The nation’s favourite Cornish chef packs his suitcase and heads out on another run of European excursions for his BBC2 Long Weekends series. This time round, he visits Danish capital Copenhagen, Cádiz in Spain, Thessaloniki in Greece and Palermo in Italy, but his first port of call is Portugal’s capital Lisbon, with its pastel façades and freshly caught fish.
“Lisbon’s really quite special,” he says. “It’s a higgledy-piggledy place, with lots of funny little streets winding up and down the steep hills, and so many of the buildings are covered in beautiful old antique tiles.
“It’s right on the Tagus River, in a spectacular location, and I particularly like cities that are on the ocean. Lisbon is close to the Atlantic, and has a real feeling that you’re where stuff is happening, where boats are leaving. It’s not very prosperous, and it feels like you’re really somewhere where a lot of countries cross.”
Stein’s not a fan of rushing to famous landmarks or traipsing around on a guided group tour. “If you try to tick boxes when you travel, you miss the point. Lisbon is such an easy town, it’s quite small and you can’t get lost – it’s all about walking around.
“There are lots of little bairros (neighbourhoods) and if you’re inquisitive, you can walk up a street, look into a bar and just listen to people talk. It’s endlessly interesting. I like places that cater to the locals – in Lisbon there are places selling bits of string and boat engine parts – I love looking in funny little shops. It’s a very friendly, human city.”
Torre de Belem at sunset; above, Rick Stein toasts Lisbon with a glass of vinho verde at Ponto
The only real bit of sightseeing Stein says he does on this trip is visit the Torre de Belem – a fortified 16th-century tower on the bank of the Tagus – and the impressive Monument to the Discoveries nearby, which celebrates the Age of Exploration during the 15th and 16th centuries.
He also enjoys some plaintive local fado music late at night in the atmospheric Bairro Alto. “It’s not quite as sexy as flamenco, which is more flash, but there’s a wonderfully glorious melancholy about the music. But really,” Stein says of his trip, “it’s just about chasing food.”
Lisbon is a foodie heaven. “Everywhere serves delicious little fritters of salt cod and prawns – they’re ubiquitous but well worth seeking out.” Traditional chicken piri piri is “fabulous… I’ve never been to a Nando’s – but this is the real thing. It’s a fairly common dish, cooked on charcoal at its very best.” And, of course, there are the famous flaky custard tarts that are found in every bakery in the city. “Pasteis de nata are wonderful – and the place where they were invented, Pasteis de Belem, is next to the Jeronimos Monastery near the Belem tower.”
Rick Stein and João Cepeda at Lisbon’s Time Out Market.
A real gem is the Mercado da Ribeira Nova (or the Time Out Market) – a grand, traditional food market that has been renovated and turned into a food court, selling only dishes that have been approved by food journalists and experts. “It’s a really clever way of rejuvenating a market.”
Stein’s favourite restaurant experience is at Cervejaria Ramiro, a simple beerhouse that specialises in draught beer and seafood. “They serve a very nice dish of prawns and clams with chilli and coriander – two ingredients that the Portuguese use a lot, which sets their cuisine apart from Spain’s. They also give you a steak sandwich as a pud – there’s something so satisfying about the combination of meat and seafood.”
The buildings are beautiful, the people pleasant and the food divine, but for Stein, it’s the city’s unique atmosphere that really stands out. “Lisbon is isolated – it’s part of Europe, but there’s a great sense of its colonial past, and its connection to other parts of the world feels much more obvious than, say, Barcelona’s. It’s almost looking forwards to a new world, or to Africa.”
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