Five observations from a relatively gluttonous few days in Lisbon:
1. Custard tarts
Forget death and taxes, Lisbon’s two certainties are mosaic tiles and custard tarts. Whilst you can’t choose the tiles you step on and walk past (not really a hardship), you can choose your pastéis de nata.
It’s best to buy them from pastelarias where the tarts are made on site; fresh rules, natch. Ensure the place serves coffee too – because the bitterness is an essential sidekick to the sweet filling and buttery base.
(FYI, an espresso and a quality tart usually sets you back less than €2.30; oh were this the case in London.)
To eat like a local it’s all about standing at a counter, espresso in one hand, tart in the other. Bish, bash, bosh, and you’re on with your day. But if you’re in the market for seeking out “The Best”, whether for the pleasures of eating or for box ticking and photographic gratification, then I strongly suggest your search should start and end in the direction of Manteigaria in Chiado. No doubt there are legitimate rivals, but Manteigaria is central, and this isn’t a search that should consume your entire trip.
The thin room is as mellow, golden and gratifying as the custard filling the tarts. Behind a glass screen bakers buzz away throughout the day, making pastry, stirring egg-heavy custard, thumbing cases to ensure they’re spiralled, thin and crisp, mesmerically piping fillings into those cases, and then turning them out regularly to the tune of a bell announcing a fresh batch at the counter.
Most importantly, I’ve not had a finer pastel de nata.
The classic journey is actually to the former nunnery at Belém, where pastéis were invented as a way of using up egg yolks left over once whites had been separated to starch uniforms.
But shit: you, half of Europe, Japan and the liberal American States will be waiting in line for the opportunity to be grumpily flung a box of tarts, or sat looking forlorn in the cafeteria for one of 20,000 tarts that day. Sure, the pastry is buttery, thin and crisp, but the custard was both too sugary (for me) and dangerously close to scrambled eggs (for everyone), rather than the silky soft smoothness at Manteigaria.
When good, pastéis de nata really are bloody great. But it’s still just a sweet treat to have with a coffee for breakfast, elevenses or mid afternoon pick-me-up. Not something you should be getting your elbows and agro out for.
p.s. Watch this custard porn.
2. Red prawns at Ramiro.
I loved Ramiro. The queue and entrance are possibly more hectic that Belém, but you’ll walk away smiling from this one.
There are multiple shrimps and crustaceans on offer, but it’s the red carabineros that you must order. They’re cooked over salt on a plancha, drowned in melted butter, and just the sweetest, juiciest, most joyous shrimps you’ll ever suck. And suck you really should: chefs sweat for hours trying to create bisques as good as the juices within their heads. Sticky, messy, glorious and joyful.
3. Walking food tour
I went on a really super, full day food tour of Lisbon with a Portuguese journalist called Célia Pedroso.
She took us round the kind of back street spots you might read about if you researched hard enough, but probably still wouldn’t have the tenacity or conviction to head to on your own. Dark coffee and a prawn rissoles, then shots of sour cherry moonshine at 11am kicked things off, and it was pretty much a non-stop chow fest from then on.
Whilst we ate a great deal, it was at a calmer pace similar trips I’ve been on elsewhere. There was bacalhau, battered cuttlefish, sardines and veal and chestnuts all in classic tascas; modern re-interpretations of ancient dishes; gorgeous Portuguese wine, artisanal cheeses and new world gelato … all introduced to us by someone passionate and knowledgeable about the subject of food and Lisbon. Basically like having a food obsessed friend show you round their city. Highly recommended.
Did I mention the seafood? Take advantage of its freshness and eat it raw – at Taberna da rua das Flores or A Cevicheria. I mention a few other places to eat in this FT Weekend round-up.
5. Cherry liquor
Also, did I mention the cherry liquor? Yes. Well, I’ll mention it again: it’s called ginja and you should get stuck in at a ginjinha just off Praça de São Domingos – not the ‘oldest one’, but one just down the street. See point (3) above for a personal guide to that spot, or just walk and look for a hole in the wall with a window of ginja bottles. Apparently it’s totally cool to sup this at all times – whether 08:00 in the morning, or 11:55 at night.
6. Alentejan pork
A rogue sixth point, which reflects the fact that, actually, the best thing I ate in Portugal was outside Lisbon in Evora (90 minutes east).
At Tasquinha do Oliveira I chose, pot luck style, a local black pig dish with clams, coriander, onions, paprika and masses of olive oil. What came featured possibly the most flavoursome pork I’ve ever tasted. At first glance the meat looked overcooked, but the inter-muscular fat on that pig must’ve been immense, because it seemed like someone had injected it with a stock. Like xiao long bao without the dumpling. Amazing stuff.
There’s plenty of hand carved ham from black pigs on menus across Lisbon. You’d do well to always have a plate on order.
Okay, seven things. But this isn’t about the food. Did I mention the tiles? THEY ARE EVERYWHERE.
Not heading to Lisbon any time soon? Then go to Taberna do Mercado in Spitalfields for prego (beef steak sandwiches), custard tarts, and contemporary Portuguese cuisine. Or to Leandro Carreira’s excellent residency at Climpson’s Arch off London Fields.