Tag Archives: Lisbon

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, originally uploaded by jhoolko.

This beautiful, 500 year-old monastery was a perfect sanctuary from the unexpected summer rain shower that started right as we reached Belém. Still, we tore ourselves away fairly quickly as coffee and hot Pastéis de Belém were waiting for us just down the street.

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Drinking Ginjinha in Lisbon, Portugal

One of the things I knew I had to try on my recent visit to Portugal was a horrible sounding concoction called Ginjinha. A syrupy, sickly sweet mixture of sour cherries, sugar, and alcohol (aguardente specifically, so serious alcohol), Ginjinha appears in every travel feature ever on Portugal, and is considered a typical drink of Lisbon, specifically.

The resulting tipple tastes a bit like a mixture of Robitussin mixed with firewater with a couple of sour cherries plopped into the bottom if you choose to have them. After the initial shock of the taste of the entire package, the really surprising thing to me was how sour those cherries were! I had the great delight of being offered sourcherry juice regularly on my Turkish Airlines flight over to Lisbon and had decided that I quite liked the stuff, but I was not prepared for the extreme sourness of those puppies. So cherry fans beware!

The menu at a Ginjinha bar in Bairro Alto. All they served was Ginjinha in chocolate shot glasses, half liter bottles of Portuguese beer, and rolling tobacco.

So why, you may ask, did I repeatedly indulge in something that I clearly was not that big a fan of? Why would I go back again and again to punish my tastebuds with flavors I am pretty sure I never want to have in my mouth again? Well, the truth is, the entire practice of drinking Ginjinha is just so great, so exactly the kind of thing I want to do when I am in Europe, that it could have been mud for all I cared; I was in Portugal, and I was going to do as the guidebooks told me the Portuguese did!

Ginjinha is served at little stands or bars throughout the city that look like they have been there forever. Behind the counter of most of these outposts was an old Portuguese man (or woman), carefully pouring tiny plastic (or better yet, CHOCOLATE!) cups full of the sticky liquor.  The chocolate cups helped the stuff go down a lot and were worth the extra 20 cents or so. They’d ask you if you wanted it with or without fruit, and then after handing over about 85 euro cents, you took your little cup to go, to either be enjoyed in the space outside the bar (and by space I mean street or sidewalk), or really to go, sipping or shooting the stuff as you walked on your merry way.

Aside from the obvious flocks of tourists participating in this ritual, there were also a ton of elderly Portuguese people throwing back cup after cup of the stuff, spitting their cherry pits on the ground. One of my travel rules of thumb is that if old local-looking people are doing it, it’s probably worth trying, and this time was no exception to that rule. It’s so different from something you’d be able to do here, so very European in the way I want Europe to be European, that no matter how it tasted, I knew I was going to love Ginjinha.

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Portugal, Land of Pastries: Pastéis de Belém

IMG_0311, originally uploaded by jhoolko.

I don’t like pastries. They always seem like a waste of my appetite and my stomach space. I’d much rather eat a nice plate of pan con tomate, or some cheese and olives, or a piece of chicken, or nothing at all. Pastries just really came across as the unnecessary fluff of the food world to me, and not in a good way. That was until I stumbled upon a Portuguese bakery on my trip to Berlin last year, of all places. I was wandering around alone, a little hungry, and I decided that a little nibble of something sweet would do the trick. I had my first pastel de nata that day. And I realized that pastries could be good.

Even after I got home, I couldn’t stop thinking about that custard tart. I tried, and failed, to make them at home. I sampled every variety of Chinese egg tart I could back in San Francisco, but they were all too eggy and silky and not creamy-custardy enough. When I booked my ticket to Portugal, I began to dream about them. I had the most vivid dream I’d ever had in my life, so realistic that I could smell the cinnamon dusted over the top of the pastry as I took my first wonderful bite, the light powder tickling against my nose, and I could feel the flaky dough cracking and crumbling into the custard as I nibbled away.

Needless to say, my visit to Antiga Confeitaria de Belém was a pilgrimage of sorts for me. After visiting the Os Jerónimos monastery to get into the appropriate mood, we made our way over to the famed pastry shop. The inside is cavernous; room follows room in a seemingly endless chain of stark, tiled chambers, all warmed by the bodies of dozens of hot, happy people, enjoying heaping plates of pastéis and tiny cups of coffee.

Portugal loves its pastries. Legend has it that the custardy varieties came to be as a solution to the excess of egg yolks that plagued the country’s monasteries and vineyards after the whites were all used up starching nuns’ habits and clarifying wine. That, however, does not explain the startling abundance of non-custardy pastries. There are pastries made of rice flour, of wheat flour, filled with beef and pork, or a combination of the two. Breads studded with dried fruit share bakery shelves with giant flour-powdered country loaves and tiny, colorful macarons, chicken pies smoosh up against stacks of buttery empanada-like cakes, stuffed with suckling pig (a personal favorite) and ridiculously large white cubes of meringue, topped with flaky layers of dough teeter against the window glass. These people cannot get enough of their pastries, and I must admit, seeing pasteleria after pasteleria and indulging in more than a few of them opened my eyes a bit to a wonderful world that I had previously refused to partake in.

Absolutely starved, we decided to make a lunch of it, first sampling a pile of savory pastries with a round of small Sagres beers. We tried the croquetas; subpar and too sticky, though still hard to dislike what is essentially breaded, fried meat in goo form (at least for me). Chicken pies and pastries were tasty, but nothing to rave about, though the pastéis de bacalhau were perfectly, indulgently salty and greasy and exploding with flavor; the ideal bit-size treat to enjoy (in moderation) with a Portuguese beer.

Then….the main event. After a number of feverish attempts to flag down our gruff and rustled waiter, garotos (the Lisbon-specific term for shots of espresso topped with milk) were ordered, as well as a modest mound of the most famous of Portuguese treats. And they were good.

Freshly baked, warm, and almost runny compared to custard that has been allowed to cool, the pastry filling was an over-the-top treat, and the pastry itself was perfectly crisp and flaky. After several samples from other Lisbon outlets, none as fresh or as warm as the ones we tried in Belém, I must say that these were the best I had. It seems essential to have them straight out of the oven, and in Belém you could literally watch them making hundreds of these little gems at a time.

I don’t know if pastries will be a part of my life now that I am back from vacation. Maybe because eating custard every day probably isn’t the best path towards a healthy lifestyle, or maybe because indulgent breakfasts aren’t as fun when eaten in your cubicle. Or maybe because I just haven’t found a Portuguese bakery yet.

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