Savoring the Flavors of Lisbon’s Authentic Culinary Heritage

“Meet us at Praça Luís de Camões near Quiosque do Refresco. We will have a white bag with Lisboa Autêntica logo.”

I get the e-mail from Mafalda Pinto. She has lived and worked in Mozambique and Angola. Now she’s living and working in Lisbon running cultural and culinary tours.

I’ve asked her to sign me up for Lisboa Gastronómica — “gastronomic Lisbon” — a culinary exploration with tastings, as the name suggests.

Turns out, when I Google the location of the Praça in question, it’s the square around the corner from my Lisbon lodgings. The place a somewhat startled police officer directed me to three days earlier when he was confronted by a picture of hot and botheredness — me — lugging my bags and just off the Metro caught from the Portuguese capital’s busy inter-city bus terminal.

Did I think he was a tour guide in disguise?

Well, no. I can, in fact, confess that I was not thinking.

At least until the words were out of my mouth and I saw him staring at me wondering, no doubt, why I’d chosen to ask him where I might find modestly priced accommodations.

But no problem. On a dime he transformed from confused and stern to solicitous, told me exactly why I was in the wrong place and the most direct route to the right place.

“This is the Baixa neighborhood — expensive,” he says, gesturing to where we were standing.

But if I went back through the metro and exited on the other side, I’d be in Chaido. More fun and with affordable digs.

“Obrigado,” I say or “Thank you.” It was about the only Portuguese word I learned. But funny enough, I found myself with reason to say it so often in Lisbon to so many people, that I felt like I was in constant conversation.

My first night in the city, I discovered the police officer was right about Baixa. At midnight the historic square — with its necklace of restaurants that continue along a maze of streets on all sides — is as festive and bustling as at midday.

Pinto’s eating experience would take us, on foot, to places in both Baixa and Chaido, which might not be the place to stay for the budget-conscious, but which is filled with places to explore and eat.

I find a picture of Pinto’s Quiosque do Refresco on Foursquare. It’s the busy little kiosk I’ve spotted in the Praça. I know “Autêntica” means “authentic” because that’s what all her tours are about. 

She started them in 2011 for locals. Tourists were an add-on — a response to demand.
“A lot of local people don’t know the story of the city — the history of the food. And food and culture are linked,” she says.

Like many of the world’s more sophisticated cities, Lisbon in recent years has experienced a renewed focus on fresh and local, on valuing the artisanal and appreciation and reviving old traditions.

“There are childhood dishes that disappeared from the tables. There’s a revival going on. People want to be reminded.”

I wasn’t going to be reminded, but to look with new eyes, given that I’d eaten colonial Portuguese Mozambique-style in Durban, South Africa. And colonial Portuguese Macau-style when, during a visit to Hong Kong, we did an overnight side trip to the island and sought out “Chinese” Portuguese, which in the absence of the peri-peri chillies of the Durban version, was blander.

Calling Back Lisbon’s Past
Visit Lisbon and you quickly learn that the city is pretty much defined by two happenings.

First, the so-called Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 — still known as one of the deadliest in history — which in combination with subsequent fires and a tsunami, killed tens of thousands of people and totally destroyed the city and adjacent areas.

And second, the Salazar dictatorship (1932 – 1968) established in an army-led coup in 1926. Portugal had its first democratic elections in 50 years in 1975.

“There used to be kiosks like this one around the city,” Pinto says to explain why her tours often meet at the Quiosque do Refresco.

“Like many things, they disappeared during the dictatorship when there were rules about everything, even the food. About five years ago the municipality started reviving the kiosks and this one has reintroduced a popular 19th century kiosk drink, Capilé. It’s non-alcoholic, made from the maidenhair fern and orange blossoms.”

We have it poured over ice with a slice of lemon. Sweet and refreshing. While we drink, Pinto and her side-kick, Carla Maceda, talk about some of some of the historic influences on Portuguese cuisine.

For example, the Romans planted the vineyards responsible for Portugal’s strong wine culture. And that the Moors, a term generally used to identify anyone of African or Arab descent whether living in Spain or North Africa, brought sugar and rice. The sugar, in turn, was introduced by Portugal to Brazil in the 16th century.

I learn that seafood, brought in straight from the ocean, is big in Lisbon. And sardines, available grilled on almost any menu, are best to eat in months without the letter “r” in the name — and especially in June when “Everyone cooks them and eats them” and along with sardines, on June 13 “we celebrate San Antonio — Saint Anthony — who we believe helps young women find husbands.”

Heart, Chicken Feet and Ox Tail

“Entrails” are big — “the heart, chicken feet, the tail of the cow (oxtail), the ears, mouth and nose of the pig”. And liver “usually pig, but also cow and lamb liver” is an important part of the cuisine. “Cheap cuts were developed in the 19th century when most of the population couldn’t afford more than one meal a day,” says Pinto.

Then we set off on what turned into a marathon walk and something of a devouring orgy visiting more than 10 eateries and stopping off at others including the Michelin-starred Restaurante Tavares (since 1784), well known for putting modern twists using seasonal products on traditional cuisine and Cervejaria Trindade (since 1836), where you can drink beer and eat steak in a gorgeous tiled interior complete with original wooden pulpit because the place was founded as a convent and Café Nicola, a tourist spot now, but a literary and political meeting point when it opened in 1929.

We learn the best croissants in Lisbon come from Pastelaria Bénard — and about Portugal’s national dish, bacalhau (salted cod), at Bacalhoaria e Manteigaria Silva, where we eat cheese and slices of Portugal’s famed Iberian air dried cured ham.

Mussels, Sardines and Clams

We nibble on mussels and sardines at family owned Conserveira de Lisboa (since 1930) where every wrapping is a work of art and put on by hand; devour clams from a recipe dating back decades at informal café-style Dois Arcos; and end up when it seems we can eat no more with chick peas with cod and gazpacho, followed by a house-made peppermint digestif at Casa do Alentejo, built as a 17th century Moorish palace and gorgeously renovated as a bar cum restaurant cum cultural association. It’s a must-visit spot even if one is not going there to eat.

There are many reasons to fall in love with Lisbon. Whoever said the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach hadn’t taken into account women’s appetites!

Visit Lisboa Autêntica online for more on Lisboa Gastronómica and to see their other culinary and Portuguese heritage offerings.

For more on Cuisine Noir’s Portugal read the article Look Who’s Cooking in Portugal! Plus: Home Entertaining Tips.

Photo credit: Wanda Hennig

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Long-time Cuisine Noir contributor Wanda Hennig is an award-winning food and travel writer, an author, a blogger and a life coach. A native South African, she believes we are what (and how) we eat (and drink). Thus, she says (only a little tongue-in-cheek), the best way to truly understand a country, a city, a culture—and a people—is via your taste buds and your stomach.