Pastel de Belem
These gorgeous little egg tarts were chosen to represent Portugal in an EU food event in 2006, and have travelled from Portugal around the world in one form or another – but their origins are in the 17th century monasteries and convents of Lisbon. It’s said that the nuns got through so much egg white in starching their habits that they had to create something to use up the yolks – and thank goodness they did, because you won’t want to miss these. Small and sweet, sprinkled with cinnamon and powdered sugar, the authentic variety is sold by only one bakery in Lisbon today, and it’s rumoured that the recipe is known by only three people in the world.
Most countries enjoy bread with soup. The Portuguese enjoy making soup with bread. There are two different versions of bread soup or Açorda – in Lisbon, the bread is thoroughly mushed up and cooked with shrimp. It tastes delicious, but has a rather unfortunate appearance. Rather more visually appetising is the Açorda Alentejana version, where a broth of olive oil and garlic is poured over whole slices of bread and topped with a poached egg.
Medronho is also known as firewater, which gives you an idea of what to expect from this drink. A kind of fruit brandy, distilled from wild strawberry like trees, it has a very hot kick and is a speciality of Alentejo and the inner Algarve. You won’t find much of it in supermarkets, as it’s mostly bought directly from the farmers who make it. Most of them aren’t licensed to do so, but the Portuguese authorities tend to turn a blind eye. At 48% proof, it’s not a drink to be taken lightly – nonetheless, locals often drink it for breakfast. Now there’s a good start to the day!
Arroz de Cabidela
Not for the faint-of-heart, this dish translates roughly as ‘chicken blood rice’. With a fairly self-explanatory name: the dish is usually chicken (or rabbit) cooked in its own blood and served with rice. A meal perhaps best suited to more adventurous culinary travellers, the dish actually tastes rather good. Due to EU culinary health restrictions, the cabidela you’ll find in restaurants does not necessarily use blood – to try the real thing, your best bet is to eat with a local family.
This is crab, but not like you’ve tasted before. Stone crab is stuffed with its own roe and served with a type of potato salad. The resulting flavour is rich and much more intense than crabmeat from claws, and is delicious spread on warm bread. There’s a Portuguese belief that crab is best eaten in months with an R in them, so it’s most popular during the autumn and winter months.
From mid-June onwards, the Portuguese absolutely love to indulge in this delicacy: snails! Much smaller than the snails eaten in France, caracois are cooked in an oregano based broth with lots of garlic, laurel and thyme. Traditionally, you should suck the snail out of the shell, but the squeamish can use a cocktail stick instead. Tasty, and with a texture much like a cooked mushroom, caracois are hugely popular in local bars and restaurants, so blend in with the locals and give them a go!
Living in a seafaring nation, the Portuguese don’t like to waste any part of the fish, and that includes the eggs. Salada de ovas is a salad made from cod or hake roe sacs sliced and mixed with onion, tomato and bell peppers. If you’re not a fan of the whole fish egg idea, you’d better eat it this way rather than plain, which is what the Portuguese recommend for an upset stomach!
Percebes are very strange creatures called gooseneck barnacles. Tube shaped, and with very little shell, they look utterly bizarre, like a cross between a tiny snake and a tortoise’s foot. They taste strongly of the sea and are considered a delicacy, but eating them is a messy job – diners have to twist off the head and then squeeze the meat out from the outer tube, often squirting their companions in the process. Collecting the barnacles is difficult and dangerous work, as you can see in this video clip with Gordon Ramsay, which makes them much more expensive than most seafood. Is the taste worth it? You be the judge.
A traditional Portuguese fish stew, cataplana is a Moorish dish which was first introduced to Portugal back in the 8th century. Ingredients vary from region to region and restaurant to restaurant, but it always includes some white fish, potatoes, seafood, peppers and a hint of chilli. To enjoy it at its best, it should be eaten straight from the pot with warm crusty bread.
We can’t finish an article on Portuguese gastronomy without mentioning cod or bacalhau. Cooked every which way you want, bacalhau usually begins life dried and salted, since Portugal’s fishing industry developed long before refrigeration became available. The fish usually has to be soaked in water or milk before cooking, but is delicious served with potatoes, onions and peppers – or indeed in any of the other myriad local ways of cooking this Portuguese staple.