Food, Fado - and an Octopus

Andy Montgomery, 29 February, 2016
As the sweet, soulful lament begins and a soft voice sails above the tidal ebb of the guitars, Andy Montgomery explores the link between fado and food in Lisbon.

If music be the food of love, play on. Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die...” Duke Orsino, ‘Twelfth Night’.

Rarely has a quotation been more apt than in the context of fado, the traditional mournful lament of unrequited love and loss, born of the back streets and brothels of early nineteenth-century Portugal and performed nightly with a side order of dinner. Find yourself in a traditional 'fado house' in Lisbon, Porto or Coimbra and, along with the mesmerising performances, you can expect enough food to surfeit the appetite, and occasionally, a bill to sicken it.

Not so in the former home of Lisbon prostitute Maria Severa, the city's first fadista, whose melodic tones enthralled the aristocrat Count Vimioso in the 1820s and led to a passionate, illicit affair. Now beautifully restored, this birthplace of fado has fittingly become a fado house where you can enjoy authentic performances and traditional food without the designer price tag.

Wandering into the tiny house in the upcoming suburb of Mouraria, the half dozen or so tables in the parlour are already set with little dishes of food and a small floral bag containing fresh bread. It's early by Lisbon's dining standards, not yet 8pm, and we are the first to arrive, which gives us the opportunity to learn about food and fado etiquette.

The dishes on our table consist of three couverts (covers) of bread, olives and cheese, and a small selection of cold petiscos (starter dishes) including octopus salad; butter beans in a green sauce; marinated sardines; and chickpea and cod salad. We can choose which, if any, of the couverts and petiscos we want to keep; the rest are taken away. The three couverts come to €8.50 in this case and the petiscos range from €4.50 to €14.90. We keep all the couverts and one petisco.

The menu has a small à la carte selection of two fish dishes, two meat dishes and the chef's special, or we could opt for the pratos do dia which includes a couvert, two starters, a main course of fish or meat, a dessert, wine, water and coffee for €45. There's also a tapas tasting menu at €35 including wine, water and coffee.

I opt for fried chicken in a garlic sauce, while Jack chooses octopus 'Vimioso' sautéed with garlic and olive oil. My chicken is nicely tasty and comes with home-made fries and a small salad, but Jack's octopus is nothing less than sensational; succulent and tender, infused with garlic and served with buttery mashed potatoes. The dinner envy emanating from my side of the table is palpable.

As we tuck into our main courses, the place begins to fill up and we notice that the table next to us keeps all its couverts and petiscos – and then they all order the octopus! They've obviously been here before.

By 9pm we've finished our meal and are beginning to wonder if we've picked the wrong night for the fado performances when two young men get up from their table, stroll to the chairs set to one side of the room, pick up their guitars and begin to play. One is playing a Portuguese guitar which has a tear drop shaped body, like a mandolin, and a long neck. The other is playing a classical guitar. The gentle, intricate fretwork casts a spell over the room where diners are now in darkness and all attention is focussed on the music.

After a while, a woman stands up from the table next to us, walks to the guitarists, picks up a microphone, and begins to sing. A sweet, soulful lament begins, the soft voice sailing above the tidal ebb of the guitars, the woman's body swaying gently to the rhythm. Gradually, the music begins to crescendo, the guitarists pressing the frets with such speed and precision their fingers become a blur. The soulful voice rises, its power belying the diminutive beauty of its bearer, the sweet pain of the song scribing its lyrics across her face. The audience is spellbound, as if we're watching the climax to a tragic scene in which the beautiful young prostitute with the rapturous voice dies in the arms of her aristocratic lover...

If fado be the music of love, play on. And bring me a plate of that octopus.


Related holidays & further information

Cities, Palaces & Wine
Embark upon a thrilling cultural journey by rail, from the colourful wine city of Porto and the vineyards of the Douro valley, to elegant Coimbra and the sumptuous palaces of Sintra, before ending in Portugal's flamboyant capital, Lisbon.
More about our self-guided rail journeys in Portugal >

For the full fado experience...
Andy dined at Maria da Mouraria, on Largo da Severa in the centre of Lisbon. It's open Wednesday to Sunday and from 8pm to 2am, with fado performances every night.
Visit the Fado House website to find out more or make a booking >
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