The world is waking up to Portugal’s farm-to-table tradition and rich culinary history. Although there are many types of dishes worth trying, we’ve compiled a list of five can’t-miss foods for any trip.
The Portuguese love their pork, and no pork is more highly regarded than porco preto. Black pork gets its name from the gray to black (and sometimes red) hue of the native Iberian pig’s skin. Described by foodies as “how pork is supposed to taste,” these little piggies thrive in the Alentejo countryside, where they gorge themselves on acorns from the area’s cork oak trees, which impart a nutty flavor to the meat. Black pork is higher in fat than many other pig varieties. However, fans of the Iberian pig say that it is actually healthier than other pork, because of the acorn-only diet. (It all has something to do with the idea that acorn fat is similar in chemistry to olive oil.) So go ahead, have another helping of presunto or chouriço de porco preto, it’s good for your heart!
At last count, Portugal was home to at least 15 different Portuguese cheeses with Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status. One of the most coveted of these, called the “king of Portuguese cheese” by Cheese.com, is Serra da Estrela. This cheese is entirely handmade, as it has been for the last 2,000 years in the mountains of Portugal. Soft and spreadable like brie when it’s young, and semi-firm when aged a bit longer, Serra da Estrela is cured with indigenous cardoon flowers that grow in these high regions, giving the cheese a “rich, perfumed intensity as a result of the superb grazing, and [a] sweet, slightly burnt coffee character,” according to the aforementioned Cheese.com.
Unfortunately, due to the backbreaking work, there are only a few shepherds left who herd their cows through the mountains the traditional way. As such, the cheese is in danger of succumbing to commercial farming. Taste it the artisanal way while you can.
It’s worth remembering that Portuguese explorers ushered in the Age of Discovery, establishing outposts in Africa, Macau, Brazil and Goa on India’s west coast. Due to that history, Lisbon has a vibrant multicultural food scene anchored by the immigrant neighborhood of Martim Moniz, where you can find Chinese groceries alongside shops that sell hot African piri-piri sauce and all manner of Indian spices. It’s no wonder that the city established the Mercado de Fusão here. This outdoor market resides in the neighborhood square, where you can enjoy everything from samosas to hamburgers with Brazilian buns to Asian street food—and even food from a few countries where the Portuguese never sailed. (German potato pancakes, anyone?)
There are two explanations for the abundance of pastry shops in Portugal. One goes back, again, to Portugal’s history as a colonial power. Soon after the Age of Discovery dawned, the Portuguese developed a habit for coffee from the colonies. What better than a little pastry to pair with a good strong cup of coffee? The second explanation has to do with Portuguese Catholicism. Nuns used egg whites as a starch to stiffen clothes, including their habits. But what to do with all of the leftover egg yolks? Make pastry, of course.
Perhaps the most famous egg yolk–based Portuguese pastry is the pastel de nata, or the pastel de Belém. It is named for the civil parish of Santa Maria de Belém, where monks first made this custard-filled tart and then began selling it in a shop that still stands today.
Many people are aware at this point that the Portuguese are among the biggest fish-eaters in the world, but at the same time, when asked to name a typical Portuguese fish dish, they pick bacalhau, made from rehydrated dried and salted cod, which isn’t even found in local waters. The association is probably more historical than anything, as its been argued that the Portuguese were only able explore the world after figuring out a preserved protein source to power the men on their long voyages. The tradition stayed alive and it is now said that there is at least one bacalhau recipe for every day of the year, though many Portuguese only eat the dish at Christmas.
By all means, try the bacalhau, but what fish shouldn’t you miss? Trust us, try the grilled sardines, packed with omega-3s and salted and cooked right on the grill embers. Sardinhas assadas, served with a little salad of peppers, potato and tomato, and a glass of chilled white wine, is the country’s favorite outdoor food. Can’t you just picture yourself snacking away al fresco on your Portuguese summer vacation?
Discover the Possibilities: Visit Portugal.com today to get the best prices so you’ll have plenty of money left over to spend on the unforgettable meals and world-class wines of Portugal! Our day tour of the Alentejo will get your mouth watering, then contact us for more delicious ideas on how to optimize your Portugal vacation!