It’s been almost four years since I called Portugal my “home away from home”, translating to a half decade of savoring Portuguese food and wine on a regular basis – something I’ve never taken for granted.
Consequently, while searching for information on Portuguese gastronomy, I stumbled across Catavino’s Facebook page. Immediately drawn to Ryan and Gabriella’s story, it echoed many similarities to my own adventure. So, I reached out, expressing my shared enthusiasm and appreciation for Iberian wine and food. (photo by Ryan Opaz)
The shock came soon after when Gabriella hinted that I write for Catavino. Me? A writer?! Are we speaking of the same person who dreaded school writing assignments, or even writing thank-you letters?! The idea was dreadful, as I neither thought myself qualified, nor that my writing would be interesting enough for people to read. But Gabriella gently coaxed me into the fold, with the help of her editing magic and continued support; I’ve been pecking away at the keyboard for well over 3 years now.
Aided by the research I was required to do for Catavino, I have developed an appreciation for some relatively off the wall flavors; dishes that I would’ve stayed clear of if they weren’t ordered by fellow diner. What a shame it would have been to miss out on so many extraordinary flavors. Portugal has brought out the proud “foodie” in me, the person who spends ten minutes deciding on the cake or tart I should savor at the pastelaria; the person who requests additional bread to mop up the garlic, cilantro, butter and white wine sauce from the ameijoas á bulhão pato; and the person who lingers over every single drop of their (espresso) café, scraping around the inside of the cup with a spoon for that coveted foam.
Hence, my mouthwatering tactics begs the question: have you visited Portugal yet? Assuming the answer is “no”, what if you were given ten delicious reasons as to why you should take your next vacation to Portugal, would you be convinced? Let’s give it a try:
Simple, Fresh Comfort Food
I cherish the fact that you can enjoy a delicious, home-cooked meal from any one of the numerous “mom and pop” locales throughout Portugal. Simple and inexpensive – as a result of their locally sourced seasonal meat, fish and produce – you can savor hearty, traditional dishes even in the heart of Lisbon at such family-run establishments such as A Tasca do João. Or if you’re needing a breath of fresh air out in the country, Portugal’s picturesque little aldeias are the perfect spot to sample comfort food at its best; whether you’ve got a free invite to stay with friends or you’re paying to stay at one of the many aldeia guesthouses for a luxurious weekend getaway, you’ll always be treated and fed like one of the family!
Intriguing Regional Liquors & Spirits
Though having Portuguese wine is a must; you really haven’t had the full Portuguese experience until you’ve tried their colorful variety of liquors and spirits! Whether you end your meal with something sweet, or ease into a nightcap with something dry and powerful, there’s a sumptuous flavor for everyone. Licor Beirão, the “Liquor of Portugal”, from the central Beiras region, is made from a secret 100-year old recipe that shows a delectable sweet, herbal flavor. From the southern Algarve region, you have Licor de Amendoa Amarga, made from bitter almonds and portraying an addictive marzipan flavor, most notably from the brand “Amarguinha”. Licor de Alfarroba is made from aguardente (brandy) and the seedpods of the Alfarroba (Carob) tree; which is also used in many Algarvian desserts. It has unique flavor that I would describe as a mixture of fig and chocolate and makes an amazing digestive. But if you really want something to knock your socks off then pour yourself a glass of aguardente bagaceira, or Bagaço as it’s commonly called. Consider it Portugal’s version of grappa, made from leftover pomace. The best Bagaço is said to come from the pomace of Vinho Verde grapes in the northern Minho region and is distilled on open flame from small wine producers. However, as this method is illegal, the only way to find it is if you upon a small, local restaurant where the owner generously pours you a shot from his “unmarked” bottle. If this falls upon your lap then you’re in for a treat! Otherwise, you can go for the Macieira Centenário, a legal and respected brand. And last but not least, if you’re in the Lisbon area and can’t make it up North, then try ginja, a traditional cherry liquor from the town of Obídos served in a chocolate cup. We’re talking pure heaven!
Meat, Sausage and all Things, well Meat Oriented!
Although nearly half of Portugal is coastline, where fish graces the majority of our meals, not an hour inland you can savor roasted, stewed and grilled meats. The most prized meat originates from the southern region of Alentejo, where certified, free-range novilho (beef) and vitelão/vitela (veal) are raised, of which the majority is equivalent in quality to Angus Beef. The region is also well-known for their certified, free-range black pork, made into delicious chouriço de porco preto (black pork sausage), presunto (Portugal’s version of prosciutto) and fresh pork cutlets. A good way to enjoy Alentejo’s meat is on a traditional tabua mista de carne- a mixed meat board. And of course, they still produce plenty of “regular” pork, such as chouriço de sangue (fresh blood sausage) and cacholeira (smoked sausage made with liver, blood, kidneys and pork fat). Many of these sausages can also be found in Portugal’s famous Sopa da Pedra (Stone Soup) or Cozido á Portuguesa (Portuguese stew). But don’t miss out on the northern interior regions of Trás-os-Montes and Beira Alta, which are known for producing some of the best, hand-made enchidos (cured meats) and chouriço (sausage) in the country; such as my favorite alheira – a soft, fresh sausage made from a mixture of pork, pork fat, poultry meat, garlic, paprika and olive oil, and served Mirandela style: deep fried and topped with a fried egg. Albeit rich, it’s absolutely delicious!
Yes, I mean salt cod! And even though salt cod is common in various Southern European countries, the Portuguese boast of their 1,001 different ways of preparing it! Fresh fish may be abundant, but Bacalhau has played an integral part in Portuguese history and culture. So whether you like it just simply boiled, or fried with sautéed onions and garlic like I do, the buttery texture and heartiness of Portuguese Bacalhau will win anyone over!
Fish & Shellfish
Ferran Adria has stated, “the best fish in the world is Portuguese”, and equally acclaimed chef, Thomas Keller, supposedly only consumes Portuguese fish. When considering that Portugal is the highest consumer of fish in Europe, and 4th in worldwide consumption, it should be of no surprise to you that the Portuguese are equally smitten with their scaly friends. Indeed, for a country that has an extensive Atlantic continental coastline of approximately 943km (586mi) and an additional combined 917km (570mi) around the Azorean and Madeira islands, there is plenty of area for the experienced Portuguese fishermen to bring in numerous and delicious varieties of Portuguese fish and shellfish. Portuguese fish recipes are prepared in vastly different ways, from boiled to baked, or even stewed with rice or potatoes, but nothing beats a simple grilled fish with a little sea salt and olive oil for lunch, accompanied by a deliciously effervescent Portuguese white wine. Keep a lookout for popular Portuguese fish like dourada (dourade or gilthead bream), robalo (seabass) and some of the healthiest fish you can eat like carapaus (mackeral) and sardinhas (sardines)-the latter of which the Portuguese do best as they’re huge part of their summer culture. And trust me, once you’ve had fresh Portuguese sardines, you’ll actively seek them out like the rest of us!
There is a deliriously irresistible aroma of baking bread that wafts through the streets of Portugal from late in the evening to the early morning hours. Unfortunately, I’m not sure whether it’s more of a pleasure, or a torture, to endure the buttery, rich aroma when that late night craving hits, but if you can wait until those bakery doors open, you won’t regret it. Making your own bread at home may be nice, but here in Portugal, there’s no point when fresh bread is everywhere, as the bakeries feed into the supermarkets and local restaurants throughout the day. Plus, there is no shortage of styles, as each Portuguese region specializes in a different bread (pão), such as the chewy and crusty Pão de Mafra or a richly dense Broa de Milho. And if your trip coincides with a holiday, you just might sink your teeth into special recipe such as Folar da Pascoa, Portugal’s delicious Easter bread.
All you cheese lovers out there, Portugal is your destination for cheese heaven! Soft and stinky, rich and creamy, hard and nutty, it doesn’t matter because they have them all! I am so obsessed with Portuguese cheese that I went so far as to break them down into 3 bite sized summaries: A Lil’ Stinky But Smooth And Creamy; Not Too Soft, Not Too Hard And Not Too Stinky; Hard, Rugged and Nutty. With any luck, you might also gain a new level of appreciation for the hard working laborers who make this delectable treat so readily available for you, such as the shepherds of Serra da Estrela, whose dying craft is threatening the availability of high quality, handcrafted Serra da Estrela cheese. Clearly it’s an art, and one that I wholeheartedly try to support at least once a day.
Ahh, the delicious aroma and flavor of Portugal’s coffee, a well-honed tradition that’s been an integral part of Portuguese culture for centuries. As a result of the Portuguese colonization in excellent coffee-growing regions like Brazil and Angola, Portugal was not only one of the first European countries to bring coffee to the continent, but was also partially responsible for the universal success of coffee. Nowadays, with cafés on every single corner of the city, we both start and end our days with great quality coffee costing an affordable 55 cents; hence, it won’t break your bank for a little indulgence!
Of course with such an abundance of cafés and coffee drinkers, it’s of no surprise that the Portuguese are master pasteleiros, and my, what a sweet tooth they have! Historically influenced by wine and convent life, pastry making went on to create Lisbon’s most famous pastry, Pasteis de Belem. Though you can find a selection of the most popular pastries in almost any café or pastelaria in the country, the unique regional pastries are a touch of sweetness with individuality.
Unique Wine Experiences
People never stop asking me why I came to Portugal, and though I usually say “for several reasons”, Portuguese wine captured my heart. From the moment I came across Portuguese wine during my studies at the Culinary Institute of America, it entranced me, with its numerous strange-sounding native varieties that twisted my tongue into a thousand knots, and its elusive presence. I was hooked and decided to visit. But don’t let tricky names and limited availability scare you, come visit Portugal and experience them in their native surroundings. No where else in the world can true Port and Madeira wine be produced and no where else in the world can you find such palate-tickling wines like Vinho Verde, Vinho Verde Rosé and Vinho Verde Tinto, or a surprisingly tasty Tinto Espumante that is perfect with the delicious regional dish Leitão Assado. And with over 300 native grape varieties to choose from, it’s difficult to not enjoy even basic table wines that can include award winning grapes such as Gouveio and Arinto. Then again, if you want a warm smile and some professional guidance, swing by any of these local wine bars: Os Goliardos, Chafariz do Vinho and Garrafeira Alfaia. In the world of wine where you can find so much of the same thing being done and re-done, there’s never been a better time to try something completely different!
So those are my 10 delicious reasons, and if you still don’t believe me, even Turismo de Portugal has backed me up this year with this enchanting video called “Taste Portugal” which is a culmination of everything food and wine that Portugal has to offer.
Finally, if you’re keen for more information on Portuguese food and wine, check out Fodor’s Portugal 9th Edition, where I’ve added loads of secret gems to experience in the greater Lisbon area. You can also find me on Twitter and perhaps re-launching my own blog again. And of course, you can find me here in Portugal, ready to guide you on a deliciously unique experience!
To Gabriella & Ryan Opaz,
Thank you for a deliciously eye-opening journey through writing,