As we make our transition from Portugal to Spain we’ve been reflecting on the culinary delights and curiosities that we’ve met along the way. We thought we’d share some of the dishes we loved and some we didn’t love so much for those of you who may come here one day.
When to eat
It took us a while to acclimate to the meal times here. Breakfast is kind of whenever – the pastelarias and cafes are open for most of the day and will always serve you an espresso and a pastry. Lunch restaurants will open at 12:30, but the crowds don’t arrive until 1:00 pm and will last until 3:00 pm. Dinner starts at 7:30 pm with most reservations made between 8:30 and 10:00 pm.
What to eat
Bread: The bread is really, really, really good. It’s fluffy and chewy and just a little bit tart; a mellower cousin to San Francisco’s sourdough. There’s a bread museum in the middle of the country and a chain bakery called Aqui Há Pão (Here There Is Bread) that served me a bread roll with some kind thinly sliced spicy salami baked into it. I had no idea that it was exactly what I wanted until I ate it. They take their bread seriously in these parts and it shows.
Seafood: It’s an ocean front country so the seafood is all fresh and delicious. The grilled fish tends to be served whole on a thin layer of olive oil, but never with sauce and rarely with any accompaniments. We tried the grilled octopus on a recommendation from a few friends. This is not something we U.S. Americans are accustomed to eating unless it’s battered and deep fried (read: calamari). It was steak-y and tender and very good. My personal favorite was a dish that’s simply called “seafood rice.” It’s wonderfully warming and savory.
Pork. These are a people who know their way around a pig. Get anything that’s cured – sausage, salami, chorizo – but know that if you get a pork loin it’s likely to be very well done. The pork cheek was consistently tender and delicious, especially at Porta 4 in Porto.
Migas. It looks like some awful concoction that made it out of an old Sunset Magazine recipe collection, but in this case looks are deceiving. Remember how the bread and pork are delicious? Well, take that bread and soak it in broth, then cook it with a bunch of garlic and serve it with chunks of pork. It’s like a garlicky version of Thanksgiving stuffing.
Soup. There are two reasons you might not want to pass up the soup in Portugal. First and foremost you’re not going to get a lot of vegetables at the restaurants or cafes. Most people eat veggies at home; they go out to get meat. The standard soup selection is butternut squash, sometimes served with a bit of cabbage or spinach in it. It’s a consistently good choice anywhere you go in the country. The second reason is a soup that’s particular to the Alentejo region – bread and egg soup – which is marvelous.
Pastries. Back in the good ol’ days of the Catholic church there were a lot of priests running around who needed their frocks pressed. The ladies who were in charge of this task used egg whites to starch the priests’ collars. This left them with a lot of egg yolks sitting around. God bless them, they found an excellent use for them. There are three pastries you should go out of your way to try:
What to skip
All other meat: We struggled to find any meat that wasn’t overcooked. Pork loin, beef, chicken, even the lamb was cooked to leathery death and then drowned in olive oil. Stick to the fresh fish.
Bacalhau: We’re probably committing a great sin by saying we didn’t like this dish. It’s salted cod, usually served breaded with potatoes. It wants to be fish and chips, and it’s likely that’s what this dish is meant to emulate given the close ties with the British, but it was just too salty for us.
A final bit of advice
Eat small. We don’t necessarily mean portion sizes here, but restaurant sizes. Some of the best restaurants we ate at in Portugal were only big enough to seat seven or eight people at once. Porta 4 in Porto and a place called Botequim da Mouraria in Évora served the most delicious food we’ve had inside or outside the country. They were each about the size of a postage stamp, but the owners really knew their stuff.