I didn’t have a single bad wine in Portugal. Actually, make that ‘a single bad meal’. That’s quite an achievement, considering it was a two-week long road-trip traversing the length of the country, from Porto in the north to Lisbon in the south. Often overshadowed by neighbouring culinary heavyweights like Spain, France and Italy, Portugal has managed to keep its gastronomy secret — till the recent tourism boom put the bacalhau and the pastéis de nata in the same league as boeuf bourguignon and tiramisu. There’s more to Portuguese cuisine than dried codfish and custard tarts, though (as delectable as they may be).
Let’s start with the wines. Portugal has always been known for its port wines. The Douro Valley, where the port vineyards perch prettily on undulating, terraced hills, is the world’s first designated wine region, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Port wine is fortified and aged in the vast cellars in Porto’s Gaia district, and I spent a happy evening cellar hopping from Graham’s to Taylor’s to Cálem, tasting ruby and tawny ports of varying vintages.
The cellars at Grahams Lodge 2 – © Graham’s Port
Cheese paired with Graham’s 10-year Tawny Port at Vinum Restaurant in Porto – © Graham’s Port
I even tried an utterly refreshing port tonic made with chip dry port, a cocktail that all the cool kids are sipping in Porto and Lisbon. But Portugal’s wines are not restricted to the sweet and strong ports. There’s the crisp and acidic vinho verde, a young, lightbodied wine made with Alvarinho grapes, or the fruity reds from Alentejo, or the fortified Madeira wine from Azores. The Portuguese, in general, seem to have a taste for sweet wines. Near Lisbon, at the Bacalhôa Winery in Azeitão, I sampled moscatel, a golden topaz coloured wine, intensely fruity and aromatic with flavours of bitter orange, raisins, and figs. It’s no wonder that a bottle of it finds its way into my luggage, along with a 10-yearold tawny port. In Lisbon, I also encounterd another sweet, fruity liqueur — ginjinha is made by soaking sour morello cherries in the Portuguese brandy aguardente, along with a generous dose of sugar. I queue up at the holein-the-wall A Ginjinha, just off Rossio Square, to down a shot of the potent, ruby-red liqueur, which warms the cockles of my heart.
If there’s one thing that can be considered the mainstay of Portuguese cuisine, it’s the seafood, which isn’t surprising given the country’s long coastline and the generous bounty of the Atlantic. Matosinhos grew from a small fishing village into a port city just 8 km north of Porto. As I stroll along its lanes, I can see why it’s known as ‘the dining room of Porto’. There’s a profusion of seafood restaurants, and the smell of freshly grilled, salt-crusted sardines fills the air. At the Anthony Bourdain-approved Esplanada Marisqueira Antiga, I’m confronted by a massive seafood platter — shrimp, clams, crabs, and oysters jostle for space, but my favourite turns out to be the percebes or goose barnacle, a strange, scaly tube ending in a clawlike foot, which you pinch off and suck out the flesh from inside the tube; it tastes of the sea and is utterly addictive. The Portuguese are also big on preserving seafood using various techniques. Canning is a huge industry, especially in northern Portugal. At Conservas Portugal Norte in Matosinhos, I watch as an assembly line of women in blue smocks cleans and debones fish with a surgeon’s precision, places them in tins that are then filled to the brim with oil and canned. 10,000 tons of fish — tuna, sardines, and mackerel — are tinned every day in this factory alone, and the cans are wrapped in colourful retro packaging, the perfect local souvenir to bring back for family and friends.
The most iconic ingredient of Portuguese cuisine is bacalhau — dried and salted cod, which is eaten in a variety of ways; they say there are hundreds of recipes for bacalhau, the most widely consumed fish in the country, and ironically, the only one that is not eaten fresh. The Portuguese have been salting cod for more than 500 years, ever since the first intrepid sailors set off to discover the New World. In the absence of refrigeration, drying and salting the fish was the only way of preserving it. Most of Portugal’s bacalhau comes from the seas around Newfoundland, Norway and Iceland. Fish markets across the country sell huge hunks of bacalhau that the Portuguese buy by the kilo. In Lisbon, I meet José Esteves, a local chef who offers cooking classes and ‘dine with a local’ experiences at his home (book via singulartrips.com). He shows me how to cook with bacalhau — the salted fish is soaked in water for a few hours, the skin and bones are removed and the fish is ready for cooking. I ate bacalhau in many forms during my trip, but my hands-down favourite dish was bacalhau à bras, which is what José whips up for me. He cooks the codfish with onion and garlic, and then adds eggs beaten with salt and pepper, and thin, fried potato sticks, finally garnished with parsley and black olives.
A typically Portuguese dish that I particularly loved is caldo verde, a creamy, heart-warming soup made with potatoes and thinly chopped kale, often with sliced chouriço (sausage) added to it. The soup is originally from the Minho region in northern Portugals but is a national favourite usually consumed during celebrations. Another traditional stew is cataplana, named after the copper pot shaped like two clam shells hinged at one end, which is used to make the flavourful fish stew with potatoes, fish, shrimp, mussels, and herbs like fennel and coriander. The vessel is clamped shut and the stew is allowed to bubble at a low heat, retaining all the seafood and herb flavours inside.
No meal is complete without dessert, but the Portuguese have taken their sweet tooth to another level. Every corner and every neighbourhood has a pastelaria (pastry shop) where locals gather for coffee and gossip, and where shelves brim over with tarts, cakes and other confections. Literally every town and city in Portugal has its own specialty. The pastéis de nata are ubiquitous — crisp, crumbly pastry with a custard centre, eaten warm sprinkled with cinnamon powder. There are the poveirinhos and rabanadas in the north, the ovos moles in Aveiro, the toucinho do Céu (an almond cake often made with pork lard), bola de Berlim (a small doughnut-like dessert), arroz doce (rice pudding), serradura (a layered pudding with cream); the list goes on. In Portugal, you’re never far from a sugar fix.
These chefs are leading a quiet revolution and giving Portuguese cuisine a contemporary makeover.
Jose Avillez has a veritable empire of outstanding restaurants, including the two Michelinstarred Belcanto in Lisbon, the casual dining Cantinho do Avillez’s two outposts in Lisbon & Porto, and the newest, Beco — Cabaret Gourmet in Lisbon, a sensory dining experience paired with a burlesque show.
Rui Paula has been turning Portuguese cuisine on its head for a while now, with modern interpretations of traditional dishes at the Michelin-starred DOP Restaurante in Porto and DOC Restaurante in the Douro Valley.
But the most spectacular of his restaurants is Casa de Cha da Boa Nova in Matosinhos.
Joao Rodrigues helms the one Michelinstarred Feitoria Restaurant at the luxury design hotel Altis Belém and Spa on the Tagus riverfront in Lisbon, where you can savour Portuguese cuisine with a touch of international techniques and bold flavours.
Ricardo Costa is in charge at the kitchen of what is arguably Porto’s best restaurant with a view — the two Michelin-starred Yeatman Restaurant overlooks the Douro River and Porto’s historic Ribeira district, and serves up an inspired degustation menu featuring seafood and dishes from north Portugal.
Here’s where to satisfy your sweet tooth in Portugal
- Antiga Confeitaria de Belém (open since 1837) in Lisbon for the most sublime pastéis de Belém or custard tarts. Brave the long queues and grab a table in the cavernous café, where you can relish the tart(s) at leisure.
- Aveiro in central Portugal is known for its ovos moles, an egg and sugar confection in a variety of nautical shapes that has been made at Maria de Apresentação da Cruz since 1882.
- Pastelaria Alcôa opposite the impressive Alcobaça Monastery doles out more sugary treats like cornucopia and the unusual Segredo de Don Pedro, a thin pastry sheet encasing a mix of oats, apples, pine nuts, and raisins.
- If you’ve had an overdose of sugar, try the Queijada de Tentúgal at O Afonso bakery in Coimbra, a sweet-savoury cheesecake made with local cottage cheese.
If you’re in Portugal during Christmas, get a taste of the rich Bolo Rei cake stuffed with raisins, nuts, and caramelised fruit; Tavi Confeitaria in Porto makes one of the best cakes that has the locals lining up for their share.