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Lisbon diary

Every city should have a flower that it can call its own. Some already do.

Tokyo is at its best when the cherry blossoms bloom. Amsterdam has the tulip. And our very own Delhi has the laburnum which blazes all over the capital every spring.

 

Lisbon has the jacaranda. The trees bloom just before summer arrives and the flowers seem to reflect the sky along the city’s tree-lined main streets. Other cities have jacarandas too (in countries as far away as Australia and South Africa) but Lisbon has a special claim to the flower. The tree is of South American origin and it travelled the world (like the chilli) when Portuguese traders and explorers (and invaders) planted it everywhere they went.

 

   The Portuguese once had an empire that straddled the globe. But unlike London, where the Brits never let you forget that they once ran India (and much of the rest of the world), the Portuguese are more reticent about trumpeting their imperial past. Lisbon is one of Europe’s loveliest capitals, studded with palaces, churches and monuments but few seem to celebrate the empire years.

 

   I asked if I could see Vasco DaGama’s tomb (well, it is useful for the victims of his imperial conquests to make sure that the old sod is really dead) and nobody seemed to know or care very much about the man who was once credited with “discovering India”.

 

   In fact, the overwhelming characteristic of Lisbon is its gentle and quiet understatement. The flowers bloomed everywhere, there were few crowds on the roads and in many parts of the city there was such an air of stillness that you could hear the birds sing. Everywhere I went the people were friendly, helpful and eager to bridge the language barrier.

 

   I first went to Portugal over 15 years ago for an international conference. I loved it then and was determined to go back but somehow the opportunity never arose. Then, this year I decided that I would visit as much of Portugal as possible.

 

   It turned out to be the best holiday decision I have made in a long time. From the moment I drove into Lisbon, I loved the city. It helped (it always does, doesn’t it?) that it was the cheapest European city I have been to, with gourmet food at low prices, taxis that even Indians could afford without a second thought and hotels that were half the price of London and Paris.

 

   I stayed at the Ritz, a hotel built in the late 1950s at the behest of Portugal’s former dictator (relax: the country has been a democracy since 1974), Antonio Salazar, who believed that Lisbon needed a grand hotel. So it looks rather like the old Oberoi Intercontinental but was built on the massive scale of the Ashoka (which was constructed around the same time) with grand public spaces and huge rooms.

 

   Since 1997, the Ritz has been run by the Four Seasons with clockwork efficiency, finally giving the hotel the luxury status that Salazar dreamt about.

 

   As you would expect of Lisbon’s top hotel, the staff are super well-connected. One example: I have wanted, for years, to eat the food of Jose Avillez, Portugal’s greatest chef, who has many restaurants, at all price levels, around Lisbon.

 

   His flagship is Belcanto, with two Michelin stars. Since I’d planned the trip a month in advance, I thought I had enough time to get a booking. I called Belcanto and asked for a table four weeks hence.

 

   “So sorry,” they told me. “We are a small restaurant and are fully booked.”

 

   Then, I had the bright idea of calling the Ritz. Could they get me in?

 

   They sure as hell could: a table suddenly materialised on a Saturday night!

 

   And so, I ended up at Belcanto where I ordered the smallest tasting menu, consisting of Avillez’s classic dishes.

 

   The food was fabulous. The tone was set by the amuse-bouches. Tuna tartare (with Japanese/Korean seasoning) hidden in a flower pot, a variation on the EL Bulli exploding olive with a pit made of chocolate, and a procession of other small plates.

 

   The main courses included Avillez’s famous golden egg, slow-cooked and served on a bed of mushroom and a riff on the traditional Portuguese stew of pork, sausage and vegetables. This consisted mainly of vegetables but had been cunningly infused with the flavours of the sausage. There was a tribute to the Sunday lunch of Roast Pork and salad in the form of a square of perfect roast pork with crisp crackling, a smear of orange sauce, the heart of a lettuce and an edible ‘polythene’ bag containing hand-cut, home-cooked chips.

 

"City of blue jacarandas and secret tarts. I’m going back in October. And if you are planning a trip to Europe, then Portugal is where you should be heading too!"

   If Avillez had been cooking in France, he would get three stars. But because he is based in Lisbon, Michelin has only given Belcanto two stars.

 

   One of the perks of staying at the Ritz is that you get Nuno Neves, the all-knowing concierge, to plan your trip. Nuno sent me to the best restaurants (and not necessarily the expensive ones) for superb meals. One lunchtime he booked me into Jesus e’ Goes, which I had heard Nuno Mendes (the Portuguese chef at London’s The Chiltern Firehouse) describe as a “hole in the wall with the best Goan food in Lisbon”.

 

   Mendes was right. There are many quite fancy Goan restaurants in Lisbon, but this was a dhaba run by a burly, bearded man called Jesus Lee (I Googled him later and found an article in a Goan paper, which claimed him as one of their own: Jesus Fernandes, the ‘Lee’ is a tribute to Bruce Lee, apparently!)

 

   I’m rarely impressed by Indian food abroad, especially when there isn’t a single Indian in the restaurant but this was terrific stuff: excellent puri-sabzi, the lightest onion bhajias, intense sorpotel and large prawns in reichad masala.

 

   I told Nuno, my ever-resourceful concierge, that I was slightly obsessive about the Portuguese custard tart. This is the dish the Portuguese took to their former colony of Macau, which has now re-exported it to the world. I had the Ritz’s version after an excellent lunch at Verandah, the hotel’s restaurant and it was fine but hardly sensational. I had eaten it in Sintra (the subject of another piece – soon!) where it was very good and I had even tried Jose Avillez’s nouvelle version at his bustling Bairro do Avillez.

 

  So, where was the best tart in Portugal? Nuno suggested Pasteis de Belem. “They make the original ones,” he declared.

 

   I looked it up. Legend has it that monks at monasteries created the custard tart because they used egg whites to starch their robes and had lots of yolks left over.

 

   The pastry shop in Belem has been at the same spot since 1830 and claims to have been founded by a monastic order. Though every pastry chef in Portugal makes a custard tart, this shop is reputed to have the best because it has a secret recipe that only three people know.

 

   Apparently, each day, two of the chefs go into a secret room and make the custard cream and the pastry dough. Once these are ready, they are transported to the main kitchen where a team of cooks work at a battery of ovens set at a blistery 800°, necessary to give the pastry its crisp finish.

 

   I have heard stories like this in every city of the world. There is always a secret dish with an ancient recipe. So I was sceptical. And when I saw the long queue outside the shop for takeaway tarts, I was leery.

 

   “Tourist trap,” I thought.

 

   Except that over three quarters of the line consisted of Lisbon locals, not tourists. If they were prepared to queue up here for a pie that every corner shop sold, then there had to be something special about this tart. And so my scepticism began to dissipate.

 

   When I finally got inside and discovered that this was no quaint pastry shop but a collection of barely decorated enormous rooms, I was a little astonished. There must have been 500 people or more in the restaurant – with at least a hundred queuing up.

 

   And then, I ate the tart.

 

   It was like all the other custard tarts. And it was like no other tart.

 

   Yes, it looked the same, but it was warm, fresh from the oven, which meant that the crust had the satisfying crunch of the best pies. The custard  inside had so many layers of flavour that every tart I had eaten till now had only hinted at the depth that Portugal’s most famous dish was capable of.

 

   Now I knew why locals queued up outside. And later I learned that the shop bakes 23,000 tarts a day. And they are all sold out immediately.

 

   So that’s Lisbon. City of blue jacarandas and secret tarts. I’m going back in October. And if you are planning a trip to Europe, then Portugal is where you should be heading too!

 

 

Posted On: 03 Jun 2017 04:56 PM
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