My husband Gary and I spent a month in Portugal. Our daughter Alexandra joined us in Lisbon/Porto and returned with our son Hadleigh to spend the last week with us in this incredible country.
The Algarve, Portugal’s southernmost region (famous for its sea salt), served as our base. Flowers, and almond, fig, orange, lemon and olive trees were blooming. It is a country founded on small business, and the family-run stores and restaurants show superb customer appreciation and offer value for money.
Small, neighbourhood bakeries, each with its own specialties made daily, are everywhere. One begins with a bica, an espresso consumed standing at the counter, or a galao, an espresso latte, and this prescription is repeated multiple times daily. Traditional folklore subscribes to accompanying your prescription with delicious baked goods. However, coffees are not the only beverages — freshly squeezed fruit juices, green or mint teas, and pure hot chocolate (in many flavours) that tasted like melted chocolate bars.
We went to Lisbon, a must-see city, a splendid mix of old and new architecture, many buildings covered with azulejos, classical pictorial blue tiles. The city is spread over seven hills, with quaint districts like the Alto Barrio and Alfama which are home to fado music clubs and tapas bars. At Marcelino we sampled the famous black pork (from local, dark-skinned pigs fattened on acorns). Naturally, high on our list was the world-renowned Pastéis de Belém. There are no words to describe these amazing custard tarts. One is given little packages of cinnamon and fine icing sugar to sprinkle over, but can one improve on perfection? Lisbon has fine tea salons and incredible cafés, where we tried presunto (smoked meat) and a dazzling array of fish.
When dining in Portuguese restaurants, there is a set format. One selects portion size and orders, and the couvert arrives. Typically comprised of bread, cheese, fish, pastes, olives and marinated vegetables, the couvert is brought to the table as a convenience to the diner, but is not complimentary. Most menus include caldo verde, a typical soup made with kale, potatoes and garlic.
After Lisbon, we headed north to Porto through the Duoro Valley wine region. Visiting the old port warehouses in Gaia was imperative. The impressive traditional barques are still moored quayside. Ramos Pinto was our first stop where we received a talk and tasting notes and luxuriated in five different ports. Some special reserves cost 150–200 Euros, or $200–300 Canadian. We left here and found a lunch spot where we ordered arroz de marisco (seafood rice) and frango piri-piri (spicy hot, lemony chicken). It was all inexpensive and delicious. Next
was a tour of Sandeman, the famous producer of ports and sherries. My flight of ports included “White,” “Ruby” and “Tawny.” I rather liked the chilled white as an aperitif and purchased a bottle. That evening we fortuitously stumbled upon Patua, a restaurant with an open concept kitchen with a trail-blazing young chef who elevated our rain-sodden spirits with two complimentary appetizers: a hot sausage sushi and smoked salmon roe pâté. I had a hot Ruby Port to ward off the chills — super! My main was a deconstructed empanada served in a mason jar with a potato cream base, wine-infused slow-cooked meat centre, and braised vegetables on top. The others enjoyed bacalhau (dried salt cod) with cream liquor sauce, and pasta nero with gigantic tiger shrimp. We finished with sumptuous desserts; merengada with meringues, cream, strawberries, liquor and shards of dark mint chocolate, and a Nutella Fantasy!
Back in the Algarve, it was Dia des Enamorados (Valentine’s Day) and with six new friends we ate at the splendid restaurant A Babuja, where the whole enclosed patio was festooned with romantic decorations. It was a five course meal: special couvert, codfish brandada starter, pork tenderloin with pineapple, heart shaped vegetables, and filo pastry with chocolate cream hearts for the finale, all accompanied by two bottles of wine for 45 Euros (under $70) per couple — spectacular! We returned again for our anniversary and received complimentary champagne. The meal was splendid: lemon Dover sole, grilled calamari, mango shrimp curry and The World’s Best Chocolate Cake — aptly named!
Two huge components of Portuguese cuisine are cataplanas (fish stew), which we thoroughly enjoyed, and sardinhas assadas (grilled sardines) which are freshly barbequed. O Navigador was one seafront venue that offered jazz and fado nights. Here I enjoyed gorgeous lamb shanks and first crop strawberries while observing our steaks being cooked on our own hot stone.
This whole region has many British tourists and some excellent establishments cater to this group. No Patio restaurant had exquisite Sunday lunches and special weeknight treats. We had fun watching Canada win hockey gold here.
As a nation, the Portuguese embrace fresh, local food and every town has a municipal farmers’ market building operating daily with Loule being one of the best, as well as the Saturday Gypsy market. One can also purchase vegetables and fruits along the roadside — a three kilogram bag of oranges costing only 1–2 Euros ($1.50–$2).
To conclude, in Hadleigh’s words, “Portugal you have won me over with your magnificent beaches, insanely cheap excellent wines and delicious fresh fish.”
Obrigado, beautiful country, warm hospitable people.
Martha McAlister has been a teacher, traveller, multi-cultural co-ordinator, purveyor of fine teas, and nominee for Canadian Retailer of the Year. She and her husband Gary own Everything Tea in London, at the Western Fair Farmers’ & Artisans’ Market.