Oh My Cod – Postcard from Portugal

by Susannah Grant posted on 8 June 2023

The holidays are almost upon us….which means Madrid´s Saharan temperatures are about to sizzle our pavements. Time to leave the city.

One summer destination only 6 hours’ drive from Madrid, known for its refreshing Atlantic breezes is Lisbon. Last August we had a very illuminating few days there before riding the waves further south in Alentejo. Lisbon´s tourist scene has mushroomed since I was squashed like a sardine into a tin-sized room at the Residencia Dublin for a month in 1987. Having spent part of my gap year enjoying the tail end of hedonistic “La Movida” movement in Madrid I found it hard to adjust to Lisbon pulling down the shutters on their nightlife at 9 pm.

These days it´s always wine o’clock in Lisbon

Back at university in the UK my Portuguese professors were less amused by my fixation with maps adoring the walls. On one occasion, whilst sitting through the nuances of the future subjunctive in Portuguese, long since defunct in Spanish (for good reason), my attention wandered aimlessly over to the elongated outline of South America on the wall next to me. Dona Manucha interrupted the class to inquire about my fascination with South American geography. To which I replied sheepishly that I was merely planning the route for my forthcoming summer trip from Lima to Rio. “Perhaps if you spent half the time concentrating on Portuguese grammar as you do scrutinising the Amazon river you might even become fluent”, she retorted. I took great pride in showing her my Distinction with Merit in Spoken Portuguese as part of my Final Degree 4 years later.

Today the historical hotly disputed rivalry between Portugal and Spain is very much alive and on our way in from the airport our taxi driver wasted no time in telling us drily that Spaniards “only looked after themselves”. Nowadays, the recreational gap between the capital cities has narrowed as day and night, the cobbled streets round the Praça do Rossio are teeming with tourists and E-scooters.

Not as safe as you might think

A word of caution about the latter mode of transport. A few years ago, a Lisbon resident friend of mine from Colombia hired an E-scooter with his teenage children just before Christmas. Having crashed into a curb he broke several bones and was set to spend several weeks in hospital. One frantic call to Bogotá was enough to persuade his ex-wife to get on a plane just before Christmas Eve so the kids could enjoy some semblance of the festivities with at least one member of their family. Ignoring her new boyfriend´s advice to remain in Colombia the ex-wife duly arrived in Lisbon and whilst out on New Year´s Eve she fell head over heels with the owner of the restaurant next to the Cathedral in which they were having dinner … and there she remains with him, to this day, still smitten.

Cod fishing is a solitary affair

One of the capital´s newer attractions is the Centro Interpretativo de Bacalhau or rather the Cod Cultural Centre near the Praça de Comercio opposite the banks of the River Tejo.  This fascinating museum champions the determination and grit of adventurous Portuguese fishermen willing to navigate challenging waters and unchartered territory near Newfoundland and Greenland in search of tons of cod so highly prized in Europe.  Not found in their own waters, Portugal´s love affair with this cold-water species started when they supplied the Vikings with their copious quantities of home-grown salt so that the Scandinavians could preserve their large catches of cod. The dish started to gather momentum and as a cheaper and more practical alternative to meat, salted cod soon became more widespread further inland in the Iberian Peninsula.

The grandiose shop at the Cod Cultural Centre

During the Salazar regime, the brave “bacalhoeiros” fishermen were so highly esteemed that they were granted exemption from compulsory military service. Frankly, I don´t know what was worse, zig zagging round freezing North Atlantic icebergs in one-man boats 2 kms out from the huge whaler boats they depended on for 6 months at a time or playing at toy soldiers in warm barracks on home turf.

Crispy cod fritters at Bacalhau restaurant

Today the Portuguese consume 20% of all cod that is caught worldwide and it comes in all shapes and guises. Our children enjoyed nibbling on the salty cod fritters known as pataniscas de bacalhau whilst my husband and I preferred the potato fishcake version called pastéis de bacalhau.

There´s something fishy going on with these pastéis de bacalhau

Cod main courses have also undergone a facelift and Casa Lisboa does a delicious high-end version of Bacalhau à Brás in which the cod is shredded and placed in a pan with olive oil; finely chopped fried potatoes; onions and scrambled eggs. The dish is then topped off with a sprinkling of black olives and chopped parsley.

Bacalhau à Brás goes upmarket at Casa Lisboa. Photo credit: Casa Lisboa

Next to the Cod Centre is the Museu da Cerveja, the Beer Museum, which shows how the canny monks commandeered Portuguese beer production. Highly nutritious, this amber brew provided an attractive refreshment for the friars to offer passing hungry and thirsty pilgrims and was also, like cod, conveniently exempt from catholic fasting rules.

Tuk Tuk Touring

By this stage the kids were starting to get undeniably restless so we flagged down a Tuk Tuk and saved ourselves a barrage of puerile complaints and demands for ice creams as we did a whistle stop tour of the top churches. A definite first for me to be conversing in Portuguese with a Bangladeshi tour guide on a hair-raising mission.  

If you´re after a different type of kicks, as in making the earth shudder for you in true Meg Ryan-style, then there is a great 4D earthquake museum for the seismologically-inclined looking to relive Lisbon´s catastrophic 1755 Quake which razed part of the city.

Not even a cannonball would get him out of bed these days

All in all, despite its chocolate box clean-up there´s still an authentic edgy undercurrent that punctuates the polished visitor-centric veneer and provides a glimpse of Lisbon´s pre-touristic charm. This year my son will be returning to the Portuguese capital with between 2 and 3 million teenagers as they welcome the Pope at the beginning of August so you may wish to defer your trip outside of those dates!

Ps – The word “cod” comes from the Middle English term for bag or scrotum as in “codpiece”, the medieval genital protector, in reference to the fish´s bulging shape. As a keen collector of antiques and artefacts my grandmother acquired a copy of Henry VIII´s codpiece currently on show at the Tower of London. It still comes in handy as a jockstrap when the family badmington matches become a bit heated.

In cod we trust
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