Coming Home to Lisbon

Rossio in Lisbon

I folded myself into the backseat of the small Mercedes taxi. The driver, a deeply tanned man with a quick smile, looked at me in the mirror. “American, yes?” I had been in Lisbon for only 20 minutes, and already I had a chance to say what I had been practicing during the entire flight.

“No sir, I’m Portuguese,” I replied in the slow, measured words of my new language.

I explained that my father was a Portuguese citizen when I was born, so by law I was eligible for dual citizenship, which after two years of loopy phone calls in “Portglish” — my pidgin Portuguese — I finally received. This was my first trip to Lisbon.

“Congratulations!” he said. “Then you must permit me to show you your new capital city.” Who was I to argue?

The Portuguese are notoriously fast and wily drivers, and mine did his countrymen proud. We caromed down the Avenida da Liberdade, Lisbon’s answer to the Champs-Élysées, which is lined with boutiques, the grand neoclassical Tivoli theater, and the offices of Diário de Notícias, one of Lisbon’s oldest and largest newspapers. We hurtled around the graceful Rossio (above), a large square paved with cobblestones in a dizzying wave pattern, winning it the nickname of “Rolling Motion Square.” The square is crowded with shops, tabacarias, and lively outdoor restaurants and cafés, including Café Nicola, one of the oldest haunts of Lisbon’s literati.

Elevador de Santa Justa, Lisbon, PortugalOff to the right was the famous Elevador de Santa Justa, a Neo-Gothic funicular built at the beginning of the 20th century by an apprentice of Alexandre Gustave Eiffel’s. The elevator was ostensibly designed to transport Lisboetas from Baixa, the lower part of the city, to the Bairro Alto district above. But I suspect with its delicate wrought iron filigree and imposing 150-foot height, it was more of a folly to show the world just how sophisticated this once-forgotten corner of the continent was. As the taxi finally pulled up to my hotel, the Lapa Palace, it was already clear that Lisbon is a charming town that’s mending her tattered edges.

During the heady days of the Age of Discovery, Lisbon was a world leader, thanks to Portuguese innovations in navigation. Soon, though, it was hip-checked into early retirement by larger, more powerful cities that grew wealthy exploiting the trade routes she had blazed from Brazil to Macao. But since Portugal joined the European Economic Community in 1986, there’s been an influx of trade, culture, and much-needed money. As a result, ornate façades everywhere are being restored, but the colorful mottle of centuries of peeling paint — the divine decrepitude — has remained.

Like those of Rome, Lisbon’s neighborhoods are spattered across seven hills. Since I was seeking classic Lisbon, its food and culture, I put Bairro Alto (restaurant central) and Alfama (the oldest section) at the top of my must-see list.

Lisbon Quote

“For many Lisboetas, Alfama is the soul of the city,” said João, a spry elderly gentleman who was out for his morning walk “to give the wife some air.” When he saw me wrestling with a map on the steps of Sé cathedral, he offered to be my guide. As we walked along the labyrinthine streets, many of which now bear only pedestrian traffic, João explained that what makes Alfama so special is that it survived the devastating earthquake of 1755. While most of the city, which was either destroyed by tremors, fires, or a massive tidal waves, sprouted back with grand boulevards and spacious plazas, Alfama retained its jumbled, old-world charm of brightly colored buildings piled high atop each other. “It’s a glimpse into our dark past,” he smiled.

I felt as if I were beneath a great circus tent, for strung everywhere were crisscrossing lines of laundry flapping like so many flags. Deeper into the district, the streets suddenly narrowed to alleys, then to dark passageways, many ending in a tumble of stairs that deposited us into hidden courtyards shared by the bordering homes. Because the day was already hot, stout women with broad, friendly faces sat on the thresholds nattering away while children zigzagged back and forth, their game a tumult of shouts.

Noon struck and so did hunger. João returned to his well-aerated wife, and I headed to the restaurant he recommended.

Restaurante Faz Figura has held sway over the lower portion of Alfama for 29 years. My table was on the covered terrace, which opened up to a view the Tagus River.

The food, music, and architecture of Lisbon's Bairro Alto districtAt the insistence of owner José Fernandes, came a cold marinated octopus salad to start, which gave me pause until he placed the plate in front of me. The slivers of pristine white fish were nothing like the bowls of purple octopus stew that were foisted upon me in my childhood by a well-meaning but culinarily misguided aunt. The flavors were clean and bright with a sting of good Portuguese vinegar.

Seared skate and shoulder of roasted kid followed. Both were served up with mountains of tender sauteed couves (Galician kale), roasted garlic, and potatoes.

Fortified by lunch, I decided to tackle Castelo de São Jorge, the imposing onetime Moorish castle that crowns the district. The ramparts of the fortress open up onto the most spectacular panoramic view of Lisbon. From here the city’s hilly disposition is easily seen, and the view is best taken in during the morning hours as the sun warms the vivid red-clay roofs and illuminates the stark white façades below.

The reverse and equally arresting view is on the opposite side of the city at the Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara, a park on the precipitous edge of Bairro Alto. At dusk the same roofs turn a burnt sienna and the buildings warm with a brilho dourado, a golden glow. Sitting there nibbling rustic peasant bread smeared with Queijo da Serra (a soft cheese) and watching the castle’s lights sputter was a civilized way to usher in a Portuguese evening, which, I was soon to discover, starts late, shouts loudly, and oftentimes ends at dawn.

The next afternoon I jumped on one of the eléctricos, the brightly colors trams that clack along the streets, impervious to slow-moving seniors and padding dogs. I hopped off at Chiado at the bottom of Bairro Alto and installed myself in A Brasileira, an art nouveau café on tony Rua Garrett. There I won the admiration of my waitress by polishing off half a dozen pastéis de nata, the dense custard tarts that have been a local obsession for more than 150 years.

As I walked up the hill later, I felt as if I were in a low-budget sci-fi flick. I searched the cobblestone streets and found no one. I looked into several tascas, tiny family-run eateries, but all I saw were ghostly flickering televisions.

Then bang — I looked up and a hefty women had thrown open her green shutters and wedged herself into the window.

“Olá!” she hollered. Then another bang. Across the street, which was no wider than 15 feet, a second woman, just as well fed, flung open her window. She leaned out and the two launched into conversation.

“Excuse me,” I called up. “Where is everyone?”

They looked at each other. Come back tonight,” said the first one.

Lisbon's Bairro Alto DistrictTwelve hours later the street was choked with people, tables, and chairs. I made my way through the crosshatch of streets that were lined with Goths, Gapsters, and grungers — a veritable United Nations of fashion statements, economic classes, and romantic agendas. The district had the youthful, electric charge of New York’s East Village of the ’80s, but with a watchful maternal presence. For every vampiric 19-year-old trying to squeeze her way into a Day-Glo vodka bar, there was a black-clad ancient woman with rosary beads and grocery bags sidling into her front door a mere six feet away.

The place was chockablock with restaurants that seemed to have sprouted from nowhere, and I was determined to taste a much of my heritage as possible.

First was Pap’Açôrda, with its huge Murano chandeliers and chic model-artist-author crowd. It’s known for its updated regional classics, the most famous being its namesake: açôrda, a soup swollen with hearty bread and, in this case, studded with seafood. I was also delighted by the peixinhos da horta, literally “little fish from the garden.” Nothing more than green beans that are battered and deep fried, they get their fanciful name from their shape. Indeed, when the waiter served up a bowl, they looked like a tangle of slender freshly fried fish. Warning: The attitude of the waiters is fierce and condescending, but the food is worth it.

Around the corner was Bota Alta, for my money one of the best spots for classic authentic cuisine. The high-voltage blue interior was dark and mysterious. After explaining to Paulo Cassiano, waiter and nephew to owner Antonio Cassiano, that this was my first time at Bota Alta, he immediately suggested bacalhau à Brás, salted codfish scrambled with eggs and tossed with matchstick potatoes. Having made the dish many times back home, I searched the menu for something more exotic. I chose a fish I couldn’t pronounce and Paulo couldn’t translate. He nodded and returned several minutes later with a dish that looked suspiciously like bacalhau à Brás.

“If you don’t like it,” he promised, “I’ll bring you whatever you want.” Charmed by his insistence, I dug in. The clouds of soft scrambled eggs encasing bits of salted cod and crispy matchstick potatoes were utterly addictive.

“Well?” Paulo asked.

“I’m sorry, but there’s something else I’d like.” He looked crestfallen,until I added, “The recipe.” He blustered with relief and then yelled something back to the kitchen. As of that day, my recipe was officially retired.

Bota Alta Restaurant, Lisbon, PortugalHaving eaten my way from the earliest days of the Portuguese empire to the end of the 20th century, on my last night in Lisbon I decided it was time for some 21st century cutting-edge cuisine. The old docks have been outfitted with new restaurants and glittery discos. As I got out of the cab I was lured by the pulsating of Lux, Lisbon’s most famous nightspot, but I headed instead for the wildly popular restaurant Bica do Sapato, which is partly owned by the actor John Malkovich.

The retro-modern dining room, which, with its soaring ceilings, white tulip chairs, and hanging flying-saucer lights, could make Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal jealous. I tucked in at a table along the placid Tagus, where I had a view of the Ponte 25 de Abril, the doppelgänger of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.

“It’s a good thing the Inquisition has blown over,” I said to my Alan, dining companion, scanning the menu that was positively heretical. All the traditional ingredients were there — codfish, olive oil, pork, potatoes, shrimp, clams — but none of the dishes were even vaguely familiar.

Case in point: for a starter chef Fausto Airoldi uses fresh cod (unusual) to make a tartare (very unusual here) that sits on a bed of diced vegetables and is topped with a grape-size scoop of olive oil sorbet (unthinkable, but utterly delicious).

The surprises continued with pato à Brás. For this he gives duck breast, which is traditionally served over piles of rice, the egg-and-potato treatment reserved for salted codfish, like the kind served at Bota Alta. He adds a light tomato confit and steamed grelos, similar to our broccoli rabe,  for good measure.

“How’s this going over with the locals?” I asked Airoldi. “This isn’t exactly my mamma’s cooking.”

He laughed. “The Portuguese are stubborn,” he said. “They’ll travel 20 kilometers for a classic meal, but they won’t cross the avenue for something new. But it’s changing.”

“So why do you keep trying?”

He smiled. “Because I’m part Portuguese and part Italian, and that means I’m twice as stubborn.”

After dinner, we walked back along the docks. I stopped and looked up at the city, which shimmered in the warm air. It was once my father’s capital, but in an act of familial generosity that’s centuries old, Lisbon had now been turned over to me.

Bacalhau à Brás
Peixinhos da Horta

View the Trip Planner

The Pan Snob

The Pan Snob by David Leite

It has recently come to my attention that I am a notorious, card-carrying bigot. My prejudice was so deeply rooted — and deeply hidden — that I thought I was a pretty accepting, politically correct kind of guy until those seven little words brayed from the speaker phone: “Can you make me a Bundt cake?”

It was my neighbor Carlotta Florio. Carlotta works for a major film studio in L.A., and although she lives in the Hollywood hills and uses her Connecticut house less than three months a year, she still considers it home. And when she’s here, our group of gastronauts hangs up our aprons because we know that before she’s pulled into her driveway she’s already shopped for a week’s worth of lush, candlelit dinners to which we are invariably invited.

But a Bundt cake? Isn’t that the dominion of Betty Crocker and cake mixes with puddin’ packs included for extra moistness? Weren’t they part of the sorry-looking lineup at every bake sale we held to raise money for our high-school photography club? As far as I was concerned, Bundt pans were retired along with air poppers and avocado-green fondue pots sometime in the late ’70s. Read more »

The Franco-American Butter Wars

Before the 1990s, there was no question about it: French butter reigned victorious in just about every pastry kitchen of worth. Its complex, nutty flavor with a slightly tangy back note, superior plasticity, and sterling pedigree were world famous. French chefs, accustomed to working with such an excellent ingredient in their homeland, had long ago convinced a cadre of important American colleagues to follow suit. And, therefore, French butter’s preeminence remained unchallenged. But over the past decade, new American butters have been storming the palace gates. The result? American butter is now being layered into mille-feuille or smoothed into rich pastry creams as often as some of the most revered French beurre brands.

To understand the once-wholesale dismissal of American butter by many chefs requires a look back at two of the great watershed events in this country’s history: the world wars. According to Jonathan White, artisanal cheese maker and owner of Bobolink Dairy in Vernon, NJ, there was no such thing as 80 percent sweet-cream butter — the product today’s chefs find bland and watery — before the advent of refrigeration and industrialization.

“Because of smaller-scale production, butter was churned every second or third day, so the room-temperature cream had time to sour, or ferment,” he says. It was this cream, in essence crème fraîche, that was churned into a richer, more complex-tasting butter — the kind many of the best French dairies were producing. In the United States, the wars put an end to this process by drafting many of the young farmers and encouraging large companies to industrialize the dairy industry, in an effort to manufacture rations for troops and products for foreign-relief efforts. With the introduction of the continuous butter maker, it was possible to pour uncultured cream into one end and, minutes later, get butter with a consistent 20 percent water content out the other. The technology helped win the wars but killed the spirit of American butter.

So what has prompted highly regarded chefs — such as François Payard, owner of Payard Patisserie and Bistro, and Eric Bertoïa, executive pastry chef at Daniel, both in New York City, as well as Gregory Gourreau, executive pastry chef at Le Cirque in Las Vegas — to open their larders to American butters? In part, the reemergence of small, artisanal dairies. Says Allison Hooper, co-founder of the Vermont Butter & Cheese Company in Websterville, VT, “We looked around and saw that in order to make a niche for ourselves, we had to raise the butter bar.” She has done that by producing a cultured butter with an 86 percent butterfat content. Hooper’s company, along with other small producers, such as Ronnybrook Farm Dairy in Ancramdale, NY, and the Straus Family Creamery in Marshall, CA, was among the first to fill a nearly 90-year void.

“Only now can we find very good butter in America [like that] from small farms in upstate New York,” says Payard, referring to Ronnybrook Farms. “It’s very close to French butter.” Others agree. “Some American butters are very, very good,” says Michael Rispe, pastry chef at the Waldorf=Astoria in Manhattan. He uses the domestic brand Beuremont for many of his desserts, including Lemon Pound Cake. “I like the rich flavor and smooth, homogeneous consistency,” he adds. Bertoïa also uses Beuremont for pâte sablée, pâte brisée, tuiles and petits fours. Gourreau, on the other hand, prefers Anderson butter for many of his desserts. “Especially for chocolate ganache,” he says. “The butterfat content makes a smoother product.”

But the appearance of American butter in pastry kitchens isn’t solely the achievement of artisanal dairy producers. To compete with unsalted French butter, which by law requires a minimum of 82 percent butterfat versus 80 percent for American butter, a new wave of commercial American brands with a higher fat content has appeared. Ten-year-old Plugrá, which weighs in at 82 percent butterfat, is a favorite of many chefs. Priscilla Martel, chef-instructor at the Center for Culinary Arts in Cromwell, CT, uses an analogy to drive home the significance of the seemingly small increase in butterfat. “Is there a difference in taste between whole milk and 1 percent milk?” she asks. “Of course there is. It’s the same with butter. It really does add up.”

“The difference is not just the fat content, there’s also less liquid [in Plugrá],” says Pamela Fitzpatrick, executive baker at Fox & Obel Food Market in Chicago. “That extra percentage does so much for pastries and laminated doughs. But where I notice the difference is with bread and brioche. The butter is very plastic and incorporates into the dough beautifully.”

Payard, known for his passionate adherence to quality, also uses Plugrá. “It works very well for pastry,” he says. “But you have to know what to use when. There’s a big difference between using the right product and using the [best] product simply because it’s the best.”

Nearly every chef who was interviewed echoed his sentiment. Most agree they would reach for a French brand when an intense buttery taste was paramount, in a sablé Breton or a particularly delicate lemon curd, for example. But, for the most part, they prefer American butter for making items such as almond creams, ganaches and other fillings. Some, though, turn to American brands for the true test of a butter’s mettle: mille-feuille.

Pierre Hermé, pastry chef and owner of the patisserie Pierre Hermé in Paris, proved this point to himself when he was developing baked goods for the U.S. grocery chain Wegmans Food Market. “When we started to make croissants at Wegmans, we made some with French butter and some with American butter. The difference was amazing. The rise, taste and appearance were better with French butter. But for the puff pastry, we always use American butter.”

While most of the chefs agree that French butter is the answer when flavor truly matters, the accord stops there. There’s no consensus as to which brand is the best. For 15 years Hermé has used La Viette in his Paris shops, which is what has made his Lemon Cream Tart a best-seller for as long as any food critic can remember. Payard is partial to Lescure, as is Yvan Lemoine, pastry chef at Fleur de Sel in New York City. When asked why he prefers Lescure for his Caramelized Apple Crepes, Lemoine says, “It turns into a more intense, buttery caramel. It matters in the crepe batter, too. The crepes don’t dry out after they cook. They stay very moist.”

Gourreau prefers Échiré for his inside-out puff pastry, which he uses as a component for many of his desserts. “I like the flavor and the richness. It also gives a beautiful rise to the dough.” Bertoïa uses Échiré as well, mostly with chocolate and fruits, though he puts Montaigu to work in croissants and mille-feuille because it’s “very dry, drier than Échiré, so it makes great pastry.”

But this French-butter feeding frenzy among chefs can be misleading. The brands sitting on pastry tables in the finest restaurant kitchens represent a small percentage of the butters produced in France. “Right now, only 10 percent or 20 percent of French butter is any good,” remarks Rispe. “The remaining 80 percent is similar to America’s double-A butter. I believe the reason why people think French butter is the best is because they’ve only tasted that 20 percent.”

Regardless, this small percentage of butter is outstanding for good reason. “They’ve been making it [the same way] for many centuries, and they’ve got it down to a science,” comments Steven Jenkins, dairy buyer at Fairway Market in Manhattan and Plainview, NY. “On a scale of one to ten, it’s a ten-er.”

Because of the history and consistency of the production of these exclusive butters, nearly all of them fall under the designation of Appellation D’Origine Contrôlée (AOC). At the moment only a handful of areas in France, which include Charentes-Poitou and Normandy, produce AOC butter. The AOC requires that each butter’s character be rooted in a limited geographic domain. So the pastures where the cows graze, the feed they are given, and even the local springwater the farmers wash the butter with are carefully monitored. “It’s the quality of the land that makes French butter so good,” Bertoïa says. And it’s this inalienable French concept of terroir that many chefs, both French and American, use to draw a line in the sand.

Yet some believe that good land is good no matter where it is, and they argue that American butter, if carefully produced, can match or surpass French butter. “We have superior pastures, and we have superior animals,” Jenkins points out. “The result of that would make better butter, if we knew how to culture it properly.”

Hooper, whose butter is made from the milk of cows that graze on some of Vermont’s most verdant pastures, land reminiscent of France’s protected terroir, agrees. “The key to making superior American butter is in the culturing,” she says. “It’s what gives a longer, lingering flavor. When we were testing our butter, I gave some to a chef who was raised in Brittany. After tasting it, he said, ‘Don’t change a thing. It’s just like the butter I grew up eating.'”

Often, though, taste takes a backseat to cost. By definition AOC-butter production is small scale. “The [Échiré] cooperative produces 950 tons of butter each year, just 0.2 percent of all the butter produced in France annually,” wrote journalist and author Dorie Greenspan in a New York Times article last year. This limited supply creates a seller’s market, which ratchets up the butter’s price. “Butter is like Wall Street,” says Payard. “Prices go up and down. Sometimes if I get a good price, I’ll lock it in.” According to Hermé, some chefs even engage in butter speculation, hoping to get the best possible price. One solution they’ve found for keeping costs down, while sacrificing little or no quality, is adding commercial American butters, such Plugrá or Beuremont, to their inventory.

Surprisingly, it’s not just French butter that can burn a hole in a chef’s wallet. American butter has on occasion edged out its French rival when it comes to price. “Sometimes you’re better off buying French butter,” remarks Payard. “Two summers ago the price of American butter went sky high. Why? Because all the cream was being used for ice cream.” Instead, he ordered French butter at a lower price than he could get for domestic brands.

Despite all the posturing about the quality of French versus American butter, nothing can cause a chef to disregard personal preferences, transcend nationalism, and overlook cost faster than freshness. Chefs rely on it to give their pastries a competitive edge. Hermé prides himself on the freshness of the butter he uses. “When it’s delivered to me, it’s a maximum of seven days old,” he says. “Many times it’s four days, three days, even two days old. It’s not butter that was stored for months.”

Although some chefs freeze their butter, especially when they’ve purchased the lion’s share because they wrangled a low price, Hooper warns against this: “The butter’s structure changes. It doesn’t perform the same way; it doesn’t give the same lift to laminated doughs as it does when it’s fresh.”

Cheese maker Jonathan White cautions that some of the French butters, although at the peak of freshness when packaged, can sometimes taste old when they arrive in the United States. “It’s most likely by dint of how they were handled,” he says. “My recommendation? You want to get the freshest butter you can get, regardless of how it was made or where it was made. I’d rather have fresh Land O’Lakes than anybody’s old [AOC] butter.”

In the end, the 90-year-old stronghold that French butter has had over pastry kitchens seems to be loosening. Many chefs are accepting what American artisanal dairies have to offer, oftentimes collaborating with them to produce a meticulously cultured butter that, because of its American terroir, can rival some of France’s best. And ironically, French butter’s continued allure and status are assured by the addition of high-quality, less-expensive commercial American brands. This culinary détente, unimaginable just 12 years ago, is helping chefs turn out products of superb quality, consistently and economically.

Photo © 2003 George Jardine. All Rights reserved.

Daily Subscription

Enter your email address and get all of our updates sent to your inbox the moment they're posted. Be the first on your block to be in the know.

Preview daily e-mail

Weekly Subscription

Hate tons of emails? Do you prefer info delivered in a neat, easy-to-digest (pun intended) form? Then enter your email address for our weekly newsletter.

Preview weekly e-mail

The David Blahg Subscription

Enter your email address and get all of the The David Blahg updates sent to your inbox the moment they're posted. Be the envy of knowledgeable, savvy cooks everywhere. Sassy!