The cheese goes baa baa moo mooBreath, you can do it, it's just cheese, try to look casual, don't talk so fast you big mouth, just tell her what you want--olà! Eu quero o queijo muito português. The pause, the guarded breaths, then the laughter. Laughter is far from a scowl, I can handle laughter. Haha, I laugh with them as they shake their heads and repeat my request in the base of their voices with aunty-like smiles. As I poke a cheese, I indicate for a soft and hard by rapping my knuckles on the counter (Marcel Marceau anyone?) Two cheeses picked out, but what are they? Which animal produced each curd? Oh no what was the word for cow? I must know for my readers, suck it up! Point and---uh, moooo or baaaaa? Do you wish now to never travel with me? I do not blame you. If my visage were not already the hue of an august ripened tomato, one would have found me in a blush as I exited the queijo-(erie?) yet again wondering how my life had brought me here. What else can one do but smile, smile in every direction. Norte, Sul, Leste, Oeste. I need something to put this cheese on.
Living in France I did not expect to be impressed by Portuguese dairy products, but the tiny country can and will surprise you. What can you expect? A myriad of varying curds; cow, sheep, goat, soft, hard, liquid. Liquid? Yes liquid. Of the many cheeses, we will pay attention to my two favorite puppies, both viscous and whose rind forms a self-contained pot: the queijo de azeitão, and the queijo serra da estrela. Both are named for their regions of birth, and both give you the feeling of a gooey fondue party. Made from ewe's milk, the two differ in viscosity and aroma. Many bind the azeitão to a description of "butter" consistency with a taste of herbs, and the estrela as slightly more creamy.
After speaking with a few locals on the subject (well, what do you talk about with locals?) the method of dipping pot was revealed to me: cut the rind off of the top of the cheese, creating a little dish of gooey queijo primed for the dipping of fruits, breads (ehem, rice cakes), and meats into its white well. Enjoy with a glass Tawney Port thank you very much. But do not neglect the hard cheeses as well, there is room in the inn for all. Linguistic note: English speakers, 'o' in portuguese is pronounced 'oo' so kay-joo. not kay-jo. Pardon, I may snap at you if you mispronounce.
Where is the best place in Portugal to eat queijo you ask me? Well on a picnic of course. A picnic, on any patch of grass or stretch of sand, but may I suggest, just for savoir, the village of Sintra--Portugal's Disneyland. The naming of Sintra as village is not for romantic literary purposes (though I am one to stretch the letter) it is in fact a town, refusing city status even though it is the principal town in the Sintra municipality, which holds the second highest population density in Portugal. What is Sintra known for? Why, castles.
A thirty minute train ride from Rossio train station in Lisbon, Sintra is a magical little kingdom of castles stretching from the 9th century Castelo dos Mouros, to the 19th century Quinta da Regaleira (which appears at first glance the residence of Sleeping Beauty). Once off the train the busy city streets of Lisbon are a vague memory, and the rolling hills buried in a jungle of greens gives one the impression of a transplanted Anaheim to the valley of Strasbourg, all the while wary that a singing Julie Andrews may pop out from behind the ever rolling carts of gelato.
How to choose which castle to visit (it is possible to go to all, 6 or 7, but each require a 6euro tariff) I look to the hill: how about the Medieval looking one. Castelo dos Mouros, built in either the 8th or 9th century by the invading Moors, the location was chosen not only for its vantage point (highest point overlooking the sea from Lisbon) but also for the pasture and farming lands below it. Is it a climb? Why yes it is. But you may take a life threatening bus ride up to its gate if you so wish. Scaling the walls which in my mind where mini great walls of China, I must admit, is a surreal near out-of-body moment. Once on the walls, running up the steps, standing on the top of Portugal mere inches away from a tumble to a crunchy rocky death, you cannot help but to honestly think of absolutely nothing. One doesn't think, one feels the thrill. It is cliché, but castles really are magic.
After climbing castles, it is time for food other than cheese. Though, as I often say (ok maybe just talking to myself) that if there is cheese, wine, and a mango, I am set for life. But to get on with discovering the vrai cuisine of Portugal, we go now to dine. How many people does it take to find "the most authentic" restaurant in a city? Usually there are around a dozen, everyone has their own. Not in Lisbon. In Lisbon, there is one that gets all the Lisboans nodding--Casa da India. Indian food for authentic Portuguese? What have you been smoking you ask me. But no---you will not find flat bread or curry; the Casa da India is as Portuguese as it gets.
Not found in the guide books or on a painful episode with Samantha Brown or Rick Steves, the store was formerly a house of Indian spices. When the current restaurant owners moved in, the name on the store front was not touched, preserving a bit of cultural history, not to mention an optical illusion of self-disguise against tottering tourists despite being on a main drag. Seated inside with a clear view of the door, it is giddily amusing to watch as tourists walk by clearly in search of a mid day meal but without the slightest bit of intention to even glance at the posted menu on the window. If they had, they would have discovered such dishes as snails, bacalhau, sardines, feijoada, rice pudding, roasted Portuguese chicken, and blood sausage. The beautiful exterior doesn't help much either. Their loss. It is therefore reserved for the locals, perhaps, the way they planed it to be. Casa da India is a Portuguese Leaky Cauldron, if you follow. I knew I would someday make a Harry Potter reference.
What was on mallory's plate in India? Caldo verde, as I was instructed in Porto to search out but failed. Caldo verde is green soup. Green! You don't say so. The big boys: potato starch, onions, collard greens, kale, spicy cabbage, salt, the ever-present olive oil, and nice little chunks of chouriço sausage. I cannot write how savoringly delicious this soup is without offending some readers. So I will move on to the plat, feijoada. Feijoada is not Portuguese, but they think it is. It is Brasilian and they stole it. I have Anthony Bourdain guarding my back on this one. When compiling my list of local "things I have to eat" in Porto, I cut in when she said feijoada. That's not Portuguese, i say to her. Yes it is. No it's not, it's Brasilian. You stole it. Well, we made it better. Better? i doubt it. Did I just accuse an incredibly hospitable and friendly Portuguese friend of stealing a dish? I suppose I did. But I am very defensive. However, note: Portuguese are a very proud people, if you accuse them of stealing a popular dish, turn around and compliment their shoes.
I decided I would not eat this dish for snobbish reasons. However, when I saw the menu I reasoned, well perhaps I should just try it so then when I eat real feijoada I can have evidence to support the real one is better. But damn it was awfully good. Bacalhau, mussels, butter beans, prawns, crab, peppers, and greens sizzling in a thick orange-red sauce (that I took home on my white shirt) was without a doubt one of those meals that puts you right to sleep afterwards out of pure "I can die know" thoughts. How can I follow that with more food? Ah fruit sundae. I am in. Casa da India, I will be back for the sardines.
Cheese, Feijoada, soup. Siesta time, but maybe first with a bit of port. Portugal is a very tasty country to eat. Perhaps I must mention the main tourist pulls---the famous pastiés de nata, the custard tart of Bélem whose recipe is said to have been kept secret for centuries, and of course the most famous cafe in Lisboa, A Brasileira, which I avoided to take a coffee at until my last morning on account of the line for terrace table space.
While the cafe is a historic landmark (and come on, its got Brasil in the title) it has unfortunately become one of the "tourist" traps of the city, overpriced chow and a flower shirt-wearing crowd are enough to make you set up the photo and move on. and what is the little grinning man with the coffee cup? Brasileira means girl from Brasil does it not? Either way, early tuesday morning and i am the only one at the outside tables. excellent. Uma bica por favor. Finally. Last day in Portugal and made a transaction sans Inglês. Progress? I tell myself that.
After all the food: head to the beach. Take the train to Cascais. A sandy beach of blue water (too cold to touch) but pleasant enough to bury your traveling feet in the sand and sit in the sun with naught but your thoughts and the vast Atlantic stretching out in front. The coast always provides a sense of solidarity, home, familiarity. Oceans are both a thrill in the desire to find what treasures and life (don't forget food) lie on the other side, as well as a worry, for it really is a long ride to the other side, will one get lost on the way? Well, a long trip it may be, but that is why there is bacalhau. The bacalhau has and will continue to get voyagers across the great blue. I'll make the trips, I have Bacalhau. Tune in next week for our love ballad to our salty muse.
Até à pròxima & A bientôt