Thursday, 31 January 2013

Drinks you must try in Lisbon

This post could have easily been titled "Where to try Port wine in Lisbon". It does not mean there is no other drink worth trying out, but this way or another a visitor to the capital of Portugal will come across some Port sooner or later.

Although Port wine is produced in only one region of Portugal - the Douro Valley, it is very popular all over the country. Port wine is just one of many excellent Portuguese wines. There are many wine tasting opportunities in the city of Lisbon and I really advice you to try at least one. You don not need to be a wine connoisseur to like this. Usually things are explained according to the level of your knowledge of wine. I am convinced after the first one you will be ready for more.

As you probably already know port wine (also known as Vinho do Porto) is Portuguese fortified dessert wine. Although it is usually a red wine of sweet taste it also comes in dry, semi-dry, and white varieties. It has been produced since 18th century when long trips to England often resulted in spoiled wine. That is why fortification of the wine was introduced to improve the shipping and shelf-life of the wine.

We did a few wine tastings while in Lisbon and I can only say they were all great. I especially recommend a visit to two places mentioned below:

  • Wine Bar do castelo on your way to or from the castle. It is located in Alfama just outside castle walls on Rua Bartolomeu de Gusmão 11/13. We really liked the atmosphere of this place and also staff were super nice.
  • The other place I can also recommend is BA Wine Bar do Bairro Alto and you can find it at Rua da Rosa 107.
You can expect an average tasting to cost you around 20 euro or more. Some tapas are usually included, but you can expect to pay extra if you choose to try some exquisite cheeses or something similar.

Since wine prices may vary greatly, you should always agree about the tasting process, your preferences and price ranges in advance.
Of a few different approaches we tried I preferred the following approach to tasting: every one of us (we were a group of seven) got to taste one small sample of four different whites, four reds and three ports. After each round every one of us chose a glass of wine he preferred. We payed only for those three full glasses per person.

We were especially impressed by those ports we got to try - none of us has ever tried a port wine before. I guess it is pointless to emphasize the older (and more expensive) they were - the more we liked them. There is a distinct difference between different types of port wines. White, Ruby, Tawny and Vintage are the kinds we managed to try. I liked Tawny Port the most, but all of them were good.

We were even treated with something special at the end of one of those tastings (at the second place mentioned above). The owner gave us something really special to try - something we would never have ordered, considering the budget we were on. It was a taste of a 1880 Vintage Port. It definitely tasted great, but considering the price of it I think I could not appreciate it nearly enough.

In my lay opinion the differences among up to a 20 year old Tawny Ports are very noticeable. From there on you can expect a substantial price leap and in my opinion you have to be a bit of an expert to appreciate it enough to justify a purchase.
I recommend you buy at least a bottle for your home collection since good quality port wine is hard to get and more expensive to buy back home. Just make sure you secure the bottle properly for the way home.

There are also other drinks you should not miss when in Lisbon. One of them is Ginja. There is a small bar in Baixa district on Largo de São Domingos 8 (near Rossio station at Praça de São Domingos) offering this famous Portuguese sour cherry liquor. At Cafe ‘A Ginjinha’ there is a 150 year old tradition of serving this specialty liquor. Although you might not like it you should at least give it a try.
You can settle for a shot or get yourself a whole bottle for around 7 euro.


Monday, 28 January 2013

Where to eat in Lisbon?

One can choose Lisbon as a travel destination for different reasons. One of them can most definitely be to enjoy great food and wine.

In my experience various seafood is the most popular local choice and a visitor can easily find a huge diversity of fish and shellfish dishes. Lots of them also with a pinch of exotic flavor - the history of Portugal as a colonial superpower definitely reflects today in a great variety of food. A vast array of spices used in the modern Portuguese cuisine is definitely a consequence of that and a long history of spice trade.

Another interesting fact I learned is about Bacalhau - this is the Portuguese word for codfish and (in a culinary context) dried and salted codfish. It is considered the iconic ingredient of Portuguese cuisine - it gained its popularity in the time of great discoveries (dried and salted was perfect to last through all those long sea voyages) and is still very popular today. Supposedly there are over 1000 recipes for bacalhau in Portugal alone.
Dried and salted is still a variety mostly consumed today. I guess the fact Portuguese have to import all those large quantities of codfish has also a lot to do with its form. Yes, that is right - surprisingly there is NO bacalhau in Portuguese waters.

Seafood is equally popular in the form of high end cuisine served in many posh restaurants and also as simple, mostly fried fast-food found in many far-from-fancy fast food joints.

I was looking for something in between those two extremes and found the perfect thing in a place called Cervejaria Ramiro (located on Avenida Almirante Reis 1). As the word cervejaria is derived from cerveja (Portuguese word for beer) some might think of it as a pub, but that is not the case. These types of places are actually restaurants specializing in either meat (“bifes”) or sea-food (also called “marisqueiras”).
Ramiro is extremely popular with locals and gets pretty busy in the evenings - making a reservation is strongly advised. When we visited we had to wait for about 15 minutes despite our reservation.
They have two types of tables available:

  • ground floor which looks prety much like a canteen and
  • a bit classier first floor - still nothing special, but with nicer tables and a bit more space.

As usually with better atmosphere also come higher prices. So if you are on a tight budget you should opt for a seat on the ground floor. Prices may vary a lot, depending on what you order. They mostly have shellfish to choose from.
Be sure to arrive early if you want to have a choice at all.

Another interesting place worth checking out is Cantina das Freiras (located on Travessa do Farragial 1). I found out about it from the most unlikely source - an easyJet brochure during our flight from Venice to Lisbon! That is the reason I was quite skeptical about it but when I saw the place it was just what it was supposed to be - low-key, local, affordable and run by actual nuns. Food is simple but local and portions are quite large.

Do not turn around when you see an entrance not resembling a restaurant. It is just a door like any other in a small alley. To get in you have to ring the bell. Unfortunately I don't have any idea about opening hours but I guess every day around lunch time is a good time to pay those nuns a visit.

If Lisbon is mostly about seafood in other regions of Portugal the emphasis is definitely on other kinds of foods. For instance in more rural, continental parts of the country pork convincingly takes the first place. As we did not visit any of the rural parts of the country I am unable to share any first hand impressions on that.

When looking for a dessert there are quite a few nice options to choose from. The most obvious one is to get yourself a couple of those famous pastéis - delicious local custard tarts.
I recommend you try them at the Pastéis de Belém confectionery (on Rua de Belem 84, near the Jerónimos monastery) in Belém. I already wrote about this in the post about attractions of Belém.

A stop at one of the city's best ice cream shops is also a must for those with a sweet tooth. You can find it in Baixa’s Baixa-Chiado area (Rua do Carmo 9). Santini is a traditional italian icecream shop and quite new to Lisbon - opened only since 2010. It has however been very popular in Cascais since 1949. They offer a number of different flavors. Apart from the usual selection there are also some with a local twist - if you feel adventurous you can try one of the cheese flavors. If you want to try different flavors, you can get two even with the smallest cup size (copo pequeno).
You can visit them daily from 10 in the morning till midnight.

There are many more great places apart from these. When trying your luck you just have to follow the usual pointers and you will be fine. You will usually get more for your money if you walk a couple streets away from the busy avenues in the city center.
You can try one of many small family restaurants with only a couple of tables (you can find them at least in Bairro Alto and Alfama districts). These usually do not disappoint but a reservation is a must (try reserving for a few days ahead when you spot one).
I had a great meal in a place like that - a veal steak in creamy coffee sauce. I did not know what to expect and since I am more a tea person then a coffee one, I was a bit skeptical about my choice. It turned out to be extra delicious and I cleared my plate in a flash. I have to find a recipe for it somewhere.

At first I intended to also write about local drinks you should not miss when in Lisbon but this post is getting too long even as it is. If wine is your thing you should definitely check out my next post.


Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Wordless Wednesday: Rua Augusta Arch, Lisbon

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