This wasn’t my first time at Lisbon Cooking Academy and, yet, that particular morning my internal voice was whining about climbing the one-hundred flights of stairs (it’s not one hundred; it’s more like five) that led me to the Academy’s glass door.
I pretended to pause for a well-framed photograph for Instagram (I was actually catching my breath) and a woman holding a nearly-consumed cigarette, sluggishly climbing the same flight of stairs, gets in my shot. “Ah, leave it!” – I told myself to not take things so seriously and focus on the market tour and cooking experience I was about to embark on with an unknown partner, led by Chef Ana Viçoso.
I confess I was more thrilled about the market tour than the cooking part itself – considering how, during the pastry cooking class, I did very little besides cracking eggs (and not-so-funny jokes) and buttering tiny cake pans. If it wasn’t for Ana, I’d probably run away after we finished the market tour but if there is one thing she’s good at (besides the actual cooking) is reading a room.
As I chatted with our tourist friend who was doing the market tour with me, Ana was quickly drafting up a shopping list. After a brief assessment of dietary restrictions and likes and dislikes, the spur-of-the-moment menu was decided: sautéed pork as a starter (with the same flavor as the porco à Alentejana but without the clams) and fish cataplana (a fish stew popular in the South of Portugal but that could potential have roots in the North as well; as with all culinary delights in Portugal, this one is also a mystery).
If you’re thinking mixing pork and fish in one meal sounds strange, this isn’t a meal. This is an experience. And it’s all about market life, seasonal Portuguese products, and a thing or two about the proper way to peel garlic and chop an onion.
According to Ana, Lisbon has a network of 13 markets (not counting the themed/branded Time Out one at Ribeira, Cais do Sodré, which I always leave out of the market category – for me, it’s a food court with what-looks-like-a-market attached. It has lost essence). The 31 de Janeiro, near Saldanha, is the closest one to the Lisbon Cooking Academy, less than 10 minutes away within walking distance.
An insider’s tip: the restaurant on the first floor (called Casa do Peixe) serves mainly fish (but has some meat options available on the menu too), all purchased at the market downstairs.
Inside the market, fascinated by the vibrant colors of all the fruits and vegetables, we talked about which products were in season (or soon to be out of season) and the difference between a local apple and an imported one (the more an apple glistens, the more it has been waxed and polished and, almost every time, it’s not local). The ceiling light was bouncing off those snow-white-like red apples in a way that it was impossible to make a mistake. Then again, we weren’t there for the fruit.
Our first stop: pork. There’s a lot of pork recipes in Portugal – it’s cheaper than beef but not as cheap as chicken. Traditionally, in rural areas of the country, growing a pig (yes, to later slaughter) is fairly common and a sure investment. You see, every single inch of the pig can be transformed into some kind of food (except maybe the bladder). Can you imagine having your own supply of meat all year-long without ever going to a supermarket? Well, if you don’t mind living only off pork that is.
As the butcher browsed the pieces of meat in the refrigerated counter, appearing pinkish under the neon lights, he asked what dish we were cooking. He needed to assess the amount of fat he needed to trim or leave in. For our sautéed pork Alentejo-style (without the clams), the fatter the better, so the meat doesn’t dry out too fast when cooking (pork has to be extremely well cooked). After butchering the meat to cubes, a look at the scale tells us we’re 100 grams over what we asked but we agreed to take it anyway – what’s 100 grams more of high-quality meat anyway?
Between the butcher’s stand and deciding which vegetable vendor to choose, our conversation revolved around food and our cultural relationship with it. Which came first? Our cultural identity or our need to eat to survive? Inevitably, our influences over the centuries that build up our cultural diversity as a country came up. Both Ana and I were having a hard time summing up what IS Portuguese but were quick to point out what’s not, all while debunking myths regarding a nation’s love for salted codfish.
Which somehow led us to talk about fruit, taro roots (in the Azores), manioc, the tapioca places that seem to pop up in every corner of Lisbon, and anona – a strange looking fruit that resembles a hand grenade and that I don’t know how to translate into English. Intrigued by how this awkward fruit might taste like, our tour companion asked if she could buy just one and eat later for dessert. More on the conclusions on taste and texture at the end of this blog post.
Our second stop: potatoes, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and a complimentary fat bunch of parsley. Yes, complimentary. This wasn’t the first time I saw it happening at a market. Parsley, in particular, is an herb that grows fast, without much care, almost like a weed. I’m assuming giving away a fat bunch of parsley isn’t that much of a loss. We sure appreciated it because it was just another way to showcase a Portuguese quirkiness.
For our main dish, the trickiest decision of all: getting the perfect fish for the cataplana. It needed to be firm and its flavor could not overpower every other ingredient in the stew nor lose the battle to the onions and the tomato sauce. Oh yes, it’s a decision no chef ever makes lightly. (Fooled you for a second, didn’t I? Sounded like I was a fish expert.)
“The market doesn’t have that fishy smell because all fish is extremely fresh. That’s the first sign of good quality products”, Ana explained as we toured around the fish stands. “These vendors supply a lot of Michelin star restaurants in Lisbon. Those big fishes over there? They’re too big for a normal household. Those are the fishes ordered by the restaurant chefs.” It took us some careful window shopping and a detour to buy rye bread and olives before Ana settled for the grouper.
– “How do you want the fish, miss?” – the fishmonger asked Ana, sharp knife in hand
– “Cut in cubes. It’s for a cataplana.”
– “Ah! I love cataplana! One of my favorite dishes” – the fishmonger told us as she skillfully worked the knife and removed the bones. “Should I throw away the bones or do you want to keep them?”
– “I’ll keep them! Just put them in a little bag and I’ll make some fish broth later!”
Had we not known what we were going to cook for lunch that day, the fishmonger would have shared with us tips and recipes, without a doubt. In fact, most market vendors are highly skilled in customer experience.
With a reusable shopping bag full of fresh produce, fish, pork, rye bread, and olives, we walked back to our kitchen, opened a bottle of Ermelinda white wine (even if it was the middle of the morning, one cannot cook properly without sipping on some good wine), and took our places around the stove.
Talking about food and culture over rye bread, olives, lupines, and Portuguese olive oil was as relaxed as it sounds. Actually, taking turns at chopping onions and tomatoes, and peeling and slicing potatoes and garlic, doesn’t feel like a chore. And separating egg whites from yolks for the papos d’anjo (the Portuguese pastry that was named as angel’s double chins). I am now a certified master at separating egg whites from yolks! (Or so I’d like to believe).
At these gastronomic experiences at Lisbon Cooking Academy, there’s always enough food to go around the table… twice. Maybe more. A word of advice: bring along a huge appetite! There’s no such thing as waste at a Portuguese table; so if you don’t finish your meal (don’t worry, you still get dessert), Ana will gladly pack your leftovers to go.
So, after eating three times my weight (I’m blowing this out of proportion for dramatic effect) where did I go from here? I walked my butt off. Like, literally walked my butt off. From the front door of Lisbon Cooking Academy, down those pesky stairs I cursed early that morning, right until I reached the Saldanha roundabout, and then all the way down Avenida Fontes Pereira de Melo until Marquês de Pombal. During a whopping… 2km. That’s over one whole mile! Well, I’m not planning to run the next marathon and I wasn’t about to waste a fine meal on one walk either.
Oh! Wait! The anona experiment! Okay, so I told you how this fruit resembles a hand grenade from the outside, right? But the interior is not much more appealing than that. It’s pasty white, with a squishy texture that, quite frankly, doesn’t strike me as most delicious fruit in the world. Well, Ana and I witnessed our foreign friend relishing that anona as the best thing she’s ever eaten in her whole life. I won’t argue and she now has a pretty good story to tell back home.
- Duration: 5 hours (Starting hour: 9:30am; Ending hour: 2:30pm – estimated)
- From June to September: Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
- From October to May: Tuesdays and Fridays
- Language: English
- Price: 80€/person (lunch included)
- Menu: Starter course + Main course + Dessert (Wine and soft drinks included)
- Starter course: sauteed pork
- Main course: grouper cataplana
- Dessert: papos d’anjo
- Our menu in particular:
Disclosure: Since its beginning in 2014, Tripper has partnered with brands and businesses that align with the blog’s mission and values. Lisbon Cooking Academy is one of them. The author, Sandra Henriques Gajjar, has full editorial control of all blog content. That means all opinions are her own and, unfortunately, all (hilarious?) puns too. For more details on how and why Tripper works with brands, read the Work With Me page.