Bye-bye Miss American Pie
In practically every article we read before leaving on our reconnaissance trip to Portugal, seafood was at least mentioned, though in most cases, they waxed ecstatic about it.
Portugal is known for its fresh sardines, but as I stated in the last post, we were visiting at the very beginning of sardine season, and nobody had them yet. Before we went, a friend who had been there told me that I needed to have grilled sardines every day that I’m there. I’ve had canned sardines, and while I like them, it’s not something I want to have every day. So I have to admit my curiosity was aroused about fresh grilled sardines. Needless to say, I was pretty disappointed that we were unable to try them. Another time, I guess.
But the seafood we enjoyed there was so good that the disappointment about the sardines didn’t leave a shroud over the trip.
I had ‘fried prawns’ at Casa do Rio in Tavira. A note about both words. First of all, prawns, for those who don’t know, are what are known in America as jumbo shrimp. Years ago, George Carlin highlighted ‘jumbo shrimp’ in his list of oxymorons. One restaurant in Alvor had a menu posted outside, and beside ‘prawns,’ they had, in parentheses, “Americans insist on calling them shrimp.” Yeah, I agree, we’re kind of morons. Without the ‘oxy.’
Second, ‘fried,’ to the Portuguese, apparently means sautéed. There was no batter, there was no deep frying. Just seasoning and buttery deliciousness!
A common fish found in practically every grocery seafood department we visited was bream, or dourada. We had never had bream, so we bought a couple for when we were staying in places that had a kitchen.
They were delicious, with a delicate flavor, and not particularly ‘fishy.’ They were pretty bony, though, so eating them required a fair amount of dedication and vigilance. Although I did order a grilled bream for lunch at Casa da Maré in Alvor, and it was easier to eat than the ones we prepared. I can’t say what they did differently, besides grilling it, but it tasted wonderful, and was quite a bit easier to separate from the bones.
Some of the seafood we had was not your typical seafood. The fish was almost incidental, but so good! In Ferragudo's centro area, in sort of an open-air food court, I had a dish called Arroz de Marisco at Italia Restaurant. It was basically a rice casserole with red bell pepper, onions, garlic, and an abundance of mixed seafood – prawns, clams and mussels. My mouth is watering now just thinking about it.
Another similar one was Bacalhau à Brás which I had at Restaurante Atalaia in Lagos. It consisted primarily of eggs, potatoes and salt cod. I’ve seen different treatments of this dish, but in the one we had, the cod was crumbled and mixed with the shredded potatoes. I almost couldn’t find ‘a piece’ of fish, but its presence was definitely noticeable. It was garnished with fresh olives.
Incidentally, you know how chips and salsa are automatically placed on your table in a Mexican restaurant? Or breadsticks at an Italian restaurant? Fresh olives, hearty bread and olive oil were present on practically every table we ate at in Portugal. Delicious!
But Portugal’s not just about seafood. They have some delicious pastries, too! Pastéis de Nata, to be precise. These are little muffin-sized tarts made of a flaky puff-pastry crust and filled with an egg custard and baked at a high temperature, leaving the tops a little scorched. In another version we had, the custard contained ground almonds. That added flavor and texture made it, to us, even more appealing.
But I admit we didn’t eat only Portuguese food during out time there. In Alvor, a short distance away from the beach, we ate a delicious dinner at Al Dente, an Italian restaurant. Linda and I shared a delicious pizza, drinks and mouth-watering desserts.
While we’re on the subject of food, I need to say something about the coffee. Portugal has really good coffee! But it’s different from what’s served in the States. You can find Starbucks in Portugal, too but, thankfully, not on every other corner.
The coffee that you get in Portugal is stronger than we’re accustomed to but, since it’s stronger, more concentrated, the servings are smaller. One thing I admit I missed was the free refills that you get in the States. In Portugal, when you purchase a cup of coffee, that’s what you get: one cup. But what a cup!
While it was stronger, it didn’t have that burnt flavor that we’ve noticed at Starbucks. From web searches I’ve done, others have apparently noticed that taste, too. A number of pages asked about that burnt taste in Starbucks’ coffee. Starbucks’ response was that it’s not burnt, just concentrated and dark roasted at high temperatures to produce a uniform (if crappy) taste, consistent at all Starbucks locations. (It’s not a bug, it’s a feature!)
While the coffee in Portugal is dark and concentrated, it doesn’t taste burnt, just delicious and rich. It’s available in a number of different forms. You can order anything from a tiny cup of espresso to a ‘café Americano’ to ‘coffee white’ to cappuccino.
The espresso is extremely thick and leaves quite an aftertaste. The Americano, as far as I could tell, is not really American. Stronger and thicker than American coffee, it had a creamy texture, and I usually added a little sugar to it. (At home, I drink my coffee black.) The coffee white, or uma meia de leite escura, is half coffee and half milk, basically a latte. In most cases, though, I ordered a cappuccino, partly because I like cappuccino, and partly because it gave me a larger serving.
In every case, even for the nice Italian dinner with drinks and desserts, the cost was very affordable. The pizza we shared was about nine dollars. You could get a pint of beer for usually around three to four dollars, a nice glass of wine for four or five.
Back home, we don’t often eat typical ‘American food.’ Our favorites are Mexican and Italian, and Asian food is pretty high up there, too. So I can’t say that I missed ‘American food’ when I was in Portugal. I had an English breakfast and an Italian dinner, but most of the time, I ate Portuguese food, and I have to say that I was fine with that!