Setúbal.

The plan for the night was to sleep inside an old windmill. Don’t ask. So of course the place was pretty windy. I stayed awake a good part of the night because of the wind and because some kind of animal (my guess is a bird, but yours is as good as mine at this point) was frankly scared of the whole tempest show and was very vocal about it.

Of course we had our fish dinner: Dourade (gilt-head bream) and Sargo (white seabream) with some potatoes and a strange mixture of bread crumbs, garlic and coriander stew called Açorda. It sounds weird but it is actually pretty good. It seems that it can be eaten with poached eggs as a full meal… Anyhow, it is nice to have your fish introduced to you formally by the waiter before getting grilled. I come to really like the way they prepare it, usually just a bit of salt on top, some olive oil and a bit of wine vinegar and then, bam, directly on the charcoal barbecue. The taste is very pure, there is no sauce, no seasoning, nothing. Just you and the (dead, sorry) fish.

It took us the whole morning to get to Lisboa, because Palmela has a nice castle and the end of the peninsula has a nice lighthouse (Cabo Espichel), plus a massive convent being built there because two drunk sailors saw a lady on a horse that turned out to be a dinosaur. What?! A dinosaur..? I did not enquire much more because I was intrigued by a tale the Moms told me about some strange shellfish named Pousse-pied in French which are very difficult to harvest as they live around cliffs and strong currents. Turns out the English is Goose Neck Barnacle or Leaf Narnacle (Pollicipes pollicipes) and it is indeed very weird looking. To me it looks like the teeth or claw of some sort of a reptilian beast.

In order to get the pollicipes and our daily ration of Codfish we drove to Sesimbra. There we found the reptilian teeth thingy (I prefer that name to goose neck, did not look goose-y to me…) in a tiny (again) restaurant only serving sea food. They are served steamed and are delicious. Pricey though, it was 60 euros a kilo, and we got 200g. Again the seasoning is minimal, as in non-existent. I had no idea there were such a thing. Cudos to the Moms. Again the fish was introduced to us: Linguado (sole, for the Moms) and Chocos (cuttlefish, jeez do I love cuttlefish), and this time I could go and look at the chef while he prepared and grilled it because he was doing so in front of a window so people from outside could see. It reminded me of yakitori stands in Tokyo where the guys are smoked alive while cooking the delicious skewers. He used a hair-dryer though, I do not recall any hair-dryer in Tokyo…

That’s it for now. We reached Lisboa and the hotel in due time, by taking a fairly long bridge across the Tagus river. I was pretty excited because I was to meet again with my friend Tiffany and see how she managed to adapt her SilverSpoon concept of foodism and guerilla dining in Portugal.