All the sardines - a food tour of Lisbon
This write up of a long weekend eating my way around Lisbon is going to give the cliched impression that Lisboa cuisine is all about pasteis de nata, sardines and steak sandwiches. Well, it is. And they are all truly excellent, particularly when washed down with some white port or vinho verde.
The first recommendation is a bit of a cop out as a top tip but truly worth it... a food tour. We had truly the most excellent afternoon with Taste of Lisboa. This involved an eight stop tour of tasting around central Lisbon where we were introduced to and tasted some Lisboan classics and gained much more of a feel for the city's culture and history. The guide provided a lot of context about the city and its development which is invaluable if, like me, your Portuguese history is more than a little sketchy. The stops on the tour are very much off the beaten track. I shan't spoiler them, but guaranteed these are places that you might otherwise walk by or never head down the right alleyway to find in the first place. My only wish was that we had done this earlier in the trip so that we could return to some of the recommendations;; 100% worth it.
We ate well at both the Time Out Lisbon market and LX Lisbon. The Time Out market is an undercover mix of kiosks where you can get a selection of reinvented and original Lisboan dishes; while it is on all the “Lisbon to do lists” it is definitely worth a vist. The quality was all high and, as with most of the food we tried in Lisbon, the prices all very reasonable meaning that you can go back for seconds, thirds and fourths and have what we termed a “linear meal” – basically, sharing a succession of dishes until you have covered all the major food groups, eaten half your body weight in Portuguese cheese and tried salted cod in more permutations than ever before. Order a side salad as Portuguese food ain't light. The LX Factory is more of a mix of restaurants among independent retailers and the workshops of designer-makers: a good place to do the whole pretending to be a Lisbon hipster thing.
We found a great clutch of bars and shops in the Mouraria area of the city around Largo dos Trigueiros., somewhere that we were taken on the food tour but headed back to explore. We topped up on cheese and cocktails at O Corvo, a great venue serving simple food and memorable baked cheese, although all baked cheese is pretty memorable in my book, with a very sassy and funny maitre d'. While on the subject of cheese, it was all uniformly good across different venues and there was regularly a selection of goats, sheeps and cows cheese. I failed to take notes but from memory a lot of the good stuff was from the Azores and Sao Jorge.
While on the subject of foods to eat, sardines are the other bleedingly obvious thing not to miss. The best ones we had were from a small cantina on Rua Santa Marinha in the Alfama district called Restaurante o Cantinho. It was small, unremarkable from the street but cooked up killer lunches of grilled sardines and croquetas with the most gloriously waxy potatoes. In my limited weekend-long experience, these cantinas - or Cantinhos - are absolutely the place to go for a quick lunch with fresh ingredients based around the classics of sardines, croquetas and steak sandwiches. We averaged 8 miles a day so you really need a bread and potato hit at lunchtime to get you up those hills. I was also reliably informed that Augusto Lisboa next door did a mean cheese board with pumpkin jam.
Sardines were also a hit straight from the tin. Lisbon is the time to forget any memories of pilchards in tomato sauce as these beauties are in a whole different league. We headed to Sol e Pesca, a bar specializing in tinned fish to taste the pick of the bunch. Sardines were good in any combination of oil, vinegar or tomato and spiced or herbed. I also snaffled up some tinned and smoked octopus and sardine paste to smuggle back in my hand luggage (if you are less keen on flouting the 100ml rule, Lisbon airport is top notch with a great canned fish selection).
Not exactly tips, but other helpful Lisbon things to mention … people lunch relatively early by holiday standards. We turned up at 2 at a few places to be disappointed so get your feet under the table by 1. Also, a lot is closed on Sunday – there is some stuff open but they tend to be few and far between, i.e. up and down a lot of different hills. That whole thing about one in ten padron peppers being spicy beyond belief? In Lisbon it is true so eat with caution as there isn’t enough vinho verde in the city to quench that tongue burn. Finally eat as many custard tarts as possible. Don’t just hold out for the original Pasteis de Belem, they are all good. Even the tarts from the most standard looking cantinas or bars will far surpass anything you have eaten before. I advise this sitting back in London at my desk, miles away from even a sniff of a custard tart and wishing desperately that I hadn’t stuck to my self-imposed “one a day” limit. You will burn it off trekking up and down the hills, no problem.
As a city break, Lisbon knocked it out of the park in terms of food. The constituent ingredients were all fresh and tasty and, as a London native, it was really great to go somewhere where a "quick bite to eat" didn't see you part with the best part of fifty quid. The lower price points - hello, 2 euro glasses of vinho verde - means that you can try everything more than once, order extra dishes for the table, and take a chance on stuff you've never heard of. Okay so alheira (an oddly pappy Portuguese bread and mystery meat sausage) weren't to my taste but, with the exception of one dubious mushy pea and egg combo, we didn't have a duff meal. All this while basking in 25 degree sunshine in October; put it this way, I'm already planning a trip back.