On holiday in Portugal: Your fish is my command

Posted by Tyson Jopson on 26 July 2018

I was recently at a friend’s extended family dinner. That is to say, the family was extended. Not the dinner.

Cascais beachfront. Image: Tyson Jopson

The dinner, in fact, was close to being truncated. A disagreement between two high-ranking members had steered us all to the brink of a food fight. At the last minute, an aunt grabbed the wheel and ran us aground on the awkward shores of an island called Silence.

Squirming at the helm, she tried to change the subject by yelling at me, ‘Hey, you went to Lisbon recently, right? Do you have any photos?’ I did. But also I didn’t. Not on my smartphone. I rarely take photos with my phone because (1) it’s not a very good phone, and (2) I’m rubbish at phone photography. I feel artless and silly pointing such a small device at things, and as a result the things I point it at look artless and silly too.

I need the heft of a DSLR to validate myself. At any rate, the situation was dire. So I tried to remember what images of that holiday I might have on my phone.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘But only a few and they’re mainly of fish.’ ‘Oh, did you go diving?’ ‘No, just to the supermarket.’

Her face made the sort of shape that suggested it needed more of an explanation. I imagine yours is doing the same…

My girlfriend and I were at the tail end of a magnificently on-budget holiday in Portugal. We’d explored the hubbub of central Lisbon and walked the twisted streets of Alfama, and been chased by the wind at Cabo de Roca. For our last night, we’d found an adorable seaside apartment (the kind that’s in the price range where you can smell but not quite see the ocean) in the fishing village of Cascais.

Cascais was not the classic Portuguese fishing village we’d imagined. There were no burly men flinging fish from wooden boats or women carting baskets of bloodied catch through loud markets while shopkeepers bawled affectionately at each other. Rather, like Madeira and Mallorca and Gran Canaria, it has grown into a British holiday hotspot. The streets were lined with English pubs and the beaches with English lobsters. That’s not to say it wasn’t nice. It just wasn’t very Portuguese.

With neither of us feeling that a steak and Guinness pie down at O’Neills would quite capture the essence of Portuguese cuisine, we decided to go to a supermarket and pick up ingredients for a homemade seafood dinner. (Hey, if we couldn’t see the ocean, we might as well taste it.)

What Cascais may lack in local flavour at the waterfront, it makes up for with its hinterland shops. English was entirely absent, leaving us to muddle through our shopping list using a combination of Google Translate and ‘Chuck it in. We’ll see what it is when we get home.’

It was all fun and games until we got to the fish. Sardines were the first pick but they were not in season. Instead, we were greeted by rows of nameless, full-bodied sea creatures sitting atop piles of ice, facing forward like spectators in the theatre of Frutos de Mar.

I have a hard time identifying fish when they’re on the menu, never mind when they’re staring at me. Then I remembered Google’s reverse-image search function.
You drop a picture in the search bar and it tells you, with wildly varying degrees of success, what’s in it. We tried it on one of the ghastlier looking specimens – a fat brown sort with a mouth like a woodchipper.

‘Monkfish.’ It worked!

We split up to cover more distance, coming back every so often to compare notes. ‘What you got there?’ ‘I found a bream!’ ‘This one’s a cod!’

Like a digital genie, Google spat out an answer for every command. And then we saw it. A marvellous silver creature with shimmers of gold on its belly. Sea bass.

‘We’ll take this one!’ we said, showing the fishmonger my phone. ‘It’s very good looking.’

She’d been watching the whole affair and could no longer contain her laughter. And then neither could we.

Dinner was perfect. The holiday was perfect. But what struck me only later – around that family dinner on the brink of sinking – was how, of all the carefully composed DSLR photos I took to remember that trip, a blurry phone snap of a dead sea bass in a supermarket may very well hold the best memories of the lot.


This article first appeared in the August 2018 issue of Getaway magazine.

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Our August 2018 issue features our essential guide to whale watching; 3 new hikes in SA; our guide to the wondrous Masai Mara; an affordable holiday to the Maldives and much more.


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