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Porto: A Gourmet’s Travel Guide

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Welcome to Catavino’s Gourmet Guide to Porto by guest writer Kathryn McWhirter, co-author ‘The Wine & Food Lover’s Guide to Porto’, which is due out (as book and ebook on Amazon) in summer 2013
Porto Bridge

OVERVIEW – TWIXT OCEAN AND MOUNTAINS

Atlantic to the west, rivers to the north, mountains to the east: Porto is spectacularly placed to garner ingredients. There is wonderful fish and seafood, rare breed meats, stunning charcuterie, fruit, nuts and vegetables. Porto has its signature dishes, but it also serves the traditional cuisine of all the northern regions, copious cooking for rural, manual workers, heavy on potatoes, rice and bread – yes, all at once.

Alongside tradition, modern cooking has recently come to Porto – a little later and slower to take off than Lisbon’s culinary revolution, but now rapidly gaining pace. Every month brings another new restaurant serving sensibly modest portions on beautifully arranged plates, still based on those great ingredients, with traditional themes tweaked. Blink, and a new bar appears, selling wine by the glass and petiscosPortugal’s answer to tapas. The Japanese have also spotted that fresh fish – there’s good sushi to be had in Porto.

BAR AND CAFÉ SCENE

Well, there are cafés everywhere in Porto, from little old coffee shops with azulejo walls to big, ornate, historic cafés like Café Guarany or Café Majestic. And now there are sleek, modern tea, coffee and chocolate emporia too. A quick cafezinho or cimbalino (Porto-speak for Lisbon’s ‘bica’ Italy’s espresso) regularly punctuates the locals’ day. And a new breed of modern wine bar is multiplying, often serving petiscos, Portugal’s answer to tapas, along with wine by the glass.

Great areas for bars and cafes:

  • The Baixa West from the Aliados, north of the Torre dos Clérigos, this area is suddenly vibrant by day and night, bristling with arty little bars and eateries. 
  • The Ribeira – Porto’s riverfront west of the famous Dom Luis I bridge is a great place to enjoy the view and soak up the atmosphere. There are touristy places and the odd little gem – such as Wine Quay Bar, right on the Ribeira – good wines, good nibbles, great river views.
  • Vila Nova de Gaia riverfront and hillside – (But the locals just call is Gaia.) Many of the port lodges have perfectly-placed bars to sell their wares: Sandeman’s terrace by the river, Porto Cruz’ rooftop eyrie, Graham’s new wine bar scenically up on the hill…

PORTO CUISINE

Porto’s specialities are tripas à modo do Porto – tripe cooked with dried beans, vegetables, pigs’ trotters and offal and served with rice – and francesinhas, bread topped with steak, sausage and cheese and a beer-flavoured sauce.

Fish and seafood are wonderfully fresh. Sardines – sardinhas – are the big local catch, traditionally served with boiled potatoes and grilled red peppers, and also mackerel of various kinds. But there’s a huge variety of other fish and seafood, some of it farmed along the Atlantic coast. Fish mostly comes grilled, or in a thick fish and potato stew, caldeirada de peixe, or in a kind of risotto, arroz – rice grows just down the coast. Grilled octopus – polvo – is a big thing in Porto. A clam and coriander dish famous all over Portugal, ameijoas à Bulhão Pato, was invented here. Trout might tickle your fancy, from the many rivers of Vinho Verde country just to the north, and in the early months of there year, the eel-like lamprey – lampreia – expensive, strong and oily. As in the rest of Portugal, the greatest treat, the greatest honour for a guest, is salt cod, codfish, bacalhão. Its gamey taste may take a while to love…

There’s delicous rare breed beef from long-horned mountain cattle such as Arouquêsa from mountains to the south-east, and Mirandesa, from Trás-os-Montes, north of the Douro wine region. Pork – in Porto you’ll meet the wonderful southern, expensive porco preto, the black pig of the Alentejo, and its amazingly rich hams and charcuterie, but up here in the north they also have their own special pig, the porco bísaro, which likewise makes delicious hams etc, particularly in Trás-os-Montes, smoky and full of flavour. Baby animals are a treat that you often have to order in advance in restaurants, kid or milk lamb, roasted in a wood fire, if you’re especially lucky. There’s game from the mountains. And the locals love all kinds of offal, from ears to tail!

Like the rest of the nation, Porto folk take many of their vegetables in soup. The famous one is caldo verde, a soup of cabbage, onions, potatoes and chouriço. Cabbage is Porto’s favourite vegetable, along with turnip leaves. And there are lots of dried bean dishes, laced with chouriço, black pudding or the like. Olive oil infuses everything. Portuguese oil used to be rustic, but Portugal has some great oils nowadays.

Not To Miss Porto Delights:

  • Sardinhas, bacalhão, tripas and francecinhas – Francesinhas can be awful, or yummy if you know where to go…
  • Marmelada with cheese – Marmelada is the wonderful quince paste the Spanish call membrillo. This combo may be a starter or a nibble.
  • Requeijão com doce de abóbora – Ricotta with pumpkin jam – for breakfast or dessert, another delicious combination.
  • Doces conventuais – Little eggy, almondy, super-sweet, to-die-for sweets/cakelets (convent sweets, because once made by nuns).
  • Queijo da Serra da Estrela – One of Portugal’s very finest cheeses, rich and gloopy when young
  • Presunto – Great cured hams, whether northern bísaro or southern porco preto
  • Cabrito assado – Roast kid

RESTAURANTS – BOTH TRADITIONAL AND CHIC

Most of Porto’s restaurants are traditional, serving big portions of rustic food. Choosing a traditional restaurant blind can be disappointing – especially in the most touristy spots like the main drag of the Ribeira. Even one street back into the more residential parts of the Ribeira yields better luck, in restaurants such as A Grade.

In huge contrast, here’s also a growing scattering of modern restaurants on both sides of the river, serving inventive Portuguese food in the form of petiscos (tapas), or in bistro or chic restaurant style.

Where to find great restaurants:

  • Matosinhos – This is the place to go for fish – by the sea 20 minutes? up on the Metro. It is full of fish restaurants, including tiny family ones, called tascas,  especially up near the port. Matosinhos also has big, smart, rather formal places with stiff, efficient waters and groaning displays of fresh fish and seafood.
  • Foz – This smart suburb by the estuary on the Porto side (take the tram/trolley along the river from the Ribeira), has several of the longer-standing modern restaurants, also chic sun-downer restaurants on the beach, and some newer ones, such as the excellent Pedro Lemos back in the little old streets.
  • Vila Nova de Gaia The latest additions to the growing number of modern-style restaurants are across the river in Gaia, some of them in the port lodges. And of course there’s the local Michelin star – the restaurant of The Yeatman.

DINING IN PORTO – DOS AND DON’TS

  • When to eat: Earlier than in Spain! Lunch is from 1-3, dinner for locals really starts at 9, but first orders may be at 8, and tourist places will serve you earlier. Many of the new bars serve food all day.
  • The price of nibbling The ‘couvert’ is legally included in the price of the meal – bread, that is, and probably olives. But as you sit down in many traditional restaurants, they will bring you nibbles, ‘aperitivos’ or ‘entradas’ – they could be cod balls, ham or cheese. These are not free. If you don’t want them, don’t touch, send them politely back. But don’t be too cross – this is how it works here. They are to share, and it is a lovely way to start a meal.
  • Drink mineral water  All the locals do, and Portugal has some lovely ones, northern Portugal in particular.
  • Uma meia dose A half portion. It’s perfectly normal to ask for one of these, or to share a full ‘dose’ between two. Portions in traditional restaurants are crazily huge.
  • Lubricate with olive oil It’s what the locals do. There’s usually a bottle on the table in traditional places.
  • Mal passado – rare. In modern restaurants, your meat will come rare (unless you state otherwise), your fish nicely under-done, but traditionally speaking there’s a tendency to overcook meat and fish (for modern international gastronomic tastes). If you like your meat rare, or your fish lightly cooked, ask for it to be ‘mal passado’.
  • Fish prices on a menu are often by the kilo – if in doubt, you can ask the price of a portion (a dose again!).
  • Credit cards It’s surprising how many traditional restaurants and bars do not take cards other than the local ‘Multibanco’ cards.

FESTIVALS AND FAIRS

The festive highlight of Porto’s year is São João, the Feast of St John on the night of June 23rd, when the city goes mad. It starts religiously, but it soon switches to street party mode, with live music, stalls, wine, sardines, fireworks, and people bashing each other over the head traditionally with leeks and garlic stalks, but nowadays probably with squeaky plastic hammers. It goes on all night, with midnight fireworks.

In Febrary in the Palácio da Bolsa (fine old stock exchange), there’s the huge Essência do Vinho wine fair, with thousands of wines to taste, and in November the sibling Essência do Gourmet, a big cookery and food fair.

SIGHTSEEING: IN BETWEEN MEALS

If you’re here for the port, the lodges over in Gaia will keep you busy. Everyone spends time on Porto’s Ribeira, and a river trip on the Douro is a right of passage – a quick cruise between the bridges, a day trip upriver to Régua, or a longer trip up to the Spanish border. The Ribeira doesn’t stop by the river –  be sure to climb into its little winding streets. This is Porto’s oldest quarter. Further up is 19th century Porto, both grand and modest, the stately Aliados and the bohemian Baixa, and beyond and northwards again is more modern / residential Porto, around the Avenida de Boavista, which shoots straight out for miles towards the ocean. When you’re ready for some serious sea air, both Porto and Gaia have great surfy, sandy beaches, sometimes with rocks, sometimes dunes. Here’s a shortlist of things no tourist should miss:

  • The Port Lodges – The caves, as the Portuguese call them, are where port has been blended and matured for centuries, all of them in Gaia. Walk across the two-tier Dom Luis I bridge. Most lodges are on the  touristic riverfront, but some are further up into town. Some are more or less museums, some are fully working cellars, some just tasting rooms or shops. Most are drop-in, for others you need an appointment. Tours and tastings usually start at €3.
  • The top level of the Dom Luis I bridge – Walk beside the Metro and love the views.
  • Gaia’s new cablecar – Looking down on the lodges and across to Porto.
  • Livraria Lello – Beautiful neo-gothic/art nouveau bookshop in the Baixa.
  • Torre dos Clérigos – Landmark church tower in the Baixa – climb bravely to the top for spectacular views.
  • Villar d’Allen – Historic house with beautiful camelia gardens and its own brand of port

PALACIO DAS CARDOSASACCOMMODATION: BEDDING DOWN FOR THE NIGHT

Porto has the usual top international hotels (many of them up and out of centre along the Avenida da Boavista), as well as some chic downtown hotels inserted into historic buildings, some of them very new conversions. There are also a lot of new boutique guest houses at relatively modest prices, often imaginative conversions of old Porto houses, some of them offering great service and gourmet breakfasts.

  • Top guest houses: 6 Only between the cathedral and Batalha, Guest House Douro on the Ribeira, 4Rooms in Foz, Casa do Conto in the Baixa, Roses Village, in Aguda, by a sandy beach down the railway line from Gaia and Porto.
  • Top smart hotels: The Yeatman in Gaia is luxurious, has amazing views and a lovely spa to go with its Michelin star. The Intercontinental Palácio das Cardosas at the bottom of the Aliados in Porto, is smart, really friendly, central.
  • Quaint: If you prefer (for a modest sum) to slip back into a bygone Porto of turrets, antiques and azulejos, Residencial Castelo Santa Catarina may be for you, at the top of the famous Santa Catarina shopping street.

TOURS: Top food and wine experiences

Click here for our recommended guided gastronomic tours of Porto.