Saturday, April 28, 2012

Peixe em Lisboa "Lisbon Fish & Flavors"-A Portuguese Gastronomic Event That Deserves More

Red Fish w/ lemony green rissotto from 100 Maneiras
-photo by Rochelle Ramos
*Interested in learning more about Portuguese food and wine with me? Check out my An American In Portugal Tours, and my blog's new home!*

Last Saturday, I spent the afternoon at the 4th annual Peixe em Lisboa or "Lisbon Fish & Flavors", which claims to be the "Most Significant Annual Gastronomic Event in Portugal", predominately showcasing the abundant fish and seafood of Portugal's coastline.  The 10-day event organized by Turismo de Lisboa was held inside the elegant Pátio da Galé, within the grandiose Praça do Comércio in downtown, right on the river.  Inside, they had a dining area featuring ten of some of the most popular fine-dining restaurants and chefs in Lisbon and the greater Lisbon area, serving up their own, fish-themed mini-menus as well as doing specialty show cooking and demos throughout the week.   Along with this, an adjacent room had several local gourmet vendors and wineries offering small tastings of their products available for purchase. 

Peixe em Lisboa through the eyes of a
Moscatel Roxo Rosé from José Maria da Fonseca
I have to be honest, I wasn't planning on going to this event in the beginning.  For the past 4 years, I have gone to several Portuguese food and wine expositions around Lisbon and Porto and have left quite disappointed by their poor presentation and disorganization and I figured this one would be no different.  But after my fellow "Expat Reporterette" and Lisbon tour guide, Mary Harrison Goudie convinced me and our "Fabulous Food Photographer" expat Rochelle Ramos that this was worth our time, we decided to arm ourselves with our cameras, microphones and social media and hit Peixe em Lisboa ready for some serious wining, dining and picture snapping. 

Thankfully, Mary ended up being right in many aspects.  The quality of food and wine we tasted at the event was amazing, and definitely made me wish that I had come on other days to experience all the different tastings and demos they had to offer.  We managed to try around 3 plates each from 3 of the participating restaurants, with either the chef or one of the cooks surprisingly agreeing to step away from their kitchen for an interview with us to talk about their restaurant and each of the plates we were trying.  

Bacalhau á Bras with Exploding Olives from José Avillez
-photo by Rochelle Ramos
Our first and I think by far, our "fan favorite" was José Avillez, whose simple, straightforward dishes were truly delicious.  I absolutely loved his richer, creamier version of the traditional Portuguese dish, Bacalhau á Bras -shredded saltcod mixed with potatoes, onions and garnished with olives, which in this case, happened to be green olives filled with tart olive juice that "exploded" in your mouth, a nice twist!  José Avillez was also one of the friendliest chefs I've ever met, he came right up to us to say hello from the very beginning and after the interview he returned several times to ask us what we thought of the dishes.  And not only was he friendly with us, but we watched him stand in front of his kitchen greeting and talking to guests waiting in line, always with a smile on his face.  Later on, when my sweet tooth got the best of me, Chef Avillez suggested we try his favorite dessert creation, Avelã or Hazelnut, which was hazelnut gelatto encased in fluffy whipped hazelnut mousse topped with Portuguese fleur de sal.  I have one word for it: divine :)

Seared Azorean tuna from José Avillez
-photo by Rochelle Ramos
Sapateira (stone crab) "sliders" from José Avillez
-photo by Rochelle Ramos
Chef José Avillez chilling out and telling us about his dishes 
Another restaurant we enjoyed was 100 Maneiras, whose fried shrimp "lollipop" and red fish with lemony green rissotto pictured at the top were a hit among us.  And their passion fruit panna cotta with almonds for was a perfectly layered harmony of flavor and texture in my mouth, definitely giving Avillez's Avelã dessert a run for the money! 

João Simões, Executive Chef of Grupo 100 Maneiras holding 
his shrimp "lollipop"
Passion Fruit Panna Cotta with Almonds from 100 Maneiras
-photo by Rochelle Ramos
José Maria da Fonseca was the winery sponsor for the event and couldn't have done a better job from what I saw.  They had what looked to be almost all of their large selection of wines available to taste at their stand in the dining room, as well as offering specialty wine tastings and wine pairings with the cooking classes throughout the day.  All of their employees pouring the wines at the stand were very warm and friendly and happily answered any questions we had.  JMF winemaker Domingo Soares Franco was also great in leading the specialty tastings.    

We enjoyed two of their fish-friendly rosé wine recommendations to pair with our food tastings, the dry Periquita Rosé and uniquely fruitier Moscatel Roxo Rosé.  We then followed with their white DSF (Domingos Soares Franco) Colleção Privada Verdelho and finished with their fortified DSF Colleção Privada Moscatel de Setúbal for dessert.  At the DSF specialty tasting, I tried another 6 of their reds, 1 white and 3 more Moscatels, which all of them I liked but I have to say my two favorites were the 2008 Pasamados white, a nutty-buttery blend of Viognier with native Arinto, Esgana and Visozinho varietals and the 2008 José de Sousa Mayor red, a smooth, richly fruity blend of Trincadeira, Aragonez and Grand Noir.
Periquita Rosé from José Maria da Fonseca
-photo by Rochelle Ramos
Overall, my experience at Peixe em Lisboa led me to believe that this is an event worth keeping around.  But this is also an event that's worth more than the still somewhat lackadaisical organization and marketing that I saw there.  After reading Celia Pedroso's review of the event, I agree that for something organized by Turismo de Lisboa, having only 8% of the attendees being tourists is a shame, they definitely need to market more to them!  And the dining area definitely needs to be bigger, investing in those handy mini-trays that hold your wine glass and food would also be a good idea in case you have to stand.  The location was perfect for tourists, except for the fact that they made the entrance on the side street instead of facing the plaza, where the exit was does this make any sense?  And the official website's half-decent English translation (I'd be happy to help with this!), had no icon on the homepage to access the English version, so that could have deterred foreigners from coming as well.

But the biggest issue I had with Peixe em Lisboa was the ticket pricing and offering.  It was the typical European "á la carte" pricing, one of the things that had always annoyed me at previous food and wine expositions here.  You pay a moderate price to enter, but get limited access to most of the event and the rest is extra.  Tell me, isn't an exposition supposed to be about exposing and gaining awareness of your product or service to new clients rather than just trying to make money off of them?  This year, Peixe em Lisboa charged €15 per person for a 1-day ticket, which entitled you to a wine glass and just one "€5 food tasting" and one "€1.50 drink tasting", which I don't even know what that one was for since no one seemed to be charging for wine.  However, if you went during the weekday lunch hour from 12-3pm, your ticket got you two instead of one, which is still not much and most working people can't go at that time.   And even if you wanted to buy more, there was of course no convenient ATM in or around the venue to get cash.   I must say, all of this can sour a guest's mood quite quickly!

Let me put it this way, I come from the land of package deals, where you pay one price up front to access everything, which in my opinion has always been the more desirable option.  How about offer a ticket then that includes three food tastings instead of one, so guests can try an appetizer, main and dessert, then they can get the equivalent of a full meal if they're coming at a mealtime.  The ticket should also include access to the majority of the showcase events throughout the day (and provide more seating for these), only a couple of things should be reserved to purchase at an extra cost.  For all of this, you could charge around €25-30 instead of €15 and I would be happy to pay more up front if  that gave me access to the majority of the event.  You could even offer a discounted a multi-day ticket, to come for 2 or 3 days instead of one, which I would have loved since there were so many different events held each day throughout the 10-day exposition. 

So, Peixe em Lisboa, here's my suggestion for next year:  Give your guests more.  More options.  And then they'll realize you're worth it!

*Check out the rest of Rochelle's and Mary's photos of the event on our Pinterest Boards Peixe em Lisboa and Portuguese Food

Avelã (Hazelnut) dessert from José Avillez
-photo by Rochelle Ramos

Saturday, April 21, 2012

REAL Vacationing In Portugal: How to Pick the Perfect Hotel + My 5 Recommendations

*Interested in learning more about Portuguese food and wine with me? Check out my An American In Portugal Tours, and my blog's new home!*

Vacationing in Portugal is not just about Lisbon and Porto.  While I agree that these cities are definitely must-sees for first-time visitors, I have to admit that for even a small country, you are really missing out on so much more if you don't venture beyond these areas!  If you take a look at this Basic Regional Map, Portugal is firstly divided into 5 distinctly different geographical regions, but then these are further split into 
Sub-Regional (Right) & District (Left), with the districts named after their capital city.  These smaller divisions represent how even more different they are from each other within not just geography, but also architecture, culture and cuisine (including wine!).  That then gives you a perspective of just how much of Portugal you're actually missing out on experiencing!  

I read recently that it used to be that most tourists in general searched for a vacation spot according to the three S's- Sun, Sea and Sand, which is still apparent on Portugal's long coastline for being a tourist hot spot.  But now, more and more people are shifting to looking for a vacation with the three L's- Land, Lore and Leisure, meaning they prefer to stay in a place that best represents the land around them, to learn about the place's history and folklore while being able to enjoy it through relaxing leisure activities.  And for me, this one seems to fit my natural inclinations very well.

For the last 3 years, Miguel and I have maintained a tradition of taking two mini-vacations around Portugal, one in the summer (June/July) and one in the winter (November/December).  And each time, we have made sure to go as deep into the country as we can, in search of finding a hotel that provides those three L's, along with some other preferences we have.  For example, a comfy bed is a must, as I don't know how one can relax on vacation without a good night's sleep!  Also, we prefer a room with a balcony, specifically one with a great view of the land around there, so I guess you could say we normally tend to go to the mountains.  And lastly, if we go in the summer months, a hotel with a pool is usually nice to have.  

All of this you can easily find in a hotel using my favorite search site,, just put in your dates and type "Portugal" as your destination then scroll down to the map and Portugal Overview where you can search by cities or provinces/regions or even closest airports.  You can also check out which recommends great Portuguese guesthouses and pousadas (luxury boutqiue hotels built within hisorical sites like castles, monasteries etc.) or directly for the entire list of pousadas.  However, I find that these sites tend to be pricier to book with for the same hotel that you can almost always find on Booking, so I suggest that if you find a hotel on one of those latter two sites, look it up on Booking next to compare prices before reserving.

So now you may be asking yourself, when do you recommend the best time to go?  What do I look for exactly?  Well below are the guidelines I like to go by when choosing a hotel:

My Guidelines For Picking The Right Getaway Hotel in Portugal For You On

EVERYONE in Europe goes on vacation in August, so most hotels, especially on the coast, are 2-3 times more expensive than other months.  And even if you're willing to pay the money, it's almost guaranteed that your hotel will be packed to the brim with lots of families and screaming children....not exactly ideal for a relaxing getaway, you'd almost be better off staying at those people's empty homes!

If you want the beach without so much of the craziness, try booking in late September/October when it's still quite warm most of the time and the water has had the opportunity to heat up all summer :)  Just saw a room at a 5-star hotel in Sagres for more than a €100 less per night in mid-October than if you had booked it in mid-August!  And of course, staying during the week versus the weekend will always be cheaper.

2. Always check the hotel's room photos carefully to see exactly what you're sleeping in/on.
I've encountered some gorgeous little hotels in the most absolutely beautiful locations to find out that their rooms look like creepy medieval dungeons.  Maybe some people think it's cool sleeping on a 500yr old piece of history but I prefer my relaxing getaway bed NOT to be a rock-hard tiny mattress that'll break you're back as you stare up at a giant gnarled black crucifix.  About as romantic as staying at your deeply-religious grandmother's house for vacation....Pass! 

3. Order your search results by highest rated, NOT most popular.
You don't necessarily want the most popular hotel, especially if the popular vote comes from families with screaming children.  However, you do still want an overall high rating for your hotel to begin with, as this usually narrows down your search to places with high-quality service and facilities.  I usually tend to not go below about a 7.7 out of 10.0, however I have found exceptions to that before.  If you want to really be sure, read several of the comments from past guests, making sure to read specifically the comments from your specific guest profile.   As I said, it may be great according to families but not so much for young couples looking for a relaxing, romantic getaway.  Also, older couples and families with small children tend to complain the most about any little thing, such as rating the place a 5 out of 10 just because there was no TV in the room.  I think these are unfair complaints when they could have easily chosen a different hotel with those desired features beforehand, instead of crapping on an otherwise fantastic place to stay!

Bottom line, if you spend a little extra time searching, narrowing down and looking in detail at the placese  you have in mind, you'll have a better chance of choosing the right hotel in the right area that you´ll be satisfied and happy with after :)

So, are you looking for some recommendations to start with? Well, if you have similar preferences as the ones I stated above, then check out the 5 hotels below that I've stayed at on my mini-vacations in the last 3 years.  All of them were under €100/night and we left happy, so I hope you are too if you choose them :)

Hotel Folgosa Douro-Folgosa, Douro Valley (Norte)
Current Rating: 8.4
My Rating: 9.5
Room Rate: €60-75/night
Great For: Comfy, inexpensive lodging to explore the Douro valley and wine taste!

This small but modern 3-star hotel was just a little over a year old when we stayed there for the first time in November, 2009.   Situated in the tiny village of Folgosa, near Peso da Régua, it's in the heart of Douro wine country.  Which is what we mainly did on our vacation there, spend the day driving up and down the mountains exploring the area and checking out the all the wineries and vineyards and the breathtaking views of the valley.  We liked this place a lot for it's location right on the river with a great view of the mountains and neighboring villages.  The cleanly decorated rooms have comfy beds and nice mood lighting and the bathrooms have huge bathtubs that made for a great bubble bath to soak in after a day of wine tasting in the colder months.
The staff were very nice, offering us a complimentary glass port upon arrival and were very accommodating throughout our stay.  The small restaurant serves inexpensive, good food presented nicely in front of their large window with a great view of the river.  And if you're willing to splurge, you got the famed Restaurante DOC by Chef Rui Paula just across the street from the hotel!

Hotel de Caramulo-Caramulo, Viseu (Centro)
Current Rating: 7.8
My Rating: 9.0
Room Rate: €50-60/night
Great For: Crisp, clean mountain air, incredible views and total relaxation!
*Tip: Book a room with a "Valley View" to make your stay totally worth it.
Hotel do Caramulo on

What is the #1 thing I loved about this place? The VIEW!!! :)

This hotel is basically the only one perched at the top of the Caramulo mountains, just outside of the town of Caramulo.  Don't be turned off by its lower rating, this is mainly because the hotel is on the older side and some of the facilities need some fixing up but they have plenty of other reasons to make up for it.  The rooms are modest but large and if you book a room with the "Valley View", you get two double door windows opening up to a large balcony with a table and chairs and of course that GORGEOUS VIEW.  The balcony was also great sitting out there in the evening in our hotel bathrobes and slippers breathing in the delicious mountain air under a star-filled sky with the towns all lit up below.

If the view still isn't enough for you, the hotel has a fully equipped gym, spa, sauna, steam room and both an indoor and outdoor pool.  The restaurant is a bit pricey but has good food, however their adjacent lounge/bar has a great mini-menu of soups and sandwiches and afternoon tea goodies that are great to spend a quiet, relaxing afternoon/evening with still that great panoramic view of the valley :)

Hotel El-Rei Dom Manuel-Marvão (Alto Alentejo)
Current Rating: 8.8
My Rating: 8.5
Room Rate: €60-90/night
Great For: Historical exploration with great views
*Tip: Book a room with a "Valley View"

This was the last hotel we stayed at back in early December and also our first time vacationing in the region of Alentejo.  I must say, we couldn't have picked a worse weekend to go, with the cold, rain and immense fog, it made it hard at first to appreciate one of the best aspects of the hotel (room) and area-the view!  But thankfully the fog did clear up enough for us to enjoy it and I can say it was definitely worthwhile after that.  
This is only one of two hotels (the other is the pousada, which has a much lower rating) that are located in the historical village of Marvão, perched at the top of a large hill, complete with the ancient ruins of a castle. This makes it a perfect location to walk through the village and explore the castle and take in all the incredible vistas without ever having to worry about transportation.
Most of the rooms are small and a bit old-fashioned in decor, but the added rooftop terrace of a superior double room evens it out.  The restaurant also serves good food, especially at breakfast and the staff are very hospitable.  

Quinta de Moçamedes- São Miguel do Mato, Viseu (Centro)
Current Rating: 9.1
My Rating: 10
Room Rate:  €75-90/night
Great For: A romantic retreat in the country for exploring the outdoors
*This hotel is not currently available to reserve on, as they don't take credit cards at the moment, so make sure you can bring cash up front when you go there.  Minimum 2 nights to book*
Facebook page

This cozy, 10-room guesthouse located in a tiny aldeia (village) was rebuilt out of a 12th-century stone manor house and is run by incredibly hospitable Antonio Borges and his family, who live on premises.  All the rooms are spaciously decorated with extra-comfy beds and some with a private courtyard or an outdoor terrace overlooking the countryside.  Our room was located in the original stone house so we had the delight of the thick stone walls keeping our room naturally cool during the day and snuggly warm at night :)  

The family puts out a simple but homemade breakfast every morning with local fresh fruit and fresh baked sweets and though there is no restaurant, you can request to have a meal prepared for you in the dining room or you may be invited to dinner instead, if they are already cooking for themselves.  This is what happened to us and the rest of the guests the first night and we had a casual, yet delicious family-style dinner, complete with Antonio and his family, they made everyone feel right at home!  

The estate has an outdoor pool and you can also get recommendations from Antonio on local sports activities to do, such as hiking, horseback riding, canoeing, rafting, rapeling, BTT and more.  You can read more about our stay in my past Catavino article, Aldeias de Portugal Part 2: A Luxurious Weekend Getaway .

Casas da Lapa- Lapa dos Dinheiros, Serra da Estrela (Centro)
Current Rating: 9.2
My Rating: 10
Room Rate: €90/night
Great For: Romantic getaway in the warmer months for exploring Serra da Estrela, excellent food and service
*Tip: Don't take a large car here, the village road leading up to the hotel is tiny and very steep! Not recommended to come during the snowy season because of this.
This tiny 8-room boutique hotel was built totally out of local stone and is perched high up in the Serra da Estrela mountains at the top of the tiny aldeia, Lapa dos Dinheiros.  The super comfy rooms are stylishly decorated with even softer beds and furniture and all are equipped with jacuzzi bathtubs.
The outdoor pool has a great view of the valley and village below and since the hotel is so small, you almost feel like you're the only guest there!  There are also two rooftop terraces for guests to sit out and relax on, sunbathing or taking in the great view.  The staff and service are impeccable and still retain the warm, local friendliness.
Breakfast is great and showcases a lot of local goodies, lunch is available and dinner can be arranged for you on their front terrace at your prior request.  The night that we arrived though, it was already quite late, but the staff the kind enough to offer us the dinner menu that another group of guests had requested before so we lucked out!

Outside the hotel, you can walk up and down the historical cobblestone streets of the village and there is a praia fluvial ("river beach") a short drive/walk down through the woods with a crystal clear mountain lake with a local "pub" that's great to watch the moon come up over the mountain at night :)  And of course, this place is perfectly located to explore all around the beautiful Serra da Estrela mountains and surround villages.

Boa Viagem & Happy Vacationing!