In France, it’s the eclair. In Italy, the cannoli. In Portugal, a custard tart called Pastel de Nata tops the list of favorite pastries. These wonderful egg custard tarts were created by Catholic monks as a way to put the unused yolks from starching laundry to use. We tried them still warm from the oven at Fabrica da Nata near our hotel. Whenever there’s a line for food, you know it’s worth the wait. Our first round was a custard tart, a ham and cheese quiche, and a latte. The quiche had the same flaky crust as the tart and the filling was light and fluffy. We first tried the egg tarts plain and savored every buttery, creamy morsel. For round two, we sprinkled powdered sugar and cinnamon on them. I honestly didn’t think they could get any better but I was wrong. Round three was tarts to go for the drive down to Alvor on the south coast of Portugal. Yes these are seriously addictive!
Tarts, luggage, and hot spot in hand we headed out of Lisbon and crossed over the Tagus River on the impressive 25 de Abril (25th of April) suspension bridge. Originally named the Salazar bridge when it opened in 1966, it was renamed in 1974 to commemorate the Carnation Revolution, when the regime of the Estado Novo was overthrown. While it bears a striking resemblance to San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge, it’s actually 300 feet longer and was built by the American Bridge Company, builders of the SF-Oakland Bay Bridge. The upper deck contains six car lanes and the lower deck carries two train tracks (added in 1999.) The drive across is breathtaking, with stunning views in all directions.
Heading southeast on the A2, it didn’t take long to for the view to change from urban to countryside. We already knew that Portugal’s main agricultural products include olives, cherries, grapes, and tomatoes but had no idea that cork is grown in abundance. In fact, 30% of the world’s cork oak population is in Portugal. Once you spot a grove with the distinctive shaved bark, they seem to be everywhere along the route south towards the Algarve. Cork is a sustainable product as only the bark is taken, leaving the tree intact. It is strictly protected by the government which limits harvesting to every nine years. I found it fascinating to read that the first harvest occurs when the tree is 27 years old and that wine cork isn’t harvested until the tree is approximately 54 years old. Look around in any gift shop along the route and you’ll see a variety of cork products including purses, shoes, clothing, jewelry, coasters, wine stoppers, and bowls. It is also used for insulation, flooring, wall tiles, fishing products, and more. Quite the versatile tree.
We arrived in Alvor late afternoon and after a few wrong turns, we found our apartment complex. Having a store right at the complex was very handy and we stocked up on water, snacks, and beverages before heading out to explore the town. Located on the southern coast of Portugal in the Algarve region, Alvor is situated on the estuary of the river, Rio Alvor. Primarily a fishing village, the riverfront is a great place to watch the boats come and go. The town is packed with restaurants serving up the fresh catch of the day, making it a seafood lovers paradise. Other dining options include Indian, Italian, American, Mediterranean, and Vegetarian.
We wandered down to the harbor in search of fresh seafood and a Portuguese favorite, bacalhau or salt cod. The Portuguese adore this fish and are said to have at least 365 different recipes using it. Its history dates back to the 14th century and the exploration era when the Portuguese Navy needed a food source that could be kept in the hold for long periods of time. Cod is not native to the waters of Portugal. It comes from the distant waters off Newfoundland. The fish is salted and dried in the hot sun and rinsed and soaked in fresh water before cooking. The process causes chemical changes that produce a chewier texture and milder, sweeter, yet still fishy taste. Many of the seafood restaurants have their fresh fish on display and use outdoor grills for cooking. Our choice for dinner, Casa da Mare, has a great view of the water and the food was fresh and flavorful. My bacalhau came grilled with fresh herbs and vegetables and drizzled with olive oil. It only took one bite to understand why the locals enjoy this dish so much. Full from our delicious dinner, we watched the sun set over the harbor before wandering back to our apartment.