Friday, May 26. Because of my wifes conference in Lisbon, our days in Portugal usually start in the early afternoon, after she returns from her morning meetings. A continuing problem is that, because she takes advantage of the breakfast buffet included as part of our hotel package before she leaves in the morning for her conference, she often is not very hungry for lunch. (At home, Meg is not a breakfast eater, so eating breakfast throws her eating cycle out of whack. And, yes, Ive tried to persuade her not to eat breakfast in order to save her appetite for lunch and dinner.) A related problem is that, when we eat lunch, it tends to be mid-afternoon (after driving from Lisbon to some destination, like Sesimbra on Day Two), and then shes not hungry for dinner. I include this little tid bit as an explanation for why, when we left our hotel in the early afternoon today, my wife wasnt interested in lunch. She was, however, interested in visiting Belemas was I, though for a very different reason. My wife was interested in the Jeronimos monastery and other sightseeing opportunities in the area. I was focused with laser-like precision on the legendary Pasteis de Belem, an amazing pastry shop that has been in operation since 1837. So it was that, when we got in our cab, I gave the driver instructions to drop us off at Pasteis de Belem. Everybody in Lisbon knows Pasteis de Belem. When I told the concierge at our hotel that we were stopping at Pasteis de Belem for a snack, he gave me a knowing look and then informed me that after two pasteis de nata, lunch would be out of the question. Theyre that rich? I asked. He nodded yes. The cab driver needed no further directions other than the words, Pasteis de Belem.
Pasteis de Belem is famous for its pasteis de nata. The bare-bones description of pasteis de nata is an egg custard-cream tart that is lightly blackened on top in a very short, very crisp, pastry crust. But this description doesnt really do it justice. The custard is denser, richer, and sweeter than, say, the egg custard tart served by Chinese restaurants. (My guess is more egg yolks, heavier cream, and more sugar.) And the crust is extremely rich and flaky, but also very crisp, at least when eaten warm and fresh from the oven, as ours were. My wife and I were both soon swooning over these amazing little morsels. We also ordered a lemon custard pastry (sorry, forgot to ask the name) that had some type of dough mixed in with the custard, so that the top of this confection (which was also lightly blackened on top) had a very light sponge cake quality to it, though still moist with the custard, and the bottom was more of a pure lemon custard. Finally, we ordered a sausage-like meat filling in a pastry roll. Everything was fabulous! This is another dont miss if youre visiting Portugal.
After finishing our sightseeing in Belem, we headed for the Bairro Alto (high quarter) of Lisbon, an old area of the city with narrow cobbled streets. We thought we might catch an early dinner at Pap Acorda, which is considered by many to be THE place to eat acorda (pronounced Ah-SOR-da), a traditional bread-based dry soup. When we arrived at Pap Acorda around 6:00 p.m., we learned that it didnt open until 8:00 p.m., and was fully booked for the evening. After chatting with a friendly young waiter who allowed us to come in and look through the menu, he finally told us we could have a table at 8:00 p.m. when the restaurant opened. In the meantime, he suggested we walk to a nearby park that had a good view of Lisbon. After walking to the park and enjoying the view, we still had an hour or so to kill, and realized that we were very close to the Solar do Vinho do Porto, a bar occupying the ground floor of an 18th century mansion that is known for its extensive selection of port. What a wonderful place to rest and relax before dinner. Beneath timbered ceilings and surrounded by old stone walls, you sit on sofas or easy chairs while tasting port. I was disappointed that the list of ports did not include any vintage ports, but between my wife and me we tasted some lovely old tawnys and colheitas. The star of the show was a 1963 Romariz Vinhos colheita, followed in second place by another colheita, a 1978 Sociedade Agricola Com. Vinhos Medssias. With the port we had some crackers and Serra cheese.
We arrived right at 8:00 p.m. at Pap Acorda, where we were warmly greeted by the young Brazilian waiter who had squeezed us on to the reservations list. My wifes choices were both appetizers, Pimentinhos Fritos de Padron (fried baby green peppers) and Filetes de Sardinha Panados (pan fried fillet of sardine). I, of course, wanted to have the acorda, of which there were four choices. A plain acorda (no seafood mixed in) as a side dish to fried baby sole (served separately); acorda with shrimp; acorda with shrimp and lobster; or acorda with bacalhau (dried cod). I opted for the Acorda de Bacalhau c/ Coentros (acorda with dried cod and fresh coriander). As a second entrée, on our waiters recommendation, we had Frango do Campo de Cabidela (country side chicken with rice cooked with blood). With the meal, we had a very nice 1997 Quinta do Carmo, a red wine from Alentajado. The sardines, which were lightly battered and fried, were wonderful. The waiter explained that these small sardines were available year around, whereas the big, fat sardines that are typically grilled over charcoal are not available until June 12-13, which coincides with the Feast of St. Anthony in Lisbon. Before describing my acorda, I think it would be helpful to include a brief explanation of the dry soups and stews of Portugal. These porridgey bread-thickened mixtures are popular every day fare in Portugal. Acordas are made from stale country bread (pao de forma), fish or shellfish broth, onions, garlic, olive oil, fresh coriander, fresh chili peppers, shellfish (usually shrimp) or salt cod (bacalhau), and eggs, all mixed together in a sort of wet mush. Migas are drier and thicker than acordas, and are typically made with meat and meat drippings. The Acorda da Bacalhau c/ Coentros at Pap Acorda was similar to a rich moist bread stuffing with an incredible combination of flavors. It was one of the standout dishes of the trip. The Frango do Campo de Cabidela was a chicken and rice casserole cooked in an earthen pot, with rough cut chunks of chicken in rice that had been flavored with chicken blood and tiny bits of bacon. The uniquely flavored rice was rich but delicious.