A Passage through Portugal, One Clam at a Time

  • The dining room at Tasquinha do Oliveira.

    The dining room at Tasquinha do Oliveira.

  • Carolina Oliveria in the kitchen of Tasquina do Oliveira.

    Carolina Oliveria in the kitchen of Tasquina do Oliveira.

  • Evora's pretty central square, Praca do Giraldo.

    Evora's pretty central square, Praca do Giraldo.

  • A gardener picking olives in an Evora churchyard.

    A gardener picking olives in an Evora churchyard.

  • Market workers in Evora.

    Market workers in Evora.

  • A view of the rolling Alentejo countryside.

    A view of the rolling Alentejo countryside.

  • Fishing from a cliff in Cascais.

    Fishing from a cliff in Cascais.

  • Restaurant Mar do Inferno in Cascais serves up some of the finest seafood around, including a memorable rendition of clams Bulhao Pato.

    Restaurant Mar do Inferno in Cascais serves up some of the finest seafood around, including a memorable rendition of clams Bulhao Pato.

  • Digging in to a serving of clams Bulhao Pato at Cervejaria Ramiro, Lisbon's busiest, and arguably best, seafood restaurant.

    Digging in to a serving of clams Bulhao Pato at Cervejaria Ramiro, Lisbon's busiest, and arguably best, seafood restaurant.

  • Scarlet prawns at Cervejaria Ramiro.

    Scarlet prawns at Cervejaria Ramiro.

  • Bottles of 1850 Verdelho Madeira at Gambrinus.

    Bottles of 1850 Verdelho Madeira at Gambrinus.

  • Lisbon's hilltop Graca district offers the best views over the city.

    Lisbon's hilltop Graca district offers the best views over the city.

  • The terrace at Marisqueira Azul, a top spot for seafood at Lisbon's Mercado da Riberia.

    The terrace at Marisqueira Azul, a top spot for seafood at Lisbon's Mercado da Riberia.

  • The ever-busy terrace at Pinoquio, on Lisbon's Praca dos Restauradores.

    The ever-busy terrace at Pinoquio, on Lisbon's Praca dos Restauradores.

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“The thing about Portuguese recipes,” says Lucy, “is that everyone claims their recipe is the only way, and that it’s traditional. You can sit and have an argument about it all afternoon. It’s fiercely debated.”

When it comes to clams Bulhão Pato, my companions have very firm views. “The essential thing,” counsels Célia, “is not to mess it up by adding wine.”

“That makes it too rich,” Lucy nods. “It’s already rich enough.”

Onions are heresy: “They overpower everything else,” Célia says. The freshness of the coriander can make a big difference, as can preparation in cataplanas. “The flavors get more intense,” she assures me.

“It’s amazing that you can get so many different variations with just three ingredients,” Lucy laughs.

So how are the clams at Pinóquio? They arrive piping hot and swimming in a soupy sauce that is richer and more deeply flavored than usual. It’s really quite delicious, but there’s something fishy about it—and it’s not the clams. Pressed to reveal Pinóquio’s secret, our waiter confesses their version is spiked with butter and mustard. “There’s nothing in the rules against adding mustard,” he shrugs. “Some people put beer in it.” He shakes his head and makes a face.

I wonder what Bulhão Pato would have to say. I’m also still wondering who on earth he was. Lucy thinks her husband might have some answers. Rui Ramos is a respected author and columnist who also happens to be one of Portugal’s foremost political historians. She calls him at his office at the Universidade de Lisboa and relays his comments to me.

Born in 1829, Raimundo António de Bulhão Pato emerged as a strongly left-wing republican in the second half of the 19th century, one of a band of agitators seeking an end to Portugal’s constitutional monarchy. Unlike his more hardline conspirators, the radical poet dreamed of a bloodless revolution. “A rainbow revolution,” Ramos explains, “with everyone happy, birds tweeting. So people ridiculed him.”

It isn’t much, just a glimmer of a ghost really, but Ramos’s insights spur me on. Whenever possible I search online for more clues, but the most promising references are all in Portuguese, which I can barely understand. (Google Translate is next to useless in the matter. It insists his name is Mr. Bulhão Duck.) Meanwhile, the English entries have scant detail and virtually all note that the man is far better remembered for his food than his poetry or politics. This I already know.

Célia and Lucy both maintain that Lisbon’s best clams are to be found at Ramiro, an always-packed cervejaria in edgy Intendente. I visited there on my first trip but go again on their recommendation. The place is just as I remembered it: bursting at its polished-oak and marble seams; the kitchen a blur of industry and noise; waiters strutting purposefully between tables and bubbling seafood tanks. There is no better spot for seafood in Lisbon, largely because nowhere else is this busy, so the seafood is always the freshest intown.

That’s the secret to Ramiro’s clams, I’m sure. The sauce is good but not great, thinner than at Mar do Inferno and a little sharper (possibly due to my enthusiasm with the lemon wedges). But the clams are briny and brilliant, each one a heart-shaped mouthful of the Atlantic waters that, until very recently, invigorated its valves and ventricles.

I also revisit Mar do Inferno and manage to recapture the same sense of delight I felt the previous year. My terrace table is the best in the house and the restaurant’s matriarch, Maria de Lourdes Tirano, drops by to say hello. We smile awkwardly at each other because we have no words in common, but it’s a lovely gesture all the same. The clams here are, I still maintain, better than those at Ramiro. Perhaps it’s the suave, silky olive oil they use from Herdade de Apariça in Alentejo. More likely it’s because here, the shellfish come with a side order of sunshine and shimmering ocean.

The tastings continue at Gambrinus, a clubby, old-school restaurant on a cobbled pedestrian street that has been catering to Lisbon’s elite for 80 years. As headwaiter Octavio Ferreira puts it, “We are a very traditional restaurant. We haven’t changed.” There is a menu, of course, but regulars just ask for whatever classic Lisbonite dish they’re craving. The kitchen can usually oblige. Alas, its clams Bulhão Pato are not the best. There’s “just a touch” of white wine in the liquid, but enough to remind my dinner companion of Brussels-style moules frites (mussels with fries), and once he says that, I can’t think of anything else.

Yet Gambrinus has one distinction that, for me, will always eclipse its food. The restaurant serves Madeira by the glass from vintages up to 165 years old. I order one from 1850 and imagine that Bulhão Pato might have enjoyed this very same drop. “We are a small country but we have nice wines,” the barman grins as he hands me a crystal glass of antique ruby liqueur. “And nice food.”

Célia e-mails with some tidbits she’s found about our man Raimundo. She says that in his book O Poço da Cidade, Crónicas Lisboetas, the respected journalist and Lisbon expert Appio Sottomayor claims the clams were made for, not by, Bulhão Pato. It’s a crucial distinction, but one few Portuguese are aware of. And that wasn’t the only surprise. It turns out Raimundo was actually Ramón, a Spanish émigré born in Bilbao and raised there until he was nine, when his family hired a Danish brig to take them to Portugal. According to José Garzón Sáez in Antzina, the magazine of a Basque historical association called Antzinako, the clam recipe originated from Bulhão Pato’s desire to re-create the clams in green sauce he remembered from his childhood in Vizcaya. He mentioned his cravings to João da Mata, a renowned chef at the now defunct Hotel Bragança, and amêijoas Bulhão Pato was born. Garzón Sáez maintains the addition of coriander is what makes the recipe exceptional. “The peculiarity is certainly coriander, whose consumption in Portuguese cuisine Bulhão Pato helped popularize,” he writes.

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