There’s a minute bifana on the menu but we’ve walked a long way – I’m more hungry than that.

I order what I translate to be beef and rice. The Portuguese, after all, don’t eat lunch the same way we do in England.

I relax in the sun, talking with the skipper about the day and squinting at the turns gliding on the sea breeze. Take a sip of my beer.

I love the beer in Portugal. Not even just Portugal, Spain and France too. Because in these countries you can actually buy small beers. And that’s normal. Asking for a beer here will get you a 20cl or 25cl bottle of Portuguese beer – Sagres or Super Bock. It’s the perfect size for lunchtime and almost always €1.

Small beers, huge plates

A waitress stands in the doorway of the cafe holding two plates and scanning across the plastic tables and chairs. She heads over and lays the food down in front of us. I raise my eyebrows and say obrigada.

There is a pyramid of food in front of me. It begins, on top, with a slice of tomato supported on a lettuce leaf. The lettuce leaf rests on a mound of chips which shouldn’t surprise me. If you don’t get chips with your food in Portugal then you’ve wandered into an ice cream parlour. And even then.

I pick up my cutlery tentatively. One false move and this will cascade. A couple of fat sparrows sit on a chair back next to me and wait for the inevitable. Where the Azores lack the argumentative seagulls of England, they instead have innumerable sparrows. The tiny birds get away with murder because they’re quick on their feet but also because they’re pretty cute. Certainly less obnoxious.

I spear a chip with my fork by change my mind. I take a 15g pouch of mayonnaise and try to rip the corner off without spurting it everywhere. I succeed. But now what? There’s no space on my plate for mayonnaise. I mean, I haven’t even found the beef yet!

The great food pyramid

I dump the mayo on the flattest section of food I can find and eat a few chips. They’re good – from a freezer bag but still, I do love a carb.

Suddenly I find a grain of rice and then another and another. I realise that underneath the mound of chips is a mound of rice of almost equal size. I even find a side salad buried on one side. This is the meal that keeps on giving.

The skipper went for the bacalau  – a plate sized portion but with barely a chip in sight, it looks genuinely manageable. My fork hits something tough.

I’ve found the beef.

dairy cow portugal

Oh land of dairy cows

Hurrah! I think. Now let’s get down to business (I was vegetarian for 15 years – you wouldn’t know it).

I try to cut a mouthful of beef which is not unlike playing the old game Operation. The beef is still buried beneath both rice, salad and chips (I ate the tomato slice, it was too precarious to remain). I have a steak knife of sorts but I feel it may have seen too many steak and not enough grindstones.

I try a sawing motion and cause a landslide of carbohydrates on the opposite side. The beef is too tough to cut. I move some rice to try another part of the beef and, unbelievably, find a fried egg that I hadn’t already noticed. 

Having tried to eat my way through the top layers, I find my appetite waning alarmingly. As I move carbs around trying to find access to the beef I realise that the beef is everywhere. As in, it is the same size as the plate.

Is this a sharing platter?

I feel I should point out that this meal cost me €5. €5 and I could feed an entire team of starving rugby players.

The beef is so incredibly difficult to cut that I start to wonder if this is how it works. You simply burn the calories as you consume them. My hands ache from the force of attempting to make a dent in the tough meat.

I turn to the fried egg for want of a rest.

Excessive quantities

It’s hardly unheard of for me to not be able to finish a meal out. After all, when cafes and restaurants aim their food at the average person they have to hedge their bets a little.

But still.

I eat as much as I’m physically able to but when I throw in the towel you still cannot see the plate at all. I push some food around, try to work out how to make it look like there’s less left. I don’t want the waitress to think I don’t like it.

I finish the dregs of my little beer and wonder if I’m even capable of walking after this. The waitress removes our plates and asks us if we’d like dessert.

We decline.


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