My experience of the beautiful country of Portugal was a five-week Rotary GSE exchange trip. A team from Australia and a team from Portugal swapped countries in order to complete a professional development program and experience the culture of each others country.
We stayed with families who would spend whole days with us, taking us to areas of cultural significance, schools, hospitals, work experience and more. We saw about half the country from the southern most region of the Algarve to the town of Alcobaca and everything in between.
I learnt that a huge part of the Portuguese culture is food. Words cannot describe the amount of food I ate … but my pant size when I returned home could certainly give an indication! We were treated like kings and I ate more silver service dishes than I ever have in my life. The Portuguese were proud to share their absolute best cuisine with us and would often prompt us to eat every last morsel of their amazing three course meals with a simple ‘Oh don’t you like it’?
If you travel to Portugal be sure to try these delicacies: treats – tried and tested by me!
Pastel de nata (Portuguese custard tart)
Many Portuguese will argue that the only place to get these custard filled, buttery pastries is at the Pasteis de Belem bakery and I agree – a trip to Portugal is not complete without a visit there. Watching these treats come out of the oven on massive trays, sprinkling them with cinnamon and icing sugar and eating them while still warm is an amazing experience. You can take a train from Lisbon’s Cais de Sodre train station to Belem on the Cascais line. While in Belem be sure to visit the Tour de Belem, Jeronimos monastery, monument to the discoveries and naval museum.
The reason that Portugal has so many delicious pastries is a result of the monks who developed these recipes in monasteries in the 18th century. The story goes that the secret recipe currently used in Belem is the exact recipe developed by the monks so many years ago. That said, I once had some homemade tarts with choc chips that were pretty delicious too.
Many times I fell into the trap of gorging on this delicious bread only to realise it was just an appetiser and I was then expected to eat an entire three course meal after that.
It is exactly as it sounds, cut up Chorizo is baked in the bread and the result (as if fresh bread isn’t delicious enough) is that the oils infuse into the mixture. If you are near the town of Sesimbra visit the Moinho do Outeiro windmill bakery for bread made from authentically ground flour. But honestly, the absolute best is made with love in a home kitchen.
Cod fish or Baccalau
The Portuguese say that there are 1000 ways to cook this fish and I am pretty sure I got close to trying them all. So close, that it was almost a year after I returned home from this trip that I could actually start eating any fish again.
Interestingly, the Portuguese love baccalau so much that they fished it to extinction in their own waters. The stuff you get in Portugal now days is most likely from Norway and is salty to taste because it is dried and salted for ease of transport.
Anyone from a western culture probably associates sardines as those tiny wilted things found in cans. Well not in Portugal.
Sardines are medium sized fleshy fish oozing with natural oils. Sardine season runs from June to December. I tried this treats on one of the islands that make up the lagoon system at Olhao in the Algarve. These calm protected waters provide the perfect breeding ground for the creatures.
There is a special way to eat it as well. First you have to place the fish on top of some crunchy home made bread and then eat the fish from the bread, eating as many as you like. Each time you place the fish on the bread its natural oils are trapped in it and once you have had your fill of fish – it is time to eat the delicious oil filed bread too!
Conquilhas clams (cockle) stew
We were a little apprehensive when we were presented with a dish made from ‘clams’ as in Australia we call them cockles and while these can be seen on our beaches we don’t generally eat them.
But our experience taught us that the Portuguese do a great seafood stew and we soon found that a stew made from cockles is equally delicious. The dish is also popular in the southern region of the Algarve where the lagoon systems and sandy beaches provide the perfect breeding ground and fresh seawater is often an essential ingredient.
Portugal really is a foodie heaven and this list barely scratches the surface. But if you are looking for a tip to make the most of this beautiful country I highly recommend trying some authentic Portuguese food.