Portuguese lesson: how to order an espresso

Uma bica, Rui Barreiros Duarte, ink on paper, 2012.

You can order an espresso by saying:  “Um espresso, por favor. “ (oom espresso poer faevoer). “Um” means “one,” and “por favor” means “please.” This method works fine, but the Portuguese don’t use the word espresso. So, here’s how to order coffee like a local.

In Lisbon, an espresso is called a “bica” (pronounced beeca), so the right thing to say is: “Uma bica por favor” (ooma beeca poer faevoer). In case you’re wondering, “bica” means spout, so the name probably comes from the spout that channels the coffee into the cup.

Now that we covered the basics, let’s discuss some advanced topics. There are two types of “bica.” The “bica curta” (beeca coorta) is a short espresso, sometimes so short that you can barely taste any coffee. A “bica cheia” (beeca sheia) is a long espresso. Your choice of bica reveals a lot about your personality. People who like the “bica curta” are usually intense, while those who enjoy the “bica cheia” tend to be more relaxed.

In Oporto they call an espresso a “cimbalino” (ceenbaleeno) in homage to La Cimbali, a popular Italian brand of espresso machines. Foreigners who know this arcane fact are often honored with a state banquet and given the keys to the city.

Where can you find a list of the best coffee shops in Portugal?  There’s no such list. With more than three centuries of experience brewing coffee, Portugal has as many great coffee shops as beautiful beaches.

In search of the muses

Martinho da Arcada, Maria José Rebelo, monochrome digital print image, 2012.

Martinho da Arcada, a café in Terreiro do Paço, is a time capsule. It shows us what Lisbon cafés looked like in the first part of the 20th century. It is an austere place and, yet, it was here that the poet Fernando Pessoa wrote some of the best poetry in the Portuguese language.

Do the muses still gather at Martinho da Arcada, waiting to whisper their rhymes to those willing to listen? There’s only one way to find out. Take a pen and a pad of paper, sit down at one of the tables, order some coffee, and watch what happens.

Lisbon’s most famous café

If you are near Chiado, don’t miss the chance to have an espresso in Lisbon’s most famous café, A Brasileira. The poet Fernando Pessoa spent here many golden hours, writing words that became immortal. If you want to pay homage to his genius, do not take a photo with the awkward Pessoa statue resting in the esplanade. Sit instead at a table and write a poem.

The blank page can be intimidating, so it might help you to know that Pessoa’s first poem was a modest effort. When he was seven, his widowed mother decided to remarry and start a new life in South Africa. Pessoa, worried that she might leave him behind in Lisbon, gave her this poem :

Here I am in Portugal
In the land where I was born
As much as I adore it
I love you even more

These simple words were Pessoa’s ticket to South Africa. So, summon the muses and write their whispers on your blank page. Who knows where those words might take you!

Café Nicola

Nicola, a famous café in Lisbon, opened its doors in the late 18th century. Run by an Italian emigrant, it became popular in literary and political circles. Here, you could listen to the latest government gossip, conspire against the prince regent, or hear Bocage, a bohemian poet, improvise brilliant verses.

All this fun came to an end with the Napoleonic invasions—French officers adopted the Nicola as their gathering spot. So, when the French retreated in 1808, Nicola threw a grand independence party.

In 1929, Nicola moved to its current location, featuring the art deco architecture that you can see today.

At Nicola you can do it all, improvise poetry, start an insurrection, celebrate independence, and have a great cup of coffee.

Pasteis de Belém

When you land in the Lisbon airport, there’s a heightened anticipation for what comes next. There’s the usual ritual of waiting in line, searching for your luggage, going through customs, all transforming you from in transit to landed. But here, arriving isn’t the best part. You drive out of the airport towards the river Tagus. As you get close, you first see the seagulls. Then, you see the Tower of Belém and the Jerónimos Monastery, monuments to the many “caravelas” that departed from a nearby dock. A marble Henry the Navigator leads a pack of explorers, pointing the way to the new world. But that’s not why you came here. You came here for a small pastry shop just down the road.

In 1834, the government closed down all Portuguese convents and monasteries. The friars of the Jerónimos Monastery needed a source of income. So, like other religious orders in Portugal, they used their ancient recipes to make pastries for sale. The Jerónimos monks made little cups of flaky pastry dough filled with custard and topped with cinnamon. All monastery pastries are delicious, but these “pasteis de Belém” are a piece of heaven. The recipe hasn’t changed since the pastry shop opened in 1837, and everything about it is shrouded in mystery. Only three master patissiers, who prepare the cream and dough in the “Oficina do Segredo” (secret workshop), know the recipe.

These pastries are ephemeral bites of cinnamon and warmth. They must be eaten right away, never saved for later. Every coffee shop in Portugal produces an imitation, but none quite captures the lightness of the dough, the creaminess of the filling. These imitations even bear a different name: “pasteis de nata.” Because there is only one place in the world where you can get “pasteis de Belém.”

Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, Rua de Belém, 84-92, Lisbon. Tel. 21-363-7423. Email: pasteisdebelem@pasteisdebelem.pt. Click here for website.

The perfect espresso cups

Coffee lovers are on a constant search for aromatic coffee beans, roasted to perfection. They get up early on weekends to study Italian, hoping to uncover the nuances lost in the translation of their espresso-machine manual. They mumble incantations like “ruotare la manopola in senso antiorario per aprire il rubinetto di erogazione vapore” with a passion normally reserved for the poetry of Dante. They listen in rapture to the machine’s rumbles as the water rushes through the coffee at the ideal pressure.

But, after all this effort, they pour their brew into bulky, thick porcelain cups. European cafés use these cups, they tell you with pride. True, but cafés only use them because they rarely break. The coffee tastes so much better in thin coffee cups!

Vista Alegre, the great Portuguese porcelain maker, produces the best espresso cups we have ever tried.  They have the perfect shape and come in bright, joyful colors. These cups are hard to find outside of Portugal. So, if you are visiting Portugal, here’s your chance to bring something unique to your java friends.

Here is a link to the Vista Alegre website.

300 years of brewing


The Portuguese produce wonderful coffee. “It tastes like cognac,” an American friend said, admiring the smooth taste of Delta coffee. This coffee is so good that Delta exports it to Brazil.

It has taken three centuries of experience in three continents to learn to roast coffee that tastes like no other. All so that we can wake up in a good mood, looking forward to our first cup of brew.

Click here to visit Delta‘s web site.