It is a well-known fact that the best way to discover a new place is through food….OK, that is just my opinion but I stand by it! However, sometimes it can feel a little overwhelming when you are in a city for a short time and you want to try all kinds of new and exciting foods. How do you physically fit them all in? Well, that is where food tours come into their own, and when it comes to Lisbon, Portugal, the number one choice is Taste of Lisboa.
Our tour was hosted by Taste of Lisboa Food tours, but all opinions are entirely our own
Why Choose Taste of Lisboa
Taste of Lisboa has been running for around ten years, taking many hungry tourists to spots that they might not find themselves. These are the spots that locals visit, not just the places listed in the guidebooks. Every Taste of Lisboa tour is run by locals who will not only impart their scripted wisdom but lots of other little nuggets that will infuse your trip with knowledge. After a tour, you can laugh at your friends who try to eat pastel de nata with a knife and fork without even looking at the bottom! (More on that later).
Our Tour – Lisboa Roots, Food & Cultural Walk
There are a few tours offered, including a market visit with plenty of tastings (Time Out market is a combination of fresh market and food hall so it is a nice spot to try lots of local food in one spot). However, we opted for the Lisbon Roots, Food and Cultural walk as we like to earn our calories by walking a bit and learning how the history of the city and the food intertwine. As well as food walks, they offer cooking classes but we are both shocking chefs and don’t like to embarrass ourselves in public so we let others do the cooking!
Now, I don’t want to give all the locations on the tour away, so I will be talking about the food but not the locations themselves unless there is no getting away from it. (Ginjinha in the birthplace of ginjinha is only going to be in one spot).
Our Tour Guide
After meeting at Largo de São Domingos, we learned a little about the square’s history and our tour guide. The eloquent, engaging and effervescent Dani is a history buff and the coolest Lisbon resident out there. She was greeted incredibly warmly by a couple passing who had been on the tour a couple of days earlier and by every restaurant owner we met. She even took the time to talk an eavesdropping couple through some of her favourite spots in the city whilst we happily chewed on our samples. We couldn’t fault her!
Stop One – Starter Samples
As with every good meal, we began the tour by sampling some cheese, charcuterie and wine from across Portugal. It was a good introduction to the cuisine of the country as a whole before we zeroed in on the city.
The first thing we tried was a delicious virgin olive oil. I have long wanted to do a proper oil tasting but this little taster would have to do. It had a little citrus hit. In fact, it was lovely and fruity.
Next was a good glug of red wine. Before visiting Madeira, I don’t think we had tried Portuguese wine but there is a rich tradition of wine production. It goes all the way back to 2000BC! However, it has never had the kind of cachet that French or Italian wine has. Instead, it has always been a robust domestic business. When it did finally open up to the rest of the world, there were a few translation issues, but we will let the tour guide tell that particular story. Now, both Mr Fluskey and I struggle with red wine. Tannins and I do not get along. We both gamely sipped away at it, and the Dutch guys on the tour insisted that it was very good wine….so I guess it was.
We also got to nibble on a soft-ish cheese that was somewhere between a mild brie and a port salut. I loved it but Dani was unconvinced. Give me a cracker and some grapes and I would eat the whole lot! Alongside that was a few slices of ham. This is Portugal’s cured ham, made from the same pigs as the famous Spanish Iberico ham. It had tonnes of flavour but not quite enough fat running through it to be truly spectacular.
Finally, we had a look at, and a lesson about, bacalhau. Bacalhau is salted cod and although it isn’t actually found in Portugal’s waters, it is the nation’s favourite food. Portugal actually eats the most cod in the world. but looking at the dried piles of fish it may be hard to work out why….read on dear traveller.
Stop Two – Bacalhau Brilliance
After learning all about bacalhau, it was time to try some in the most popular way you’ll see them around Lisbon. Portuguese street food is rife with creamy, fishy, moreish croquettes. Perfectly smooth mash potato is mixed with the slightly salty, rehydrated white fish and then deep-fried with no extra coating. This makes them much lighter than breadcrumb encrusted cousins. I could have eaten several more and kicked myself when I left town without doing so.
Arroz de Tomate
Served alongside the croquette was a small helping of Arroz de Tomate (tomato rice). This seemingly simple dish is serious Lisbon comfort food. Portugal eats the most rice in Europe, so it isn’t a surprise that it makes the list of most popular dishes. The texture is similar to risotto but with the normal rice, it is more a saucy rice than the creamy risotto texture. The sweetness of the tomato was balanced out with a good rich stock, a base of onions and plenty of salt. After I finished, the plate was left with a nice smudge of sauce that a little bread would mop up nicely (and who doesn’t love carbs on carbs)?
Tomato rice is so versatile. It can be served with all kinds of main dishes as a side, be the base of a dish or just a starter. However, whenever it is eaten, it is best paired with a nice glass of wine.
During the Lisbon Roots, Food & Cultural Walk, guests get to try the utterly delightful vinho verde. In English, the name means “green wine” and although some white varieties can have a slightly emerald tint, the word green actually refers to the youth of the wine. On this occasion, we tried a white version, and that is what we’ve had in the past, but Dani told us that you can also get red ones too. Green wine is bottled nice and early leaving it with a little natural effervescence and a lower alcohol content. It is perfect for a light lunch in the sun….ideal for our tour then.
Stop Three – Grill Greatness
To start our next set of tasters, we were presented with a plate of perfectly ripe honeydew melon. I guess this offering changes as the seasons revolve. We also had a plate of cheeses to sample. Dani talked us through the order we should attack them, going from a mild paprika laced option to a cheese that we were warned, and I quote, “Don’t smell it, just eat it”. Obviously, we all smelled it and turns out, she was totally right. It was pungent but tasted pretty great with plenty of salt. It was so intense that I could only do a couple of bites. My favourite was the medium cheese from the Azores, blended with the quince paste (a popular combo known as Romeo and Juliet) it went down very nicely.
Then it was time to move on to the main reason for visiting this spot. It was time to tuck into one of Lisbon’s iconic sandwiches. There are two main types that tourists should keep an eye out for;
- Bufana- A pork sandwich
- Prego – A beef steak sandwich
Here, we were treated to simple bufanas, salty pork, sandwiched in a big, crusty white roll. The meat at this spot is grilled over the charcoal they became famous for selling many years ago. Now in its third generation of the same family, they have perfected the art of the quick grill. On our bufanas, we were given the option to add a squeeze of mustard or the secret weapon of this restaurant, the homemade chilli sauce. As it is homemade, every batch is different but the one we tried was super fiery. I had a little bread but thought I’d blow my head off to slather the sandwich in it. I opted for plenty of mustard instead. Salty pork, sweet-ish mustard and the best kind of chewy roll…well, it’s just a winner isn’t it?!
Stop Four – A Taste of Trade
Looking back through hundreds of years of Lisbon’s history you will come across their amazing travels across the globe. As they took some ideas to other places, so they brought back the most delicious recipes and spices they discovered. Anybody who has visited Goa or Mozambique will know what we mean! Coming full circle, one particular Mozambican restaurant has gained a great reputation in Lisbon. We actually visited the night before our tour and although the flavours were good, we were not impressed by the quality of the ingredients (frozen vegetables, and even worse, frozen clams).
We were surprised, and a little embarrassed to come back to it during the tour, but were keen to try their famous samosas. These pastry triangles of yummy fillings are most famous as an Indian dish but can be found in Mozambique too. The group opted to try both the beef and sweetcorn varieties. I really enjoyed the lightly spiced meat but sweetcorn in a samosa wasn’t ideal. I was hoping for more potato in the vegetarian option, but that is definitely a personal preference.
Stop Five – Getting Tarty
Remember I said that I was going to give one or two secrets away because there isn’t much choice…well this is one of those moments.
All around Lisbon, locals and tourists alike are demolishing little round tarts, exploding with crispy pastry and powdered sugar. These little beauties are called pastel de nata. (They are Pastéis de nata if you have more than one). The name means cream pastries but it doesn’t really tell the whole story…so I will try.
Out in Belem, which is now a very popular suburb of Lisbon, is a convent. The nuns here used to use egg whites to starch their uniforms and all those yolks were going to waste, so they began mixing them with sugar and creating sweet treats. They popped the egg cream into a crispy pastry cup and had something magic! In fact, it was so good that they realised they could sell them to make some money. A classic dish was born.
Now, there are MANY places to tuck into a pastel de nata, but one of the very best is Confeitaria Nacional. We were whisked inside and took a minute to have a quick look at the other options in the counter but it was all about the tarts! Dani then gave us a quick lesson about how to check and eat the tarts. Turns out, it is all about the swirl! We dusted our lovely, warm tarts with icing sugar and cinnamon and paired them with gorgeous little coffees. We tried a fair few pasteis de nata in Lisbon and this was in the top two.
Stop Seven – Delicious Digestif
Ginjinha is a truly unique sour cherry liqueur that is sweet, zingy and worryingly addictive. This is the other spot that there is no point hiding as this hole-in-the-wall bar is the original dispenser of this scarlet shot. You can choose to take your shot with or without the fruit, but why wouldn’t you take the moment to try the lovely sour cherry too? Grab your glass and enjoy it out on the square as people have been since 1840 (and if you come back at 08:00, don’t worry, lots of people have this for breakfast).
After trying the OG ginjinha, we popped around the corner to try a fun variation that is now pretty popular too. How do you make a cherry liqueur even better? Pop it in a chocolate cup! This was a personal recommendation from the lovely Dani so I won’t reveal where it was…you’ll just have to ask her yourself.
A Few Top Tips for Your Taste of Lisboa Tour
- 1.) Ask questions about what you are eating, seeing and if they have any recommendations outside of your set tour. There is so much that the guides know and they dont have time to share everything so if there is something you are particulaly interesed in, speak up.
- 2.) Wear comfortable shoes. During the tour, you could be tackling cobbles, steep hills or staircases and absolutely getting in some steps.
- 3.) Check the weather. You will be out and about even if the sun is beating down, or the rain is soaking the streets. Bring appropriate clothing, umbrellas, suntan cream, a fan…whatever it is that will help you feel comfortable.
- 4.) Let Taste of Lisboa know if you have any food allergies or dietary requirements. You may not get to try absolutely everything but they will try to accommodate you as much as possible.
- 5.) Taste of Lisboa’s tours begin late in the morning or afternoon. We thoroughly recommend skipping the meal before so you’re nice and hungry. It will allow you really enjoy everything.
- 6.) Book for the beginning of your visit to Lisbon. Everything you learn during the tour will help you make great foodie choices in the city afterwards. We had to leave without trying a few of the great suggestions we received. What rookies!
Final Thoughts on Taste of Lisboa
Taste of Lisboa is definitely the coolest way to experience Lisbon. It blends local knowledge, excellent food and a nice way to see some areas you may not venture to otherwise. We had an amazing afternoon and it was a shame we had to dash off afterwards because seven more ginjinhas would have been a lovely way to spend the evening!