João, our guide, led our small group through the narrow streets of Lisbon’s Chiado district. That morning, we were hunting for culinary traditions and new flavors. Having started with vinho verde for breakfast, we weren’t sure where he would take us next. João pointed to the doorway of a nondescript building his mother had told him about. We piled into a cramped, ancient elevator. At the top floor, we filed into a vintage cafeteria. A row of persimmons perched atop the counter.
This was the Cantina das Freiras, or nuns’ cafeteria. I placed my order for cod fritters at the checkout, noted the beer selection and stepped outside onto the rooftop terrace. The nuns had a breathtaking view of Lisbon and the Tagus River. The fritters were divine.
I had come to Portugal to research the hidden history of cork, and found unexpected delicacies. For nearly a century, cork from Portugal played a key role in the world economy. It sealed just about everything, including Mason jars, soda bottles and car gaskets. By the 1940s, the United States imported nearly half the world’s production. That became a problem during World War II, when Nazi Germany blockaded the Atlantic and cut off shipping with Europe. As I tracked that story to Portugal, I found layers of intrigue – along with a surprising food scene, old and new, from those country taverns to inventive young cosmopolitan chefs in Lisbon and Porto. My wife and I sampled wonderful wines and local produce, and witnessed the ancient harvest of cork, which goes back to the Romans and a Moorish era when the tree’s bark made the most comfortable shoes.
Somehow, that brought us to the nuns’ rooftop to taste delicious savory pastries, delicately fried, while looking out over a spectacular view of the Lisbon waterfront. We could see ferries from four directions on the wide Tagus as it glittered in the sunlight.
But we should start at the beginning. Our trip commenced in Porto, a beautiful old city beside the Douro River in the north. There we strolled along the quay, where boats laden with wooden casks bobbed and port-wine exporters had their names painted in big letters on warehouses up the hillside. Walking across a high bridge over the river, we admired orange trees by an old castle wall, their branches heavy with fruit. We stood before the sun-drenched cathedral as a busker sang songs in English. Then we scrabbled down the old steps through narrow passages.
As the source of the port-wine industry in the 1700s, this was the place to try a tasting. So in a little bar called Vinologia, we sat with three bottles before us: white port, pink and rubio, arranged light to dark on a leatherlike cork cloth.
That night, we dined at Cantinho do Avillez, a restaurant of Michelin-starred chef José Avillez. The meal started promisingly, with deep-fried green beans — a play on a traditional dish – and marinated scallops. Then came roasted octopus with a fantastic potato-and-tomato migas, and flaked cod confit. The dessert paired a white wine from Herdade do Esporao with a rich egg-yolk-and-almond confection (called toucinho do ceu) and raspberry sorbet. We gushed when the waitress came to take the plates away. She nodded. She came out again and placed before us a dish with layers of deep chocolate pudding and foam paired with a glass of red port. “I like this one better,” she said, and comped us. It tasted even better.
An hour south of Porto, I visited the Amorim cork factory, where I learned surprising facts about cork’s history. Carlos de Jesus described the industry’s rise through the centuries until World War II, seeming to adapt to every new modern need. “Then the idea of modernity changed,” he said. Cork fell out of favor in the 1950s; plastics soared. The cork industry languished. In the past 15 years, cork has become modern again, and eco-friendly, and is giving plastic screw tops a run for their money.
Carlos and his colleague Bruno showed me through a little museum in the 19th-century stone house of Amorim’s founder. Bruno offered a ride to lunch at a local favorite called 1715, named for the year the restaurant opened. Climbing into the back seat, Carlos sniffed and said, “Christmastime, everything smells like cod.”
Bruno, embarrassed, said, “I was bringing it home.” Salted cod was the company holiday gift to Amorim’s staff. Across Portugal, cod is the taste of Christmas.
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A few days later, we woke in Evora in the central Alentejo region. Our Airbnb was a centuries-old stucco home in one of those alleys and steps from the main square, where we stopped for a coffee and admired the Roman temple’s ruin and its mighty columns. The Roman Empire passed through here on the way to the sea and its path is still evident.
In Evora, my hunt for cork’s history took me through a rolling landscape of olive and cork oak groves, where trees had been shorn in the recent harvest. Here, cork reigns over a native dry savanna, or montado. The harvest – peeling off the outer bark – happens in summer, so the shorn trunks we passed had already started to weather and darken. The cork tree is unique in its ability to survive and even thrive after losing its bark. You can harvest cork from the same tree, every eight-to-10 years, for many decades. Harvesters take care to avoid hurting the tree, and they have honed their skills for centuries. Our hosts in Evora humored me with a visit to a rustic compound off a dirt lane, where the yard was stacked with slabs of lightweight cork, curled like the thick pages of a massive old book.
The senior cork man in the little factory courtyard, Isidoro Jímenez, about 75, was still sturdy and looking sharp in an olive sweater and cap. His father taught him the harvest technique when he was a boy, and cork paid a good income. Neither father nor son had finished school. When Isidoro started working in 1950, cork was booming: About 500 locals kept 15 little processing factories humming, sending cork to Lisbon for export to the Soviet Union and Romania, their biggest buyers during the Cold War and the autocratic regime of Portuguese Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar. During the harvest, Isidoro and his father would live in the forest under makeshift shelters cobbled from the large cork slabs. Still today, he said, there was a guy up the road living in a cork shack to protect his harvest.
Lately, the forests have suffered neglect as landowners moved to cities. This year’s fires in central Portugal arose in part from that shift. Where forests aren’t tended, undergrowth grows out of control and the risk of wildfire increases.
For generations, Alentejo was Portugal’s breadbasket, with an austere beauty and remarkable bounty. That bounty is on the table at Taberna Tipica Quarta Feira, a few blocks from where we stayed in Evora. One night, we walked down a narrow lane, hunting for it. There’s no sign outside.
Inside, though, customers filled the tables. The owner’s son, another João, welcomed us. The taberna serves a set menu, and soon after we took our seats the dishes started coming. For starters: locally foraged mushrooms sauteed in olive oil, melted sheep’s cheese with herbs; scrambled eggs with asparagus and cheese in a terrine; and a delicious cured meat similar to prosciutto.
Then João presented a platter commemorating the taberna’s 27th year in business, featuring the first dish his father served, decades ago: black pork with cumin, mint and orange, garnished with orange wedges. Then came cachaço de porco, a hearty plate of pork neck braised for three hours with potatoes along with spinach and bread migas. We washed this down with an excellent red wine from a local vintner. Dessert was an arrangement of fresh cherries, walnut cake and what João called “cheesecake”: a dense egg-yolk custard made by his mother-in-law. A quince poached in candied wine sauce, served with thimble glasses of a liqueur, capped it off. This was Alentejan bounty at a reasonable price.
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The next morning, at the sleepy Evora station, passengers wrangled bags of Christmas presents aboard the train to Lisbon. We rumbled through the rolling landscape among oaks resembling gigantic olive trees, with their massive trunks shorn up to 10 feet high. Cows and sheep grazed under their branches.
Fog seeped through the open woods. Someone in the cork business had told me, in describing Portugal’s cork forests, that they were like orchards. That struck me as odd at the time, but these forests really did resemble open orchards, not manicured but semiarid. They weren’t lush New World forests.
The fog lifted as we reached the wide Tagus close to Lisbon, vast and blue as the San Francisco Bay, and the bridge we were on glowed burnt orange like the Golden Gate. Soon the pastel city appeared far below us, and eventually our train touched down there.
That afternoon, in a visit to the University of Lisbon, I learned more about Portugal’s montado ecosystem and its history. A forestry professor showed me the library, a convent beautifully restored. She said that other countries seem to think the Portuguese are sad, but they’re actually lively and fun. I said maybe the popularity of Portuguese fado music with its blueslike sound of saudade, or wistfulness, was to blame. “Yes, fado,” she said, and laughed.
I didn’t expect good food at the Fado Museum, just good music – but the dinner was delicious, starting with tapenade and octopus salad. Then, bacalao a ze do pipo, a baked fish dish. (More Christmas cod!) When the performers came out – two guitarists and a singer – the guitarists wove their harmonies together, one higher like a mandolin. The singer stood draped in a red cape, tall and defiant, black curls trailing. Nadia Leiriao had a resonant deep voice and a commanding presence for a young singer.
The Douro red wine that the Brazilian waiter suggested was startlingly good. And the orange cake was light and paired with muscatel. Was the waiter ready for Christmas? we asked. “Yes, but a bit sad,” he said. His mother’s birthday was soon and he was far away. Saudade again.
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During World War II, Lisbon was notoriously riddled with spies, even more like the movie “Casablanca” than Casablanca itself was. I signed up for a walking tour of its spy history, and met the guide, a balding man in an overcoat, under the arch in the main Praca do Comercio. Jose grew up in the later years of Salazar, and when he spoke of how spies from a dying regime were absorbed into the new one, it sounded like personal experience. Jose said that when he was in school, students shared rumors about which students and teachers were government moles.
In the 1940s, amid Europe’s migration crisis, hundreds of thousands of refugees passed through Lisbon while fleeing Hitler’s brutality. Walking through Rossio Square, Jose explained how the refugees brought new influences but couldn’t stay. What’s more, Salazar and his secret police looked the other way when Gestapo agents kidnapped German exiles off Lisbon streets, violating Portugal’s neutrality. Some Americans in the cork industry got involved with the Allies’ spy network and helped to untangle the supply lines by which Portuguese firms sold to both sides.
For our Culinary Backstreets tour, we met João in a market that had been rundown for years before being restored by the Time Out media company. Now, it boasted new eateries on one side and traditional vendors on the other, selling gorgeous vegetables and fruits: rows of grapes, pears, clementines and apples. The glistening sea produce included chromelike silver scabbardfish, roe, grouper, monkfish, clams and tuna from the Azores. Gleaming reds, blues and iridescent whites on ice. The fishmongers arrive at the docks in the wee hours for the day’s catch and hit the market by 5 a.m.
After our midmorning start with vinho verde (literally green wine but actually “young wine,” an almost fizzy wine from the north), João fed us snacks of quince preserves along with shaved black pork and a bit of sheep’s cheese. Outside, we stopped for a shot of sour cherry liqueur from a chocolate cup. This was followed by the nuns’ rooftop treats and a delightful Alentejo-inspired lunch.
By the end, we had spent five hours with João, who generously shared his reading tastes, his opinions on futebol, his mother’s insights on buying “electrodomestic” appliances, and his favorite recipes. As we walked back through Chiado, the sun slashed the upper stories of the old facades, the streetcar rumbled through the cobbled streets and we paused to consider all the good food around us.