(Part one of two Lisbon, Portugal tales)
Visiting Lisbon this January meant sheltering from frequent rain bursts to take comfort in fresh white cups of thick, sweet hot chocolate and biting into aromatic pastelarias or pastries, the most famous of which is the flaky egg tart, pastel de nata.
Walking around the city on a winter city break, it’s clear to see that Portugal is in the grip of economic austerity as it tries to balance its books following the 2008 global financial crash. Budgets are being slashed everywhere, with Lisbon’s famous Botanical Gardens (Jardim Botânico) displaying signs apologising for the dishevelled look of the flower beds and hot houses.
Around the old city, dozens of beautiful houses, rashly converted into offices deemed the future by civic leaders of the Portuguese capital around the 1970s and 1980s, lie empty and unloved. Peeling paint, rotten window frames and rusting balconies suggest the past offered better days for the city. Other buildings are left derelict by family feuding over legacies, or sold to rich foreigners ‘passport shopping’ for European citizenship. So called ‘golden visas’ can cost investors €500,000 and are available ‘free’ through buying a property of at least that value. The money is good news for Portugal’s cash strapped government, but not for supporting vibrant neighbourhoods.
Despite this, the fabulously historical city sprawling over its seven hills and with covered in red-tiled roofs still sparkles in the rain. Sometimes known as the ‘White City’, named for the summer light reflected from the River Tagus is more subdued when viewed from under an umbrella. The white cobblestoned pavements and limestone-clad buildings give the city a romantic, if faded patina. But, as the flamboyant poet Lord Byron commented on arriving in Lisbon in the early 1800s: “Oh Christ! it is a goodly sight to see/What heaven hath done for this delicious land!/What fruits of fragrance blush on every tree!/What goodly prospects o’er the hills expand!”
Grids and culture
A walk through the Pombaline grid of streets of the Baixa district and around Chiado or Barrio Alto will lead you into the huge Praça do Comércio. Historically this area was the centre of government, but now its arcades host cafes, restaurants and art galleries. A popular cafe here is the Martinho Da Arcada, hidden behind green swing doors, it has been serving pastries, coffee and chocolate since 1782. Customers have traditionally included writers, political dissidents and gamblers. Today, its clientele are the civil servants working locally, and tourists seeking an ‘authentic’ experience or, like us, shelter from the rain. One famous regular was the writer Fernando Pessoa, whose image is popular on souvenirs and drawn on the walls of the Martinho café.
Another must have in Lisbon is a glass of cherry brandy, ginginha. There are many tiny bars across the city just pouring this sweet drink in a shot glass, often served in a small, edible chocolate cup. Made with ginja berries (the sour Morello variety is popular) infused in alcohol with including brown sugar, cloves and cinnamon. Popular places to try this treat, either before of after dinner, include A Ginginha in the Rossio district, or Ginginha Sem Rival, another hole in the wall bar on Rua das Portas de Santo Antão. Drink it ‘with’ cherries in the cup or ‘without’ – the cherries are a bit of an acquired taste, too mushy and sour for me.
Near the waterfront and Cais de Sobre rail station, is the Mercado de Ribeira, a newly refurbished market hall decked out with high wooden tables and chairs surrounded by mini-restaurants and bars. The market can trace it history back to the 13th century and was once one of the most famous fish markets in Europe. It’s now run by the international listings publisher Time Out and is fast becoming a social hub for the gregarious Lisbonites. Like Borough Market in London and Barcelona’s Mercado, Ribeira s split between a fresh produce market and eating area, which serves a delicious range of street food from burgers and pigs cheeks on creamy mash to boiled lobsters and sushi.
The market offers many of the city’s best-known brands a space including Conserveira de Lisboa (The Lisbon Cannery) with shelves packed with iconic tins of ‘big’ fish such as tuna; ‘little’ fish such as sardines and anchovies, to eels, cuttle fish and squid. With iconic brands and timeless packaging designs, the shop sells its Minor, Prata do Mar and Tricana-branded tins sell from around €1.5.
For dinner at Ribiera, we choose fish goujons and chips from Henrique Sá Pessoa stall, and pig cheeks on creamy potato mash and cabbage. Henrique is one of Portugal’s highest profile celebrity chefs with books and TV shows to his name. While he wasn’t in the kitchen the night we ate, his team of chefs delivered a meltingly delicious, slow cooked meat, succulent without any obvious unnecessary fatty pieces of poorer quality of meats.
There’s a lot of choice in places to eat that Ribeira demands you visit several times, even as we did twice over a weekend, for midday pastel da nata and hot chocolate from Arcádia Casa Chocolate, or for dinner. Our visit was topped off with a moist slice of almond torte (Bolo de Amêndoa) and warming glass of ginginha.
But be warned, we spent five minutes on a rainy Saturday in January night looking for a table for three – in the hot summer months the wait is much longer!
Pastel de nata
Puff Pastry 600g fresh or bought
Knob of butter
500 ml milk
1 lemon peel
1 cinnamon stick
250 ml water
7 egg yolks
Roll out, press pastry and cut into circular slices of 1.5cm thickness.
Smear slices with melted butter.
Using your thumbs, press down gently on slices from centre to create bowl.
Place the shapes on a baking tray.
Whisk flour in a little milk.
Bring remaining milk to boil. Add the cinnamon stick and lemon peel
Be careful not to boil the milk, add the flour and stir well until fully absorbed.
Boil sugar and water in tick0botteomed pan and stir.
Allow to boil for 3 minutes.
Add the sugar syrup in a thin milk and mix well.
Strain in a colander and let it cool.
Add the egg yolks with the cream and stir well.
Fill the pastry shapes with the cream
Bake in preheated oven at 250 degrees for 17 minutes.
Once cooked, serve hot or cold, sprinkled with powdered sugar or cinnamon.