In a sky of clearest blue, there was a white trail of an aeroplane, fine and straight, not a sound and only my eyes to trace its slow passage. I took my first breath of salty Lisbon air as we stepped out of the shade of Santa Apolónia Station. On one side of me, a low, stone barrier following the road announced the nearness of the sea. On the other side, buildings seemed to topple down a hillside, ochres rooves pushing against each other stubbornly. Alfama.
Christine hailed a taxi. I produced from my pocket a bit of scrunched-up paper on which I had scrawled the address of the hostel that morning:
Escolas Gerais, 3,
Patio dos Quintalinhos, 1
Those words in that peculiar, curling language meant little to me. Their back-to-front structure was unfamiliar. Across the road, a drunk was conducting traffic. As always, I felt a ripple of fear conflated with disgust, an instant reaction that I wished I could replace with empathy or indifference.
A benevolent-faced taxi driver threw our backpacks in his boot while we tumbled into the back seat. I thrust the address towards him. He looked at the paper, and then back at us, with an expression of amusement.
“Alfama?” I said, hopefully, into the silence.
He pointed up to the hillside, that labyrinth of crumbling buildings. “This – is – Alfama,” he said, giving an emphatic weight to each word in an attempt to throw a rope across our language barrier.
Chris leant over.
“I think he means we have to walk from here,” she whispered.
He walked around to the boot and heaved our packs onto the pavement unapologetically.
Left with no other choice, I gazed resolutely up at the ancient hillside of Alfama, the only district that was not destroyed by the earthquake of 1755, according to my Lonely Planet. We set off on foot, directionless, past the lined-up taxis, past the drunk, who was unfazed, nearing on pleased, by the abrasive honks coming from the cars in his path. As we slowly ascended into Alfama, I realised why the taxi driver had looked at me daftly. These streets were barely large enough to fit two people abreast, let alone an entire car.
Three shopkeepers, two rest stops and a gaggle of elderly Portuguese women later, we arrived at the front door of the hostel. Much earlier in the walk, I’d already decided on one thing: I was suddenly, heart-thumpingly in love with Lisbon. I couldn’t remember a time I’d been more happy than dragging my legs up and down those hilly streets, my back aching with the weight from my pack.
(That tale was taken from a short story I wrote about Lisbon! Thanks for indulging me 😛 and, yeah, ever since that trip I’ve been back another time and still dream of living there…)
I adapted this cake from a recipe found in David Leite’s The New Portuguese Table. It was something the author ate a few times a week whilst living in Lisbon, but sadly I missed out on that while I was there! I was too busy eating these and, well, bacalhau in all its forms. And lining up for custard tarts!
I have changed the recipe quite a bit based on the couple of times I’ve made this cake, so maybe it’s not really Portuguese anymore. It’s still one of my favourite cakes to make, similar to pound cake in texture but somehow so much lighter due to the huge amount of orange juice and zest that goes into the batter. It really needs no adornment except for a light dusting of icing sugar. It’s one of those cakes where it’s best enjoyed simply!
- 5 large oranges
- 2½ cups / 375g plain flour
- 3 tsp baking powder
- ¼ tsp salt
- 4 extra large eggs
- 1 cup / 220g caster sugar
- 1 cup / 250ml olive oil*
- Icing sugar, to serve
- Preheat the oven to 200C/180C fan-forced.
- Grease and flour a 12-cup bundt tin and set aside.
- Finely grate the zest of two of the oranges, then juice four of them. You should have 1½ cups / 375ml orange juice. If you don't have enough, squeeze the fifth orange.
- In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt and set aside.
- In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs until combined, a few seconds. Slowly add the caster sugar, and continue beating until pale and not grainy - around three minutes.
- Alternate adding the flour mixture and oil, starting and ending with the flour, beating after each addition.
- Pour in the orange juice and zest and beat for a few seconds to incorporate into the batter.
- Pour the batter into the bundt tin and bake for around an hour, until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.
- Allow to cool in the tin for at least 30 minutes before turning onto a cooling rack.
- Just before serving, sieve a little icing sugar over the top of the cake.