Postcard from Portugal: Pilgrimage to the birthland of San Antonio’s patron saint

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Originally posted on postcards from san antonio:
Part of the excuse for extending our stay in Portugal until mid-June was to ensure we were there for the Feast Day of Saint Anthony of Padua, June 13, the anniversary of his death at age 36 in the year 1231. Actually, the celebration is more than a…

Postcard from Lisboa, Portugal: Yes, we did eat out a bit.

Traveling for six weeks, we did not always make it to the restaurants with the hottest chefs. We were reserving some of them for the end of our trip, and, by then, we weren’t up for such major meals. Plus, we had some favorite spots beckoning return visits.

Am arbitrarily dividing the food into two categories. The second post will deal with restaurants serving “foreign,” as in not Portuguese, fare.

The Mister’s favorite fish dish of the trip, meaning we went to the place twice so he could enjoy it again, was what I believe is called bream fish at Belem 2 to 8. The flaky fillet topped layers of greens, potatoes and a richly seasoned tomato sauce. For the first time after seeing it on many menus, I broke down and tried the traditional fried green beans. These are whole, long beans in a tempura batter. The Portuguese claim to have originated tempura cooking for seafood and vegetables – tempura referring to the “time” of no-meat fasting during Lent – with missionaries spreading its usage to Japan in the 1600s.

There were a multitude of restaurants within a few blocks of our apartment. Carmo Restaurante was on a lively plaza filled with jacaranda trees and street musicians. Enjoyed freshly steamed clams and octopus rice there. We were prowling for vegetables when we found Café Royale, with a “parcel” of thinly sliced eggplant wrapped around vegetables, tomatoes, basil and fresh mozzarella and a goat cheese salad. Another great haven for lighter vegetable dishes was Vertigo Café, a place one immediately felt comfortably at home. There, we enjoyed eggplant and zucchini toasts, a chicken and couscous salad plate and a “jacked-up” potato, with vegetables and tzatziki sauce.

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The seductive patio on a hilltop drew us for several meals at Lost in Esplanada. Everything we sampled was good, from a healthy beet soup to the decadent arugula and gorgonzola cheese toast. We also enjoyed roasted vegetables, rosemary grilled shrimp and tender octopus there.

At a nearby park, grab a table, if you can, at the Café Esplanada. Humongous rubber trees provide the shade for this spot filled with locals sipping beer. On Saturdays, there’s a farmers’ market, and the people-watching is great. Don’t delve far into the menu; order what everyone else is having – large toasts, panini-like sandwiches filled with oozing cheese. So good, and so inexpensive. And they convinced me to order a panini-maker as soon as we got home.

Smoke swirls around booths set up in the streets on the Feast Day of Saint Anthony, and many nights surrounding the date, vending fresh sardines and grilled meats slapped into sandwiches. Some vendors just go whole hog, speared from head to tail.

 

Postcard from Lisboa, Portugal: Sardines and the Saint

Somehow the sardine has been elevated to a level almost of the saint himself, Saint Anthony that is.

Outside of Portugal, he might be known as Saint Anthony of Padua. But, here in Lisboa, he is their hometown boy. He was born right here. A saint of heroic proportions, so much so that his Feast Day, June 13, is glorified by a full month of celebrations.

People have been prepping for the party ever since our arrival in Lisboa. Festoons are flung across streets. Banners hang and bleachers are set up along the broad, tree-lined Avenida da Liberdade, ready for a parade on June 12. Neighborhood groups gather and parade across town to his church on various evenings. And, in Alfama, booths come alive nightly, plying passersby with jiggers of the strong cherry ginjinha, jugs of sangria, beer, fried things and, of course, grilled sardines.

Sardines seem synonymous with the celebration, with artist-designed sardines featured on the banners of the umbrella group, Festas de Lisboa. This might stem from one of the numerous miracles attributed to Saint Anthony. Perhaps tiring of preaching to skeptics, he turned to the water and starting praising the glory of the fish who all rose enraptured to the surface, listening until he completed his sermon.

Surely, the attentive ones must have been sardines because it makes everything so convenient. Because this is their prime season. Along the coast, colorful fishing trawlers head out at night with nets to encircle the schools of sardines to bring back fresh to the docks by morning. By noon, they sizzle on grills everywhere throughout the country, the smoke and smell scenting the air heavily on some streets.

These freshly caught ones seem unrelated to the strong-tasting, oily canned sardines I remember from childhood. The fine bones of small ones thrown on the grill can be easily chomped upon, but the plump larger ones that you must filet are prized for their moist, sweet meat.

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Being here on June 13th is sort of a pilgrimage, because, although named in his honor, San Antonio, Texas, pretty much ignores his day. Even his mission, the Alamo, no longer is known by his name. Frank Jennings tried to get a meaningful Founders’ Day going, and Rolando Briseno attempted to create artistic pageantry in honor of San Antonio’s patron saint.

But nothing stuck.

Yet….