I was sitting on the patio of one of the many bistros that were scattered in the narrow streets of Lisbon. It was a sunny day but it did not feel hot due to the slight ocean breeze that cooled the city. I was hungry and I thought it was a fitting final destination after a leisurely day of sightseeing. I promptly ordered a clay pitcher of wine as a variety of appetizers was arrayed on the table. Prosciutto, fresh bread, olives, and a wide assortment of cheese were presented before me, but it was an unusual packet of condiment sitting in a mesh basket that caught my eye.
I picked up the small packet and stared at it. It was shaped like an oversized packet of peanut butter or jam, similar to the type you would find at breakfast diners; and had no writing or markings on it save the picture of a shiny blue fish with a white underbelly streaked with a single gold line.
What was it? Was it some form of tartar sauce? How do you eat it? What did it taste like?
I waved the small waiter over and inquired about this item.
"Excuse me. What is this? How do you eat it? ", I asked.
"It very good, "he said with a smile. He pointed to the appetizer menu and repeated "It very good," while pantomiming a knife spreading motion towards the bread.
I nodded in response to his choppy English and looked at where he pointed at. I do not understand Portuguese but Sardina paste was what the menu indicated along with a matching four euro entry. I compared the costs, and thought the Sardina paste had better be good considering the bread was only half a euro and the wine only three. Unlike North America, the "complementary" appetizers in Portugal and I suspect Spain as well, are charged according to the amount you eat. It was a mild surprise to me when I first encountered this practice, but I could well imagine the shock of some student backpacker as he stuffed his face full of bread and sliced meats only to be charged some crazy fee at the end of his meal.
This delicacy was obviously expensive, but as a rule, I try to experience as much as I can of each country's culture, and I found one of the best ways to do it was to indulge in their food. I looked at the item again and shook it. I didn't hear a rattle and thought I couldn't see through the opaque packaging, I thought it must be some form of pate or paste as the menu seemed to indicate. I was familiar with anchovy paste, but typically that was either served fresh or stored in a refrigerated manner, not on a small metal rack like common jam or peanut butter. It was commonly spread on hot crostini not the artisan dinner rolls that were in front of me. The fish on the package resembled a sardine. I'm not a big fan of the oil packed sardines served in Canada, but from my short time in Portugal I knew it was the national dish or something. A brace of three half foot long pan fried sardines were a common staple in almost every restaurant in Lisbon and I never regretted ordering them.
I like pate and I like the style in which they cooked Sardines in Portugal, but the combination of the two seemed like a bad pairing in my opinion.
I stared at the package once more and was still hesitant, but the waiter saw my indecision, "It very good. " He repeated once more like some broken record.
Encouraged by his enthusiasm I opened the packet, and saw it was a greyish oily paste. I broke open a bun and spread this oceanic jam over it and excitedly took a bite.
How to describe it?
The taste reminded me of a sunny afternoon in my youth. I was with my uncle and we were pike fishing in one of southern Alberta's many man-made lakes. As we were hiking to his favorite fishing hole, we stumbled upon someone's catch that they discarded and left in the sun. The pungent odor of rotting fish, and a few stray buzzing flies invaded my nose and made me feel sick to my stomach. If somehow a person took that aroma and distilled it into a liquid form and sprayed it into my mouth, they would have a close approximation of the flavor I experienced.
The texture was oily and mealy. My memory conjured up the time I held up my baby nephew in my arms and he threw up in my face. Some of the half chewed baby food inadvertently slipped into my mouth and I spent the next few minutes attempting to wash it out and rid myself of that queasy sensation.
I cursed my server and swore there would be no tip for him. This awful combination of taste and texture would have made me thrown up, if I had anything in my stomach. I immediately washed my mouth with the wine, and when that didn't work I attempted to scrape the taste from my tongue with a napkin. When that failed I began devouring the bread before me with the hope that it would neutralize my palate. It was a futile effort, but it did attract the attention of my waiter.
"It very good? ", he asked with a smile, obviously misreading my disgust over the delicacy I sampled.
"More wine. " I demanded as I continued in vain to alternately wash and scrape this concoction away.
Thankfully the wine was cheap , and after another pitcher or two my senses were sufficiently numbed to order the rest of my meal. I can't recall if I enjoyed it or not, but for some reason I do remember leaving a tip. I guess I thought it was very good.