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A gastronomes guide to Oporto

I found out where we were heading for my birthday treat 2 hours before we left! I had deduced where we were going by cunning methods of investigation. I knew we were flying from Carcassonne and we were heading south. Oporto is the only place that you can fly to that is south of Carcassonne!!! Elementary my dear Watson.

Anyhow just before we left I posted on my Facebook wall that we were heading to Oporto and requested that everyone and anyone send me recommendations of restaurants and visits. I didn’t get a single reply, which either means I am very unpopular or nobody had any recommendations! I like to believe it is the latter, so thought that after 3 1/2 days of pounding the streets of Oporto and eating and sampling many of its establishments I would share some ‘must do’s’ and restaurants with you so that when you visit you will have an idea of where to go.

Firstly it is pretty easy to get to as Ryan Air fly to Oporto from most European destinations. Secondly if you speak French and/or English you do not need to worry too much about the language. We found that most people spoke one, or both of these languages. Generally their French is better, which suited me fine as I have a tendency to speak to all foreigners in French whether it is their language or not!!! Those who didn’t speak either we managed to communicate pretty well with all the same using our very limited Portuguese, terrible Spanish and a lot of hand language!! Portuguese is spoken from the front of the mouth, a sort of cross between being very drunk and loosing your false teeth!!

There is a saying that “Porto works, Braga Prays, Coimbra studies, and Lisbon gets the money.” Oportians are known as “Tripeiros”, after the regional dish of tripes!! The city itself is an eclectic mix of fabulous architecture and poverty. Parts of it reminded me of Paris, with sweeping boulevards and grand buildings. The tiles, for which Portugal is famous for, are beautiful and very striking, sometimes garish but still strangely appealing. However you cannot escape the poverty which seemed to be all over; run down buildings, graffiti and begging.

The first night that we arrived we headed straight for the river and plonked ourselves down on the terrace of one of the touristy riverfront cafes where we enjoyed an apero whilst soaking in the view. A ‘Splash’ is the local drink of choice, white Port with tonic, ice and lemon. Very refreshing and to be enjoyed with bacalhau, small spicy, deep fried salt cod balls, very tasty. On our first night we were unsure of where to eat dinner and had tried to find a recommended restaurant from an online guide but failed. So we decided to risk one of the riverfront touristy places, it had a nice view and seemed to be less touristy than the others. Well maybe not the best decision! They kindly gave us the menu in English. It was probably the funniest thing I have ever read! I have come across some poor translations in my time but this place wins the prize hands down! I was tempted by the ‘cold ironing board’ starter but resisted, whilst Chris bravely tried the not so appealing ‘guts’ for main and I had squid with ‘punched potatoes’! All this whilst being serranaded by a gentleman sining about ‘knocking on Evan’s door’!!!! Too funny, certainly not a fine-dining experience and luckily our only non-gastronomic meal. That said the food was bad just not exciting.

So we decided to go elsewhere for dessert and coffee and headed in town for the famous Majestic Cafe, Oporto’s oldest cafe. Very beautiful and quite Parisian in style although with some rather odd looking ceiling sculptures, maybe the artist had had too much Port wine?! This is a great place to go for dessert and a glass of Port, very atmospheric.

The next day we headed to the famous Oporto bookstore, Livraria Lello, as featured in Harry Potter!!! Not just any old bookstore, sadly they do not allow you to take photos inside and it is hard to give justice to the incredible wood carvings of the staircase and ceilings. Chris spent half an hour studying the staircase and is now trying to work out how he can do something similar in our house. Excellent I get to live in Hogwarts!!! After this we pounded the streets, an absolute must as this is the best way to see a city. It is worth noting that the roads are very steep and are all cobbled, however the Portuguese are famous for their pastries so you can stop off and enjoy an excellent coffee with an outrageous custard or cream filled pastry. They sell millefeuilles here that are at least 15cm high and full of cream! We didn’t try one, I couldn’t persuade Chris – it would have made a good photo even if it did make him sick afterwards! However the custard tarts on the other hand are delicious and we enjoyed several of these.

For lunch we crossed the river to Villa Nova de Gaia, where all the Port Lodges are, and found a little restaurant hidden in the backstreets called Tá-se. It doesn’t look like much but was filled with locals and workers, which is always a good sign in my book, and we were not disappointed. I had the best sardines ever, as fresh as can be and cooked perfectly, plus cheap as anything, 6€ for a big plate! Chris had dorada, sea bream, equally delicious and cheap. All washed down with a fabulous Vinho Verde, and finished off with more excellent coffee. Its worth noting that Vinho Verde is made in 2 styles, the commercial style which is fizzy and often sweetish or very light in flavour, and the quality style which has the gentlest of prickle of Co2 (if any at all), and is packed with ripe citrus and stone fruits character and utterly delicious.

After lunch we headed to the riverfront and took a boat tour. An absolute must do, 10€ for an hour up and down the Douro to see the 6 bridges and then half an hour wine tour and tasting at one of the Port Lodges. We chose Offley as I hadn’t been there before, having visited Oporto on business previously I had visited several of the Port Lodges. The boat trip was great, although lacking in explanations, but it was lovely to be on the water enjoying the sunshine. Afterwards we all headed to Offley for our tour and tasting. This was a bit of a disappointment to me, however I acknowledge that as a professional I have higher expectations than most tourists and also knew a lot more about Port production than our guide did! That said she was delightful and spoke excellent English and French. The tasting consisted of only one wine which I thought was a shame as they had chosen the cheapest style so it didn’t really show the complexity of this great wine. So I discreetly asked if it would be possible for me to do a professional tasting, explaining what I do for a living. This seemed to fluster the shop manager no end, so I apologised for not organising a visit in advance, explaining that I had not realised I was coming to Oporto. They took my business card and explained that the oenologist was not in Oporto but they would see what they could do. The following day I got a phone call and we were invited back to do a more in depth tasting with one of the tour guides. It was good to taste a few more wines but sadly her knowledge on anything other than the taste of the wine and what one should eat with it was very poor. It amazes me that they do not think it worthwhile to train their staff better.

That evening we headed out around 9pm, the Portuguese eat late which is great as it took a long time to digest lunch! We headed to a recommended restaurant called the Bull and Bear, despite its English name it is very Portuguese and famous for its wine list which I was keen to sample. After some mishap we finally found it, in what seemed to be a very residential part of the city. The wine list didn’t disappoint nor did the food. We weren’t that hungry so we chose the sharing ‘tapas’ menu, and for 13€ ahead we sampled 8 dishes, each excellent and a real taste sensation all washed down with a delicious bottle of Encruzado from the Dao. The only negative about this place was the ambience, it was like eating in a cross between a corridor and a goldfish bowl, plus they played Christmas music – it was July!! It was one of those places where they like to put your bottle of wine on the side board and monitor when you are allowed to drink it!! I hate that, plus they served it far too cold, I want to taste the stuff, I hate it when restaurants over chill wine!! So I grabbed the bottle from the sideboard and plonked it on our table, actually I made Chris do it as he was closer! The waitress was good humoured about it, although you could tell she didn’t approve and couldn’t seem to understand that white wines shouldn’t be chilled to every inch of their lives!

The following day the weather was very damp, grey and foggy. Like Whitby in August!! An Atlantic coast thing I guess, we certainly looked more tanned than the locals. So we braved the drizzle and pounded the streets. The market was a disappointment, nothing in comparison to the French and Italian markets, which considering that the food served in restaurants all tasted so fresh and good was a puzzle. The churches are quite amazing, opulent and rather garish (in my opinion), I felt that if there was a tad less gold then maybe the citizens of Oporto could afford to house themselves better? The bridges are amazing, such incredible heights, a must to walk over. We went to the Monastry on Vila Nova de Gaia but everything was closed up. So we headed down by the riverfront to search for a restaurant that we had been recommended by one of the tour guides, her sister worked there and it wasn’t touristy. It was called Arco Iris, again off of a side street, and again filled with locals and workmen. It looked and smelled good! It didn’t disappoint, on arrival we were given olives, lots of little deepfried fish cakes, some excellent cured hams and delicious breads. We followed this with squid stew, me, and pork stew, Chris, washed down with a beautiful aromatic wine from the Douro. Our only gripe, and it is very small, is that we were charged for all of the little dishes that were given to us on arrival and we hadn’t asked for them. We later found out that all restaurants do that so if you do not want to pay don’t eat them!!! Again the cost of the main dishes were very low and the wine excellent value so we didn’t mind too much.

After this the weather was really miserable so we went off to the Offley tasting that they had laid on for us. As this tasting had only whetted our appetite for tasting some decent Ports, rather than the cheapies found everywhere, we headed to a specialist bar that offered flights of different style of Port, Vinologia. An absolute must if you actually want to  taste a decent range of Ports. It ain’t cheap though and it is quite easy to blow your spending money in an afternoon as they are only small samples! We did a Colheita tasting, 3 vintages from Quinta Dalva 1995, 1985 and 1975 (Colheita is a vintage tawny which is very rare). Followed by a Vintage tasting; Qunita da Revola 2009, Sao Paulo 2000 and Qunita de Val da Figueira 1994. The waiter was pretty well informed, but I am a difficult customer in that I ask technical questions and I guess these people just aren’t used to that, shame. Great place though, with over 200 Ports to choose from and lots of small niche producers.

That evening we were stuffed so skipped dinner. The following morning we decided to miss the hotel breakfast which was pretty poor but included! Instead we went to a local patisserie and had the best coffee, freshly squeezed juice and cake! Cake for breakfast how naughty, but how good!! The weather was still pants but we decided that we would head to Matosinhos all the same. We had read in Wikitravel that there was a fish festival in July and it was a ‘must’, although when we asked at the Tourist Office they didn’t seem to know much about it. We jumped on the Metro, which is excellent, clean, efficient and cheap, so much better than the Tube or the Parisian Metro.

It took half an hour to get there and when we did we wondered why we were there at all! We got off at Senor de Matosinhos, which we later realised was too far we should have got off at the market. The market was what I had been expecting of the Oporto market, huge, bustling and full of fabulous fish sold by the wives of the fishermen. Live poultry and rabbits, fabulous vegetables and fruits. After this we headed towards the street with all the restaurants, rua Heros de Francia. It was past midday and at midday in France everything would be busy and lively, here half the restaurants weren’t even set up! We weren’t hungry at this point so it wasn’t a problem, but apart from the barbecue’s beginning to be lit it really didn’t look like there was going to be much going on. In France Saturday lunchtime is the quietest time of the week for a restaurant, maybe it was the same here. So we walked some more and found, several streets and km later, what was reported to be Portugal’s finest restaurant. Well it didn’t look too appealing to me, quiet and over fussy, much to Chris’ relief (not cheap either)! So we stopped at a cafe for a drink and got chatting to a local chap who recommended a restaurant on the Heros street.

It was a bout 13h30 when we returned and it was like a completely different venue! The sun was out, music was playing, the restaurants all had their terraces set up, everywhere was teeming full of local Portuguese eating ‘en famille’ or ‘entre amis’, the smell of barbecued fish filled the air!! Suddenly we knew why we were here! We ended up not going to his recommendation as it was indoors and we wanted to eat on the street terraces withe everyone else and soak up the atmosphere. We went to a place called Valentim, and I can happily say that this was the best meal of the trip – outstanding! We started with a local speciality, flame cooked chorizo and bacalhau, followed by squid (I had quite a bit of squid on this trip, but all cooked very differently!) and the best swordfish I have ever tasted. We followed this with their version of creme brulee, which is more custardy then the French, but yummy all the same. Washed down with more delicious wines. There were very few tourists here and the menu was in Portuguese with the occasional dish translated. We also found out that the festival is all July and August.

After a very long and lazy lunch we could barely move but headed to the beach and walked down to the Foz area where we collapsed on the beach to snooze off our gastronomic lunch! This area is very pretty and has lots of cool bars on the beach front. When we finally got back to the hotel and Oporto we decided to head to the Majestic cafe for a snack, not that we really needed it but it was our last night! Chris, brave boy that he is, tried another strange local speciality called ‘Francesinha’, meaning little French lady. God knows where it gets the name, it is hard to describe this dish but at best it is like a mixed meat Croque Monsieur covered in a tomato sauce, at worst a freaky meat and cheese sandwich covered in slop! We thought that the Majestic would be the best place to try it if we were going to, and it was. It is a strange thing, best left for a hangover cure, but everywhere proudly serves it!

All in all we had a great time in Oporto, great food, excellent wines, delightful people. I highly recommend it, if we had had more time we would have liked to take a day boat trip up the Douro to the Port vineyards as the scenery is spectacular, otherwise I think we covered most things.

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