During the winter, Lagos is but a small town in southern Portugal. When not working, the locals indulge in simple pleasures like hanging out with family and friends, usually at bars, coffee shops and terraces if the weather allows. In the summer the small town gets invaded with tens of thousands of tourists that feed the local economy for another year and turns into a bustling seaside resort. Local businesses go about like squirrels, stockpiling for the winter, making hay while the sun shines. The town fills up with new bars and restaurants that cater almost exclusively for tourists.
But the diaspora of locals that come to spend holidays at home seek out the simple (often secret) pleasures that are there all-year round. B.A. is a haven in that sense. A step outside of the beaten track, this tiny tavern offers affordable booze, a nice outside patio and friendly familiar faces.
Recently opened Esquina do Fado was a pleasant surprise. A wine bar-slash-preserves trader-slash-music club attracts a mixed crowd and often has spontaneous jam sessions with local musicians, playing mostly yankee music. Not complaining here, I’m a sucker for some good blues!
Then there’s matraquilhos, or foosball in english. Always a thrill! On a smoky mezzanine of Black Cat, the 50-cent-a-game matraquilhos table at all times being pounded, slammed, kicked and lifted. Full-time gang bang on the 22 metal players made out to look like a 50s version of the two largest teams in Lisboa – Sporting and Benfica. The teams lined up and put a 50 coin on the table to get in the queue. Whichever team won the match, could play the next challenging team. The guys handling Sporting won every single game as soon as they got in. It was almost unfair how well they played. But that got me the chance to sketch them in full.
In the story of going on holidays to Portugal, food is, of course, one of the main characters.
In Lagos, O Lamberto is the unofficial family cafeteria. It’s outside the city centre, so the few tourists that ever get there want to get there. The highlights there come mostly from the sea, such as the grilled squid or the octopus salad. Going for something grilled here is playing on the safe side. Don’t forget to squeeze lemon all over it.
A Oficina was a new place for me. A friend took us there for a snack session. It lays in a town in the outskirts of Lagos with a fitting name – Mexilhoeira Grande – “The Great Mussel Picking Place” (?!). Yeah… Anyway, the house specials: olives with pickled carrot, goat cheese, bucho (a sliced blood sausage), feijoada de buzinas (cowries with beans), parafusos (shrimp wrapped in pastry, deep-fried), tiras de lula panadas (deep fried breaded squid stripes) and the ubiquitous snails. These came with twisted metal picks that brought a tear to my eye! Everywhere, these traditional picks that make the job of pulling the snails out of their shells have been replaced in restaurants all over by common wooden toothpicks. It was a joy to use one of these again!
For desert, we shared a slice of delicious cookie cake (Marie cookies dipped in brewed coffee, piled together with a buttery cream) and Morgado, a delicacy from Algarve. It’s made of almond paste, eggs and squash jam (Gila) and was heavenly prepared.
Sol e Pesca is a former bait and fishing shop in the semi-prostitution slash new-hip area near Lisboa’s shore known as Cais do Sodré. Its concept is unique (as far as I know): preserves of different Portuguese brands are served in their own oil, with some herbs, bread and drinks. This keeps the place from the restaurant status, while serving a satisfying and delicious meal. Looking at the menu, you just want to have a taste of all of them!
Most of the Canastreiro clan – my in-law family – lives and works in or around Campo Maior, a small town close to the spanish border. It is famous for being the headquarters of Delta, one of the largest coffee roasters in the Peninsula. It is not a pleasant place to be in the peak of the summer! People there avoid walking in the scorching hot sun and all the blinders are permanently rolled down. People care little about formal clothing or any clothing whatsoever. Everything begs for a little sesta (afternoon nap). Despite all that, one ritual has to take place after lunch: everybody in the house walks over to the nearest coffeeshop and drinks bica com cheirinho – the portuguese slang for an espresso with a side cup of firewater – taken separately or blended.
Lisboa’s outskirts are peppered with suburbs of different shapes, sizes and styles. They range from forest parks to densely packed residential districts, from slums to industrial areas, from bourgeois waterfront mansions to medieval towns that have been absorbed by the city’s ever expanding grid. Queluz is one of those suburbs. It is home to Queluz National Palace, built in the 18th century as a summer home for the royal family. It is but a dwarf variation of the great Rococo palaces of Europe like Versailles. Right next to it rests a tiny urban settlement of old houses and narrow streets. I’ve always admired how in Lisboa great buildings of power are offset by projections of the humbleness of common people. Another example of this is the National Parliament of São Bento and the vernacular buildings that face it. It is in that space between that most political oriented demonstrations of Lisboa have their final checkpoint.
Then, there’s Magoito, a village by the beach in Sintra. Still close enough to be a candidate for the title of suburb of Lisboa, but far enough for people to feel as if they are spending holidays away from the city, if they happen to sleep over. The farthest people in it were engulfed in a thick sfumato of dust and iodine, and the smell of the salty water was instantly invigorating. The sun was hidden behind clouds, so we had to be extra careful not to get burned without noticing. The layers of blue and grey almost melded on the horizon and the body-boarders peppered the waves. The sand was not yellow nor white but in shades of brown and shadowy brown – contrasts lowered by the wind and the clouds. I always get drowsy in the first days of going to the beach.
During the match between Holland and Costa Rica, there was, of course, time for more snails and bifanas and beer.
If snails had headlines, today’s would have sounded like this. Their deaths were not our direct responsibility, mind you, but were indeed warranted by our craving!
Portuguese have the knack of snacking hundreds of tiny delicious beings such as snails and fish eggs. Snails are rendered edible by being boiled in different herbs and vegetables, such as onion, garlic, mint or chili, and of course, their own goo! They should be washed down with beer. Fish eggs are boiled, cooled and turned into a yummy salad with onion, garlic [glitch in the matrix], parsley and olive oil. Octopus can also be turned into salad in the very same way, but the octopus must be frozen before being boiled, lest it turns into rubbery unchewiness.
Our waiter was telegraphic in his requests from the kitchen, seasoned by many years of the same orders being asked for. Few words, few letters even, were used to convey the message to his colleagues: “um caracol, uma manga, fino, café” (one snail – meaning a tray of them – one mango – meaning a mango flavoured ice-tea – fino, a shorter word for a small beer – coffee).