Over the past year, Portugal’s name has splashed across travel, culture and nature magazines as “the place” to visit if you’re looking for authenticity and adventure. It’s become synonymous with quality, with kindness, and most importantly, with unprecedented gastronomy!
“Portugal never had a food revolution, like France and Spain,” explains Chef George Mendes of New York City’s Aldea. “But now, chefs there are pushing the cuisine.”
What George is astutely referring to is Portugal’s uncanny ability to seamlessly blend both haute cuisine and old school cooking. Last year alone, Portugal was awarded 17 Michelin stars for its outstanding cuisine, of which 3 were in the lesser known North (Pedro Lemos, The Yeatman and Casa da Calçada), home to the country’s second biggest city – Porto. According to Ricardo Costa of The Yeatman, “The increased interest in Porto has helped create more choice than ever before – everything from the sandwich scene and simple, authentic, straightforward food served at ‘tascas’ (taverns) to restaurants with typical Portuguese home cooking to more sophisticated and gastronomic restaurants.”
Among the cobblestone streets adorned with endless rows of vibrantly painted tiles you’re just as likely to run into a portly grill master with a mean set of tongs tending to his barbecued sardines as you might find a highly stylized door leading to an army of dapper waiters at your beck and call. In Porto, there is no distinct divide between one neighborhood and the next, between one side of the street and the other, between modern and ancient recipes. Every door leads to the discovery of colorful culinary stories. (Photo by DOP)
Tony Smith is a partner at Lima Smith, which runs three quintas along the River Douro – Covela, Tecedeiras and Boa-Vista. He also happens to be a die-hard foodie who loves nothing more than to seek out wickedly good cuisine. “What I love about the Porto gastro scene is a persistent dedication by most top chefs to their region’s traditional ingredients, recipes – and even portions: At Paparico, one of the best and hardest to find places in the city, the waiters usually advise that one dish serves two! And everywhere you go, you will find those beloved ingredients like Alheira – hooped game sausages that Portugal’s Jews once used to fool the Inquisition, the tripe that gives Porto’s inhabitants their nickname Tripeiros and of course all sorts of spectacular seafood and the national dish – Bacalhau. A good example of this is Rui Paula. One of the first Porto pioneers in fine dining, Rui shot to fame with his Bísaro Pork Cheeks braised in Port wine, apparently one of his grandma’s favorites. And I confess that my favorite starter at my favorite Porto bistro – Cafeina – is still Sardines Royal- served with tomato confit and lots of coriander.”
Ask any tourist about their visit to Porto, and inevitably, they’ll say with bated breathe, “No one tells you how unbelievable the food is! You can go anywhere, literally anywhere, and get a decent meal for an outstanding price!” By outstanding, we’re talking 6 euros for a homemade, flavorful 3 course meal featuring regional dishes such as Caldo Verde (kale soup), Cozido à Portuguesa (seasoned stew of beef, chicken and a variety of pork derivatives such as blood sausages and smoked pork parts) and a Pastel de Nata (pure egg custard goodness).
How does this happen?
According to Roy Hersh, owner of For the Love of Port and avid visitor to Porto for decades, it simply comes down to fresh ingredients. “Porto has an incredible array of extraordinary local food products to choose from. Blessed with fertile land and flocks of farmers, there is an abundance of fruits and vegetables, grains and nuts to choose from. The fleet of local fishermen that bring in the freshest selection of seafood daily, adds another healthy dimension to the offerings. From the variety of meat and cheese products now available around the country, along with some of the greatest bakers on the continent, is there any wonder that this great city would become a dining Mecca too?”
He’s not far off. Just about everyone has a little patch of land they farm themselves, even if it hangs off their windowsill. With the amount of green leafed vegetables that grace every meal, it’s impractical not to have your own mini garden. What baseball is to Chicago or music is to Madrid, farming (and football) will always be to Porto. (Photo by Gaveto)
“When you have cold salt water right in your back door, it’s no wonder that Porto has fantastic fish and seafood! Served only with a dash of sea salt, it’s a true testament to the quality and freshness of the fish itself,” Joao Silva, co-owner at O Gaveto.
When you think of Porto, it’s inevitable that Port Wine will also come to mind. But Port isn’t just the rich, sweet, dark red taste of Christmas. Port takes on various guises, whether white, pink, tawny or vintage, they are worth exploring and at much greater frequency! But so too should the vast, and generally unspoken of, world of Portuguese table wine.
Beatriz Machado, Wine Director at The Yeatman, has been an enormous advocate of Portuguese table wines. Her passion runs so deep that she’s placed many small, high quality producers in the hands of her clients to help get the word abroad. “Porto has a wine heritage going back centuries, which is unique in the world. Beyond Port Wine, the quality of Portuguese table wine has improved dramatically to the point that they are now winning world class awards. Hence why Porto has always, and will continue to be, the ultimate destination for wine lovers.”
For me, the ultimate test of a fantastic wine culture is housed in their supermarket. Walk the aisles of any major food market in Porto and you’ll find great wines for less than 5 euros a bottle. Not only that, but restaurants across the city are upping their game to ensure a diverse, and well represented, list of Portuguese wines, with special emphasis on Northern grapes such as Avesso, Arinto, Alvarinho, Bical, Malvasia Fina, Touriga Nacional, Tinto Cão, etc.
Beyond Portugal’s unique, diverse and singular wines is a city that thrives on finding on natural, but memorable, food pairings. According to Francisco Spratley Ferreira, Owner of Quinta do Vallado, “The traditional Northern Portuguese cuisine is outstanding, especially our Bacalhau, Cozido a Portuguesa, Feijoada, Tripas, Rojões, Pataniscas com Arroz de Tomate and Francesinhas. But it’s the pairing of wine and food that is the true expression of Portuguese cuisine, because they are regionally dependent on one another. We have light whites from Vinho Verdes, textured reds from Douro and elegant wines from the Dao that were made by men and women who feast on these dishes each and every day. Who better to create a glass of wine that pairs beautifully with their evening meal?”
To be honest, I’ve lived here for two years and haven’t even scratched the surface of Porto’s gastro scene. Daily, new restaurants and wine shops are opening their doors, many of whom are young, vibrant women striving to follow a dream. Porto is competition friendly, a city where chefs suggest one another’s restaurants, where recipes are shared and suppliers are referenced. It’s a warm , dynamic and innovative city where people stop to give you directions, or invite you in for a meal.
“In my opinion, although we are a small city, we’re very good at what we do. People see Porto not only as beautiful, but now upscale, because they recognize that we’re growing as a textured and quality driven city. This is our secret ingredient!” Sound wisdom from Rui Paula himself.
If you’re now stupidly excited to visit our favorite gastronomic gems in Porto, let us know! We’d love to craft a fabulous culinary experience for you!
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