A taste of what's to come for dinner...
A taste of what’s to come for dinner…

This morning, Mamma and I picked up our little car so we could tuck into the nooks and crannies of Portugal. We zipped away from the capital towards the western peninsula to Cascais (pronounced Kash-kaysh), a lovely fisherman’s village discovered as a popular summer weekend retreat. Of course in the dead of January, the place was deserted, including the fish market where we hoped to snack on fried sardines. After a very short stroll along the main drag, where lonely “British” pubs hinted at more lively times, we popped back into the car to head north towards Sintra.

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Sintra! Covering the folds of a highland valley, this fairytale town is enchanting (or bewitching). Now declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, generations of explorers have been drawn to the mystique of Sintra.

First order of business was lunch. Our craving for grilled sardines, a specialty near the coast, was satisfied in a cave-like restaurant hidden in a back alleyway. Crisp, oily and fresh with baby potatoes and a side salad dressed with roasted peppers: very traditional.

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For dessert we set off to track down the famous travesseiros de Sintra and queijadas de Sintra, pastries I had promised my friend (and baker extraordinaire) Shanti to not only try, but charm the baker into sharing the recipes. It was easy to eat them. We were directed straight to Cafe a Piriquita, a time-honored establishment.

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Like most pastries here, the basic ingredients were egg-based cream, sugar, and puff pastry. The travesseiros de Sintrawere quite tasty. Fluffy and sweet with a smooth, chewy center. The queijadas de Sintra fell short of their reputation. The center was somewhat bland, a mixture of eggs, sugar, flour, and cinnamon. The crust resembled a slightly burnt and dried out tortilla. Despite our opinions, the cafe was brimming with locals, and the espresso stood out, proud and strong! (The smiley lady behind the counter refused to share her “secret” recipe, though I’ve found several online that might promise a sweeter result.)

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Now to pump it all off before sitting in the car for three more hours.

In ancient times, the Romans practiced cult moon worshiping here. Just over a century ago, the millionare António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro built the Regaleira Estate, a fantasy world of over-blown Manueline style castles and grottos, including an inverted spiral tower entered by a rotating stone door. Oddities like this reinforce the guidebook’s warning of mysterious “energy,” which might do things like sap the battery life out of any electronics while reinvigorating your soul. Our cameras died quickly, though we did feel refreshed for our journey north.

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A bridge over several caves that feed into underground tunnels. Too terrifying and dark to explore. The rock formations remind me of “pirulini“, a word made up by my Mother on the shores of Il Lido in Venice to describe sand castle decorations made by dribbling wet sand into towers.

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Harry Potter? Anyone?

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After bopping about the magical estate in the crisp mountain air, we drove north to Porto. By the time we arrived in our hotel (warm thanks to my step-dad for his Marriot points), we were tuckered out and pekish. Not expecting much, we agreed to dine in the hotel. My what a surprise.

We started with a light, young Vinho Verde from the Dão region. Bread and cheese. The bread here is so robust, rustic, fresh and flavorful. None of that crummy, tasteless white stuff! We gloated over a complimentarycouvert: a bulbous mushroom stuffed with caramelized tomatoes and onions coated with cheese, over a balsamic reduction (with a hint of port?).

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Polvo! Octopus! Mamma has been craving this since we spotted it on a menu in Lisbon. The fleshy tentacles were roasted to crisp perfection, bursting with flavor, complimented by lovely buttered vegetables, spinach, and new potatoes (a staple in the North). A sprig of rosemary adds a pleasant aroma to the dish. Never underestimate a hotel restaurant! The food was excellent, the service attentive, and the convenience superb.

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