Monthly Archives: December 2013

Lisbon Is All About…CAKE!!! (Part II)

People have been asking about this already, and, as promised, here it is: the Lisbon Cake Post.

PastelDeNataBefore I launch into it, I’ll let you in on a dark and dirty secret: The famous Portuguese custard tarts (pastéis de nata) – I’ve never been a fan. Shocking, I know!

I tried them a few times while I lived in London, and found them a bit insipid – quite cartony on the outside, and the flavour of the filling was just too eggy for me.

But now I’m a convert. The authentic article, fresh from the oven, is nothing short of orgasmic.

For my first taste of the real McCoy, I stepped inside the premises of the legendary Pastéis de Belém in the west of Lisbon:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe queue might look formidable, but that’s for the take-away counter. The bakery’s café is surprisingly spacious, harbouring a warren of dining rooms, and finding a table did not prove to be a problem.

There’s even an observation window!

Custard tarts in the making

I’ll have six trays, please!

Custard Tarts 1

It’s not all about custard tarts, of course. This is the traditional Portuguese Christmas cake:

Christmas cake

It’s called “Bolo Rei”, which means king cake.

I don't remember its name, and it doesn't look like much, but it's delicious. It's the lightest, airiest sponge imaginable, with a very moist centre. I've no idea how this is even achieved, but it totally works.

I don’t remember its name, and it doesn’t look like much, but it’s delicious. It’s the lightest, airiest sponge cake imaginable, with a very moist, almost runny centre. I’ve no idea how this is even achieved, but it totally works.

As you can imagine, I scoffed all sorts of cakeage during my one week in Lisbon, including a gloriously fluffy creation called “bolo de deus” (cake of God), which came in the form of a bun. Now, if I were God and had to entrust my buns to anyone, it would definitely be the Portuguese!

[For Part I of what Lisbon is all about, click here.]

Dreamy Steamy Cocido

After an entire week of stuffing myself with glorious Portuguese food, my first outing less than 16 hours after arriving back home involved… food. And lots of it. ‘Team Tapas’ was on its annual mission to indulge in the best cocido to be had anywhere in the province, served by  a restaurant called Finca Los Valdespinos in the village of Carmarenilla, 25 mins drive from Toledo.

Cocido is a typical dish of central Spain (of Madrid, in particular, and often referred to as “cocido madrileño”), and a very simple affair. It’s a stew made with chickpeas (garbanzo beans to readers from the US), noodles, vegetables, potatoes and different kinds of meats.

Unlike the stews you may be familiar with, cocido is not just slopped into a soup dish and put in front of you, but served up separately, in three courses. First comes the broth with noodles:

Carmen shows off her expert ladling technique.
That’s Ana in the back there, drafted in by Team Tapas as reinforcement.

Next in line are the chickpeas, veg and potatoes:

There's also a tomato-cumin sauce to go with the chickpeas, plus some cabbage, onions and pickled green chillies

Olga looking all dreamy….
There’s also a tomato-cumin sauce to go with the chickpeas, plus some cabbage, onions and pickled green chillies to be tossed in, according to taste.

Last up is the meat component:

From left to right: Beef, chicken, pork belly, chorizo, morcilla (blood sausage).

From left to right: Beef, chicken, tocino (pork belly), chorizo, morcilla (blood sausage).

The restaurant was heaving, and they have several dining rooms.


I do quite like the light fittings 🙂

The decor of the place is … eccentric, to say the least. The rafter-riding witch you can see up there is not alone. She has an army of sisters, accompanied by straw chickens and all manner of rural paraphernalia cluttering up every available corner. It’s quite overwhelming. By contrast, what comes out of the kitchen is not just in excellent taste, but nothing short of divine!

Lisbon Is All About… (Part I)

…smokey streets:

ChestnutsThe smoke emanates from these little stalls selling deliciously succulent roast chestnuts. They are a common sight all over Europe at this time of the year, of course, but I’d never seen them being roasted in metal buckets before, from which the glistening brown morsels emerge all white, dusted with a fine covering of ash. Maybe this bucket-roasting technique is the reason why they are not in the least bit dry and so easy to peel.

…pygmy fire hydrants

Fire HydrantThere are legions of these foot-high midgets, perched on their little pedestals, strategically positioned all around town.

…cute little kiosks

KioskThe kiosks are just as ubiquitous as the fire hydrants, and fulfill a related purpose 😉 I took this pic on Christmas Day, which is why this little pink refill-station is closed.

…citrus trees in the streets


...and, you’ll have been waiting for this… THE FAMOUS TRAM!

TramThere will be more Lisbon Tram pictures, once I’ve had the chance to go through them all.

Lovely Lisbon: December Bloom

Although this is southern Europe, these latitudes aren’t exactly blessed with a profusion of flowers at this time of year. However, that makes makes it even more delightful when you do spot an explosion of spring colours somewhere.

First up is blossom-laden tree with a sea view backdrop:

Seaview blossoms


Next, some municipal planting, in front of a tiled wall. Very Lisbon 🙂

Flowers, tiles


This last one wasn’t taken in Lisbon, but in Sintra.

There’s A First Time For Everything… Ahrgh!

It was long overdue. Just recently, I’d been thinking how lucky I’ve been that this had never happened to me. Years of travelling, ten years of living in London. Once, I lost my laptop in Copenhagen, but it was returned to me a couple of weeks later. I’d never been robbed or pickpocketed. Until today.

It happened on the Tramvia 28. While I was paying my fare, there was a lot of pushing and shoving, and someone swiped all the cash right out of my purse. I lost about €200. Nothing else, mind, my bank cards are still there. No point reporting it to the police, I wouldn’t get it back, and we’d just be wasting half a day. I’d probably learn some useful new vocab down the police station, and we all know I’m pretty obsessed with that, but not THAT obsessed.

Besides this unfortunate incident, Sofia and I have had a great day. Beautiful sunshine, lots of photos and a delicious lunch of soup, seafood and a chocolate mousse to die for. And I sure wish I’d paid for said lunch when I still had my cash, rather than Sofia!!!

The scene of the crime: Tramvia No. 28

The scene of the crime: Tramvia No. 28

I’d love to know – where and when was your “first time”? Spill, people…. 😉

Spain’s Fruit Is A Total Let Down

“The food tastes nothing like it does back home…” is such a cliched expat gripe that I’m almost ashamed to join in. But today, I’m going at it hell for leather. A burst water pipe put me in the right mood. I now have a spare bedroom Home Spa with a ceiling-to-wall water feature feeding a rapidly expanding infinity pool on what was once a shiny hardwood floor.

Right, let’s get to it. I’ve not moved countries for the first time in my life, so I’m used to missing many beloved food items. Decent bread, for instance, is hard to find outside of Germany/Austria/Switzerland, and if you’re used to proper English tea, you’re going to have to find yourself a teabag mule once you take flight from the rainy British Isles. That’s just how it is, and you expect that.

But there are certain things you don’t expect to be in short supply when you move to a sunny country. I’d never have thought that in Spain, I’d miss decent fruit. Yes, you read that right. In the very country, which is Europe’s biggest exporter of fresh produce, I find the fresh fruit offering terribly lacking.

Spanish Straws: Look great. Taste of nothing.

Let’s start with strawberries. We all know Spanish strawberries, right? (Well, if you happen to live in Europe, you do.) It’s those turnip textured red things which start arriving en masse in supermarkets and greengrocers around February. They sure do look like strawberries, but they taste of absolutely zilch. And what’s worse – they are CRUNCHY, for Pete’s sake! HOW WRONG IS THAT?!

Now, because my work is tightly connected with the food industry, I’m well aware that many countries grow two different “types” of fresh produce – produce for domestic consumption (which tastes great but doesn’t transport well) and produce for export. Those turnippy aberrations are excellently suited for the latter – you can toss those into the back of a lorry and truck them across the entire continent, and even after a week in transit punctuated by the odd motorway pile-up, they will emerge at the other end looking fresh and dewy and miraculously unbruised. And if you’re a supermarket that wants to display perfect looking strawberries on its shelves, this is exactly what you want. It’s all about durability and shelf life.

I naively assumed that Spain had two types of strawberries, i.e. those engineered for export, and those divine creations, which were surely spun by the angels from crimson sunset-dipped cotton candy clouds, and which fall from the heavens in the month June.

But I was wrong. I’ve quizzed friends about this, and the response has been a puzzled stare, as if I had been enquiring about the fairies living at the bottom of their garden. Unlike the good people in countries like the UK, Germany and Sweden, Spaniards only know turgid turnipberries. They have no idea of the gloriousness of putting a REAL strawberry into your mouth, and squishing it into a sweet, succulent mush, without it ever touching your teeth.

It’s always a good idea to wrap any dangerous missiles…

Next in for a lambasting are mangoes. All I can find here are those horrible red-green coloured harpy eggs from Brazil. I’m convinced that they are, in fact, a byproduct of cricket ball manufacture. Their fibrous, acrid, slightly slimy interior remains as hard and rubbery as a British Bobby’s baton right up until they start to rot in your fruit bowl.

Nowhere to be seen in Spain are those delectable golden yellow Pakistani mangoes with their rice-pudding soft, perfume-scented flesh that just melts in your mouth, which you can pick up all over London for six quid a box.

And there’s no point pleading with the greengrocers, although some will tell you, with a churlish grin on their faces, that there’s no broccoli to be had because “it’s not in season right now” (WTF?!), and they will quite happily import woody Chilean asparagus stalks so rigid that you could use them for knitting needles.

Pakistani Mangoes

Oh, how I miss you, my luscious friends…

But it is Spain’s apple situation, which is probably the biggest disappointment of them all. I sorely miss English Apples. Coxes. Orange Pippins. REAL apples, with just a few brown flecks on the outside and crispy flesh imbued with that perfect balance of tartness and sweetness on the inside. No such thing as Bramley cooking apples here either. All I’ve seen in Spain so far are generic, polished, sterile fruit that looks and tastes like syrup-injected candle wax fluffed up with polystyrene. Sure, those blemish-free mutants are found in supermarkets all over the globe, but usually, in most other places, there are at least some tasty native mongrels populating the shelves during the autumn months.

Red Delicious – a misnomer if ever there was one. Get this thing away from me!

Where art thou, my lovely Cox?

Where art thou, my lovely Cox?

I realise, of course, that people across Spain have the most sumptuous fruit sprouting in their back gardens, but, as nobody grows these varieties commercially, the good stuff just isn’t entering supermarket supply chains. Ho hum 😦

So, is there any fresh produce you really miss?

How Three Months In Brazil Turned Into One Week In Lisbon

Sometimes things don’t go to plan. And I’ve had a rather strong inkling since September that it just wasn’t going to happen…

Let me re-cap very briefly. In early spring last year, my friend Sofia suggested that we’d spend this winter in Brazil to have fun and to learn Portuguese (she needs it for her travel business).

Now, Sofia is just about the busiest person I’ve ever known, and often we don’t manage to meet up, not even for quick a coffee, for weeks on end, despite living within 10 mins walking distance from each other.

In the end, as I had anticipated, owing to business, family and teaching commitments, plus some wearisome health issues thrown in, Sofia couldn’t extract herself from her life for three whole months. However, she was still very keen to get away over Christmas, as was I, so we’ll be spending a week in Lisbon.

Am I a bit disappointed?

A tad, perhaps, but to be honest, I’m not heartbroken. I’m really excited about Lisbon, as I’ve never even been to (mainland) Portugal before… but that’s only part of the reason.

In fact, I’ve been considering Portugal as the most likely candidate for my next country move, and after my, uhm, mixed experiences in small town Toledo, I would definitely want to be in the capital.

So, this coming week will be a reconnaissance mission for me, pivoted firmly on a list of cafés, patisseries, bakeries and cake shops supplied by my Portuguese teacher, an authentic Lisbon native.

And here’s a lamp picture, taken last Thursday in a bar in Sonseca, a town about 30 mins drive away from Toledo.

Sonseca Lamp

I imagine my brain to look a bit like this …addled to the hilt and none too bright in the middle.