I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted here. December is brutal on pastry chefs everywhere. I figured out that my workday is a solid three hours longer during the holidays than it is in the summer, and lunch breaks are shorter or nonexistent. Naturally, when I come home at the end of the day I’m exhausted, and it often comes down to a choice between blogging or showering and eating dinner. I don’t think anyone can blame me for choosing the latter. That said, this is going to be a big post, and I hope it will make up for my absence.
I believe I mentioned that Nick and I took a weekend trip to Lisbon a few weeks ago. We had a fantastic time, and it makes me wonder what took me so long to visit Portugal.
I was struck immediately by how colorful the city is. I took tons of pictures of the tile-covered and pastel-painted buildings, and I know Nick got at least twice as many. I’ve put some of my favorites up in a Flickr set, which I invite you to browse. Compared to the gray of Paris in winter, the sunshine and bright colors of Portugal were just what I needed.
We flew in on a Thursday night, and after grabbing a cheap cab to our hotel, we whipped out our guidebook in search of a nearby restaurant. Cervejaria Ribadouro turned out to be just across the street, and was a good introduction to typical Portuguese restaurants. They had several tanks of live seafood in the front, with market prices by the kilo listed nearby. In addition to the lobsters, crabs, and cod, the menu had a large selection of meats, most of which were pork. Nick made up his mind to order the pork with clams as soon as he saw it, and we later learned that this is a very traditional pairing in Portuguese cuisine. I had the black pork, which was juicy and flavorful. We started with bread and a stuffed crab, and washed it all down with a couple of big, cheap beers.
The next morning, we began on a quest that would carry us through the weekend: eating as many custard tarts as possible.
Our first stop was a pastry shop/café called Versailles. The 1930′s interior was gorgeous, and the counter service from bow-tied waiters was efficient and friendly. We ordered a couple of pastéis de nata, Portugal’s signature pastry. The lightly sweetened custard in a flaky pastry shell is available in Paris, but I was excited to try them at the source. We also got a couple of coffees – proper espressos with a nice layer of crema – and a big brioche-type roll topped with sugary coconut. This breakfast set us back less than five euros. The coffee was one of the best I’ve had in Europe, much less for only 60 cents!
Unfortunately, the custard tarts were a bit of a disappointment. I should have known not to expect top quality in a place that had photocakes in the front case. The custard was pleasant and not too sweet, and I liked that we were given a shaker of cinnamon with which to dust the tarts to taste, but the crust left the unmistakable greasy feeling on the roof of my mouth that only shortening-based pastries can.
Fortified for the day, or at least until we could figure out how to buy bus and metro passes (very easy at the machine) and make our way to lunch, we headed out to Belém, a former village that now houses the Presidential palace and the homes of many foreign ambassadors. (We found this out the hard way, when we decided to ignore the map for a bit.) It is also home to the incredible Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, a stunning monastery built during Portugal’s “discovery” heyday in the early 1500′s.
Before visiting the monastery, though, we wandered the quiet back alleys of Belém, marveling at the colorful tiled buildings in the sun and eventually ending up at Estrela de Belém. Very simple, and very inexpensive, we were simply asked what kind of meat we wanted – I asked for the sausage, and Nick got fried fish – and what we wanted to drink. We were then seated, brought our bottles of beer, and served our food, garnished with fried potatoes and a little salad. The portions were generous, and even though they were some of the juiciest sausages I’ve ever had, I couldn’t clean my plate. I wanted to have energy left to explore, after all.
And explore we did. We spent a big chunk of the afternoon at the monastery, admiring the detailed carvings and intricate architecture. Following that, we walked along the water down to the Torre de Belém, a former strategic tower used to protect the city from seafaring invaders. We climbed to the top, and I couldn’t help taking several pictures of the sun beginning to set over the Tejo river as it heads out to sea.
With the sunset came a significant temperature drop, so we decided to seek warmth in the Enoteca de Belém, a modern-looking wine bar we had passed earlier in the day. Inside, we met a couple from Philadelphia and tasted a flight of port and madeira. The very knowledgeable bartender/owner shared with us the secrets to the coffee cream sauce used on steaks here, which I have yet to try to recreate, but I certainly will. We wanted to check out the Berardo Collection, a free museum of modern and contemporary art, which was supposed to be open late on Fridays. Much to my chagrin, we arrived five minutes after they stopped admitting people to the museum. Apparently, sometime between the publication of our guidebook and our visit, the late-night opening changed from Friday to Saturday. D’oh! We consoled ourselves with a walk by the now lit-up for nighttime monastery, and then got in line at the much-lauded Antiga Confeitaria de Belém.
No fewer than three separate people recommended this place for custard tarts, and they are right to do so. These were hands-down the best pastéis de nata we had the whole time. I’m sure it didn’t hurt that they were still warm when we got them, and the sprinkling of cinnamon and powdered sugar really enhanced the eggy custard. The crust, this time, was definitely butter-based, and deliciously flaky to boot. My only regret is that we only got one each, and that we couldn’t take home a case of them for later. But there was dinner to be had.
We hopped a bus back into central Lisbon, and stopped at A Ginjinha, a long-established stand selling tiny cups of ginjinha, a sour cherry brandy taken standing on the square outside or, in our case, on the way to dinner at the nearby Bonjardim. We dined on juicy roast chickens with tangy, spicy piri-piri sauce, served with fried potatoes and salad (are you sensing a trend here?), sheep cheese, and wine. The bill? 28 euros, total, for two.
After dinner, we were waking back to our hotel along the Avenida da Liberdade. We noticed a large crowd of people outside the music venue across the street, and decided to go over and see what was going on. It was some kind of music festival, and we jumped into the fun, joining the crowd in line for beers at the neighboring café. We soaked up the lively vibe and were really going home this time, but all of a sudden a bus pulled up in front of us. A three-piece band hopped on while playing, and if this has ever happened to you, you know you have no choice but to follow them on, and enjoy the ride. We didn’t know where the bus was going, but that was hardly the point. As it turned out, it made a big loop and dropped us off pretty much right in front of our hotel. But how often do you get to ride a bus with a band, who are playing, and a bunch of partygoers dancing in the aisle?
So this is getting even longer than I expected – I guess I have more to say about Lisbon than I thought. I’ll sign off for now, but there will be more Lisbon adventures to read about later this week.
Originally published on Croque-Camille.