I haven’t been to France since I was a teenager and have never been to Italy, but I’m willing to wager that the café scenes of both of these countries pale in comparison to that of Portugal. The sheer amount of shops serving a combination of coffee, light snacks and pastries – known in Portuguese as pasterlarias – in Porto and Lisbon was frankly, quite ridiculous. Within a block of Porto’s main market alone I can recall at least eight from memory. And not only were these pastelarias everywhere, but the the quality of both the coffee and sweets were quite high and the prices low (a galão – the Portuguese equivalent of a café au lait/latte – and a pastry, my usual breakfast in Portugal, typically cost around €2).
I was particularly interested in Portugal’s sweet snacks, as they possess quite a few culinary links with Asia. The most obvious example of this are the pasteis de nata, egg tarts, which are now a standard sweet in parts of East Asia. These are unavoidable (and profoundly delicious) in Portugal, and I reckon I had at least one or two every day, sprinkled with cinnamon and consumed with uma bica (espresso). With a direct link to Southeast Asia are the various egg yolk-based desserts – ovos moles, fios de ovos – believed to have been introduced to Thailand via Portuguese traders during the 16th century. These were somewhat less common, and I mostly encountered them in the way of fillings or toppings for a variety of pastry-based treats and not eaten on their own, as they still are in Thailand.
For a taste of Portugal’s café culture, click on the below to see a slide show of random images of pastelarias and sweets I encountered while there.