Saturday, November 11, 2006


Ask Isabel’s Dad anytime what his favourite English meal is and he would say, without hesitation, ‘Fish and chips.’

Ask me anytime what my favourite Portuguese meal is and I may say ‘Bacalhau and boiled potatoes.’ (As close to fish and chips as you’ll get.)

English breakfast can be found at many establishments in the Algarve, or at a certain Welshman's beachside café in Cascais - which humorously advertises ‘English breakfast, fish and chips, English newspapers, a good cup of tea and milky coffee.

This may also be enjoyed at some very, very exclusive, smart hotels. (Throughout the rest of the country.)

Incidentally I was once watching Cable T.V. and interviews were being conducted amongst a sample of the U.K. population, in the U.K. - who almost unanimously thought the Algarve was a separate country, next to Portugal.

What the Portuguese have for breakfast is either a tosta and a café, or a pastel and a café, or a cigarette and a café, or a pingo/ mata-bicho and a café, or just a café.

From that you can guess that the single, most important aspect of breakfast (or mid-morning, or mid-day, or lunch, or five, or dinner, or midnight) is coffee.

So to take that further, a tosta (pronounced toshta) is a toasted sandwich, which usually takes the form of a tosta mista (pronounced mishta) - (toasted cheese and ham), or tosta de queijo (pronounced kayjoo) - (toasted cheese), or tosta de fiambre (toasted ham).

A pastel is usually a pastel de nata - a custard tart, a pingo is a small glass of wine and a mata-bicho (meaning to kill the worm - of hunger) can be aguardente - cheap white brandy made from the dregs of the wine-making (fire water).

Another favourite mata-bicho is a miniature bottle of Martini Rosso.

There are of course, many other variations depending on location and class.

If you go into the café at the Cais de Sodré station in Lisbon, for example, you will also find sandwiches of omelete (omelette), vitela (veal), filetes de peixe (fish fillet), presunto (cured ham), or chouriço (smoked sausage).

Coffee also reaches heights of complication sufficient to bewilder any foreigner.

A straight expresso in Lisbon can be called variously a bica, or a café. If you ask for a bica in Oporto, or anywhere up north they will laugh at you and tell you that such a thing doesn’t exist. In the north you ask for a ‘Cimballino’ - which is the name of the brand of expresso machine.

Cappuccino has only recently arrived and then only in quite up-market cafés. If you ask for this expect to wait half an hour whilst they froth up gallons of milk and spill it everywhere.

Otherwise you can ask for a carioca, a galão, or a meia de leite (or meia da maquina).

A carioca is a shot of expresso with lots of hot water in a small glass. (However if you ask for a ‘carioca com leite quente’ in Brazil, which means a native of Rio (young boy) that has hot milk - be prepared for some very rude answers.)

A galão is a big glass of milky coffee and a meia de leite, or meia de maquina is a cup of coffee comprising a shot of expresso and hot milk. (If it has two shots, it is called ‘Um café pingada’ - which means coffee with drops of milk.)

Isabel told me there was even another variant made back when she was a teenager, but no longer served, called a Capilé. This was made with mixing instant coffee (like our 'Camp', or 'Bev') with warm water then adding freshly pressed lemon juice and topping up with ice and water.

A word of warning: Coffee in Portugal is very strong - it can blow your brains out, especially if you add sugar.

Be prepared for serious verbal diarrhoea.

Be prepared for addiction.

In case of the latter, cross the road at the slightest whiff of coffee emanating down-wind from a café.

And now for the purists, here is how a good meia de leite should be served: The cup must be placed under the steam nozzle whilst the beans are either being ground, or measured into the expresso machine holder. Then the cup must be emptied and immediately placed under the nozzle(s). The machine must run until the coffee is about a centimetre from the top if it is ‘normal’, or about half way up the cup if it is ‘Italiano,’ or ‘curto’.

The coffee must have a slight curl of beige, oily froth on the surface - otherwise the coffee is stale, the machine isn’t giving the right pressure, or the filters are clogged.
If you want a really good meia da leite, make sure they use full fat milk and they put the milk in first - that way the mixture will have more fullness and the final slick curl of coffee oil will sit on the top.

Aah, perfect.

And if you want a better 'bica' make sure they heat the cup first, with steam. Then they can put the expressed coffee into it. Serve with a stick of cinnamon.

But what a land of mouth-watering delights....


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