Aren’t Vacations Lovely?
May 10, 2011
At least while you’re taking them? My problem starts when I get home and can’t quite slough off the taking-it-easy attitude while simultaneously facing the mountains of work that have piled up during our absence. I’m sure some of that post-vacation exhaustion comes from the questionable habit of trying to see everything and do everything while traveling. More often than not, I return home needing a vacation from the vacation. And there you have it — my excuse of an excuse for not posting in 2 months. Bad, bad blogger.
Yes, vacations. Nearly 23 years ago, I was working my way from the rains and blustery winds of Amsterdam toward the promise of Portugal’s sun-drenched shores when I happened across a Spanish circus, a handsome Italian boy, and his 6 elephants. Married the elephant keeper a few years later; never made it to Portugal. I’ve teased him for years that he owed me a trip there. In a few months, we’ll celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary, and this year seemed the perfect year to make that trip happen.
For the last two weeks in March, Portugal plied us with her pleasures. Lisbon’s castles and monasteries, Porto’s wine, the Algarve’s rugged coastline — we loved every bit of it. The Portuguese people were welcoming and friendly, patient with my limited Portuguese, and anxious to point out an obscure sight we may have missed or a particular specialty we ought to eat.
There was a lot of eating — and just as much drinking. According to my guidebook, the Portuguese have the highest consumption of alcohol per-capita in Europe. Immersing ourselves In that When in Rome spirit, we did our damnedest to keep up. Not certain we succeeded, but sure enjoyed trying. Our favorite place to drink? A neighborhood bar in Lisbon’s Alfama district. The whole place couldn’t have been bigger than 100 square feet, and the walls were lined with every type of alcohol made in Portugal (uncountable). The proprietress, a motherly 60-year old who stood barely as tall as her bar and spoke not a word of English, greeted us with a smile each night we passed by and was happy to pour us a shot or two or three of some previously-unknown libation such as ginjinha (jeen-JEEN-ya), a sour cherry liquer typical of Lisbon. Our favorite thing to drink? Port wine, of course, hands down. We’ve developed quite a liking for the stuff over the years, especially aged tawny, and we had no problem turning a good portion of our trip into a pilgrimage to the Douro river region, home of the port-wine trade for nearly 400 years and one of the oldest DOC regions in the world. (A few sentences cannot do the Douro justice — follow-up post coming soon.)
Of all the food we ate, my favorite was a dessert. (Is anyone who’s read a few of my posts surprised?) Pasteis (pas-taysh) de Nata, a lovely bite-sized egg custard tart. The original Pasteis de Belem is named after the town where it was created and its fame grew steadily after Portugal’s liberal revolution in the early 19th century forced the local monastery to find new ways to make ends meet. After visiting the nearby Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, we made our way to the pastry shop where I contentedly consumed 4 pastries in about 4 minutes. Crispy. Creamy. Flaky. Buttery. I regret not eating even more. The bakery itself is a rabbit warren of a place – room after room after room of bistro tables and chairs to seat the masses that come from near and far to eat these delicacies. The “nata” version is available across Portugal, and we sampled them multiple times in every town we visited, but none compared with the original. Apparently, only three people in the world are privy to the original recipe.
What’s a girl with an insatiable sweet tooth to do but get into the kitchen and bake? I downloaded two recipes I found online — an easier version with pre-made puff pastry dough and the custard made entirely on the stove top; the other with handmade dough and the custard an interesting mix of homemade syrup, hot milk, and half again as many yolks. I have yet to make my own pastry dough, so I tried the puff version. The custard turned out okay, but the pastry was way too… puffy. Though quick to make and certainly enjoyable, they were nothing like the pastries in Belem. The second recipe, found on David Leite’s culinary site, seems much more promising. I see pastry making in my near future! And likely a blog post dedicated to these lovely little treats.
I wish I would have thought to photograph the originals…. too busy eating, I suppose. (The one culinary thing we did photograph was a chorizo sausage, flame-roasted per a grocer’s instructions, by igniting pure alcohol poured into a ceramic dish made just for this.)
Funny… I feel a hankering for something sweet coming on. With the promise of more posts to come (and a second promise to not wait two months to fulfill the first promise), I’m off to rifle through my baking cupboard.
A presto ~