The Art of Eating Slowly

A few weeks ago we ventured back to the village for Filipa’s brothers’ 30th birthday. Going back to the village for a family party means one thing – food! And lots of it. It takes serious preparation – mental and physical. This being my third time to the village, I started to realise that there is a fine art to enduring a Portuguese family festa and surviving unscathed with your waistline where it was when you first arrived. It’s not easy, because in Portugal, there are many courses and they get you every time and suck you in. The table is always covered in a selection of cured meats, cheeses, breads, olives, seafood (entradas) when you sit down. Rule #1 is to go easy here.  This is a major trap for new (gluttonous) players, one which can easily lead to an early downfall. After this, out comes Round 2, still part of the entradas, which can be a soup or a seafood or meat dish, sometimes presunto (cured ham).

You can be easily fooled here to think this is main course. If you finish quickly and everyone is still eating around you, beware because an aunty will come and top your plate or bowl up again and will not take não obrigada for an answer. So rule number #2, eat slowly and always remember there is still a long way to go.  At Toze’s birthday dinner, the entradas dish was so delicious that I just couldn’t help myself and ate it up in flash. It was a dish called Fritada and it consisted of pork meat with many different types of chorizo made with onion, flour, bread. It’s up there as one of my favourite dishes. So tasty. Porky goodness!

Fritada

Following the entradas is the prato principal (main course) and this is usually always a meat dish too, with rice as well. At Toze’s party we ate Arroz de Míscaros com Borrego (Rice of Mushrooms with Lamb). The mushrooms were organic local hand picked and so different to any mushrooms I’d ever tasted or seen before. Even two plates of Fritada didn’t slow me down here. So good.

The míscaros (mushrooms) cooking

Then of course comes the sobremesas and not just one, but usually two, sometimes three, different kinds – arroz doce (sweet rice), a cake of some sort, leite creme (cream caramel) – and people really look at you weird if you turn down dessert.

There is no escape.

A bedful of desserts (the kitchen was full!)
Leite creme

Just when you think it’s all over, then comes the birthday cake, and of course, there is definitely no way you can say no to the birthday cake.

Now, that would just be rude.

As I was recovering that night in the starfish position, I was told that we were going to another family festa the following day, another family birthday. Oh my god. Images of Mr Creosote in the scene from Monty Python’s ‘The Meaning of Life’ came flashing back to me.

Indeed, the next day, I had finally learnt my lesson and enjoyed a small bowl of fish soup followed by a small plate of duck rice, devoured ever so slowly. No bread. No cheese (okay, just a little cured meat because it looked so good). A minuscule serving of leite creme and one piece of birthday cake. Stomach explosion averted. Just.

My small plate of duck rice with chorizo

One way of getting me to eat less in Portugal is to serve more dishes like this.

Goat brain soup

Filipa tucked in to this goat brain soup just after devouring the entire braised head of a baby goat (apologies to any vegetarians reading this). I was so stunned but also intrigued that I couldn’t even bring myself to photograph the goat head. It was whole! I am not kidding you. (sorry for the bad pun!)

Bucho

Here is also another traditional dish of stuffed goat stomach filled with goat meat, rice and blood and other offal, called bucho, the Portuguese version of haggis.

I cannot stomach offal (sorry again) so I refrained, although I did try the goat brain, just one bite, to get Filipa off my back. It was as I had expected, a weird texture, and not my kind of thing.

So, two weeks until Christmas and I’m preparing like a boxer going in for a championship fight. I’ve even been jogging in my preparation.

But right now, as it stands, it’s Portugal 1, Me 0.

Parking Portuguese style

Portuguese parking has to be seen to be believed. From the first week I arrived, I’ve been marvelling at the cheek and the bravado of the drivers here. Parking can be difficult here, especially in central Lisbon. There are many car parks around but they are expensive and people seem to prefer to improvise.

It seems that the general rule in Portugal is “park your car wherever it fits and where you think you can get away with it”. During big events like concerts or football matches you will see cars up on the footpaths.

Here are a few photos I’ve taken over the past few months.

In a rush perhaps?
Middle of Nowhere
Double parking all the rage here

The SmartCar is very popular around Europe and in Portugal. Many SmartCar drivers are very inventive with their parking style.

Parking with guts and flair. Such anarchy! I love it!

Smart parking

Tram 28

My good friends from London, Jenni and Karen, came to visit us this weekend for two nights. It was their first visit to Lisbon. We did a lot of walking and sightseeing but also much eating and drinking and minimal sleeping.

We took them on a tour of Lisbon by tram or eléctrico. The yellow tram is synonymous with Lisbon. It’s a Lisbon icon. The first electric tram commenced operations in 1901. Today, they still use the beautiful old yellow vintage carriages that rattle and trundle their way around the narrow streets but there are only three traditional lines today.

The most famous route is tram number 28. This winds through Lisbon’s old quarter beginning in Graça, then down through the gorgeous and narrow streets of Alfama, past Lisbon’s Cathedral and then down to Baixa and then up through Chiado to Bairro Alto.

Lisbon Cathedral Sé

It is always jam-packed full of tourists and is an excellent way to get a feel for the city if you haven’t got a lot of time.  It’s a ‘hop-on hop-off’ service with over 30 stops at many famous and interesting sites of monuments, churches and gardens. The trip is very hilly in places, it’s noisy and hectic and you get some great glimpses of the city and a feel for the flavour of each neighbourhood.

The view from one of the stops – Largo das Portas do Sol
View from Largo das Portas do Sol   (Filipa B. Santos)

Here is a video of part of tram route 28. Forgive the unsteady camera work. It was difficult standing up, holding on and filming at the same time. The music is by one of Portugal’s most popular fado singers today. Her name is Mariza and she is singing a beautiful song called ‘Maria Lisboa’.

I hope you enjoy the ride.

A Perfect Combination

Autumn is here and it’s time for hot roasted chestnuts, or castanhas. On a recent trip to the village, Filipa’s brother bought 10 kilograms of chestnuts. We have been eating a lot of chestnuts, late at night after dinner. It’s easy to do at home. You place the chestnuts on a baking tray and throw over a generous handful of sea salt. Make sure you make a small slit in each chestnut shell before roasting or they will explode in the oven. You then roast them for about 20 minutes at 200 degrees and then a further 10 minutes under the grill. Take them out of the oven and peel and eat them while still warm. Delicious!

As we were leaving the village with chestnuts in hand, Filipa’s great-uncle Pedro saw us and took off back home to grab us a bottle of his home-made wine called Jeropiga. This is the traditional drink to have when eating castanhas. Jeropiga  is a sweet alcoholic drink made from fresh grape juice. Decant some juice from your already fermenting wine around day 2. At this stage it’s still sweet and has taken on some red colour. So add to this some aguardente (see previous post). Three parts juice, 1 part aguardente. Then you cork it and leave it in a cool dark place to settle for a few days or up to a few years. The aguardente inhibits the fermentation process and stops it spoiling.

Autumn is the season when Portuguese wine makers open up their barrels to taste the seasons vintage. Some of the wine is decanted and turned in to jeropiga to drink with the castanhas. It’s rarely found commercially and usually only produced locally by the likes of great-uncle Pedro. It’s the perfect combination on a chilly autumn night.

Up in Filipa’s village I saw many chestnut trees which had been ‘de-nuded’ of their nuts. Two or three nuts grow inside these prickly burrs.

While we were up in the village Filipa’s mum made a fantastic dinner of roast pork in her traditional wood fire oven (left). Along side the pork in the roasting dish she had added chestnuts which were so delicious. The nutty flavour had permeated throughout the meat and was so good.

A few days ago (11 November) it was St Martin’s Day here in Portugal and across most of Europe. St Martin started out as a Roman soldier and he apparently cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar during a blizzard to save the beggars life. That night he dreamt that Jesus was wearing the half-cloak that he had given to the beggar and Jesus said to some angels, “Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptised. He has clothed me.” He was later baptised as an adult and became a monk. Around Europe it is known as the Feast of St Martin.  In Portugal the focus is more on the maturation of the years wine.

On the streets of Portugal you see many vendors selling their hot roasted chestnuts at this time of year, especially on St Martin’s Day. The smoke from all the carts can be seen in the night air across the city.

A typical saying in Portugal is;

É dia de São Martinho; comem-se castanhas, prova-se o vinho.

It’s Saint Martin’s Day; we’ll eat chestnuts, we’ll taste the wine.

Yes……let’s!

Codfish Capers

Another bacalhau ticked off the list tonight. Filipa cooked Bacalhau com Natas, or codfish with cream. It’s another popular way to cook bacalhau here in Portugal. See my previous post about bacalhau.

In an oven proof dish, you layer the bacalhau with onions, diced semi-fried potato and cream. Filipa likes to add spinach to the dish as well, but this is not the traditional way that Bacalhau com Natas is made.

Grated over the top was a strong matured cheese which added to the flavour. I thought the dish was very delicious but my favourite is still Bacalhau à Brás. 

Five down, 360 to go. Lucky I like codfish!

Sea of Tranquility

I discovered after a visit to the Lisbon Oceanarium that photographing marine life through thick convex acrylic is not easy. So I put together a video instead to give you a much better idea about how great the aquarium is. It’s the second largest aquarium in Europe.

It’s a huge place, featuring over 450 different species. The central tank is about 5,000 cubic metres and 23 feet deep.

Credit to Filipa for her beautiful footage of the white jellyfish that I used in my video.

You may have spotted the very unusual Sunfish (or Mola Mola) on my video. Its one of the few aquariums in the world to house Sunfish due to their demanding requirements of care.

Two sharks and a Moray eel

There was also a great temporary exhibit featuring many different kinds of turtles but by far, the highlight for me were the lontras, sea otters. So entertaining. So cute. Very content to just lie on their backs posing for the crowd. The ambience of the place is really nice too. As you wander around the place, all you can hear are ocean sounds, crashing waves, wind, whale and dolphin calls, birds.

It’s a lovely tranquil place to spend a cold, grey winter afternoon.

A Land of Fairytales – Part 2

Back to Sintra the following day to see some more of its beauty and another beautiful day it was. We decided to start at the Castelo dos Mouros on the top of the hill, overlooking the township of Sintra. It dates back to the 9th century when the Moors built it containing two walled sections with a total perimeter of about 450 metres.

It is surrounded by beautiful parkland on one side and a sheer drop on the other. Its place on top of the hillside overlooking Sintra with it’s turrets, ramparts and towers really accentuates the romantic character of this place, particularly when enshrouded in rolling fog and mist.

There’s nothing much to do here but just wander the perimeter, climb and explore the towers and turrets and admire the breathtaking views. You can see all the way out to the Atlantic on a clear day.

View down to the town of Sintra

View from Parque de Pena

After some lunch we headed to Parque de Pena, where you can find the Palácio Nacional de Pena, a completely over-the-top Romanticist palace crossed with a little bit of Disney. If I had to choose, this was probably my favourite place. It’s pure fantasy!

Upon arrival at the park gates, there is quite a hike, but well worth it, up to the palace through the beautiful woods or you can take a little carriage bus up there if you’re feeling lazy. The palace is situated 450 metres above sea level and is perched high above Sintra.

First glimpse of Palácio de Pena

A newt under a window

It was built in the 1840’s by German architect Baron Wilhelm Eschwege for King Ferdinand and Queen Maria II. It became the summer residence for the Portuguese royal family and the last family member to live here was Queen Amélia in 1910 before leaving the country in exile. During the 1910 republic revolution, the monarchy was deposed by a military coup and the monarchy was never restored again in Portugal.  The palace was purchased by the State in 1889 and after the republic revolution it was classified a national monument and turned in to a museum.

The palace is a crazy fusion of styles, a mixture of eclectic Neo-Renaissance, Neo-Gothic and Islamic influences. King Ferdinand had exotic taste and probably would have been described as flamboyant but he wanted an extravagant love nest for him and his Queen.

My Rapunzel

Almost the entire palace is built upon rock. There are drawbridges, studded archways, a clock tower, turrets, terraces, chapels, circular towers and rainbow coloured outer walls. The palace is built within 200 hectares of the most wonderful and enchanting forest. King Ferdinand ordered trees to be planted from many distant places like China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and North America. A labyrinth of paths leads to many beautiful locations throughout the park. Again, we found the park the highlight of the visit. One path took us to a huge crucifix high up on a hill.

From here we got the most breathtaking views back to the palace.

Palácio de Pena

The rest of the afternoon was spent strolling through the forest, getting lost, exploring the many flower gardens, discovering hidden gazebos and fountains and photographing the beautiful flora and fauna.

And we also thought it would be a really great place to film a movie. So here are our first few attempts…..okay, so we thought it was funny. Apologies in advance….clearly too much time on our hands.