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If you ask me, one of the best ways to get to know a new culture and destination is through the food. Food is what unites and brings people together and with food we can really start to understand a foreign culture and it’s people.
So it should come as no surprise that I quickly signed up for a food tour in Lisbon with Taste of Lisboa to get to know more about Portugal. At 3 pm I met Miguel and was ready to start the downtown – Mouraria food tour. Our group of 7 was made up of one young couple from New York, a German guy on a weekend getaway, and a mom, friend, daughter trio from Texas on a month long European vacation. It was a jolly bunch, and with Miguel, our Lisbon local guide, we were off.
I have taken food tours in the past, both in Slovenia and in Colombia and what I love about them is that they are not only focused on food, they are also in depth cultural and historical tours as well. With the stories of the food you also learn about the state of the country at that certain time, and as you walk through the city the guides incorporate small stories of the places that you are seeing into the tour.
Our tour was going to have 7 stops and Miguel handed everyone a map of the route as well as the layout of the stops and what we would try at each one. On the back of the paper we also had extra foodie tips for the rest of the time in Lisbon (which I highly appreciated).
There was a quick vocab lesson at the bottom too. Always handy.
Our first stop was a small shop which sold both fresh produce outside, as well as dried and fresh fish on one side, and cheeses and meats on the other side. Miguel highlighted just how much the Portuguese love their cod (they have over 365 unique recipes for the one fish) and which cheeses and meats are local to the area.
We then got to sample some olive oil, corn and rye bread, local red wine, and 24 month cured ham.
Everything was wonderful. The dense but moist corn and rye bread perfectly absorbed the rich and smooth olive oil and the ham was paper thin and cured just the right amount. Finishing off the tasting with a light red wine was the best part.
From there we made our way to the second stop, a small restaurant with outdoor seating where we would try the famous cod fish cakes with a glass of my all time favorite wine – vinho verde. This is the perfect summer wine, it is lower in alcohol and ever so slightly fizzy. With a bite of the soft mashed potato fish cake it was simply delightful.
On to stop 3 – a traditional Portuguese tavern which started years ago as a coal shop but when electricity came around the coal shop transformed into a tavern, serving quick meals. This one, called Ze de Cornos, with the word Ze being a nickname for Jose, the original owner and de Cornos referring to putting the horns on the head, symbolic, as the original Jose used to be a womanizer and that is the Portuguese expression referring to that. Here we tried a mix of different cheeses with quince paste, the classic sausage and a pork sandwich called the bifana.
The first cheese was soft and smooth with a paprika crust (which I loved), with a firmer sharper cheese to go with it, but the last one was a much stronger, blue cheese like cheese which paired well with the quince paste to balance out the cheese. The sausage, made of game meats and bread was very soft and smooth – unlike any other sausage that I have tried before. This bifana sandwich was perfect with a dollop of mustard and house made piri piri – the local hot sauce.
On our way to stop number 4, Miguel gave us a detailed introduction of Fado – the classic Portuguese style of music, in which two musicians play the Spanish and Portuguese guitar while one person sings.
Portugal is world famous for it’s fado singers and there are paintings on the walls of the neighborhood showing the different singers over the years. It was fascinating to learn a bit more about the culture surrounding this music and the stories of the people themselves.
We also noticed the various decorations all over the neighborhood and Miguel explained this was from the festival of St Anthony, the unofficial patron saint of Lisbon, which takes place in mid June and is celebrated by the grilling and eating of tons and tons of sardines!
On stop 4 we stopped by a small bar and got to sample Portugal’s famous cherry liquor – Ginjinha, made with sour cherries mixed with sugar and then aguardiente. The bar that we stopped at is run by Senor Antonio , who has been there for 40 years (you can see pictures of young Antonio on the wall). This is his own recipe for the ginjinha which he has made by a local factory. This man is even listed in the book of liquors of Portugal!
The drink is definitely an acquired taste. Not for me, but I did love trying it!
From there we made our way to an African restaurant where we would try fried fish samosas made with a mixture of different fish and breadfruit (something I wasn’t even familiar with before this tour). With a cold mini beer they went down well.
Miguel gave us a quick history lesson of all the former Portuguese colonies and how those cultures are prevalent in Lisbon today – with the many ethnic restaurants you can find dotted all over the city. I was not familiar with the depth of the Portuguese empire, and mostly only knew of Brazil being a major Portuguese colony so it was fascinating to learn about all the others (Mozambique, Macau, Goa, etc).
One our way to the next stop we passed through narrow winding streets with the most charming buildings and patios. These are local neighborhoods, where the neighbors know each other and there is fresh laundry hanging from the balconies.
I absolutely loved the charming walk through these streets and could not tear my eyes away from the small details of potted plants, flowers, balconies, etc.
On the walls of the neighborhood you can see portraits of the local residents, which Miguel highlighted was the work of an artist who wanted to bring the people together and showcase the people of this area.
This is most definitely a very special corner of the Mouraria neighborhood that I never would have stumbled upon if not for the food tour.
On the way we passed by walls of graffiti which Miguel explained in detail. I find graffiti to be fascinating and the large murals painted over buildings are always loaded with meaning that only a local can explain. I loved seeing the fine details that Miguel pointed out in the murals and how they were meant to showcase the local community and the stereotypes of the different people living there. Even the Portuguese stars of fado made it into the graffiti.
From there stop 6 was all about port wines. We went into a wine shop where you can find wines dating back hundreds of years even. It was fascinating to see the older vintage wine bottles (and their exorbitant prices).
We tried three different port wines, a white and two reds, and while port wine is not my favorite, I am growing to appreciate it more and more. The white port wine was my favorite.
After a full afternoon of eating, drinking and history lessons it was time for coffee and dessert.
We made our way to an adorable pastry shop full of charm. I find the interior to be simply gorgeous.
Here we got to sample the famous Portuguese sweet – pastel de nata, and a cup of espresso. The cream custard tart is absolutely delicious – smooth and creamy inside with a flaky puff pastry like crust. Miguel shared the history of this dessert and many others- all colored with egg yolks (as the nuns had an abundance of them leftover, from using the whites to starch the priests shirts) and originally made by either nuns or monks to help fund the convents and monasteries once the king cut funding.
Overall I spent an incredibly enjoyable afternoon learning about Portuguese food and culture with Miguel from Taste of Lisboa food tours.
It was just the right amount of food at each spot, where you got to get a taste and sample of everything, without leaving overly stuffed. As a huge foodie I recognize the important of food in a country’s culture and it was a pleasure learning about Portuguese culture and cuisine during the food tour.
If you’re ever in Lisbon I highly recommend checking out Taste of Lisboa food tours.
**Thank you to Taste of Lisboa for hosting me on this food tour. As always all opinions expressed here are my own.