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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Of Lisbon

"The windows in here give and release like a lung." –J. M. Ledgard


This is where the Portuguese food voyage begins— fumbling an upside-down map with a shot of ginjinha (aguardente, sour cherries, sugar, and water), standing outside of a shop, also named Ginjinha, on Praca da Figueira. By sundown, we would be having seconds of alentejo soup at Patio do Bairro (on Rua da Atalaia), one of our favorite haunts in the city. The steamy bread soup with olive oil, lemon juice, cilantro, wads of garlic, and poached egg, was brought to Portugal by the Moors and first appeared in the 13th century cookbook Fudalat al-Khiwan.

Walking Lisbon is like walking an old ship. The cobblestone tangle— Alfama, Baixa, Bairro Alto, Chiado, Belém. An unassuming, rustic, sometimes dilapidated, charm. Mottled with world voyage and rusted netting, Lisbon is a weathered, washed out, less fizzy Italy. Spain in B-flat. It still bears the psychic scars of a great earthquake and tsunami that leveled the entire city on November 1, 1755.  Ocean-tossed and sweet. Economically dulled. A warehouse of longing and lost sailors.

Despite the globe-sailing and the Greeks, Romans, and Moors, Portugal is unmistakably European, with flourishes of North African souks, Mozambique, Vasco de Gama's Goa, and Macanese trading posts. By mouth, Lisbon is even vaguely German or English, with meals anchored in meat, potatoes, eggs, cod, and sea bass (vegetarians beware). After the Romans, Germanic tribes from central and northern Europe, Goths, and Celts took the reins. Seafaring London and Lisbon forged a nearly thousand-year old alliance as bastions on the Atlantic's edge. There's the inescapable English sweet tooth, with confeitaria, or pastry shops, lining every street, where you can get your fix of belém (Portuguese egg custard pastry) day or night. But, it also flows the other way. Portuguese sailors brought spicy piri piri peppers and sauce to Mozambique (pili pili is Swahili for pepper pepper); today, it's been popularized by the South Africa-based global dining chain Nando's. J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame was inspired by Porto in northern Portugal, where she lived and wrote much of the first book and where, strangely, droves of students walk the streets in black Hogwartian cloaks; Livraria Lello bookstore conjures up Daigon Alley.

Above this, Portugal cobbles together all corners of the globe, the pieces that keep in the lower hold of a ship, those best suited for exploration. Bacalhau, or dried, salted cod, a reminder of Portugal's ocean heyday when it used to traffic in cod from England and Norway, fills family cookbooks, menus, and bodegas. Colorful vintage tins of sardines and tuna are still big business. Port (wine), the global symbol of Portugal satisfies the Portuguese sweet tooth. Legend has it that sailors mixed brandy with wine, stopping fermentation and allowing the wine to keep on long voyages. Scots and Englishmen seized on the opportunity and to this day run the port industry out of Porto with names like Churchill's, Graham's, Osborne, Sandeman, and Taylor's.

You couldn't tell from the lush, electric nightlife in Bairro Alto— especially on Rua da Atalaia, Rua da Barroca, Rua do Diario de Noticias— second only to Istanbul's Istiklal or London's Shoreditch. But, Lisbon is weighed down by saudade, a distinctly Portuguese strain of melancholy and nostalgia. The Age of Discovery was a masterstroke that once lifted Lisbon to world capital. As it faded, it left behind a yearning and helplessness, a feeling that the past is too big— a surrender to fate. Even the word fado, Portugal's soulful indigenous music tracing to the early 19th century, stems from the Latin fatum, meaning fate or destiny.

I polished off a plate of Portuguese rice-blood chorizo with spiced apple cinnamon chutney. The Duoro wine started off bright and sweet and soon turned bitter. 

Lisbon Restaurants/Bars 
Cervajaria Ramiro
Cantinho do Avillez
Clube da Esquina
Maria Caxuxa
Patio do Bairro 
Pensão Amor 
Tasca do Chico


I've forgotten the names of the concierges at the Angleterre and the Baur au Lac and they've forgotten mine. Europe, though, remains. The lure of the cities, the narrow streets brilliant with shops, the bars across from deluxe hotels, the gleaming cars, the banks, restaurants, couples one would like to know something about, small rooms and rain, the violet paper of Suchard chocolate, the wardrobe mirror in which, radiant and firm, the beautiful natives appear.

Other images as well, inextinguishable, the single grains around which layers of memory adhere. Driving the roads of southern France, Beziers, Agde, the ancient countryside husbanded for ages. The Romans planted quince trees to mark the corners of their fields. Sinewy descendants still grow there. A woman, burnished by sun, walks down the street in the early morning carrying an eel. Many times I've written of this eel, smooth and dying, dark with the mystery of shadowy banks and, on that particular day, covered with bits of gravel. This eel is a saint to me, oblivious, already in another world.

And another time in a brief recess from work at the end of summer, its very last hour, and a few leaves already on the ground, and beautiful fields near Annecy. Huge poplars, solid as oaks. The sound of pears falling. Two thick-coated horses, full-grown and strong, stand near the barn then slowly walk down to the fence to take an offered apple. One nips me without malice on the wrist. –James Salter