When we were in Lisbon at Easter we decided one day to cross the river Tejo by ferry, we had read in the guidebook that there were good fish restarants on the southern bank. We went to a ferry station where we saw a large map of the area on the wall, two ferry lines were drawn to the opposite bank, we opted for the longer one in order to enjoy the ferry ride a bit longer.
The man behind the ticket counter was very surprised when we named the destination, he got out of his booth, went with us back to the map and told us that we certainly did not want to go there (we could follow his Portuguese explanation), we were tourists and there was nothing, nada, to see for tourists, we wanted to go to Cacilhas where the fish restaurants are, we nodded gratefully, this man was a mind reader!
He said that the tickets for Cacilhas could only be bought in the neighbouring ferry station, so we went over there and I told the woman at the counter in my best Portuguese ‘two tickets, please’ and made a to-and-fro movement with my hand. Without saying a word she gave me two tickets for 1.30 Euro each. We didn’t look at the tickets but went to the aerea where other passengers were waiting and boarded the ferry with them.
When the ferry landed after a short ride of about 10 minutes we were puzzled, this was the touristy place with the excellent fish restaurants? We could only see a big street behind the ferry station, a bus terminal and blocks and blocks of council housing. Something was fishy! We approached a man who turned out to have worked in Germany and could speak German, he explained that we were in Barreiro, not in Cacilhas, we had taken the wrong ferry; I looked at the tickets, indeed, ‘Barreiro’ was printed on them! We learnt that it was a dormitory town for Lisbon and an ugly place throughout, certainly there were no fish restaurants or at least none of the kind we were thinking of (the second Portuguese who knew what we wanted!). Where there any restaurants at all? Yes, there were, the man waved in the general direction of the town centre and said we would pass some simple ones if went there.
We crossed the big street and turned left into the Rua Recosta, walked on for another 50 m until we came to a restaurant called ‘A Cozinha d’ Avó’´, we spotted the word ‘bacalhau’ (cod) on the menu written with chalk on a blackboard standing in a shop-window and went in.
It’s a one-room restaurant with ten tables for two people each, opposite the window covering the whole length of the room a door leads into the kitchen (if one wants to go to the bathroom one has to go through the kitchen), it’s open so that the guests can see what the cook is doing.
The restaurant is run by a couple in their forties, the woman cooks and her husband serves the guests or stands behind the counter in front of the left wall serving as a bar. When we came in a woman was sitting at a table, later when we were eating a man came but left after a short time, on the whole we had the place and the couple’s attention to ourselves.
The woman speaks a little English, not much really, but more than we speak Portuguese! She told us in a mixture of both languages what was on offer, we understood that there were two fish dishes, we couldn’t decide which one to choose as we didn’t understand how the fish was prepared, she used the word ‘cake’ a lot, but ‘fish cake’ was nothing we’d ever heard of. She suggested we order both and share, well, that sounded reasonable so we nodded our agreement.
We ordered half a litre of white house wine and some mineral water, the man brought us bread, butter and olives as is done in all Portuguese restaurants to keep the guests from becoming impatient and too hungry. After some time he served us four tiny fried squid with garlic (chocos ao alhinho [before we left the woman wrote down for me what we had eaten]) as starters; we couldn’t remember her mentioning starters but we were content to start this way. Squid is called ‘inkfish’in German, it was clear why, when I cut them open the plate was black! They tasted very good and occupied us until the woman came with a plate of four codburgers, that was what she had called ‘cake’ in English. The cod was boiled and then mashed with spices, crumbed and fried (pataniscas de bacalhau), the side dish was rice and beans. Yummy!
While we were eating my husband and I were wondering if we had misunderstood the woman before, hadn’t she talked of two different dishes we should share? Well, never mind, two codburgers each were more than enough. We were finishing our wine and leaning back contentedly when the woman came in again carrying the other dish! Bacalhau = cod again, of course, Portugal couldn’t exist without it, it comes from Iceland and Norway and is THE national dish, in a book we read that there were as many different ways of preparing it as days of the year, no, the woman said laughingly, there were only one hundred different ways!
What we got now was a boiled fish fillet with the bones still inside, it was the end piece of the fish with boiled potatoes (the Portuguese eat a lot of potatoes and not much pasta, a boiled egg and chickpeas, parsley and raw garlic cut into small pieces came as a side dish (bacalhau cozido com batata, ovo cozido e grão); where could we put all this?, we were full already! We ordered another half litre of wine in order to make the food go down more easily and set to work.
The woman had done her job in the kitchen and sat down at our table to talk with us, the husband who can’t speak English hovering in the background. We had already noticed that the Portuguese have nothing, nothing whatsoever, in common with their Romanic neighbours when it comes to temperament – in public they’re quiet, reserved, serious, a bit sad and melancholy, well-behaved, here in this kitchen-restaurant we got as near to the private people as was possible for tourists and met very friendly and open specimen. My husband got up and embraced the woman congratulating her on her cooking, she rather liked that outburst of Mediterranean temperament!
Of course, we had to have coffee after so much food, when we had drunk it and it was clear that we had reached the end of our feast, the man brought us two glasses of Moscatel de Setúbal, a rosé kind of wine, as a present.
We hadn’t asked what the dishes cost before we started eating, it didn’t seem appropriate to do so, we had the feeling we wouldn´t be cheated here. When the bill came we couldn’t believe it: 17 Euro ( ~ 24,30 $) for the two of us!
After a lot of shaking hands and hugging we left the restaurant, arm in arm in order not to zigzag too much on the way back to the ferry station thinking that taking the wrong ferry was the best mistake we had ever made concerning restaurants and decided that – should we ever go back to Lisbon – we would intentionally go to:
A Cozinha d’Avó (in English: grandmother’s cuisine)
Rua Recosta 5a
Barreiro / Lisbon