Portugal’s historic second city is home to stunning food and port lodges that take you back in time, Marina O'Loughlin discovers.
My affair with Portugal is a late blossomer – it’s easy to get waylaid by the more obvious pleasures of its Mediterranean neighbours. But the more I see, the more it snakes its ways into my affections.
For one thing, I can’t believe how unsung its wines are: vinhão and alvarinho are every bit as luscious as rioja and albariño, but not nearly as well-known. In Porto, we’re staying at The Yeatman hotel (www.the-yeatman-hotel.com), a luxury swankpot with more than just a killer view across the river Douro. Beds are carved out of oversized wine barrels and there’s a bottle-shaped swimming pool. Yes, folks, the Yeatman is all about the vino: the cellars groan with one of the world’s greatest collections of Portuguese wines. We pitch up to one of its regular Thursday wine dinners, each one hosted by a different producer – ours is the celebrated Dona Maria from the Alentejo. We’re fed course after course of elaborate dishes created by the hotel’s Michelin-starred chef Ricardo Costa whilst being guided through the vintages by chic young wine director, Beatriz Machado. It’s a delicious, somewhat blurry blowout.
The Yeatman is on the south bank of the river, as are all the major port lodges; they form a unique urban landscape. We choose historic Taylor’s (www.taylor.pt) for our mandatory visit, a few hours of shady vines, fragrant, ancient barrels – the flavour of the wood is not desired – and fortified wines: the caramelised orange and almond notes of everyday glugger, tawny port; dry white Chip, a perfect aperitif. Taylor’s own invention, the late-bottled vintage is a dream with cheese. The Douro’s banks are lined with bars and restaurants, but most are tourist magnets. Porto’s steep, cobbled streets reward the explorer however, with gems like local culinary whizz Rui Paula’s DOP (www.ruipaula.com), for instance. His modern, thoughtful menu delivers refined versions of traditional dishes like tripas à moda and Porto’s beloved francesinha (an über croque monsieur with ham, cheese, sausage and spiced beer and tomato sauce) in the setting of a beautiful, 14th-century building.
Next, we try a cute, off-piste little townhouse, Solar Moinho de Vento (www.solarmoinhodevento.com). Fado music plays in the background, and food is unabashedly old-school Porto – linguadinhos tritos (small, fried sole); pataniscas (cod fritters); vast metal saucepans of açorda (bread porridge) or arroz malandrino (a soupy rice dish), plonked on the table. I’m enchanted by the wrinkled little ladies who run the kitchen, industrious and smiley. Little wonder – they appear to be entirely fuelled by port.
Like Lisbon, Porto bristles with Art Nouveau shop fronts – delicious chocolatier Arcádia (www.arcadia.pt), for instance, its interior unchanged since 1933 – and bars trapped in time. Fifties gem Café Ceuta (www.cafeceuta.pai.pt) perhaps, where we have ‘liquid marzipan’ amarguinha. Or Café Guarany (www.cafeguarany.com) in the main square, across from a hilariously opulent, chandeliered McDonald’s, where your toastie and pastel de nata are delivered to marble-topped tables by waiters dressed for The Titanic. And that’s before I even touch on the outrageously gorgeous Majestic (www.cafemajestic.com), with its elaborate mirrors and ceiling covered with fat, romping cherubs. There isn’t a lovelier place to wallow in the unabashedly calorific francesinha.
Equally time-warped is Mercado do Bolhão, its scruffy, ramshackle air hiding all sorts of treasures. I love Leandro’s for pungent sausages and paio lombo (smoked pork loin); and stalls laden with bacalhau or dense, brown Avintes rye bread. Upstairs, the market is even more evocative –butchers selling pernil (smoked pig’s knee) are guarded by cages of live songbirds. Outside the market is Rua Formosa – a street where every second store is an immaculate, perfectly-preserved vintage grocery store serving candied fruits, sausages and addictive meat pastries known as pasteis chaves.
In the Bombarda art district, we reject the lures of the chic bars that line these gallery-crammed streets, heading instead to Churrasqueira Domingos (www.churrasqueiradomingos.com)for Portugal’s signature rotisserie chicken. Imagine a Nando’s where the food is cooked by angels and you’re close – vast platters of sensationally smoky chicken and heaps of crisp, yellow chips with a half bottle of vinho verde for 11 €? Oh, yes! And we can’t get enough of the old fisherman’s district, Matosinhos, where outdoor grills belch smoke and sardines. In slightly more upmarket Mariazinha (www.restaurantemariazinha.com) there’s a wall of wine bottles with a TV perched nearby and a gentlemanly senior waiter.
A whole meal’s worth of freebies arrives before we even hit main courses – think rissóis de camarão (a blissful, prawn-stuffed crisp pancake), bread filled with cheese and ham, and marinated octopus. Plates heaving with fresh shellfish are served next, then mains of seafood rice, cabrito (kid, a typically northern dish), and posta Mirandesa (a mammoth veal steak with a piquant garlic and wine vinegar sauce). Plus, of course, plenty of local wine. And port. Porto isn’t a fling, it’s a keeper.