Lisbon is no obvious Christmas destination … and that’s exactly why the capital of Portugal is worth a visit during the holiday season. Forget the typical Christmas markets, the glühwein and the jingle bells, and immerse yourself in a luscious world of roasted chestnuts, cherry liqueur and honey cakes. Nom nom nom…
1. Kick ass soup
The Portugese love their ‘entradas’ or entree. They are particularly fond of soups (sopa) and will make it out of nearly anything: pumpkin, spinach, bread, pork, black pudding, kidney beans… The most famous soup is ‘caldo verde’, a green soup made of potato, onion and cabbage. According to our guide, people drink it at the break of day after partying all night long. They buy a spicy chorizo to go with it (or even in it). It’s supposed to give you plenty of energy to get through the day after a good night out.
Want a taste of the caldo verde? Try restaurant ‘Granja Velha’ – 200 Rua dos Douradores. It’s a charming place that serves plenty of traditional meals.
2. Espresso: drink with sugar
Years ago, Portugal was a ‘tea drinking’ country. It might amaze you, but it’s actually the Portugese that introduced tea to the English, not the other way around… Today though, you’ll find that people drink much more coffee than tea. Especially espresso is hot in Lisbon. When you’re in a coffee shop, do as the locals do and ask for a ‘bica’: it’s short for ‘Beba isto com ecugar’ = drink with sugar. When people first started drinking espresso, they found it so bitter that they all added sugar, hence the name. Most of the times you’ll also get a cinnamon stick with the coffee or espresso. You can use it as a spoon or leave it soaking in the coffee: the subtle cinnamon taste is great! I actually bought cinnamon sticks in a city supermarket to repeat this at home… The popularity of coffee manifests itself in other ways, too. A popular dish in Lisbon is called ‘bife a cafe’: steak with hot coffee sauce.
Where to go for a bica? Café A Brasiliera, 120 Rua Garrett, Chiado. This is the oldest cafe in Lisbon and rumor has it that buca was first served here. The bar is also famous for another local drink: ‘ginjinha’, a nice but very strong cherry liqueur. If you want to go for a tea instead, ask for a ‘cha’. This is the Japanese word for tea and very common to use in Lisbon.
Another place to try the ginjinha liqueur is A Ginjinha, Largo São Domingos 8 1150 Lisboa, Portugal
3. Octopus & bacalhau
Octopus originally was a specialty in the northern part of Portugal. It gradually worked its way through the rest of the country and now it’s considered a national delicacy. You can find octopus all around Lisbon, prepared in various ways: grilled, steamed, poached, baked, fried, stuffed… You’ll even find octopus kebab! Another treat from the sea is bacalhau: dried and salted codfish. It’s thé traditional christmas meal but Portugese eat it all year round. Apparently, there are 365 different ways of preparing bacalhau: one for every day of the year… Around the holiday season, you’ll find lots of bacalhau with presunto (ham) and a cream sauce. As a vegetarian I had to pass for this dish and instead had a delicious snack: fried green beans!
Where to eat bacalhau? Try Café Martinho da Arcada, Praça do Comércio 3, Baixo. This is a lovely literary café/restaurant where each dinner table is dedicated to a Portugese writer. We sat at José Samarago’s table: he’s the author of ‘Blindness’)
Where to taste the octopus: Bica do Sapato, Av. Infante Dom Henrique in Armazém B. This is one of the trendy ‘it’ places in town. Actor John Malkovich is one of the partners of the restaurant.
4. The pastry: famous for a reason
The Portugese have a real sweet tooth. In all of the country, you’ll find just as many ‘pastelerias’ (pastry bakeries) as you’ll find fry shops in Belgium – and that’s a lot! Definitely try the creamy, custardlike ‘pastéi’: it’s a crispy cake, served hot and sprinkled with cinnamon and powdered sugar. Other sweet delights that you’ll commonly find on your plate are Broas de mel (honey cake), Sonhos (pastry with pumpkin) and ‘Bolo Rei’ or Kings cake. This latter has dried crystallized fruit in it. Corn, sweet potato and almond also are favorite ingredients for some pretty delicious christmas cakes.
Where to eat the pastéis: Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, Rua de Belém, 84. (Behind the worldy famous and incredibly busy pastry shop there’s an equally busy adjoining cafeteria. The recipes are a family secret and some say the whole media circus around it is exaggerated, but I disagree. Sure it’s crowded and not very cosy, but the pastries are absolutely worth it and fairly priced.
Where to try the Christmas Cakes: Confeitaria Nacional – Praça da Figueira, 18B. A great, over-the-top-kitschy pastry restaurant in the heart of the city.
5. Dreaming of a white chestnut Christmas
Lisbon owes its nickname ‘White City’ to the unique natural lighting in the streets, that has inspired and still is inspiring many artists. If you ask me though, there’s another reason for the nickname – something you can only witness during winter time. Street vendors roast chestnuts in the major shopping streets of Lisbon, causing the whole area to be covered in a milky fog. The fragrant and the white plumes of smoke spread around and have a very distinctive smell, a great addition to the romantic Christmas atmosphere. It almost made me feel like I was walking on a movie set. Chestnut is a favorite wintertime ingredient in restaurants as well: it’s served as a mousse or sauce on goat cheese and duck preparations.
Where buy roasted chestnuts? In and around the Rua Augusta there are plenty of stalls.
Dinner and a serenade
For a genuine Portugese dinner, there’s always fado… You can find all info in one of my earlier posts. Click here to go to the post: Oh, oh fado. Where to experience professional fado in Lisbon? Casa de Fado, Rua do meio à Lapa 18. Boas festas!