Sunday, April 19, 2015

How I Spent My European Vacation (Or: Walk It Off!) Part 2 - Lisbon

Photos by Michele der Beker
(She To Whom I Am Married)

The first pastry I had in Lisbon was horrendous. In fact, the several "traditional" pastries I tried were not very good. Partly I blame the hotel (and the on-line suggestions) for pointing us at a couple of "the oldest" pastry shops in the city. Just because they're the oldest, doesn't mean they're the best. So, the first meal we had in Lisbon, after we'd taken the night train from Madrid (which I would do again in a heartbeat) was a bit disappointing because "one of the oldest" pastry shops in the city was also a tremendous tourist trap.

First meal. Big disappointment.
Perhaps I just didn't pick the right dishes. Perhaps the last thing I should have ordered first thing in the morning was a custardy something wrapped in a doughnutty thing overly sprinkled with sugar. Perhaps.

Still, the search for that cafe gave us a good bit of leg stretching, which we needed after the train. And our subsequent wanderings (while we waited for check-in time at our hotel) led me to discover what this particular part of the vacation was going t be about: the coffee. In Lisbon, the typical way to have espresso is to order a bica. The history is a bit hazy on the origin of the word, and I won't get into it here, but when we found another of the "oldest" establisments in the city, I ordered my first bica. And promptly forgot the breakfast I mostly didn't eat twenty-five minutes earlier.


I am not a lover of espresso. I enjoy half-and-half or steamed milk in my coffee. The mediocre con leche coffee we had at breakfast definitely aided in my decision to broaden my caffeine horizons.

Disclaimer ends.

Bica, the first. And notice the logo. Foreshadowing!
I could tell that the coffee itself wasn't high-end but the preparation and presentation (and the speed at which I was served) was impressive. And I thought it was delicious.

With regards to dessert, though, the best we had was on our first night in Lisbon. Setting a precedent for this leg of the trip, we couldn't get a reservation at our first choice restaurant, so Michele consulted Miss Yelp and found us another place, Quermesse. It was within walking distance of our hotel and very well reviewed. Our wonderful concierge made a reservation for us, even though he gave us the side-eye and claimed he'd never heard of the place. 

We dressed and made a leisurely walk over to the restaurant only to find that the hotel had made the reservation for the following night. We were prepared to find another place when the manager/owner told us to give him five minutes to find us a table. Considering the non-cavernous size of the place, and how busy it was, I wasn't expecting much, but sure enough, five minutes later, he waved us in and sat us at a table. There were probably twelve or fourteen tables total and not a one was vacant. 

There were quite a few dishes on the menu we wanted to try. It took us a little bit to figure out that "Entree" wasn't a main course, but an appetizer – an "entrance" to the meal. I think I worked that one out.

Wonderful choices!
The spinach soup, and the fried shrimp (in a chili sauce that had just the right amount of heat to it), gave us a great start to a sublime experience. We weren't shy about sharing our pleasure with the staff, either. By the time my main course – shredded codfish with baby potatoes, greens, coriander an corn bread – arrived, my palate was simmering with a happy warmth that I'm sure was plain to read on my face.

Cornbread crumbles on the top of a cylinder of deliciousness!
Halfway through this, I was having visions of recreating it for Michele at some point. In the back of my head, an axiom began forming. I'll get back to that in a bit. Michele's main course choice of Pork cheeks in Estremadua red wine sauce with lemon risotto was tasty but didn't photograph well. Each bite of the meal was better than the preceding one and our enthusiasm flowed into copious compliments to the staff, who seemed quite taken with these odd Americans who couldn't shut up about how good the food tasted.

When it was time to choose dessert, Michele asked about the "Abade Priscos" pudding. The owner/manager very happily gave us the history of this dish, which was a very thick custard – so thick you could cut it – covered in a caramel sauce that's infused with bacon to offset the sweetness of the caramel and the custard. The bacon is removed before it imports any of its flavor, though. After hearing that, she had to order it. 

Custard so thick you could cut it with a knife!
I'd already settled n the chocolate petit gateau and vanilla ice cream with mint sauce.

Quite a pairing!
The combinations of tastes in each of our choices were exquisite! We honestly couldn't rave enough about these. I thought about how the mint sauce reminded me of my mint chocolate chip ice cream, and how wonderful the caramel sauce on the custard tasted and desperately wished I could have been in the kitchen either learning these dishes are making up my own. 

And the axiom, which I shared with the owner/manager, shifted from the back of my mind to the tip of my tongue: If a meal makes me long to be in a kitchen cooking and baking, then it's a damned good meal, indeed! This brought as big a smile to his face as the ones we'd been flashing throughout the whole meal.

The rest of the trip? It was all about the bica. Case in point: we started off one night by wandering an area of the city that was known for its nightlife. After a while we figured out that it really wasn't the scene we were looking for. A quick consult of our map and we found ourselves in another part of the city, in a square surrounded by shops restaurants and a few bars. Michele hastily pulled me into one of the bars and I, true to local form, ordered a bica. Rich, delicious and nothing like the swill you'd get if you ordered coffee in a place that wasn't a specialty coffee house at home. 

The next day, we were searching for a particular store and wound up in the same square as the night before.

Michele (pointing in one direction): We continue on down that way and to the right.

Me (after a quick glance to my left): No we don't.

I peeled off and ducked into the same bar and ordered a bica.


Add sugar and stir.
One sip.
Two sips and done! But notice the napkin holder. Foreshadowing!
Now we could be on our merry way.

The rest of the trip wasn't really only about me drinking coffee in Lisbon. We had a great time with a side trip to Sintra, did lots of wandering around in different areas of the city, figured out some of the transit system, and had fabulous breakfasts in the hotel, among other things. And we walked...a lot! It was a wonderful trip that gave us some amazing memories. And that's what it's all about.

What's that? Foreshadowing? Oh. Right. So, I brought a little bit of Portugal back with me:

Foreshadowing fulfilled!
Mmmmmmmmmm! Bica!

Currently listening to: Above & Beyond - You Got To Go (Seven Lions Dubstep Mix)



  1. It was a fabulous trip. And I knew about the touristy "oldest coffeehouse in Lisbon" bit, I was just too tired to rescue us & think of anything else. I figure it just gave us a very base baseline to compare all the other much more fabulous experiences we had to ;)

    1. Here's to more fabulous experiences, Love!

  2. So were you drinking your bica straight up or with hot milk or cream? I wasn't sure.