(Review) Lisbon market tour with Lisbon Cooking Academy
This was my second time at Lisbon Cooking Academy. Yet, on that particular morning, my internal voice was whining about climbing the 100 flights of stairs (it’s only five) to the Academy’s glass door.
I pretended to pause for a well-framed photograph for Instagram (I was actually catching my breath) when a woman holding a half-smoked cigarette, sluggishly climbing the same flight of stairs, got in my shot.
“Ah, leave it!”. I decided to focus on the market tour and cooking experience I was about to embark on with an unknown partner, led by Chef Ana Viçoso.
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 for the main dish. It’s a fish stew popular in the South of Portugal that could have roots in the North. As with all culinary delights in Portugal, this one is 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 tips on the proper way to peel the garlic and chop an onion.
According to Ana, Lisbon has a network of 13 markets (not including the themed/branded Time Out Market at Ribeira, Cais do Sodré). Near Saldanha, the 31 de Janeiro 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 all the fruits and vegetables’ vibrant colors, 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. If you spot shiny apples, it means they’ve been waxed and polished and, almost every time, they’re not local.
The ceiling light bounced 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 are many pork recipes in Portugal – it’s cheaper than beef but not as cheap as chicken. Traditionally, growing a pig (yes, to later slaughter) is relatively common and a sure investment in rural parts of the country. 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, pinkish under the neon lights, he asked what dish we were cooking. He needed to assess how much fat to trim.
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?
Our conversation revolved around food and culture between the butcher’s stand and deciding which vegetable vendor to choose. 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. Still, we were quick to point out what’s not, all while debunking myths regarding a nation’s love for salted cod.
That 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 looks like 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 partner asked if she could buy just one and eat it later for dessert — more 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. Parsley 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. 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 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!”
If we didn’t know what we were going to cook for lunch that day, the fishmonger would’ve shared with us tips and recipes, without a doubt.
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.
We opened a bottle of Ermelinda white 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.
It makes chopping onions and tomatoes, and peeling and slicing potatoes and garlic, not feel like a chore.
I was on duty separating the egg whites from yolks for the papos d’anjo (the Portuguese pastry called angels’ double chins). I am now a certified master at separating egg whites from yolks! (Or so I’d like to believe).
There’s always enough food to go around the table twice at Lisbon Cooking Academy’s food experiences. 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 to 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 the 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 with that, and she now has a pretty good story to tell back home.
About the Market Tour/Cooking Class (lunch included):
- 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)