The taste of a place – Porto
Yes, Lisbon is lovely, but Porto – well, it’s pretty much perfect, in our book!
Here at Taste Adventures, we are big fans of second cities and Porto is one of our favourites. We visited it for the first time, last year and having enjoyed it so much, returned a few short weeks later, hungry for more…
Not only is the city super manageable in terms of size, it is clean, friendly and really beautiful! There is so much to love about this city from the Eiffel bridge to the port houses.
The Lello Livraria Bookshop (which reputedly inspired JK Rowling’s Harry Potter novels), to wine tasting trips of the Douro valley. It has the beautiful blue and white tiled, Sao Bento train station, cable cars, trams, a funicular, excellent network of buses (TA are big fans of public transport!) You can also walk to the coast, which in our book makes this place nigh on perfect.
In addition, we found accommodation to be of an excellent standard and fantastic value. Twice we stayed in beautiful apartments right in the centre, the quality of which we have not experienced before (in our price bracket – remember we are 2* travellers!).
So to the important business of what we ate….Well, suffice to say, we were not disappointed by the fabulous eateries and markets, the fantastic wines from the Douro and some new (to us), interesting food traditions.
We arrived very early in the morning and just around the corner from our apartment, we came across a small shop/café specialising in delicious, handmade “bolinhos de bacalhau” (salt cod croquettes) which seemed a good breakfast item. The staff told us it was traditional to drink port with the croquettes, so when in Rome, right….?
Happily, these fluffy cod pillows became a recurrent theme of our stay.
Our next stop, was the market. The Bolhao market was incredible; we had read about it and knew it would soon be closing for redevelopment. I think we must have caught it in the very last throes of life; almost entirely closed up and resembling an ancient amphitheatre in terminal decay. All that remained were a few elderly ladies selling random baskets of homegrown fruit and veg and a café/bar serving the best espresso (bica) and freshest “pasteis de nata”, egg custard tarts (yes, officially from Lisbon, I know!). The market was so, so atmospheric, like a film set – it made me think of Miss Haversham; if she had had a market, it would have looked like this! (bit random, I know)! Absolutely loved it.
(On our second visit, the market had been relocated to a modern building, which had we not seen the original, we would have been delighted with, but I fear we have been spoilt…my understanding is that the market will return to the original, redeveloped site, but let’s face it, it won’t be the same….)
In common with Spain, the Portuguese seem to favour a set lunch, which is right up our street. Our host explained that lunchtime here is 12 – 2 (a lot earlier than we have been used to in Andalucia). When we explained we were not into “fine dining”, preferring to eat like the locals, he did away with his tourist brochure and gave us a couple of personal recommendations.
Serendipity had it that one spot was a few doors up from apartment. I have no idea what it was called as there seemed to be no name and it only opened for 3 hours per day, every weekday lunchtime. We queued briefly and were soon seated in a bustling dining room, amongst people who I imagine were from all walks of life. My overriding impression here was good value, good food and good humour. We were gifted some lovely port at the end of our extremely reasonably priced 3 course menu (I think 8/9 euros per head) and the owner joked with us when we paid at the till with a lighter that looked like a pistol (at least I think it was a lighter!), that we’d better write a good review! Fantastic. We went there most days during our trip.
Portugal has its own version of tapas, known as “petiscos”, or snacks to pick at with a drink. There is a wide array, but most places will specialise. Often you will see croquettes on the bar, these can be cod or meat. You may also see octopus salad, cod roe, snails, cheese or chourico sausage (amongst other things). Tripe is a popular dish here, often served with white beans, so you may want to remember the word “tripas”….
Another popular food item is the ubiquitous “Bifana”, a bread roll filled with marinated pork slices. We also noticed that a simple soup (caldo) is a very popular (and cheap) prelude to most meals and actually a very sensible method of “taking the edge off” hunger. Our favourite was “caldo verde” which comprised potatoes, onions, garlic and shredded greens. Sometimes with, sometimes without chorico sausage.
“Bacalhau a bras”, my personal favourite dish of shredded salt cod, matchstick chips, scrambled eggs with olives and parsley – featured on many menus and is so much more tasty than it sounds! Octopus and freshly grilled fish are very popular and universally good here, served simply with boiled potatoes and a salad. The Portuguese tend to use many more spices than the Spanish and I believe, are the only European country to use coriander. This makes for an interesting and diverse cuisine.
Now, I have a confession to make here….we did not try Porto’s most famous dish; the Francesinha. (This was in the days before we had a blog, little did we realise we would be reporting on such things…). It seemed a little too challenging; a ham and sausage (or steak) sandwich with melted cheese, served covered in tomato and beer sauce, topped with a fried egg and chips. Somehow we didn’t get round to it (and I have to say, we didn’t notice anyone else eating it either!) But I promise (one of) the team will try a Francesinha on our next visit….
A trip to Porto would not be complete without a visit to a port house. You need to cross over the river (take the stunning bridge or a river taxi) to Gaia, home to another Porto altogether, with fabulous views across the water. We chose a smaller port house, on a back street which turned out to be Cockburns. A fascinating tour and tasting, in a beautiful historic building. A fun thing to note were the projections of the 70s English Cockburns ads on the bathroom walls, very nostalgic and very funny! Happily, it turns out we like port a lot more than we thought…
By the way, when you’re not supping on the locals’ favourite beer, Superbock, a top drink is a white port and tonic served with ice and lemon – makes a very fine aperitif!
Whilst you’re in Gaia, there is a cute little market Beira-Rio where you can eat some of the finest local produce. Well worth a pit stop.
Also, we didn’t have time, but would love to visit the Douro valley by boat, which leave from Porto. The wines from the region are incredible, so what could be nicer than a river trip to marvel at some of the near vertical vineyards and visit some of the producers?
One word of caution about Porto, go soon! I have a creeping feeling that this it is becoming a “hot destination”. I recently found out that there is a Time Out Market being developed in the beautiful Sao Bento train station….hmmm, jury’s out on that one….