Portugal: Food, Folklore, and Moorish Influence Galore!

Jessica Zaksek is a senior Psychology student at Colorado State University. She is currently partaking in a Semester at Sea and will visit ports in various countries such as Russia, Germany, Belgium, Portugal, Morocco and many more. Stay tuned to hear about all her adventures!

[Originally posted October 1, 2013]

I hope this entry finds you all healthy and happy! I am doing quite well! I had some free time and I thought I would write the entry for Portugal, instead of combining it with my experience in Spain. I only had two days in each country, so it was a whirlwind! I think that the time constraint also made me hyper-vigilant to my surroundings and experiences. Portugal was really amazing! I plan to go back very soon so I can see more of the country. I honestly had no idea what to expect, and I must admit that I found myself ignorant of the country’s history and culture. It made the entire experience so much more exciting and surprising. It may be small, with a population of around 10 million, but it has had a powerful influence on world history. You can find Portuguese culture and language in places such as Brazil, and even China!

During my stay in Portugal I traveled to Sintra and spent time in Lisbon, our port city, as well. In Portuguese, Lisbon is actually called Lisboa. Lisbon is the oldest city in Europe, which explains why it is such a cultural hub. The city has seven steep hills and trolleys. It reminds me a lot of San Francisco. They even have a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge! Most of the buildings were pretty old, and had fantastic iron work around the windows. The lamps were also a unique and fun feature of the streets in Lisbon. The sidewalk stones were shaped in a very distinctive manner, and I learned that they were created by pounding the stones into the ground with a wooden mallet. Apparently, this is a pretty laborious process! My favorite aspect of the city was the tile. On several buildings you could see walls filled with beautiful, old tile. Each building had it’s own unique tile design. It was unexpected because I did not know the Portuguese used tile. I loved how old the city looked. It gave it so much character and told such a rich story of times long past.

Strolling through the city, I realized quickly that the Lisbon itself as well as the surrounding areas were heavily influenced by the Moors. They brought their tile to the city and created city quarter names in Arabic.

Strolling through the city, I realized quickly that the Lisbon itself as well as the surrounding areas were heavily influenced by the Moors. They brought their tile to the city and created city quarter names in Arabic.

I was happy to discover that the food in Portugal is quite delectable and there is plenty to go around! Food has its own unique culture. I quickly learned that the Portuguese live to eat. Meals usually lasted several hours, which allowed for intimate conversation and enjoyment. I enjoyed getting to know some of my shipmates and eating delicious food. I had this amazing pastry during my cooking experience, which was covered in cinnamon sugar and filled with a tasty vanilla cream. The pastry dough was so flaky! The closest thing I can compare it to is a churro, but with filling. Another wonderful dessert item I enjoyed was a pastry filled with walnuts and apples. The outside of this pastry was coated in sugar and added just the right amount of sweetness.

The Portuguese also love their wine! Every meal I had was served with a glass of wine, specifically red. I learned that the Portuguese prefer red wine, because they feel it goes with everything. In restaurants we were often given bottles of wine and they were replenished throughout the meal. It made it very difficult to keep track of how much you had enjoyed already! Another great thing about Portuguese food was the cheese! It was so yummy! I had three different kinds of cheese. One was a hard cheese that consisted of a combination of goat and cow milk. The second was a softer cheese and the third was a goat cheese that was very spreadable. Bread was also served in abundance with every meal. I definitely enjoyed that!!

During the cooking experience I learned that the Portuguese pride themselves on food that is flavorful. When I tasted the olive oil I was pleasantly surprised by the volume of flavor it had compared to what I am used to. Dipping the bread in the olive oil created a fantastic culinary experience! The sausages I tried were also jam-packed with aggressive flavors. My palate was definitely pleased in Portugal!

At one of the last restaurants I dined in, they served kebabs(sliced meat grilled on a skewer), further reinforcing the Moorish influence on Portuguese cuisine. One funny aspect of this meal was the accompaniment of French Fries to the kebabs, which was definitely an interesting combination. I have noticed that a lot of meals in Europe are served with fries, no matter what the dish is.

At one of the last restaurants I dined in, they served kebabs(sliced meat grilled on a skewer), further reinforcing the Moorish influence on Portuguese cuisine. One funny aspect of this meal was the accompaniment of French Fries to the kebabs, which was definitely an interesting combination. I have noticed that a lot of meals in Europe are served with fries, no matter what the dish is.

In addition to the cuisine, I was also able to enjoy some traditional Portuguese dance known as Fado, which incorporates folklore into its music. It was my favorite cultural experience so far in regards to dancing/ singing. I had a minimal understanding of it from cultural pre-port on the ship, but it wasn’t enough. Our tour guide explained that the primary theme of this style is “saudade,” which does not have a direct translation into English. The closest translation would be nostalgia or an intense longing for the past, and better times. Fado is the national style of music. The saudade in the music can be directed towards a variety of different things. You could have saudade for your grandmother’s pie or for someone who has recently passed. In many songs, the longing is for the times when Portugal was a wealthy, influential and powerful country. The other primary object of saudade is unrequited love.

There are two styles of fado. The first originated among the poor classes and marginalized individuals in Lisbon. Marginalized individuals included prostitutes, sailors and coachmen. Lisbon fado is usually sung in a very raspy sort of way and focuses on a longing for better days and times. The elite, for obvious reasons, rejected this form of fado. The second style of fado originated at Coimbra University. Men usually sing in this style and wear black capes, traditional to the uniforms at the University. The primary theme of Coimbra fado is love, whether it be unrequited or reciprocated. It is also much more lyrical and light compared to the Lisbon form. Classic guitars and a special Portuguese guitar are used to accompany the singing. The Portuguese guitar is in the shape of a teardrop, which I believe is very appropriate.

During our meal we got to listen to both styles of fado.  It was very unique and unlike anything I have ever heard. Normally, music in America rhymes and flows but fado sounds more disjointed and seems to tell a story. Their costumes were true to the period and were very intricate and beautiful. One of my favorite dances was the one using the special noisemakers. The women were spinning so fast, their skirts were billowing, and they were a blur on stage.

During our meal we got to listen to both styles of fado. It was very unique and unlike anything I have ever heard. Normally, music in America rhymes and flows but fado sounds more disjointed and seems to tell a story. Their costumes were true to the period and were very intricate and beautiful. One of my favorite dances was the one using the special noisemakers. The women were spinning so fast, their skirts were billowing, and they were a blur on stage.