DISCOVERING PORTUGAL: Cascais
Here where the bounty of the sea meets the beauty of the land
The people who live on the Atlantic coastline that stretches from Lisbon to Cascais and on to Sintra adore seafood and eat it all the time. But the collective palate extends to everything from architecture to ancient tiles, and even includes the dish that was sent to them from the colonies.
Here where the land ends and the sea begins. It could be an inscription engraved on a monument at Cape Point or Cape Agulhas, as the waves crash on the rocks below and the omnipresent wind blusters at your neck.
Except that we are far from the Cape. We’re in Portugal, standing at the westernmost point of the entire Eurasian continent, Cabo da Roca, and they are the words of the revered Portuguese poet Luís Vaz de Camões, known here simply as Camões.
But Onde a terra se acaba e o mar começa, from the epic poem Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads), by Camões, could just as well be inscribed at Cape Point. The two places share an uncanny wildness and sense of being at the end of the universe. You feel your smallness, you feel the eternity of the sea, the land and the sky. Your feet fall softly, unheard, here, for all is greater than you.
It is the start of an eye-opening journey full of insights into this land and its people. We will walk on a million of the calçadas that pave every street and courtyard, admire countless azulejos as we marvel at the myriad designs of the tiles on almost every wall, and gaze slack-jawed at the extraordinary wealth of architectural grandeur everywhere we go. And we will eat seafood like a local.
We’re only three hours off the plane and have had four hours of sleep, but there’s no point in wasting a sunny day, so our host has driven us straight here from the airport, after a refreshment stop at her flat in Cascais where we dropped off our luggage.
Our palates dove right in too, as we drove a little of the way back towards Cascais and stopped at a bit of intrigue called Moinho Dom Quixote, a café and bar, vintage 1989, set in an old windmill (moinho means mill) where flour was ground until 1983, when renovations began to slowly turn it into what it is today.
I’m starting to get a handle on Portuguese pronunciation, because it’s time for our first flaming chouriço, which is generally pronounced chew-ree-zow by those not in the know (including me, until now). But it’s more like shoo-ree-shoo, and it’s flaming delicious.
It’s cooked at the table in an assador de barro, a traditional ceramic cooking bowl with ceramic slats across the top as a sort of grid on which you grill the sausage, which is slashed on top in several places. Alcohol in the bowl is set alight and you turn it until it blackens all over. Then you devour it hungrily. The chouriço was from Alentejo, which we were to visit a few days later.
We’re also served deep-fried pastels (parcels) full of maddeningly delicious oozy cheese, with a chilli dip alongside, and roasted padrón peppers packed with gostinho, which is the nearest Portuguese word I could find for umami (it actually means taste).
Padrón peppers look similar to jalepeños but are as mild as bell peppers, and all that flavour comes from the grilling. The pastry for the pastels was the crunchiest and most satisfying you could find anywhere.
It was a great way for our palates to start their own little holiday. But then… there’s a vicious moment at the till when I try to pay. An excessively dressed and made up young woman, sleek blonde hair somehow managing to stay on despite the speed at which she is barrelling towards me, her insanely tight-fitting clothes defying science not to break free of her, flashes livid mascaraed eyes at me, snapping, “Djoo arr een my wayyy!” in a parody of a Penélope Cruz accent. (Yes, I know she’s Spanish but that was her accent.)
I’m too startled to be cross, too gobsmacked to protest (too tired in fact to care). I just stare after her blankly as she storms away, whereupon she turns and glares at me like Jack Torrance with his head through the door. Huhhh!? The most annoying thing about it was that I had no idea, and still have no idea, what I’d supposedly done or what might have sparked her bizarre behaviour. (I prefer to know how I’ve pissed people off.) Maybe she thought I was English (it happens). Maybe she’d had another fight with her boyfriend and I just happened to be there. Poor bastard.
I don’t think about this again for the entire holiday, there’s that much to occupy the mind and eye.
On the way home we stop at the Auchun supermarket (the French retailer is ubiquitous, with large as well as mini stores, like our small branches of Woolies), where I drool over the seafood department that goes on all the way to the horizon. It’s not “do they have prawns” so much as how many varieties do they have. And so many kinds of fresh fish. It’s clear that the locals live on seafood, daily.
Fresh lobsters and crabs in a tank, others frozen in freezers, fish of kinds I do not recognise, nor do I comprehend their Portuguese names. We take home a pack of cooked prawns to eat with lemon, pure and simple. The journey from home has finally caught up with us.
Next morning, the gypsy market. Every Wednesday, the gypsy community bring their caravans to Cascais and set up their stalls. This is worth knowing and building into your schedule because they sell authentic fashion by famous labels. Portugal has a notable fashion industry manufacturing famous world brands from Chanel to Hilfiger and whose overruns are sold to gypsies who then sell them on for a fraction of what you’d pay in the shop.
Indoors, right next to the gypsy market, is the cavernous fruit market and, adjacent to that, the peixaria (fish market) where there are so many choices that they’re impossible to make. I was itching to buy some and cook it at home but that wasn’t to be. Anyway, there’s so much to eat elsewhere that it would have been time wasted.
The courtyard alongside is fringed by little shops selling food and drinks. We eat pastel de bacalhau (pr. “ba-kal-yow”) con queijo da serra (cheese of the mountain), one of Portugal’s most famous cheeses. Of which there are many.
That evening we’d been meant to go to Boca do Inferno, a famous grill room near the scenic attraction of the same name, a chasm in a cliffside full of all the drama that only the sea can give. But the owners were on their annual holiday, so we went instead to a place just along the coast called Grelhas (grill), in the grounds of Casa da Guia, the most beautiful grand home you ever imagined.
I ate one of my two favourite meals of the trip at Grelhas. Cuttlefish! Why do I not find cuttlefish on our menus? Only their cuttlebones, forlorn on every South African beach. It is among the most wonderful seafoods I’ve ever eaten. There were two on the plate, and they were char-grilled. They have something of the character of calamari, only sturdier and more substantial. Utterly divine. Ocean Basket? (If it is on a local menu, please let me know about it.)
Cousin Jen was out from London to see us in Cascais. She had the grilled seabass fillet. Emilie, a friend, had the envy of my side of the table: a whole grilled octopus. Others eyed it squeamishly; I hoped for a bite but got none. Carol, our host’s friend, ordered the porkfish, a new species to me. Google tells me it swims in the western Atlantic, which is not near.
It’s at Casa de Guia that I first marvel at the tiles they call azulejos and the floor cobbles known as calçadas. I photograph the calçadas underfoot, in my new Portuguese shoes from the gypsy market.
Days pass. Belém. Évora. Lisbon. All of which are in parts one and two of this Portugal series (see links at the end of the story). But now it’s Saturday. We’re back in Cascais. And we need to see the rugby. It’s the night of That Quarterfinal about which our very fine sports writer Craig Ray wrote so wonderfully here.
And where else to watch South Africa play France in Portugal than in a British-themed pub called the John Bull in Cascais?
I’ve never seen more exciting rugby in my life. It was a miracle that no one in the room had a heart attack. The pub was full of locals, and to a man, woman and teenage son they were yelling in support of the Bokke. Leaping up to hug one another when the final minute was up. Somebody even hugged me.
Sunday sees us in the old town of Cascais, with its narrow streets lined with wavy calçadas and chic shops and cafes on either side. We pop into a famous restaurante called Bijou where we eat jesuitas, triangular almond tarts that give proper meaning to the term to-die-for.
I refer to the kitchen at Bijou as a cuzinha and my host smilingly corrects me. Cozinha is kitchen, she says; cuzinha is arse. 🙈 (But I swear they’re pronounced the same…)
It’s hot by mid-afternoon so, after admiring the magnificence of the 15th and 17th century fortifications of the Cidadela de Cascais, today an elegant art district, we went inside to the coolth of the Pousada de Cascais, where in the basement foyer there were covetable paintings in an ode to Van Gogh on display. The artist is Alireza Karimi Moghaddam, who makes digital paintings in the style of my hero Vincent.
That night it’s peri-peri chicken time, perfect too, from Churrasqueira Jardim dos Frangos (frango = chicken) to eat at home, after a glass of wine at a quiosque on a small square. A soothing taste of what life is like for locals.
This brought me full circle. Peri-peri chicken came to Portugal from the countries it once conquered, brought back home by people who had grown up in the colonies. From Mozambique, via South Africa and other colonies, north to the country that most people believe it to come from. Their gift to the motherland.
And now there are peri-peri fast food joints in the motherland where the locals can have a true taste of colonial life. There’s something quite sweet and spicy about that. DM
Part 4 of this series is still to come. Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Writer 2023, jointly with TGIFood columnist Anna Trapido.
Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks.