Monday, January 10, 2011

How Not to Order Food in Portugal

My traveling companion had a great and urgent desire to go to Portugal but I wanted to stay in Madrid a little longer. However, she soon talked me into taking the night train to Lisbon. To this day I do not understand why we had to take that train—we missed seeing the Spanish countryside altogether. But she had been to Europe before and had slept in sleeping cars with her husband and insisted that this was the best way for going a long distance. As it turned out we were to share our sleeping cabin with two young Asian men who were not traveling together. One of them was traveling with a group of girls who had the cabin next to ours. I wondered why we had to share our cabin with the young men instead of the young women but as it turned out it didn’t really matter. My friend, the expert in sleeping arrangements, insisted that we take the bottom bunks and the two men each took a bunk over us. We left the train station rather late, perhaps around 9:30, and after settling in on our bunks my friend was soon sound asleep and snoring peacefully as were the young men. But I couldn’t sleep at all. The bottom bunk was naturally right over the rails and I spent a sleepless night of clickety-clack noise and snoring.

When we reached Lisbon the next morning my friend was refreshed and ready to go out in search of a pensao for us to stay in. I was exhausted and wanted only to go to a nice place and sleep in a decent bed. We were traveling according to the advice in various travel books and intended to find the best and least expensive rooming houses, bed and breakfasts, or pensaos that were listed. But as we alighted from the train I was not in the mood to traipse around Lisbon looking for a place to stay. Luckily for us the train was met by an array of gentlemen who represented different pensaos. I recognized the name of one of the pensaos printed on a car and suggested that we go with that particular chauffeur.

Off we went on a rather wild ride through the streets of Lisbon with our chauffeur who turned out to be the proprietor of a lovely pensao situated on a busy commercial street not too far from Old Lisbon, the part of the city that had once been destroyed by an earthquake and rebuilt in long rectangular blocks. The pensao’s décor inside resembled something out of the Arabian nights, possibly a remnant of long ago Moorish invaders. We met the proprietor’s wife with whom my companion tried to bargain for room plus breakfast to no avail. Then we were led down tiled steps and up and around corners to our room, which to our delight overlooked the busy street below. The room was big and airy, clean and neat with two beds. The bathroom presented a puzzle that we were to encounter many times—how to flush the commode. My friend soon found a button on the wall and pushed it. Voilá—the commode flushed!

Our next problem after a morning nap was where to eat for lunch and dinner. We left our pensao and set out looking for a restaurant. We soon found one that was very busy with lunchtime diners and decided that it must serve very good food. Now since I spoke Spanish I assumed that I would at least be able to read a menu in Portuguese. But there was nothing on that menu that I could recognize except omelet and I didn’t want an omelet—I wanted something Portuguese. A waiter came by to take our orders and my friend ordered an omelet, something she was to do every time she couldn’t figure out what else was on a menu. And, by the way, they were American style omelets not the delicious Spanish egg and potato ones. Most of the people in the restaurant were eating plates piled high with huge French fries and possibly chicken. I didn’t want that either. Finally the waiter brought me various kinds of something that looked like fried pies or croquettes. I later learned that they were called salgados and I fell in love with them. The travel books looked down on salgados and said not to bother with them. Please, do not pay attention to everything in travel and guide books.

Our next problem, of course, was where to eat that night. After another nap in our room we set out in the evening for a stroll and a search for a restaurant. The lunch restaurant was closed so we strolled up and down the now almost deserted street. We came to a tiny bakery that had a rather extensive menu sign posted outside. We wandered inside but didn’t see any indication of a restaurant or any food other than a few pastries. We pointed to the sign outside to the clerk and he took us behind a counter and pointed to stairs that led downward.

I quite happily started to descend the stairs when my friend grabbed my arm and asked if I thought we were going to be kidnapped. I could already see a large room with tables and chairs and people dining quite happily. I told her not to worry and we descended to a charming neighborhood restaurant. The waiter brought us the menu and we discovered that there were two prices for everything but didn’t understand what that meant. We ordered a double meal when we should have ordered a single and two plates. While we were waiting the waiter placed a plate of olives and another of various kinds of bread rolls and butter. We really didn’t want all those things but we didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings so we sampled the olives and I must say that I never acquired a taste for homegrown and cured Spanish and Portuguese olives no matter how much I tried. I love the ones in the supermarket at home but not these. We also didn’t want to be rude so we sampled the various rolls, also, and of course, the butter.

Soon, however, the waiter brought the main course—Porco com ameijoas a Alentejana, Pork with Clams seasoned with wine, garlic, onion, tomatoes, cilantro, and parsley and served with a green salad. It was unbelievably delicious!

We went out of our way to compliment the restaurant staff especially the cooks. The food in that little Portuguese hideaway turned out to be among the best of our Iberian adventures. And the staff, in turn, showed us what wonderful and hospitable people the Portuguese are.

And for good reason—when we received our bill we understood why we were charged double for our meal—that’s what we had mistakenly ordered. But they had also charged us separately for sampling the olives, each roll we had taken a bite out of, and each pat of butter used! For the rest of our trip we didn’t touch olives or bread and butter in eating establishments although we did buy them in the local markets.

Were we ever going to learn how to order food—and to our dismay that most necessary of beverages—black coffee?

To be continued . . .


Anonymous said...

very interesting and helpful, but i prefer to order a food online, less problems :)

Palmaltas said...

That's true, but this took place when I was in Portugal in the early 1990s and did not have Internet access.