By now, you know our drill. Check into a new place and book a food tour as soon as possible. Our trip to Lisbon was no different. However, when it came to choosing which tour to book, a small problem did crop up. Ninety percent of food tours in Lisbon are centred around wine. Regional vineyards abound with amazing local wines of all hues (think red, white, rose AND green!) and the iconic port wine comes from Porto in Portugal itself. So, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to opt for a wine tasting / food tour as your best introduction to the culinary joys of Lisbon. But what does one do when your partner is a confirmed teetotaller? The idea of him following a progressively merrier me around the hilly streets of Lisbon didn’t seem like a fair plan 🙂
We finally found just the tour we were looking for with Eat Portugal. Celia Pedroso, the owner and author of the Eat Portugal – the book (now in its third edition), the blog and the food tours swiftly answered all my questions by email. “Yes, there would be non-alcoholic beverage options if required,” “yes, it would be a walking tour of approximately four hours,” “yes, there would be several stops along the way to taste and eat and buy.” It all sounded perfect and I confirmed the tour immediately.
On the appointed day, all we had to do was turn up at the main entrance of the Mercado da Ribiera at 1215 and hand over the rest of the afternoon to our expert food guide Celia. There was supposed to be another couple on the tour with us but they cancelled last minute. This did not deter Celia from continuing our tour as promised nor did it make any difference to the amount of food we tasted. As we found out at the end of the tour, we ended up eating for four!
Mercado da Ribiera or the Ribeira market is a very special place. On one side of the huge covered hall is the actual fresh food market. This is a very popular place for locals to shop during the early hours of the day or on the weekends. Rows and rows of fresh fruit, vegetables and flowers lined the central aisles while the side alleys housed the fresh fish and meat markets. Clean, tidy and bursting with goodness of all kinds, this was the kind of market that I loved to shop in and I was itching to pick up some produce to experiment with.
The fresh food market is open every day from 6AM to 2PM.
We then crossed over to the Food Hall. Taken over by the magazine Time Out in 2014, it was redesigned as a food court with a difference. Time Out approached the very same restaurants recommended by them in the magazine and offered the chefs a space of their own with one goal in mind – to promote Portugese food and products. Some of the best chefs in Portugal such as Alexandre Silva, Miguel Castro e Silva, and Henrique Sá Pessoa share space with newer entrants into the culinary scene and offer designer dishes at unbelievably low-cost prices.
The Food Hall opens every day from 10AM to midnight from Sunday to Wednesday and from 10AM to 2AM from Thursday to Saturday.
We had actually visited the Mercado on our very first night in Lisbon and ended up being dazzled (and more than a bit confused) with the staggering amount of good food on offer. Another downside to coming here alone is that a lot of the menus are in Portugese and you are left clueless about what to order. This is where booking a tour with Celia is the best idea. She quickly seated us at one of the high bar tables and bustled off to order a number of Portugese tapas of petiscos for us to taste. Here are some of the highlights…
A pretty platter of presunto (ham), quiejo (sheep milk cheese), and quince jelly was served up with earthy slabs of assorted breads.
An amazingly light green bean tempura served with a garlic aioli. Did you know that tempura was introduced to the Japanese by the Portugese?
Garlic oil-soaked olives were the perfect accompaniment to a glass of crisp vinho verde or green wine. Don’t worry, Sunil enjoyed his fresh mango and passionfruit juice as well 🙂
A sublime fusion of grilled sardines and sushi followed. Even though they looked a bit intimidating, one bite in and we polished off the plate in no time. The char grill of the sardine and the sticky sushi rice made a perfect pairing.
Chorizo stuffed bread smeared with garlic oil is another local delicacy. The bread was baked with sweet potato to make it softer than usual.
We then moved out of the main market into the once seedy by lanes of Cais do Sodre. The area around the market and the Cais do Sodre railway station and ferry wharf were considered the red-light area of Lisbon until not so long ago. It’s now slowly being gentrified into a hipster hangout filled with cafes, Fado bars and discos. A quick stop at a cafe that served ONLY tinned sardines left us gobsmacked. All you have to do is choose from the rows and rows of tins lined up along the walls and they will serve the same tin to your table with a basket of bread and a pitcher of beer. Such a genius idea and obviously a popular place from what we saw.
A mini cone of gelato acted as a palate cleanser before our next tasting session. I chose a ricotta and pear combo which was delicious. Neither Sunil nor I was adventurous enough to try out the parmesan or salmon gelatos!
Thankfully, a longer walk ensued giving us a much needed breather with time to digest our food and shop for some local ingredients.
We popped into a grocery store that sold pulses, the ubiquitous sardine tins, piri piri chillies and salted cod. Salted cod is to the Portugese what the Durian fruit is to the Singaporeans. The flavour and texture of this dried fish is definitely not for the faint hearted but loyalists swear by the taste and all the top chefs in Portugal seem to experiment with novel ways of serving this humble ingredient.
As we traced our steps back to the Arc de Rua Augusta and the Praca do Commercio, a quick pit stop was made for a shot of Ginjinha. Ginjjinha is a cherry liqueur best had in a chocolate glass or cup. Once you have finished the drink you simply eat the cup and your tummy is all the merrier for it.
By now we were dangerously full but it seemed that the tour was no where near finishing! Around the corner from the Arc de Rua Augusta, we stopped at a small cafe that is famous for its suckling pig sandwiches served with gravy and the most fiery of piri piri sauces.
What really caught my fancy at this food stop were the exquisite prawn rissoles. The speed with which these heavenly morsels were consumed probably didn’t do justice to the lengthy procedure involved in making them but who cared. We polished off two and proceeded to try them out at various other cafes during the rest of our trip as well.
As we walked on, we took in the wonderful architecture and design. Lisbon with its beautiful tiled facades, cobbled streets and old fashioned store fronts were charming enough to make us forget the fact that we were huffing and puffing as we climbed its hilly streets.
Our second last stop on the tour was a port wine tasting where I tasted three types of Port – tawny, ruby and white. My favourite was the ruby hands down. We also stocked up on some mini port wine sets to take back home as the perfect mementos and gifts.
Our last stop was at Chiado. The Pasteis de nata is a divine baked custard tart in a puff pastry shell. At Manteigaria, we watched the chefs expertly press in the dough into multiple little cases and whisk the custard from scratch. They ring a bell outside the shop front door every time a fresh batch is out of the oven and people flock to the tiny cafe to devour the tarts. We soon discovered that there is nothing quite as blissful as biting into a warm custard tart sprinkled with cinnamon with your cup of coffee.
Our time with Eat Portugal and Celia taught us a whole lot about Lisbon and Portugese cuisine. We learnt that the Portugese may not have been very adventurous with their food but all that’s changing now with the new wave of chefs in Lisbon. We discovered that food in Lisbon is so reasonably priced in terms of food and drink that you end up eating a lot more than you set out to. But most of all, we began to appreciate the Portugese way of life – it’s simple, laid back and oh so generous.
Celia was the perfect host on this culinary journey and if we had had the time, we would have signed up for another one (or two) of her other tours. In addition to the wonderful day spent with her, she wrote down a list of must visit restaurants. We ended up following that list diligently and enjoyed each and every one of her suggestions. Celia – if by some chance you read this – Jesus de Goes was magnificent! And I haven’t forgotten my promise to send you some Goan recipes either. Will mail you soon. Thanks once again xx
For more information on Eat Portugal do check out the site: