Ordering coffee in Portugal can be quite a task. As it comes in all different shapes and sizes and is referred to in each region by a different local name it is a tricky business.
Coffee and Portugal somehow seem to go hand-in-hand. It is served anywhere and any time and you will find it is part of a daily ritual for the majority of the population.
The Portuguese drink, on average, three to four kilos of coffee each year. That is per person, if you are wondering. Compared to someone who lives in northern Europe who might drink 13 to 14 kilos per year, it doesn’t really sound like much. People here seem to focus more on quality instead of quantity. That and the fact that they drink it very strong. You wouldn’t last long on 14 kg of strong coffee per year.
And yet, when it comes down to the simple task of placing your order at a café or restaurant, you might feel daunted by the prospect ahead of you. There is no shortage of variety. You’ll definitely need to know what to ask for beforehand. For those coming from countries that serve weaker coffee, the first sip of a typical and ubiquitously served black espresso may prove an unwanted challenge. If you are American you might be expecting weaker, diluted coffee served in a large cup; if a Spaniard, you’ll be wanting a coffee with milk, but if you are Italian, the espresso should be shorter … Yet, there is no reason to despair. You can get all of the above and even other varieties, such as simple coffee, coffee with milk in a small cup, coffee with milk in a large cup or even served in a glass. You can also have coffee served with a dash of brandy, a long black with a spot of milk, a double black, a three-quarter black, a flat white … well, you get the picture.
Sounds confusing? We’ll guide you through the works
A ‘café’ (the drink, not the establishment), which you may know as an espresso, or a short black is a black shot of coffee served in a demitasse cup. Portuguese do not use the word espresso and depending on the city, it is ordered under different names. In Lisbon it is commonly referred to as a ‘bica’ (spout in English), because the coffee machine has a spout at the end from where the coffee comes out. There is also a story that tells us that in “A Brasileira”, one of Lisbon’s oldest and trendiest cafés, they had a sign that said: “Beba Isto Com Açúcar”, meaning “Drink This With Sugar”, and the acronym reads as BICA. In Oporto, asking for a ‘cimbalino’ is the same as asking for a ‘café’. The name comes from the brand of a popular espresso machine, La Cimbali. In either place, though, anyone will understand you if you ask for a ‘café’, and this is also true for the rest of the country, where an espresso is always served when you ask for a ‘café’.
Yet, this is not all. A ‘café’ can be made to measure: it can be cheio (full), três-quartos (3/4 full) or curto (short).
Italiana is the name for a very short shot of espresso, what might be known as a ristretto in other countries: the first shot of coffee of the machine. It comes as short and as strong as it is served in Rome.
In Brazil, this is the name for someone who lives in Rio de Janeiro. In Portugal, it means a very weak espresso: it is the second shot of the last espresso the machine has served.
This is a long and weak coffee served in a medium cup, like a tea cup, that may be interesting for those who like American coffee.
An espresso with a drop of milk.
Garoto is Portuguese for “little boy”, and it’s an espresso with milk in a small cup. It is thus called because it used to be served to boys before they could drink a regular coffee.
Meia de leite
This is a medium cup of coffee with milk (half milk, half coffee). The size of the cup is the same as the abatanado. It literally means “half (cup) of milk”.
A tall glass with black coffee and 3/4 milk, similar to a latte. It is served very hot and can burn your fingers when you are trying to hold it.
The choice of a great Portuguese
The café Martinho da Arcada, in Praça do Comércio, near the Tagus River, in central Lisbon, still has today the table where the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa used to sit and write and also preserves his cup and a sugar bowl.
Fernando Pessoa also spent his time in other cafés, and it is outside A Brasileira, in Chiado, that you can find his statue and even take a picture next to it. Even so, Martinho da Arcada marks the last years of the writer’s life and was like an office or a second home to Fernando Pessoa.
And what better place for you to get acquainted with all the different types of coffee served in Portugal than one of the cafés where this great Portuguese poet used to spend his time? Now that you know how to order a regular coffee, a coffee with milk in a small cup or even in a glass, you are ready to try out something other than the usual espresso without being afraid of what you might get.