So soon after Christmas it seemed almost indulgent, but as I had my foodie daughter Vicky staying, I decided to book us a food tour with Taste of Lisboa. Well, I can tell you this was one of the best food tours I have ever been on, tasty and fun, writes James Mayor.*
Our tour began at the end of the 28 tram line, outside the gates to the Cemiterio dos Prazeres, the cemetery where anyone who is anyone in Lisbon is buried.
Despite the seasonal drizzle, Madalena, our guide, could not have been more alive and her warm welcome immediately put us in the mood for experiencing some of the Portuguese food that people are beginning to talk about from New York to Melbourne and which is contributing to spearheading Portugal`s renaissance.
Taste of Lisboa has recently celebrated its fourth anniversary and it`s not difficult to see why this foodie tour company has survived and flourished in the competitive tourism jungle.
Taste of Lisboa`s founder, Lisbon born and bred Filipe Valente, has got it all right. Filipa has created tours that are not only gently paced and well curated, but also fun. At the end of our three-and-a-half-hour experience, Vicky and I felt we had got a little closer to the heart of Portuguese culture, through the food which is so important in this relaxed and friendly society.
Our tour took us through the attractive residential district of Campo de Ourique, recently described by Monacle Magazine as one of the six best city neighbourhoods in the world to live in. Once an area with numerous market gardens supplying fresh fruit and vegetables to the nearby city, Campo de Ourique is today a peaceful neighbourhood inhabited by young families in which mid-twentieth century pastel coloured apartment blocks are set out in a grid system around a garden where children play among waddling ducks. In addition to the French Lycee, Campo de Ourique is peppered with good restaurants, including a Japanese place frequented by Madonna.
Our first stop was at MBCM, which stands for O Melhor Bolo de Chocolate do Mundo. No exaggeration, this could well have been the best chocolate cake in the world. Intense chocolate on a perfect biscuit base, served by a gorgeous male waiter – “so attractive …”, Vicky murmured a little breathlessly as we left. This was indeed a great start to our tour.
Our next stop was a tour of the covered market, an elegant structure opened in 1934. Today food stalls mix with foodie and wine outlets and the market is much favoured by Lisbon`s affluent bourgeoisie and crowded at weekends and late into the evening.
Madalena gave us an impressively knowledgable run-down on the different fish displayed on a fish stall, explaining that Portugal has the tenth largest Exclusive Economic Zone in the world, 97% of it ocean. This must mean that Portugal has a hell of a lot more jellyfish than people.
We made another stop for a glass of rosé and some canned sardines and fish roe salad. The Portuguese fish canning industry is still going strong and some of these cans have fabulous retro designs.
The sky had cleared now and our small group was feeling in a good mood as we headed for Pigmeu for a slow cooked pork sandwich with ilha cheese and a glass of Douro red wine. Pigs are being given a hard time in France and elsewhere at the moment - and so they should be - but in Portugal, where the top pig - the porco preto - snuffles around in the Alentejo, they are still very much a delicacy.
On we waddled to Moules & Beer for an excellent dish of steaming mussels washed down with one of Portugal`s definitely-not-to-be-sneered at craft beers. These beers are now making a heady come back and can be a welcome alternative to the inevitable Super Bock or Sagres.
Portugal`s best known modernist writer was Fernando Pessoa. A recluse during his lifetime who wrote under a surprising number of assumed identities, Pessoa has become a posthumous national treasure. The Casa Fernando Pessoa was to be our next stop for a tasting of codfish fritters – the codfish is another Portuguese national treasure – with wonderful soupy rice with beans and a glass of vinho verde.
It was nearly time to take our leave of Madalena and the different travellers we had befriended during our tour. But we still had one more stop to make at Hotel da Estrela, between Campo de Ourique and Rato.
As we walked down a leafy street, Madalena suddenly surprised us by announcing “this neighbourhood belongs to the British state.” I purred inwardly at the thought. Let`s hope the British state remembers this act of generosity in future negotiations … The Hotel da Estrela is a hotel-school and guests are cooked for and looked after by the students. We tasted an eggy sponge cake and some much-needed iced tea, before hugging each and saying our goodbyes.
Taste of Lisboa offers a great introduction to Portuguese cooking and some of the country`s wines. I would recommend one of their tours as the perfect starting point for a first-time visitor to the country. You will then have the confidence to surf any Portuguese menu and order some unforgettable meals.
Our tour with Taste of Lisboa cost €70 per adult.
You can book a tour on their web site – www.tasteoflisboa.com T. (351) 915 601 908
The author, James Mayor, is the founder of Grape Discoveries, a wine and culture boutique travel company
Click on the 'Grape Discoveries' website