How To Eat (& Drink) Your Way Around Portugal
Written by Jaillan Yehia
I’ve been to Portugal twice before and both times the food was a major sticking point for me, so I knew my recent trip round the country would be make or break for my relationship with Portuguese cuisine.
I’m happy to report that from green wine to roast chicken, Port to quince jam, via fresh seafood, Alentejan cheeses and bread salad, I’ve never been on better terms with Portuguese food and wine – and now I’ve learned how to eat my way around Portugal the right way, I can tell this is going to be a long-term fling.
The first time I went to Portugal it was the Algarve, frankly more Costa Del Egg and Chips than foodie haven. The second time was Lisbon in 2005 – I left with fond memories of Pasteis de Nata and Bolo de Arroza and a firm conviction, cemented from living and working near Portuguese bakeries in London, that here was a nation who excelled at sweets, but were salad-dodgers extraordinaire, which for an ex-veggie perpetual salad-seeker like me was a serious issue. I just wasn’t convinced.
My food-focussed Lisbon walking tour quickly waived away my previous struggle to find good savoury food or understand the importance and focus of Portuguese cuisine. This 7-hour eating and drinking fest (ok it’s meant to be 4 hours, but we kept stopping for Sangria. It was 36 degrees, we needed to take liquids on-board. Alcoholic ones.)
Powered by foot alone, with just one ferry-ride thrown in to visit the fishing-harbour side of the city for fresh seafood, our guide Paulo took us from the symbolic but not at all restaurant-related Restauradores Square (it actually celebrates the restoration of Portuguese Independence) through up-and-coming as well as on-the-beaten-track neighbourhoods stopping at regular intervals for everything from coffee, pasteis, cheese, meats and quince jelly to fresh prawns and locally-made green wine.
Along the way he educated us about the far-reaching nature of Portuguese cuisine, and it’s connection to the Portuguese empire; we learn that vindaloo and tempura are derived from Portuguese words and are both concepts originally introduced overseas by Portuguese traders.
I can proudly say that my group rounded off this mammoth eating and drinking tour with an unscheduled stop at a restaurant for a roast chicken, Portuguese peri peri style. Nandos-lovers take note, here the sauce is only available at one level of heat (and that’s turned up to number 11 Spinal Tap style) and applied by you the diner at your own table with a pastry brush. At first glance it looks a bit like a cigarette butt sticking out of a terracotta ashtray left on the table by the last customer, but push past this and apply it for some extra flavour.
Moving away from the Lisbon I had a major breakthrough. As a Londoner I am used to waiting until I am hungry then finding somewhere good to grab a snack. Portugal, like most of mainland Europe just doesn’t operate like this, life is arranged around lunch. I now knew that if I went into a Portuguese restaurant at lunchtime I really would get a delicious meal, so as I moved into the countryside it was more important than ever to get into that restaurant between 12 and 2pm to avoid being stuck with the curse of the jamon y queso sandwich that has categorised so many of my trips through the Spanish-speaking world and seems to plague Portugal’s cafes too.
In the Alentejo region, the swathe of Portugal South of Lisbon but North of the Algarve that practically no-one has heard of, including myself until just a few weeks ago, I put my Portuguese-style long- lunch-eating ways into practice and it transformed my time there. Here is a simple, authentic and unspoiled part of Portugal that does not have a Subway or a McDonald’s around any, let alone every, corner and is of course all the better for it.
The Alentejo is a place where slow food is a way of life, not some fad, and frankly there is no alternative to it, so you might as well get the olives, cheese and bread that will be brought at the start of your meal, and settle in for the long haul, preferably with a small bottle of wine (single glasses are hard to come by). Like most of Portugal you’re never too far away from the coast and today’s catch, and so I opted for fish on many more occasions than I would at home, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Once in Porto the focus moved from food to Port wine, which comes from the nearby Douro region, and the drink endeared itself to me far more than I anticipated. I’ve been introduced too to the Port and Tonic, a new drink in my repertoire, but one I’ll be revisiting at every opportunity, especially after my pilgrimage to the private wine cellar of The Yeatman Hotel which has the largest collection of Portuguese wines in the world – over 1,000 different types and 25,000 individual bottles. I’ve vowed to return for one of their wine dinners, which take place every Thursday and pair Portuguese wines with food from the Michelin-starred restaurant, giving a revolving selection of Portuguese wine producers the chance to showcase their wines while mingling with diners.
The signature Porto food however – the Francesinha sandwich – is something I was probably wise to avoid; meaning Little Frenchie, it is basically a heart attack on a plate – made with bread, ham, sausage, steak or roast meat and covered with melted cheese and a hot sauce it’s then served with chips for good measure. A good reason to return to Porto in future when my cholesterol is in need of a boost.
Things To Know About Food & Drink In Portugal
Just like most of Europe lunch is taken pretty seriously – and anywhere you’re planning on visiting in Portugal you’ll be better off stopping for lunch than waiting until later in the afternoon and having limited choices.
Portion sizes everywhere are absolutely huge; somehow I got used to it (!) but if there are two of you, chances are you can share a dish. Just ask.
It is very common for olives, cheese and bread to be brought to the table and added as a cover charge. Just say if you don’t want these items.
Port wine is not just a dessert wine, comes in more than just a red variety and even if you think you don’t like it, you should try it again here.
In restaurants you often cannot order a single glass of wine, but must at the least get a small bottle, around 375 ml. This is probably what’s known as a First World Problem.
Bring cash – international credit cards aren’t accepted everywhere.
Where & What To Eat & Drink
Peri Peri Chicken: Bonjardim restaurant, Travessa de Santo Antao 7&10, Restauradores
Tel: 00351 21 342 7424
Pasteis de Nata: Pastéis de Belém, Rua de Belém 84, 1300 Lisbon
Tel: 00351 21 363 7423
In the Alentejo
Lunch on the beach: Kalux & co., Praia de São Torpes, Sines, Setubal
Port wine tasting: The Yeatman, Rua do Choupelo, 4400-088 Vila Nova de Gaia, Porto
Tel: 00351 22 013 3100
Two more must-tries wherever you are in Portugal
Originally from Óbidos a sour cherry liqueur called Ginja is served in a tiny edible chocolate cup all over Portugal.
Super Bock and Sagres Beer
Sagres or Super Bock are Portugal’s two omnipresent beers.
SavoirThere ate and drank her way around Portugal with the help of Intrepid Urban Adventures‘ culinary tour and HouseTrip in Lisbon, The Yeatman Hotel in Porto & Sunvil Holidays throughout the Alentejo. Thanks also to Visit Portugal.
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