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Nobody goes hungry on Hebridean Sky. The minute we board this APT ship in Portsmouth, welcome cakes appear, and every day before our dinner – just in case we're feeling faint – crunchy spring rolls and mini pulled-pork sandwiches and strawberry tarts are laid out in the lounge. In the restaurant, we dine on lobster thermidor, spiced duck breast, chocolate desserts rich as sin. As we sail down the French coast and along Spain, too-good eggs Benedict are a constant temptation at breakfast, and each port of call is a siren seduction of patisseries or tapas bars.
Then comes Portugal, and one of the options is a "Flavours of Lisbon" tour and really, this is a new country, a new cuisine and an inclusive shore excursion, so why wouldn't you? I rush to sign up and, as Hebridean Sky makes the long scenic sail along Lisbon's shoreline to the cruise terminal, I stride the deck in the sunshine, limbering up for another culinary indulgence. Maybe my tours of the deck will walk off the day's excess. Or a custard tart, anyway.
Our destination is Lisbon's Mercado da Ribeira which, from the outside, looks like an enormous Victorian-era train station, all wrought-iron and ornate clocks, topped by a white dome. There is in fact a train station across the road whose sleek, simple Art Deco facade looks more likely to house a market, as our local APT guide Cristina points out.
Lisboans wouldn't make that mistake, however. Ribeira has been the city's main market for 900 years. "And this building, it has been here for 140 years. Everybody shops at Ribeira. I even bought the flowers for my wedding here 25 years ago," says Cristina.
"You know, when I got married I didn't know how to cook. I asked my mother's advice and she told me you can't go wrong with these four ingredients: garlic, onion, parsley, coriander. She forgot about chilli! We Portuguese love that too."
There are chillies piled high inside the market, and mountains of paprika, and hot piri-piri – some bottled in sauces – that originally came from Mozambique. The Portuguese, says Cristina, absorbed a lot of ingredients from their former colonies: cinnamon and saffron, spices and vanilla. A varied climate allows them to grow plenty of their own, too. Cristina leads us past Azores pineapples, Madeira bananas, fat figs and oranges from Portugal's southern Algarve region.
"But it's fish that's our biggest obsession," she concludes. "We eat more fish than anybody else in Europe except the Icelanders. Of course, we're famous for sardines. Tourists come even in December and ask for them, which we think is strange. They're a summer dish! I love them with boiled potatoes, grilled green peppers and green salad."
The fresh sardine season is just about over now, but Ribeira Market is silvery with other fish piled on ice, as well as knobbly lobsters and barnacles and cuttlefish resembling hatchlings from an alien movie. White swordfish from Madeira, recumbent on ice, smells like the sea. There are stranger creatures too, like silver scabbardfish as shiny as stainless steel, and limpet clams from the Azores like round, unfolded condoms. Black monkfish grimace like cathedral gargoyles.
As a visitor, this seems to me a decent haul, but Cristina is full of the modern lament you hear worldwide. People have moved to the suburbs, the traffic is awful, you can't find parking, fewer people come here now for their monkfish and mangoes. The fresh-food market might occupy several vast concourses, but isn't what it used to be.
The final concourse, though – that's another whole story. We step into a raucous space, jammed with people, that Cristina describes with glorious understatement as "quite trendy". It attracts more than 3 million visitors annually. At the peak of lunch hour, there's fierce competition for seats at its communal tables, and noise levels soar.
Since this declining part of Ribeira Market was taken over by international travel-listings magazine Time Out in 2014, it has become Lisbon's most-visited attraction. The concept was simple: ask the restaurants Time Out was recommending in its Lisbon magazine to open stalls at the market, and create a showcase of Portuguese produce in one place. Essentially, all the food available here – some from Michelin-starred chefs – has been chosen by travel journalists and food critics.
It's hard to know where to start. You can dine as simply as you like on carob bread or stewed mussels or sea bass drizzled in lemon and olive oil. You can try curious Portuguese classics such as pork with clams smoky with paprika, or go for contemporary snacks such as cuttlefish croquettes or tuna tataki. I spot a sandwich stall offering succulent Portuguese-flavoured fillings such as Alentajo black pork, and bacalhau (salted cod) with chickpea puree.
It's lucky we have a guide to steer us through the culinary choices. We stop first at Manteigaria Silva, a local small-goods company that has operated since 1890, for a tasting plate of pale sheep's cheese from the Azores, and presunto smoked ham, and of course chourico, the Portuguese answer to chorizo, mined with explosions of garlic and pepper.
Then we move on to the stall of Marlene Vieira, one of Portugal's top chefs, for some petiscos (tapas): mussels in a tomato sauce; chickpea and cabbage salad; grilled mushroom topped by a quail egg and prosciutto.
And what better to finish off than over coffee at Nos e Mais Bolos, a company often considered Lisbon's best baker? I go for a pastel de nata, the Portuguese custard tart we know better in Australia from Chinese restaurants, thanks to the influence of Portugal's former Chinese colony, Macau. The tart smells of cinnamon and its custard is blackened and caramelised on top. Its layers and layers of puff pastry crackle and collapse, and my mouth fills with sweet flavour. I bite in again, grinning. And now, guided tour over, I'd best go for a long walk around Lisbon and shake it all down. After all, dinner on Hebridean Sky is only a few hours away.
Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of APT.
FIVE MORE FOODIE STOPS
This APT cruise between London and Barcelona around the edge of western Europe visits other great food destinations too. Here are five top spots.
Many passengers scoot off to tour Brittany's most famous sight, the medieval island abbey of Mont-St-Michel, but Cancale across the shallow bay has been famous for oysters since Roman times. Oyster beds are clearly visible at low tide, and a shore excursion takes you to an oyster farm for a tasting of these legendary flat-shelled French delicacies.
The Gironde estuary is a region of cool breezes, pine forest, soft limestone villages and wine chateaux. Head out to tour the fabled Medoc wine region, where some 1500 vineyards produce mostly full-bodied red wines from cabernet sauvignon, merlot and petit verdot grapes. An included APT shore excursion stops at pretty Chateau Lanessan for a tasting.
A CORUNA, SPAIN
This port on Spain's north-west corner has superb seafood captured from its cold Atlantic waters, and also a reputation for barbecued meat. Crispy pork ribs are a staple tapas dish. Take a foodie-focused APT shore excursion around town and you'll stop by several tapas bars along the way for snacks and local, light red wines.
DOURO VALLEY, PORTUGAL
A full-day excursion from the port of Leixoes brings you into this steeply terraced, vineyard-draped wine region most famous for producing port. You can sample Douro wines – and many regional specialities – over lunch at aristocratic estate Casa dos Viscondes da Varzea. Talkative owner Maria Manuel isn't just knowledgeable about wines but an entertaining raconteur, too.
This historic shipbuilding port was once famous for its fisheries. A former cannery turned museum supplies a surprisingly interesting account of the town's long history and the former economic importance of its sardine canneries. Small restaurants line the waterfront, dishing up tasty sardines cooked on the grill and served on toast or, more traditionally, with boiled potatoes and salad.
The writer travelled on APT's 15-day "Southern European Sojourn" itinerary between London and Barcelona priced from $15,995pp, including a "Flavours of Lisbon" and other shore excursions, gratuities and beverages. Phone 1300 196 420 or see aptouring.com.au