Monday, January 17, 2011

A Good Cup of Coffee in Spain and Portugal?

Continuing my journey through the Iberian Peninsula:

My companion and I decided that although our pensao was very charming and comfortable it was more expensive than what we wanted and not close enough to Old Lisbon, a section of the city that we soon fell in love with where there were sidewalk cafés, travelers galore, mimes, and a band of Inca musicians from Bolivia! We soon found an old hotel right in the center of things that had been converted into a bed and breakfast pensao. It was several stories high and we were given a small bedroom with two beds and a bidet [and please don’t ask me to explain that!]on the second floor. We had to share the bathroom with the other rooms in our section but luckily we were the only ones there that week.

One of the most charming things about that pensao was the old-fashioned elevator—the kind you see in old black and white movies that look like a cage. There was a trick to operating it but luckily we never got stuck. The dining room was located next to a large sitting room and both were on our floor.

We looked forward to our breakfast the next morning after checking in and a hot cup of coffee. Before that we had not been able to find anything to our liking. The pastry shops where many Lisbon citizens seemed to stop for coffee in the mornings only served little demitasses of espresso or cappuccino and I must admit here and now that I am one of those people who must have hot, black coffee without milk or sugar every morning or I cannot survive.

When we sat down for breakfast in the elegant dining room we were served hard rolls, butter, and various kinds of jams and jellies—a breakfast we were to encounter for the rest of our stay in Portugal and one we would eventually tire of. But that morning we were delighted with our fare, especially when the waitress brought out two pitchers—one with very black, thick strong coffee and the other with hot milk. My friend, trying to do as the Romans do or rather the Portuguese, poured half coffee and half milk into her cup but not me. I poured only the coffee into mine. Now, you’re probably thinking that it was so strong that I relented and had to dilute it with the milk but you’d be wrong. I drank it that way and soon became addicted to it.

After five days we left Lisbon and traveled west by train to Estoril and Cascais, two of the loveliest and friendliest places on earth. We found the Pensao Mariluz in Estoril and stayed there five weeks. Mariluz served the same breakfast as the ones we had in Lisbon and the same coffee—a pitcher of hot milk and a pitcher of thick strong black coffee.

We had many adventures in Estoril and Cascais, not to mention our surprise at discovering that the beaches at Estoril were topless ones, but this is a tale about coffee and those other tales will be incorporated into one of my future novels.

We settled into the Pensao Mariluz where we had a small bedroom with two full beds, a wardrobe, lavatory, the inevitable bidet, and a balcony [the only one in that establishment] with a table and two chairs and sun umbrella on the second floor overlooking a courtyard surrounded by lovely old trees. Once acclimated we soon set out to explore the surrounding area. Since we ate breakfast there everyday all coffee worries evaporated. We ate lunch at a charming cafeteria by the beach and brought bread, wine [also diet cola, which was more expensive than the wine], fruit, and cheese at a local supermarket for our evening meals. But when we traveled by bus or train to other villages and cities we once again encountered the coffee dilemma—those dreadful demitasses of espresso.

Once my companion went to the trouble of explaining with sign language exactly the kind of coffee we wanted in a restaurant in the lovely city of Coimbra. She even got up and followed the waiter to the back of the establishment and directed him as he made the coffee. Then she came back and proudly announced that we would soon have the coffee of our dreams. A few minutes later the waiter appeared with—demitasses of espresso! So much for sign language.

After five weeks of living in Portugal you would think that I would have picked up a modicum of Portuguese but somehow I never caught onto to the rhythm or tone of the language. Sometimes I could get the gist of what was said and we did carry around a tiny dictionary but I pronounced everything Portuguese with a Spanish pronunciation and no one seemed to understand me.

When we finally arrived once again on Spanish soil I evolved a technique for ordering coffee.
In each coffee or pastry shop I would simply say, “¿Me da una taza de café negro sin leche y un vaso de agua caliente, por favor?”

The waiter or clerk would look at me strangely but nonetheless bring me a tiny cup of black coffee and a glass of hot water. Then I would pour that very strong thick coffee into the glass of water and there it was—coffee that almost resembled the coffee that I brewed at home! If only I had learned to order that way in Portuguese.

But not all our food and drink adventures were disasters. We made some very pleasant and tasty discoveries . . .

To be continued . . .

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