I can see smoke says Célia, our Culinary Backstreet’s guide, that’s a good sign! Confused, we follow her through the backstreets of Lisbon’s port area and enter an old, inconspicuous shop front where the smell of coffee greets us. We are here to see and drink coffee made from beans roasted in one of only two wood fired roasting ovens in Europe; a family business that has been operating for sixty six years.
Francesco, the owner’s son now runs the business and explains that the beans are roasted for thirty minutes between 150 and 250 degrees. They are then turned and cooled for ten minutes before being dried and strained so that any seeds or stones are removed. He mentions that local families also bring their beans here to be roasted. What a great idea. Not being a coffee drinker, I was not too sure of the difference everyone was talking about as we enjoyed our espresso but this was one of the few coffees I have tasted that I enjoyed.
Lisbon’s Old Port Area
Our Culinary Backstreet’s tour had started earlier with us buying pastries from a century old bakery and eaten in one of the oldest remaining communal laundries in the city. It has been in existence since 1785 and is still used by locals mainly to wash their carpets. This stop gives Célia a chance to tell us about the history of Madragoa, the area we are in.
Madragoa, means the Nuns of Goa. It is a traditional neighbourhood and as the name suggests, home to many convents. In 1834 the King closed the convents though the nuns were were allowed to stay until the last ones died. These beautiful old buildings have now been converted to public buildings.
In the 18th and 19th century, this neighbourhood was known for its fishing industry. Migrants arrived in the 18th century and settled here to be close to the markets and fishing port. The men would go out in the boats and the women, known as varinas, would unload the fish from the boats. They would then wander door to door selling from the baskets they carried on their heads.
Célia also told us the story of Deolinda, a lady she is hopes we can meet as she has a painting to give to her. At eight years of age Deolinda had started working with the fishing boats to help sort and sell fish. She met her husband on the boats and married him at seventeen. When their daughter was born, she was back working within days with her newborn at her side as her mother had done with her. She is now seventy three, both her husband and daughter have died but she lives a full and wonderful life. Her two sons and five grandsons also live in the neighbourhood.
Luckily for us, Deolinda is home and pleased to see us. Much to Célia’s surprise she brings out old photos of herself and her family to show us and tells us, via Célia, of her life on the boats. Such a wonderful and special moment on our tour.
You can read more about Deolinda’s story here
From here we wander the narrow streets where Deolinda once sold fish, past the small houses similar to the one she lives in and past the tiled facades of the old convents. We soak up the atmosphere that made the fado singing of this area as soulful as it is until we stop outside a Goan restaurant.
The Goan influence
After Goa was invaded by India in 1961, many Goans moved to Portugal and Mozambique. Even more applied for a Portuguese passport after Portugal joined the European Union in 1986. Consequently there is a large Goan community here and the food of their heritage is now well and truly part of Portuguese food history.
This tiny shop that we enter is known to have some of the best Goan food in Portugal. We try the chamucas or samosas which are well spiced and very tasty. The restaurant makes twelve thousand of these a week! We also try a piece of Bebinca cake, a traditional Goan seven layered cake made with forty eggs, sugar and coconut. Thanks heavens we have more walking to do!
Lisbon’s Port Zone
Lisbon’s port was once a busy thriving part of the city but today it is just a shadow of its former self. It used to employ 3000 people but now only 300 work there.
The area is nearly deserted as we walk towards the old art deco passenger terminal that is no longer used. Hidden around the corner, surrounded on one side by container boxes, is this popular local restaurant known for its fresh fish cooked over coals.
Plates of freshly barbecued red mullet (salmoretes) and grouper (garoupa) with bitter greens and rice in broth are placed on the table together with a green salad and a dish of beans and sausage. So fresh and so good!
Further along the river from Lisbon’s old port area, we wander into the Alcantara. The name comes from the Arab word meaning bridge. The bridge is not the Alcantara Bridge that crosses the Tagas River today but an ancient roman bridge that was once here. Part of the area is a rundown collection of used warehouses and old shops but many of these are starting to take on a new life. There are still workers cafes called tascas dotted amongst the buildings.
We stop at one that has been here for forty years to try Lisbon’s popular cod cakes. The area used to be known for its preponderance of seafood restaurants.
The cod cakes are excellent. They are made from salted cod…..fish preserved in salt that has become a national food even though the fish today is imported from Norway and Iceland.
Also on the table is one of my favourite dishes, small sardines lightly fried and served with tomato rice.
We pass a fabulous selection of seafood as we enter: conquilhas (cockles), amêiyoas (clams), percebes (goose barnacles), crabs, the sweetest shrimps from the north and prawns of all shapes and sizes. .
Fishtanks house live lobsters and spider crabs. The open kitchen is a hive of activity. Huge pots of water are boiling to cook the lobsters and chickens are being defeathered over a lit hob.
Célia shows everyone how to eat the goose barnacles. It’s easy once you get the hang of pinching the claw and and pulling the tube of meat from the scaly exterior. Of course, we have a beer with all this delicious seafood.
Port and Cheese
There was still one stop to go….In the back room of a tiny little traditional grocery shop, we finish our day with a wonderful glass of old port and sheep’s milk cheese. I take the opportunity to buy a few souvenirs from here too!
Then it was off to dinner…..just kidding!
Once again, Culinary Backstreets have organised a delicious and interesting tour of an area not usually on the tourist map. They have introduced us to places we definitely would not have found on our own. Célia is an exceptional guide. Her knowledge of both the food and the history of the area is outstanding. We also loved her anecdotes about the locals. If you’re coming to Lisbon, I can highly recommend you do this tour
Song of the Sea: Fish Seafood and Tradition in Lisbon’s Port Zone.
I was a guest of Culinary Backstreets on this tour. My opinions are my own. Culinary Backstreets happen to be one of my favourite food tour companies with good reason and I can highly recommend them wherever you are.