Lisbon is no obvious Christmas destination … and that’s exactly why the capital of Portugal is worth a visit during the holiday season. Forget the typical Christmas markets, the glühwein and the jingle bells, and immerse yourself in a luscious world of roasted chestnuts, cherry liqueur and honey cakes. Nom nom nom…
1. Kick ass soup
The Portugese love their ‘entradas’ or entree. They are particularly fond of soups (sopa) and will make it out of nearly anything: pumpkin, spinach, bread, pork, black pudding, kidney beans… The most famous soup is ‘caldo verde’, a green soup made of potato, onion and cabbage. According to our guide, people drink it at the break of day after partying all night long. They buy a spicy chorizo to go with it (or even in it). It’s supposed to give you plenty of energy to get through the day after a good night out.
2. Espresso: drink with sugar
Years ago, Portugal was a ‘tea drinking’ land. It might amaze you, but it’s actually the Portugese that introduced tea to the English, not the other way around… Today though, you’ll find that people drink much more coffee than tea. Especially espresso is hot in Lisbon. When you’re in a coffee shop, do as the locals do and ask for a ‘bica’: it’s short for ‘Beba isto com ecugar’ = drink with sugar. When people first started drinking espresso, they found it so bitter that they all added sugar, hence the name. Most of the times you’ll also get a cinnamon stick with the coffee or espresso. You can use it as a spoon or leave it soaking in the coffee: the subtle cinnamon taste is great! I actually bought cinnamon sticks in a city supermarket to repeat this at home…
3. Octopus & bacalhau
Octopus originally was a specialty in the northern part of Portugal. It gradually worked its way through the rest of the country and now it’s considered a national delicacy. You can find octopus all around Lisbon, prepared in various ways: grilled, steamed, poached, baked, fried, stuffed… You’ll even find octopus kebab! Another treat from the sea is bacalhau: dried and salted codfish. It’s thé traditional christmas meal but Portugese eat it all year round. Apparently, there are 365 different ways of preparing bacalhau: one for every year… Around the holiday season, you’ll find lots of bacalhau with presunto (ham) and a creame sauce. As a vegetarian I had another delicious snack instead: fried green beans!
4. The pastry: famous for a reason
The Portugese have a real sweet tooth. In all of the country, you’ll find just as many ‘pastelerias’ (pastry bakeries) as you’ll find fry shops in Belgium – and that’s a lot! Definitely try the creamy, custardlike ‘pastéi’: it’s a crispy cake, served hot and sprinkled with cinnamon and powdered sugar. Other sweet delights that you’ll commonly find on your plate are Broas de mel (honey cake), Sonhos (pastry with pumpkin) and ‘Bolo Rei’ or Kings cake. This latter has dried crystallized fruit in it. Corn, sweet potato and almond also are favorite ingredients for some pretty delicious christmas cakes.
5. Dreaming of a white chestnut Christmas
Lisbon owes its nickname ‘White City’ to the unique natural lighting in the streets, that has inspired and still is inspiring many artists. If you ask me though, there’s another reason for the nickname – something you can only witness during winter time. Street vendors roast chestnuts in the major shopping streets of Lisbon, causing the whole area being covered in milky fog. The fragrant and the white, plumes of smoke spread around and have a very distinctive smell, a great addition to the romantic Christmas atmosphere. It almost made me feel like I was walking on a movie set and reindeer were about to fly through the air at any moment. Chestnut is a favorite wintertime ingredient in restaurants as well: it’s served as a mousse or sauce on goat cheese and duck preparations.