Portugal is famous for many amazing things – architecture, history, Fado, ambiance and charm that oozes from every crack and corner of the country – but it is especially famous for its food. And it is in Lisbon where all of these elements intersect and mesh beautifully.
If you like food and you like meeting the people responsible for bringing you that food, you’ll be as excited as we were to take the Culinary Backstreets Song of the Sea food tour.
How is Culinary Backstreets Different from Other Food Tours?
We’ve been on a lot of food tours since starting full time travel in 2015, and we are consistently impressed with the care, quality and consistency that Culinary Backstreet brings to their craft.
Culinary Backstreets expertly guides you into the nooks and crannies of a given place and helps explain how food and history and culture interweave and change over time.
To understand a little bit more about what makes them so different, you need look no further than their founding mission to, “go slow and collect these stories one-by-one, giving equal measure to the culinary side as the human element of the story. This way, we expected a deeper understanding of the city and its daily life to emerge with every bite.”
Who Was on The Tour With Us?
Our guide Célia is so tied into the culinary legacy of Portugal that she could actually be a stop on the tour – she is a journalist and writer and head of the Portugal chapter of Culinary Backstreets – and we were lucky to have her show us around Lisbon on what was another in a string of nice sunny February days.
We were also joined by an American tourist living in Shanghai and another Culinary Backstreets guide (in training for this tour), Kika.
We were fortunate enough to exchange a complimentary Song of the Sea tour for sharing our experience with you – of course; all our opinions (and photography!) are our own.
What Should You Expect?
While the tour is called Song of the Sea, it turns out there is plenty on offer that isn’t seafood. Expect that you will eat a lot. Not a ton, and it’s not unmanageable, but know that you won’t be hungry afterwords, and you’ll question your desire to eat dinner should it arise.
You should also expect to walk a bit. It’s not a huge amount. I think we wound up walking about 5 or 6 miles for the day, but you should know that Lisbon is a hilly city, so it’s not a flat journey.
What else should you expect? Every tour they do is different. The guides at Culinary Backstreets are constantly taking the pulse of the city as it moves and changes. So some days you’ll stop at a bread maker, sometimes you’ll stop at a Goan restaurant.
You should also expect to be peppered with observations while walking between the stops. Like easily missed elements of design in the sidewalks or above doorways or who used to live in the neighborhood. It’s a full on immersion into Lisbon for the entire tour. You won’t be bored, that’s for certain.
Who Did You Meet on This Food Tour?
Focusing on each stop and the order in which we moved through Lisbon may not set the proper expectation for your experience on the Song of the Sea food tour. Instead we will tell you about the people we met and connected with.
Besides the people taking the tour, we were introduced to a host of locals who have, in many cases, been working their craft for generations. Here are a few that really stood out.
Senhor Jorge: Master Coffee Roaster at Flor da Selva
From our meeting point with Célia we could see a tall chimney with smoke pouring out of it – to the untrained eye, this could have been anything, but to us, this was Flor da Selva - one of only two wood fired coffee roasters left in Europe.
We went inside and were ushered into the backroom (that was considerably warmer due to the huge fire drum) and watched as the expert staff roasted some barley, which is used throughout Europe as a decaffeinated alternative to coffee.
They would pull a sample from the roaster and gauge its color, and at one point he poured a small handful on to the floor and ground it with his boot to further determine doneness. They’ve been roasting coffee in the same way in this same spot for nearly 70 years.
Senhor Jorge then brought us into his brewing laboratory and made us all an espresso while providing entertaining answers to our questions.
Senhor João: Purveyor of Fine Things
If you’ve been to Lisbon you’ve walked by a shop like this before without even noticing. It’s small and dark and you aren’t quite sure what’s on offer. In the window is an old electric grinder and a box of tomatoes and some long life milk. The walls are lined with dusty old bottles of wine.
Is it a vintage shop selling items retrieved from ships that sunk to the bottom of the Tagus river? The display case before you is lit and reveals wheels and wedges of cheese.
Senhor João’s shop has everything an old Lisbon neighborhood needs, but can now get at cheaper prices through superstore chains.
We walk to the cave like back room and pull together enough seats to be considered an audience. Senhor João produces a beautiful pear, a wheel of cheese and a bottle of nearly 40 year old port. The bottle is almost empty and contains sediment but none of us care.
We sit and listen as he tells of his time stationed in Mozambique with the Navy and how he used to age his cheese in this very room before the government told him it wasn’t safe.
Francisco: Garrafeira de Santos Wine & Spirits
We try to make a food tour one of the first things we do in a city so we don’t go to places we’ve already been. Since we were staying in the Madragoa neighborhood, we had already paid a visit to this little wine shop. Being fairly introverted, I didn’t talk to Francisco beyond anything transactional – he was busy coaching a woman (in French) who needed a bottle for a specific event. And of course he had it.
We spent a fair amount of time learning about Francisco’s work in vineyards as a young boy only old enough to fetch the wine for his dad and uncles who were hard at work pruning the vines in the Douro Valley.
In time he graduated to the level I’ll call “knowing everything about wine”. We talked about labor practices on chateaus in France and the dying art of knowing how to expertly prune a vine.
While we were conversing and drinking a bottle of vinho verde in his small shop, Célia popped over to the neighborhood market and came back with canned sardines, horse mackerel and crackers.
You may think that canned fish is disgusting, but trust me when I say that if there is anywhere in the world to eat canned fish, it’s in Portugal. They have a long long history of expertly fishing off the coast and presenting it beautifully. It’s the making of a perfect picnic.
Maria do Céu: Grill Expert at Último Porto
After getting our buzz on at the wine shop, we took a nice walk down to the river to eat lunch at what at first looked like nothing more than a busy shipyard.
You know that saying about first impressions? It could be why Ultimo Porto restaurant has Maria do Céu grill the fish right by the entrance. Not only does she have a thousand watt smile, you can see immediately what is on offer as she expertly tends the grill as she has been doing for many years.
We took a seat and were brought a slew of signature Portuguese dishes including cuttle fish and cod in oil with potatoes. But as is typical in Portugal, the table was first given olives and cheese and wine. Everything was quite simple in the way the best food is – a few of the best ingredients expertly put together to achieve heavenly results.
Food Tour Honorable Mentions
--Portugal is known for having a tremendous variety of pastries. While the country is roughly the size of Florida, it has a sweet tooth is bigger than Australia. Célia had come prepared with a sampling of flaky and sweet morning pastries and we ate them in a special location.
--Local seafood restaurant. Some would say that any food tour called Song of the Sea should have more seafood. Well we did! But we didn’t meet the people responsible for making it, so didn’t cover it in detail here. Be assured there is plenty of seafood on this tour, and it’s delicious.
--After coffee and more desserts. This is the point of the tour where our guide Célia and Kika help us recover with an espresso and an egg creme filled donut and hand written notes on all the things we should still eat in our remaining time in Lisbon.
--Madonna. There is a hotel near our apartment that she has reportedly rented out in its entirety. We were shown this hotel, but would never divulge its location.
-- The varinas. During our secret pastry stop we were told the tale of the women who would walk barefoot up and down the streets selling fish from baskets they carried on their heads. As Lisbon became more modernized, this practice was seen as lowly and the varinas were fined for being barefoot and eventually laws were passed to stop them from selling fish in the streets. Célia wrote a great article about them on the Culinary Backstreets site.
Other Culinary Backstreet Tours
Culinary Backstreets offers a handful of other tours in Lisbon, so if you don’t like seafood, or have more time to spend, check the site out. If I’m not mistaken, they also have a dream worthy multi day tour of Portugal.
We chose the Song of the Sea tour mainly because of the timing – we always try to make a tour one of the first things we do in a new city. If you don’t find yourself in Lisbon, they also have a ton of other food tours around the world, and we can personally vouch for a few of them!