Portugal smells like fish and flowers. It’s a tossup as to which is more delicious.
We’re in Setubal now, a small city South of Lisbon. There are gardens all over the place, in parks, on street corners, in the middle of parking lots. The main street of the town is a broad avenue about a mile and half long and you can walk the whole length of it in a center promenade shaded by the overhanging palm trees, oaks and evergreens.
The floral aromas drift out from giant blooms in raucous shades of pink, red and yellow. The hibiscus trees are tall and overpowering and there’s some kind of pine tree that smells like a courtesan’s perfume.
And then there’s the fish smell. Grilled fish. In Setubal as in Lisbon and presumably most anywhere else in Portugal, every other building seems to contain a restaurant and every restaurant has an outdoor grill. In front of every grill is a display case with that day’s selection of fish lying on a bed of ice. Pick the one that looks good to you and it’s weighed by the kilo to determine how much your dinner will cost. Then someone slaps it on the grill, where the intense heat of the fire crisps the skin and cooks the flesh in a matter of minutes. It’s laid on a plate with a side of boiled potatoes so delicious you doubt you’ve ever eaten a real potato before in your life.
The number of restaurants in Portugal is boggling. It’s not uncommon to pass three or four of them in a row, all with identical menus charging the same prices. Many are tiny, cramming four or five tables in a space maybe 10’ X 12’. Others are outdoor cafes sprawling all over the sidewalk and nobody cares which tables are for which place. How do they decide which one to go to? I guess they just wait until the very moment they’re hungry and stop at the closest one. God forbid they should have to walk twenty feet to a different one.
Then the question is how can they all make out? Apparently, Portuguese people eat out a lot. I read that Portugal has one restaurant for every 131 people as opposed to one for every 374 people in the rest of the European Union countries.
This is a fish eating country. It’s the largest consumer of fish in the EU and among the top four in the world. When we were in Lisbon, we ate grilled fish every night for two weeks and never tired of it. Now that we’re in Setubal, we encounter a certain chauvinism. “The fish here is better than in Lisbon,” people say, “because here it’s fresh.” What they mean is, here it’s maybe an hour or two off the boat as opposed to, at most, three hours off the boat in Lisbon. I don’t even want to think about how old the fish we ate in Denver was.
Setubal is the sardine fishing capital of Portugal. Not the tiny things canned in oil we get in the States, although they do process and export those here. The ones in the restaurants are bigger, about like a small trout – four of them are the usual size serving for an entrée. In the US they can sometimes be found in Italian restaurants in South Philly and Portuguese restaurants in Newark, usually as an appetizer. Same thing.
There are lots of other kinds of fish – three or four species of bream, sea bass, red mullet, grouper, turbot, skate, and on and on. There’s something called scabbard fish, which is not the female counterpart of swordfish as one might surmise, but something that looks a lot like an eel; it tastes a lot better than it looks. Unique to Setubal is a dish called choco frito. It’s batter fried cuttlefish strips, served with French fries. Cuttlefish is only found in the Mediterranean and South Atlantic. It’s related to squid and octopus, a big ugly purple-pink-gray thing that looks like it was sent here from another planet to destroy the human race, and it’s also delicious.
The restaurants don’t put the really ugly fish on display. To see them you have to go to the main markets. There are two of them here, both factory sized and full of vendors hollering their wares. One is right on the dock and sells seafood pretty much exclusively; the other not more than two blocks away fronting the main street is divided into one section for fish and another for fresh produce. The restaurant owners hit both of them early in the morning for what they’re going to cook that day.
They do eat meat here. Portugal is known for roast pig sweetened on a diet of chestnuts, and for goat and lamb and quail. The chicken’s pretty darn good too. The best part is you can get a meal of any of this stuff with wine for about 24 euros or less. (For translating euros to dollars, just add 10% and you’re close). I guess that’s why they eat out so much. It’s practically cheaper than staying home.
As a matter of fact, Barbara and I just got back from having lunch. The hours people eat in this country take a little getting used to. Most restaurants are open from 1:00 to 4:00, then close down until 7:00 and serve dinner from 7:00 to 11:00. In the evening, they don’t fire up the grill until 7:15, so you can’t get the fish until after 7:30.
It’s not quite the same as in other EU countries where you might not start eating dinner until 10:00, but neither is it the 6:00 PM main meal that’s common in the US. For our part, we like our evening cocktails sitting on the balcony watching the sun go down, which kind of demotivates us about going out again; so, it looks like I’m going to have to learn how to cook this stuff myself. A restaurant owner we met named Tony, who spent a couple of decades living in the US, has promised to teach me the special knife technique they use for splitting the fish.
The other thing we find ourselves doing is having 3:00 lunch at a restaurant, to serve as the main meal of the day. Today, the lunch special at the place one block from our apartment was feijoada do choco, which is a cuttlefish and white bean stew. They brought massive crocks of the stuff with rice on the side, olive salad, cheese, bread and wine, and the whole thing cost 15.00 euros total.
OK, so this post turns out to be all about eating fish. Not a particularly auspicious way to begin writing about this country, but you gotta start somewhere.