One of my friends always attends food tours when she travels and I had been wanting to go to one for a while now but never found the opportunity. Our trip to Lisbon was a six-day trip so we figured we would surely manage to fit in a food tour. We all love good food and this was an opportunity to really get to experience traditional
A Portuguese friend of mine suggested the Downtown-Mouraria Food and Cultural Walk organised by the company Taste of Lisboa which was in a part of Lisbon renowned for Fado, a traditional form of music in Portugal. I was excited to join their Lisbon food tour for lots of tasty food and to learn about the history of Lisbon at the same time.
We met our guide Madalena at 3 pm at our designated meeting point. I immediately took a liking to Madalena. She was a lovely and warm lady, and she made this experience even better for all of us. She asked us all to introduce ourselves – we were a group of eight; four of us from Malta and two couples both from the United States.
Before we started Madalena provided us with a map with all our destinations highlighted and lots of tips for the rest of our stay in Lisbon as well.
Portugal enjoys the unique geographical advantage of sitting at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea. For hundreds of years, it has served as the gateway to European ports.
But the real question remains: what exactly is Portuguese cuisine?
Before we went to Lisbon everyone told us that the food in Lisbon is fantastic, seafood-based and cheap – so I was looking forward to discovering all about it. On our first night in Lisbon, we had a bad experience with a Portuguese restaurant we tried – I ended up feeling unwell all evening. Luckily this food tour changed my mind about Portuguese food. Madalena took us to some small hole in the wall places with really fantastic food and drinks and also loads of interesting information about the history of Lisbon.
Since everyone arrived on time, we even had time to go into one of the churches in the square the Igreja de São Domingos. That was destroyed three times by earthquakes and fire.
Our first stop was at a store called Manteigaria Silva which is one of the oldest stores in the neighbourhood. This is a deli, and it has lots of different hams and cheeses and wine from different regions around Portugal. It is not a restaurant, but the food tour allows us to sample the fantastic Porco Preto which is cured for 24 months, the extra virgin olive oil made with Portuguese olives and their corn and rye bread all paired very nicely with a lovely Ruby-coloured wine. It exhibits a burst of red fruit aromas. The palate is round and well-balanced, with supple tannins and a lingering finish. I am not much of a wine drinker usually but I actually really liked this and brought a bottle back to crack open on a special evening.
We then moved next door where Madalena explained all about the nations long history with Salted Cod. So much so that they have 365 recipes using this cod so if you want to eat it every day you can have a different dish every day of the year.
The store is known for its Bacalhau or codfish, the emblematic
From there, we moved to a small eatery with outdoor seating where we tasted green wine — Vinho Verde. I was convinced it was going to be green wine -which would have been cool, but despite the name, it was white wine that is consumed soon after being bottled (hence the name) and has a gentle fizz to it. It also translates to “young wine”. Then there are the great codfish cakes which were a mix of codfish and mashed potato served with tomato rice! They were very flavorful and crunchy. And I was so keen to try them out I forgot to take a picture. So you will have to go on this tour yourself to find out what they look like.
On our third stop, we stepped right into a Portuguese soap opera filming – would love to know which one it was so I could see if we show up on screen. We visited a traditional Portuguese tavern which many years ago was a coal shop. Today they serve quick meals of conventional food. Had I been walking by as a typical tourist I would not have looked at the small place twice but oh boy I would have missed out as the food here is impressive. It is called Ze de Cornos, referring to Jose, the original owner who was a womaniser and cheated on his wife regularly, hence the reference to the horns. Here we tried a mix of different cheeses with quince paste, a soup which is popular in Portuguese households and a pork sandwich called the bifana.
The first cheese was soft and smooth with a paprika crust (which I loved), we also had a sharp tasting goat cheese and another more pungent cheese which paired well with the sweet quince paste to balance out the cheese. The soup tasted very much like Maltese soup which I appreciated. This bifana sandwich was perfect with a dollop of mustard. They also have a spicy sauce that can be added to the sandwich which I did not try as I am not a spice lover however if you do try it go easy on this sauce as my friends who tried it said it had a fantastic kick and fire to it.
On our way to the next stop, Madalena spoke to us about Fado music which is the folk music of Lisbon’s rustic neighbourhoods. Since the mid-1800s, it’s been the Lisbon blues — mournfully beautiful and haunting ballads about lost sailors, broken hearts, and bittersweet romance. I must admit at first listen I did not like the music much – however Madalena introduced us to the new modern singers that are able to make this powerful music appealing and made me curious to learn more about this tradition.
Fado means “fate” — how fate deals with Portugal’s adventurers…and the families they leave behind and the melancholy they feel at losing love and people close to them. The lyrics reflect the pining for a loved one, hopes for a future reunion, remembrances a rosy past or dreams of a better future, and the yearning for what might have been if fate had not intervened. While generally sad, the younger generation of fado singers can be bold…but nostalgically. Fado can also be bright and happy when the song is about the virtues of cities such as Lisbon or Coimbra, or of the warmth of a typical Portuguese home.
The easiest way to hear and learn about fado is to drop by the museum on the subject. The Fado Museum tells the story of fado in English. The museum is located at the base of the Alfama, the most colourful
In Bairro Alto, you will find small, informal fado restaurants where you can go either for a late dinner (after 21:00) or an even later (after 23:00) evening of drinks and music and you will find Homemade “fado tonight” (fado
Before the food tour, while walking around the city, we had seen several small signs selling “ginjinha.” But we did not know what it was so we did not try it.
Ginjinha is a sour cherry liquor native to Portugal, and a typical drink in central Portugal around Lisbon. It is 100% Portuguese and not found anywhere else in the world and can taste differently
This liquor is made by letting sour cherries ferment in brandy, and then adding sugar, water and cinnamon. The bar we visited is run by Senor Antonio, who has worked in this shop for over 40 years. His liquor has a little less alcohol then what is typically found in ginjinha and is served cold and tastes great. We liked it so much we brought a bottle back home with us.
At first glance, the words “canned fish” may not exactly make your mouth water. I was thinking about not trying this as I was worried I would not like it. But I decided that since I was on this tour might as well try everything – and so far I loved everything that was presented to us.
Now I know you are all thinking – what could be so special about fish in a can? To be honest, I was never a huge fan of canned tuna, mackerel, sardines or anchovies before. My dad is a fisherman, so I have access to all the fresh fish I like – my mum even conserves tuna in oil for us from the tuna our dad catches so I never need to buy any canned fish. Canned food to me is usually more of a second-string choice; something you eat when you don’t have access to a fridge. But when I tried the Mackerel, I must say I was extremely pleasantly surprised. It was thick and fleshy, and the olive oil gave it a fantastic taste. I had not one, not two but three pieces of this course.
Tinned fish has been part of Portugal’s culinary heritage since 1853 when the national canning industry was born. Over the years, tinned fish became Portugal’s original fast food: a cheap and convenient source of protein during times of economic turbulence and food scarcity. Locals eat it with everything from sourdough bread to salad to pasta.
Tinned fish is part of a culinary renaissance sweeping Portugal. Restaurants across the city — led by a new generation of chefs — now include dishes made with tinned fish on their menus. “It has once again become a national icon,” and its the perfect souvenir to take home according to the lovely Madalena.
You will find plenty of fabulous shops stocked with hundreds of colourful cans, and adorable packaging so
From there we made our way to an African restaurant where we would try fried beef samosas. This was my favourite stop, and In fact, we went back for lunch here on our last day as I loved the Samosas. They were served with a spicy sauce known as the Bastard which again I did not try but my friends ended up taking jars back home with them. We were offered a beer, a mango juice or a cashew juice. I had the Mango Juice, and my brother had the cashew juice, so I got to try both.
Madalena explained how for hundreds of years Portugal had several colonies and how those cultures have come together in the Mourreira region in Lisbon – with the many ethnic restaurants found in this area. When we went back for lunch, we had Samosas again, of course, lamb curry and chicken curry and sweet sticky rice. Peanut and coconut ice cream and a mango mousse and I must admit If I had to go back to Lisbon to eat here again, I would do it in a heartbeat. So thank you to Madalena who opened my eyes to this cuisine which I would have probably never have tried if it weren’t for this tour.
On our way to our last stop, we passed through narrow winding streets with lovely photos of the locals, live music playing in the road, the smallest second-hand bookshop in the world and fantastic street art which I am obsessed about wherever I visit. These are local neighbourhoods, where the neighbours know each other and there is fresh laundry hanging from the balconies.
Our final destination was the oldest sweet shop in town. Where we got to taste the famous Portuguese sweet – pastel de nata, and tea or coffee. The cream custard tart is delicious – smooth and creamy inside and Madalena served it to us covered in cinnamon which made it just perfect.
You will notice that many sweets in Portugal have a yellowish colour that is because they are prepared using egg yolks (as the nuns in Lisbon used to use egg whites to starch priest’s shirts, so they had lots of egg yolks left over). I tried a few other of these yellowish pastries throughout my stay, but the Pastel de Nata was my favourite of all the ones I tried.
I honestly recommend this tour – it was a great experience. You can book it through the taste of Lisboa website. I would highly recommend you ask for Madalena as a guide as she made this an unforgettable experience for us. Keep following my travel section as I have another couple of posts planned about my explorations of Lisbon.