The rich catches from the Atlantic fishing banks inspire another national dish, caldeirada, a fish stew as aggressive or delicate as the chef wants to make it. Made with as many kinds of fish and shellfish as are available, it is like a concentrate of the flavor and fragrance of the Atlantic brought to the table.
Pushing for national status are fresh sardines, or sardinhas, the strong aroma of which, as they are charcoal grilled, is present in every town and village. But the pride and joy of the Portuguese table is the beloved bacalhau. First, fresh cod is split open and cured and dried in salt until it resembles a wooden board; in that state it will keep for years. When the desire or need strikes, it is soaked in running water for one or two days, returned to its unsalty plumpness and cooked. Baked, poached, roasted, grilled or fried, in combination with potatoes, ham, olives, tomatoes, chickpeas, onions, sausages, clams, mussels--one could eat it every day for a year and not come to the end of bacalhau's disguises.
It was somewhat unfortunate that time did not allow us to put this to the test. We will have to come back. There is so much more of Portugal to explore and discover.
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GUIDEBOOK / What's Cooking Around Coimbra
Getting there: Service from Los Angeles to Lisbon is on TWA and Continental (one stop, no change of planes) and American, Swissair and Air France (with plane change). Restricted round-trip fares start at $538 ($658 after Saturday).
Where to stay: In Lisbon, Hotel Diplomatico, Rua Castilho 74; telephone 011-351-21-383-9020, fax 011-351-21-386-2155. Doubles with full breakfast about $75; centrally located with big, modern rooms. Hotel Jorge V, Rua Mouzinho da Silveira 3; tel. 011-351-21-356-2525, fax 011-351-01-315-0319, Internet http://www.hoteljorgev.com. Doubles with breakfast about $58. A small hotel with 1960s decor, on a quiet street one block off the main street, Avenida da Liberdade.
In Luso: Grande Hotel das Termas, Rua dos Banhos; tel. 011-351-231-937-937, fax 011-351-231-937-930. Doubles with huge breakfast about $70. Large establishment dating from the 1940s; plain but spacious rooms.
In Curia (near Luso): Palace Hotel da Curia; tel. 011-351-231-510-300, fax 011-351-231-515-531, http://www.bestlodging.com/sites/20076/index.shtml. Art Nouveau palace set in 15 acres of gardens, with tennis courts and swimming pools. Closed until April.
In Bussaco: Bussaco Palace Hotel, Mealhada; tel. 011-351- 231-930-101, fax 011-351-231-931-609, http://www.small-hotel.com/bussaco. Doubles $100-$140.
Where to eat: In Lisbon: There are restaurants and tascas all over the city; we chose by how happy the people looked inside. The price for two, including wine and tip, rarely exceeded $20.
More formal, with fancier and a bit more expensive but not necessarily better food: El Bodegon (in the Hotel Fenix), Praca Marques de Pombal 8, local tel. 21-386-3155; quiet, elegant surroundings and service. Pap'Acorda (in the Bairro Alto), Rua da Atalaia 57, tel. 21-346-4811; fashionable but friendly.
In Luso: O Cesteiro, Rua Dr. Lucio Pais Abranches, tel. 231-939-360. A short walk on the road leading out of town, a spacious room with hearty food.
For more information: Portuguese National Tourist Office, 590 Fifth Ave., 4th Floor, New York, NY 10036; tel. (800) 767-8842, fax (212) 764-6137, http://www.portugal.org.