June 13, 2019 by Ellis Dixon
The Foodie on the Move: A Q&A with Carmen Castello of Lisbon Secret Food Tours
A few weeks ago I joined up with Carmen to walk (and eat) through some of the more traditional shops in Mouraria and Baixa. Aside from falling in love with Carmen’s stories, her passion, and her appetite for history, fun facts, and, of course, food, I had a tummy full of half a bifana, port wine and canned yummies with escabeche and vinho verde, and yummy flakes of buttery bacalhau, so I was definitely feeling full, and that was before the ginjinha and a pastel da nata we scarfed down to finish off the tour.
Forget drinks, long walks, or personality tests, I’m of the mind that talking to someone over dinner is the best way to get to know them, so it’s no wonder that Carmen and I became fast friends. Here’s the story of the senhora behind the secret tours.
You’re from Mozambique — how did you end up in Lisbon and what made you stay?
I came with my family in October of 1974 when I was just a few months old, so although I had a lot of African influences while growing up, I also feel very much from here. I have as much fun dancing a Marrabenta as I have listening to Fado!
How did you get into guiding food tours? What were you doing before then?
I had been working as a producer for 22 years and I felt I needed a change. Here in Lisbon we always received a lot of foreign crews that chose Portugal to shoot their films as we have a small but very diverse landscape, many hours of sun, and excellent technicians. Along the way, I was always one of the people that would know where to find a good old secret place to eat well, and for years I gave a lot of recommendations. When this opportunity popped up, and someone wanted to actually pay me to be around two of my favorite things, food and people, it all made sense to me! I applied, they chose me, and after almost three years here I am, sharing one of our best forms of cultural heritage — the edible kind!
The tour you led me on was filled with iconic traditional food in iconic tascas, cafes, and shops around town — were these places your choice?
Yes, most of the places we work with are places I had already known before somehow. Others came from the need to design a tour that, in three hours, could give a deep, truthful, and dignified perspective of Portuguese gastronomy, the Portuguese people, and our habits. That institution is the Portuguese table — that meal that can last for hours! One thing is for sure, all the places on the tour have been chosen by the quality and veracity of the elements.
You work with a lot of foreigners, so it must be interesting to compare cultures with your own. What can you say you’ve learned about the Portuguese that you didn’t know before?
It is interesting that you ask me that… a lot of guests sometimes ask me to describe the Portuguese as people, and this is so difficult. We have so many different kinds. But recently, while reflecting on this, I think I have discovered a single word that I strongly believe better explains the Portuguese, and that would be “resilient.” They are tough. Maybe this is why we need to eat and drink so well!
As a foodie, it’s always important to ask: What’s your perfect meal?
Wowww this is the most difficult question of all! My friends tenderly call me the “black hole,” so there’s no doubt I am an eater. But food comes with so many things…so the time of the year and our location would change my reply. Are we by the ocean? Is it hot? Is it that time of the year when we have that special fruit or fish? A lot of factors will change what my favorite dish is. I love a lot of things and I am very fortunate as I’m only allergic to mussels, so anything else is welcome!
Do you have any parting words?
Do you know the difference between a fish from the cold environment of the ocean from a fish from mild waters? Join me some time and I’ll tell you!