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Sesimbra: A Seafood Lover’s Paradise in Portugal

Sesimbra, PortugalWine may be one of my favorite things to drink, but seafood is definitely one of my favorite things to eat – especially shellfish.  And as you may already know, coastal Portugal has no shortage in this category! Within a 50km radius outside of the Lisbon cityscape, you have direct access to several other smaller coastal cities for your sun, sand and seafood. I have flocked to almost all of these cities by now, and when it comes to seafood, specifically shellfish, my number one pick is Sesimbra.

Sesimbra is a small, mountain isolated town situated on the southern shore 40km outside of Lisbon. Its long, horseshoe shaped beach is cut in half by an old military fort, and surrounded by beautiful resort hotels and summer condos staggered up the mountain with a breathtaking view. On both sides, you can find an endless array of bars and restaurants, called “Marisqueiras“, specializing in fresh shellfish, which are proudly displayed in coolers along the walkway. If you are a typical tourist, you will most likely spend your leisurely day meandering the beachfront, and end up paying a hefty sum on the touristy restaurants. But if you think like a local, you’ll venture up the inside corridors of the city and find an array of hidden restaurants; although not as glamorous as their beachfront companions, they provide you with delicious selections at a better price.

Almost any type of shellfish and mollusk is offered in Sesimbra’s marisqueiras, such as: shrimp (camarão), giant tiger prawns (gambastigre gigante) and crayfish (langostim). If you enjoy lobster, you can find the familiar Maine variety called “lavagnte“, as well as the larger spiny lobster called lagosta.  For mollusks, you will encounter everything from clams the size of small cockles (ameijoas) to behemouth berbigãos; in addition to mussels (mexilhão) and oysters (ostras). A long and skinny clam-like mollusk called lingueirão and interesting looking gooseneck barnacles that the Portuguese love called percebes, can be sought out in most restaurants. If you are a crab lover like me, you will love the wide variety sprawled out in front of you. Navalheira (similar to bay or rock crab) and caranguejo (similar to Dungeness crab) are the smallest varieties you’ll come across, while their larger counterparts, the santola (larger spiny crab) and the sapateira, (known to Americans as Stone crab) are equally as tasty. Sapateira has been the most surprising seafood discovery for me in Portugal, as it is offered at a significantly lower price than in the US in just about every corner restaurant you frequent. I’m sure many of you have had the guilty pleasure of ordering stone crab claws at a high end restaurant or a brunch buffet while paying ridiculous prices, but here, you’ll enjoy an ENTIRE crab for less than half the price! Dressed and broken for easy access, I highly suggest venturing out beyond crap claws if you want to savor a truly delicious treat! The most flavorful part of sapateira is the insides of main cavity containing the roe. Sapateira Recheada, a traditional dish of Portugal, is made by scooping out the insides of the crab and mixing it with a dressing similar to that used with egg salad. The crab is then replaced back into the shell and served with crusty warm bread to spread over and indulge. Although the sight of crab roe may make you a little squeamish, I promise you, once you taste it, you’ll wonder why you never ate it before! It’s absolutely delicious!

When indulging in sapateira, I always go to my favorite seafood restaurant called, Praiamar, and feast on small lobsters, crayfish with marinated steamed mussels, clams and the long lingueirão, all beautifully arranged and served on a large platter! Praiamar offers several mixed shellfish platters for you to choose from, ranging from small (appetizer portions) to large (family sized) portions. However, their wine list is unfortunately not as diverse as their seafood selection, with only a couple whites, reds and verdes offered, but they do make an effort to include written suggestions for what type of seafood each pairs well with each wine. We took their suggestion for our shellfish platter with a moderately priced 2007 Alentejo white by Plansel Selecta made from a blend of Arinto, Antão Vaz and Verdelho. The wine was decent – a crisp, citrusy Portuguese white, but definitely didn’t stand up to the richness of the shellfish. I would have rather had a reserva white to match with the heavier body of the shellfish, such as a 2006 Monte de Limpo Reserva. It is my absolute favorite Portuguese reserve white to date, and also hails from the Alentejo, but has a surprisingly moderate alcohol level for the region at 12.5%. The wine is made from Arinto and Antão Vaz as well, but uses Perrum for its third grape. With its light citrus, creamy buttery notes and long finish, this wine reminds me of a good California Chardonnay and is a refreshing change outside of the normal Portuguese flavor spectrum.

Praiamar seems to be the only restaurant in Sesimbra that specializes in serving such mixed platters, and combined with the excellent and attentive service (hard to find here), it makes for quite a popular place to eat. During the summer, Praiamar gets so packed that it’s impossible to get a table, as exemplified by the fact that we didn’t get in until mid-November and it was still crowded when we arrived early to dinner! But don’t worry if you can’t get in there, because there are plenty of other great marisquieras in Sesimbra to quench any seafood lover’s appetite. And afterwards, when you come back to the beachfront to sit and watch the sunset over a cocktail, or a second glass of great Portuguese wine, you will know you are in paradise.

To Sesimbra and Sapateira Recheada,

Andrea Smith

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