Falling for Made in Portugal

Follow Ena Ramli as she checks out what Lisbon has in store for travellers, particularly shopping enthusiasts.

Lisbon, I realised, is not made for high heels. Nicknamed as the City of Seven Hills, it is spread out over steep slopes, intimate alleys, and cobbled streets. But you’ll hardly complain because as you stop to catch your breath trudging up an insanely steep part of the city, you’ll look back over your shoulder and the city waves encouragingly back at you. The Tagus River sweeps past the city, whitewashed buildings huddle together under the Mediterranean sun, trams clang noisily by, and, far beyond, the North Atlantic Ocean shimmers. And then you begin to understand the maritime dreams that beckoned many a Portuguese explorer to voyage across the seas from this very port.

The Portuguese have a long history in naval exploration marked by great pioneers such as Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco da Gama and Bartholomeu Dias who helped build the Portuguese empire from coast to coast. By the 16th century, Portugal, a small nation of about 2 million people, was a major influence in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, all the way to Nagasaki, Japan. It seized Melaka in 1511, which at the time was an important international trading port, Asia’s “shopping district”, so to speak, that attracted Arabs, Persians, Indians and Chinese to shop!

Entrance to A Vida Portuguesa
Entrance to A Vida Portuguesa

Portugal today seems like a far cry from the powerful empire it was centuries ago; instead of conquering faraway lands, it is capturing the hearts of many international travellers. And it is doing so in a bold way, which is through digital and social media marketing, a strategy that’s obviously working considering the number of tourists arriving to the country has risen from 6.8 million in 2010 to 8.1 million in 2013. This year may be a record tourism year for Portugal, with the industry touted to contribute more than 15% to the country’s GDP, ultimately leading it out of recession.

The call of Portugal is in the mix of experiences it offers: 850km of beaches, 15 world heritage sites, international golf courses, a growing food and beverage (especially wine) industry, cultural mix and of course, shopping. Sounds like the international trading port it was searching for in the 15th century was all the while in its own backyard!

Shopping in Portugal starts in Lisbon, where the love for all things Portuguese and Lisbon are clearly evident. The streetside architecture and sculptures, the azulejo tilework compositions on building exteriors, and the hip, trendy cafes and restaurants serving Portuguese pastries and finer cuisine, add up to a charming shopping expedition in search of all things “Made in Portugal.”

Something fishy

Sardine souvenirs at Conserveira De Lisboa

The Portuguese love their fish. Being a seafaring nation with a strong fishing industry, their markets are well-stocked with all kinds of fish, and their menus, with all kinds of seafood dishes. I was surprised to learn that they, too, have ikan masin (salted fish). Theirs is called bacalhau, which is dried and salted codfish. With a history that dates back 1,000 years ago, the ‘invention’ of bacalhau made it possible for the Portuguese to sail many months at sea with their own portable and long-lasting source of protein. It is said that there are over 365 known recipes for cooking the bacalhau, one for each day of the year (with their best recipes kept for Christmas dinner, of course).

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While the bacalhau may be a little too pungent to pack in your suitcase as a souvenir for friends and family back home, their sardines, fished along the coast of Portugal and canned for freshness, make the perfect gift! But don’t mistake Portuguese sardines to be of the Malaysian version. We whip out our can of sardines for those dismal days when we know not what to cook. Malaysia’s “poor man’s protein” is elevated to gourmet status in Portugal. Hip and trendy restaurants serve it on their menus, specialty stores open their doors – and their cans – of vintage sardines for sale, and designers have gone to work to add a touch of old glam to this Portuguese staple with beautiful artwork for the can labels.

One of the best places to stock up on sardine souvenirs is at Conserveira De Lisboa (Rue dos Bacalhoeiros, 34, Baixa). Enter this old-fashioned shop and you’ll not doubt what it sells. Walls are stacked up with canned fish wrapped in vintage packaging that make charming gifts. There’s tuna and sardines in olive oil, spring water, with herbs or tomato sauce. If you’re not sure what to choose, ask for samples tastings; but with a history of producing and selling canned fish since 1930, everything here is sure to be delicious!

The scent of Portugal

 When shopping for a gift, you can’t go wrong with something that not only looks nice, but has a great history behind it, too. And if it smells great, that’s a bonus! Luxury soap brand, Claus Porto, scores marks for all three.

This proudly Made-in-Portugal soap actually has German roots thanks to two German friends who opened up the first soap factory in Portugal in 1887. They made natural, moisturising soaps using luxury raw materials such as shea, mango and pistachio butters. Essential oils of vetiver, sandalwood, lavender and bergamot were infused in the soap mixture which is then milled seven times to produce a deeply aromatic, creamy and lasting bar.

Over the years, the brand has gained the love of celebrities such as Madonna, Oprah Winrey and Nicholas Cage, and are now featured in specialty stores along the shopping districts of 50 countries in Europe, America, Africa and Asia.

The Claus Porto soap experience begins when you set eyes on the packaging. The designs – many of which were reminiscent of rococo, baroque, art deco and art nouveau styles – were salvaged from the old soap factory and reproduced in the present-day batch of soaps to recreate the romance of a timeless brand. Embellishments like an embossed tendril of flower, fanciful font styles, vintage flower patterns, elaborate images, all come together in a delicate package that’s sealed by a Claus Porto trademark wax stamp. Once the seal is broken, and the bar of aromatic soap is in your hands, you’re back in Portugal all over again.

From the soils of Portugal

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The Mediterranean climate of Portugal along with the quality of its soil make for an ideal condition to grow olive trees. Olive oil production has a long history in Portugal, thus little wonder that their olive oils are among the best, though may be under-rated due to the accessibility to Spanish and Italian versions.

So passionate are they about their olive oil that the Government has designated six different regions for olive oil farming and production, and given them protected status. Each region boasts of their own unique landscape conditions – by the hills, rivers, in the valleys, on the plains, and amid castles and world heritage sites.

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One of the better brands of olive oil comes from Acushla, a company that owns 740 acres of olive growing farms in the Alto Douro Valley. Their approximately 70,000 olive trees are cultivated organically meeting not just European, but also American, standards of organic farming. Their award-winning olive oil, bagged for both taste and packaging design, is harvested once a year in October from a mix of new and centenarian trees. The olives are double-pressed for the highest quality extractions. With plans to be sustainable and eco-friendly, the company will soon turn to using solar and aeolian (wind) energies for their olive oil production.

Aside from the beautiful colour, tasting notes and aroma of the Acushla oil, what makes this a perfect gift to bring home is that it doesn’t look too bad, either. Acushla is sold in a stainless steel bottle of 250ml or a 500ml can with a modern and cool design that you wouldn’t mind displaying as a centrepiece long after the last drop of oil has been consumed.

Portugal in nostalgia

 Many of these Made-in-Portugal items can be found at A Vida Portuguesa (which means Portuguese Life) at Rua Anchieta, 11, Chiado, a store born out of a passion for all things reminiscent of old Portugal.

Journalist Catarina Portas opened the shop to preserve her memory of a happy childhood growing up with familiar – but fast vanishing – brands that many Portuguese knew and loved, from toothpaste to salt, tea to chocolates, and toys to notebooks. Entering the shop is like stepping back into a long-forgotten Portuguese childhood that brings out the childlike curiosity in you. Many of these vintage brands still retain their retro look, and hang on to the proud manufacturing standards upheld over the passage of time. Each little item has struggled and survived, and, are still in production today, to share their history in this fast, modern world.

As quoted on the A Vida Portuguesa website, “they evoke the everyday life of another time and reveal the soul of a country.” And isn’t that what we should all bring home from our travels abroad?

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