There is a lot to love about Portugal. The people are kind, the nightlife is fun, and both the architectural and natural parts of the landscape are breathtakingly beautiful. One of my favorite things about Portugal, though, is the food. From the delicious seafood to the world-famous wines, my taste buds and belly were always sated during my trip! My only regret is that, since I was traveling solo, I didn’t get to try cataplana, a traditional Portuguese seafood dish that, due to its size, can only be ordered by at least two people. Oh, well–another reason to go back to Portugal! Despite this disappointment, the food that I did get to eat (with one exception) has earned Portugal a solid spot amongst my top five food destinations in the world. Read on to discover all of the tasty treats that you should definitely try (and one “specialty” that you should definitely skip) when you make it to Portugal!
Pastéis de Belém
Y’all. If you remember nothing else from this post (heck, if you don’t even read anything else from this post), please remember this: Eat as many pastéis de Belém as you can while in Portugal! Oh, my God, they are delicious. A pastel de Belém is a sweet, egg tart pastry that is very well-known throughout the Portuguese-speaking world. They are thought to have been made initially by Catholic monks at the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Jerónimos Monastery) which is located in the Belém area of Portugal, hence the name of the dessert.
While you can buy these treats at bakeries all over Portugal (under the name pastéis de nata), I made sure to buy mine right after my visit to the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, at the café next door: Antiga Confeiteira de Belém, Lda. Apparently, the monks at the monastery licensed the super-secret recipe to the café, so now we can all experience the goodness for ourselves!
As you might imagine, the café does a bustling business, so you may have to linger awhile before you get to the front of the line. Fortunately, the wait is well worth it–the warm, scrumptious pastries will absolutely melt in your mouth. You will get packets of sugar and cinnamon with your order, but you won’t need them–that’s how good these treats are. In short, buy them (more than two!), eat them, enjoy them, and feel sad for the people who aren’t as lucky as you are at that particular moment. Yum.
Meat and seafood
Portugal has super-tasty meat products on offer, similar to what you might find in Spain. In the lead-in picture, you can see a mini-barbecue that took place at my hostel (the wonderful Travellers House; highly recommended, and an exemplar of why I like hostels). Even better were the numerous seafood dishes that I had throughout the country. At a certain point, I stopped looking at recommendations in my guidebook and simply ordered the fish special and/or got a recommendation from the person taking my order. In other words, the seafood in Portugal is so good that it’s practically a no-miss proposition. Just eliminate those seafood items that you know that you don’t like, then close your eyes and point at the menu. Boom–lunch or dinner is served!
Port is a sweet wine grown exclusively in Portugal’s Douro Valley. Before going to Portugal, port was something I studiously avoided, only ever experiencing it by seeing appellations on restaurant menus. However, when I went to Porto, I did a number of port wine tastings (for science! and for you, dear blog reader) and got some education about the process of how the wine is made and how to drink it. For extra credit, I took a day trip into the Douro Valley and visited several vineyards where the port grapes are grown, even getting to see one of the few vineyards left where the grapes are still crushed by foot.
In the end, learning about port–the difference between red, white, and tawny, as well as the unique characteristics that the aging process imbues to each of those types of port–helped me to appreciate it (and led me to bring some back home with me). If you’re on the fence about sweet wines, definitely give the tastings and vineyard visits a try. Worst case scenario, you will have spent the day checking out the rustic beauty of Porto and its sister city Vila Nova de Gaia and/or looking out over the lush vineyards of the Douro Valley–not a bad consolation prize.
Oh, how I love vinho verde, especially Mateus! But, let’s back up–what’s vinho verde? Vinho verde (“green wine”) is called such because the wine is young, or immature, and should be drunk within a year of bottling. In other words, the name has nothing really to do with the color as vinho verde comes in red, white, and rosé varietals. The wine usually comes from the Minho region of Portugal, and, while it is technically not a sparkling wine, vinho verde still has a bit of a bubbly bite that makes in especially pleasant to drink. It is a common table wine, especially my favorite brand: Mateus. Mateus is everything a good table wine should be: inexpensive, light, and delicious. Plus, its pinkish hue makes it that much more fun to drink, especially as the accompaniment to a nice dinner after a long day of walking around and sightseeing. I may or may not have brought back a liter of Mateus (purchased at duty-free at the Lisbon airport) when I returned from my Portugal trip, and I savored every last bit! Fortunately, I have learned since then that Mateus is available in the U.S. I now know what I’m going to buy the next time that I get nostalgic for Portugal….
CAUTION: Do NOT eat this!
As you might imagine, any food journey has a cautionary tale. For Portugal, this is the francesinha (“little French thing”). It’s basically a sandwich made with bread and various pork and beef products, smothered in cheese and a special beer and tomato sauce (each establishment has its own unique recipe). For some reason, this is considered one of the emblematic dishes of Portugal. That’s a shame.
Why? Because this tastes AWFUL. Don’t believe me? At the left is the dish before I started eating it; at the right is the dish after I finished. As you can see, there’s not much difference–mostly just moving stuff around. That hurts me because I am a proud member of the clean-plate club, so I usually finish whatever is placed in front of me, even if it’s not 100% to my taste. However, the francesinha was so bad that I literally could not choke it down. Thank goodness it came with fries so that I didn’t go hungry that evening.
In short, if someone wants to convince you to eat this, consider demurring. If you absolutely have to try it for yourself, have someone else order it first and take a sample before committing to going whole hog. In either case, good luck, and don’t say that I didn’t warn you!
On a positive note
The francesinha aside, Portugal is an absolutely epic food destination. The food is tasty and cheap and comes in huge portions. The wine is unique and has a history that will enhance your appreciation of what you are drinking. Plus, your culinary adventure will come wrapped up in the beautiful package that is the sights and sounds of Portugal. Basically, if you haven’t already tried Portugal, go for it. Happy travels!
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If you’ve been to Portugal, do you agree with my opinions? If you haven’t been to Portugal, what food or drink item are you most excited to try? Let me know in the comments!
This is my entry for Carnival of Europe hosted by DJ Yabis at Dream Euro Trip.