Portugal is brimming with history, tradition and an abundance of natural resources, mainly of the edible variety! I’ve lost count of the number of nut, cork and olive trees; the vast amount of grapevines and vegetable gardens capable of growing in every nook and cranny; clear rivers and streams teeming with life and herds of goats and sheep, cattle and Iberian black pigs that graze along expansive sunny green pastures. It’s a life that makes you green with envy yourself.
Take a walk through the countryside in the springtime and flowers are so lush and wild that they’re bursting through drainpipes and sprouting on rooftops. It’s these images that come to mind when I go shopping for Portuguese products. It’s these images that create an unconscious smile to form across my face – delicious Portuguese foods made from these natural resources, combined with skilled craftsmen using traditional methods passed down for generations. Consequently, it’s no wonder that Portugal produces such quality food products, ones you can savor in Portuguese restaurants as well as back home with your friends and family.
With your summer vacation right around the corner, let’s take a minute to what to buy in Portugal! Many of these products are easy to find and several are produced organically, just look for the SATIVA label on the product.
This is not just a boring ol’ can of tuna. The Portuguese have a wealth of high-quality fresh fish and seafood that have been preserved for centuries. In fact, preserving is considered an “art” in Iberia as a whole. Canned Portuguese fish is preserved in the finest Portuguese olive oil, spicy piri-piri or escabeche sauce and can often be found with the additional garlic and sweet potato added in for additional flavor. Azorean atum is absolutely spectacular, especially when canned by Santa Catarina, having the most sustainable sourced line – caught tuna. Also keep a look-out for canned sardines, bacalhau (saltcod/codfish), carapaus (horse mackerel), cavala (Atlantic chub mackerel), polvo (octopus), lulas (squid) and mexilhões (mussels). If you want to sample some of the fish yourself before buying, try one of the new “canned food restaurants” in downtown Lisbon, such as Sol e Pesca and Can the Can. You can also find some excellent Portuguese canned patés, both in fish and meat; the most popular being paté de sardinha and paté de atum. Purchase cans wrapped in boxes, which are generally of higher quality. Meat patés are sold in sealed jars, usually made from porco (pork), pato (duck) or veado (venison) and some have Port wine or Moscatel raisins mixed in, delicious.
You can find just about any type of fruit preserves here in Portugal. Many doces de fruta (fruit jams) also come in geleia (jelly) if you prefer a smoother version but I’m prone to suggest the chunky jams and preserves which really highlight the local flavor. Look for products with at least 65% fruit to sugar ratio and no preservatives (ie. nothing with acido asorbico in the ingredients). The Portuguese also sell excellent local mel – honey, my favorite being mel de rosmaninho – honey originating from rosemary flowers.
From ideal climate conditions, and traditional production techniques, sea salt is still gathered from three ancient salt – production regions of Portugal: the central coast around the city of Aveiro, the Lisbon coast and the southern coast of Algarve – known for the country’s best quality of salt. Every Portuguese cook, whether professional or amateur, always uses sea salt in their cooking, as it’s readily available and incredibly inexpensive; not to mention flavorful and a good source of natural minerals. A one – kilo (2.2lb) bag of traditional Algarvian sea salt can cost as little as €0.99 at a supermarket, but for the full variety of salts, it’s better to go to a gourmet store. The highest quality (and most expensive) sea salt is flor de sal, (” flower of salt”) which like fleur de sel in France, is the very top crust of the salt layer that garners the highest mineral content. This is also the strongest salt so use sparingly. It’s great for sprinkling on top of prepared dishes for that final touch. However, for everyday cooking, especially seasoning meat and fish, go for the regular sal marinho, which comes both natural and iodized. And if you’re looking for even more flavor, many shops sell jars of seasoned flor do sal with herbs like oregano and rosemary, great for steak and other meats.
Did you know that the Island of São Miguel in the Portuguese Azores is the oldest tea producer in Europe? Tea plants were introduced to Portugal in the 19th century by the island’s agricultural society to help curb the orange production crisis. To our great fortune, the plants proved to thrive in the island’s temperate climate and volcanic soil. With the help of two Chinese technicians who came from Macao to teach the ancient techniques of tea cultivation and production, this knowledge was passed down from generation to generation, and helped found the first commercial tea factory and 1883, Gorreana, followed much later by Porto Formoso. Porto Formoso was in production from the 1920’s to the 1980’s before it was recuperated and reopened in 1998. Ironically, these 2 companies are the only Azorean tea brands still in production today, producing the aromatic Orange Pekoe and Pekoe black teas, as well as Broken Leaf, a less aromatic but smoother black tea. Gorreana also produces a smooth and delicate green tea, both in packet and loose leaf (Hysson) form.
Some of Lisbon’s most famous brands of coffee can be easily purchased in bags of whole beans or grounds for home consumption at any supermarket or gourmet shop. My favorite brand for making on my own is Sical 5 Estrelas , but Nicola and Delta Cafés also have great home products, including pods and Nespresso-style capsules. You can also find some old-fashioned style “morning coffee” and the Café a Brasileira brand at the gourmet shops. For more information on the history and styles of Portuguese coffee check out Portugal’s Coffee: A Sumptuous and Delectible Treat.
Portugal sells a wide variety of dried herbs and herbal infusions used for both seasoning food and brewed for drinking. For herbs, the best and easiest to find is oregãos – oregano, which is a staple in Portuguese cuisine, used mainly in salads and seasoning. I’ve also found that the Portuguese dried oregano seems to be a different variety than the Italian one I was used to back home, having a smoother, more delicate flavor. Though not a spice, I would highly suggest the spicy piri-piri pepper, which originated from the African colonies and is mainly used on their favorite “fast-food” frango no churrasco. You can buy it ground, preserved whole in jars or as a little bottle of hot sauce. For herbal infusions, many Portuguese grannies will recommend these for their natural healing powers. If you want to go biológico- organic, look for herbs and infusions under the brands Jardim da Boa Palavra and Mão de Semear, which are both SATIVA certified organic. Aside from the usual chamomila (chamomile) and hortelã pimenta (peppermint), some of the other common ones you can find are cidreira (lemon balm), lúcia lima (lemon verbena), tília (Tilia/Linden) and equinácea (Echinacea), all good for preventing and fighting colds and infections. There are also some other interesting ones you may never have heard of like:
*Please note to be prudent when buying herbal infusions that you know exactly what they are, some are known to interact with certain medications*
While these may not be edible, it would be a shame not to mention these traditional Portuguese products. All can travel but some are easier to bring back than others.
The Portuguese’s fabulous luxury soaps. All of the known soap brands are from the Porto area in the north and most have been in business since the late 1800’s. Most importantly though, the soaps smell really nice! Brands to look for are Ach. Brito (Portugal’s oldest brand), Claus Porto (Ach. Brito’s luxury brand), Confiança and Castelbel/Portus Cale.
It’s impossible to miss all of the beautifully tiled walls, buildings and churches in Lisbon or anywhere in Portugal, these typical blue and white azulejos are an integral part of Portuguese history, art and architecture. If you’re mesmerized by these traditional hand-painted tiles and want more, check out Lisbon Lux’s Lisbon Tile Art Guide for where to see and buy in the city. Most places have shipping.
Portuguese women have been embroidering for generations but the most famous hand-stitched cotton and linen fabrics come from the northern city of Viana do Castelo, bordering Galicia. Just like the azulejo tiles, most of these tablecloths, napkins, and handkerchiefs are embroidered in traditional blue and white thread but you can also find blue and red, plain white or red or yellow dominated mixes. There are tons of souvenir shops in the downtown that sell these linens but many are factory-made knock-offs, look for the real stuff at A Vida Portuguesa . You can learn more about the embroidery on Portugal Web.
The Portuguese make some beautiful tableware, Vista Alegre Atlantis (Atlantis is their crystal collection) is the most famous brand with plenty of shops all over Lisbon (and one on Madison Ave. in NYC). Another known historical brand is Bordallo Pinheiro, from 19th-century artist Raphael Bordallo Pinheiro who worked in the Portuguese ceramic capital Caldas da Rainha. The region of Alentejo makes traditional earthenware kitchen crockery decorated with hand -painted white patterns, you can usually find these dishes in large supermarkets or traditional drogarias – small shops that sell just about any kind of household item. Try to find an Assador Alentejano for roasting Portuguese sausage, the best are ones actually shaped like a little piggy!
*Tip: If you want to bring some tasty Portuguese olive oil back home without the risk of breakage, look for the TGTL (Think Global Taste Local) brand which sells beautifully decorated aluminum tins of extra virgin olive oil from around the country.
For those of you who looking for a larger selection of Portuguese wines to choose from!
Tip: Duty Free in the Porto airport has a special contract with the Port Lodges that allows you to purchase wines at an affordable price; equally, the port wine lodges equally have cheaper wines at the cellar door.
If you have any helpful tips, never hesitate to share!!
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