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Where to eat and drink in Porto, Portugal

Where to eat and drink in Porto, Portugal

by Chloë King 01 August 2017

Chloë King explores the beautiful streets of Porto, Portugal’s second city, and discovers a world of incredible wines and affordable, delicious food.

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Nestled against the Prussian blue Atlantic Ocean and divided by the winding Douro River, it seems every street of pastel-hued painted tiles, terracotta and granite in Porto yields unstoppable views. Here is a city of transformation; home to the world famous caves where port wine is aged and more that is unseen by cable car or funicular. In the Botanical Gardens, a new museum with innovative displays shows the diversity of eggs and the man-made ‘evolution’ of corn. A pizzeria, Casa d’Oro on Rua do Ouro, has spectacular views of the Arrábida bridge. Even McDonalds is packaged in a fabulous art deco building.

Eating out is an inexpensive pleasure enjoyed as an everyday occasion by Porto residents. Communality seems of great importance in the food culture here. From home kitchens where teams of friends cook together, to bustling cafés, bars and restaurants with terraces filling the streets.

A case in point is Mercado Bom Sucesso – a former fish market built in the 1940s near to architect Rem Koolhaas’ Casa da Música – full of workers taking quick yet convivial meals. The market contains a range of good value, high quality food stands selling American sliders, pizza, Raclette, seafood, ceviche and risotto. A wise choice is the Sande de Leitão from O Forno do Leitao do Ze. A traditional spit-roast suckling pig sandwich is presented in a wooden crate with a paper bag of hand-cooked crisps and a flute of sparkling Caves do Solar de São Domingos for less than €10.

The nightlife here lasts all night; bars open until 4am, clubs until dawn. There’s something for everyone – from bottle shops and bars (try Catraio for craft beer or Aduela on Rua Oliveiras) to traditional eateries like Abadia do Porto. Michelin recommends Pedro Lemos, Antiqvvm and the two-starred Yeatman among others, but there is so much more to offer the casual diner.

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Taste Porto offers food tours around some of the city's top gastronomic locations
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Folar à Moda de Murça is a traditional Easter bread stuffed with sausage and ham

It comes from up river

Food sovereignty is high on the agenda here and genuine pride and pleasure is taken in Portuguese ingredients, many of which have PDO-protected status. Traditional cuisines and production methods are seeing a resurgence in popularity, particularly when it comes to bread, olive oil and meat. The ‘seven wonders of Portuguese gastronomy’ – including the aforementioned Leitão – might keep your belly occupied for a week, but a good way to broaden your scope is to take a tour.

Taste Porto was featured on Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown and comes recommended by me too. The friendly team offers an enlightening three-and-a-half-hour whistlestop tour of some of the city’s top culinary gems, beginning with the expansive nineteenth century Mercado do Bolhão, a lively produce market. The nearby grocers are among the oldest in the city and many retain their authenticity including the Mercearia do Bolhao, stuffed with produce from a 200km radius and supplier to some of the city’s better restaurants. The owners, says my Taste Porto guide André, are like ‘food encyclopaedias’.

I enjoy tasting their Folar à Moda de Murça– a deliciously fluffy Easter bread filled with chunks of smoked ham and sausage – along with some raw sheep cheeses. Queijo de Azeitao DOP won gold at the World Cheese Awards and Prado de Sico, made with a blend of cow, sheep and goat milk, has a delectable tang.

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The indigenous grape varieties from the Douro Valley create some very interesting ports
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Tasting rooms can be found throughout the valley, offering rare vintages for low prices

Something to wash it down

Porto is at the mouth of the Douro river which rises up through an abundant valley and is the birthplace of some outstanding table wines, as well as the mighty ports for which the city is renowned. It is forbidden to irrigate in the Douro Valley – one reason local wines are so flavoursome. The wineries yield less fruit, but the grapes they grow retain a higher sugar concentration. Another point of interest is the expansive range of indigenous grape varieties that are enjoying a new life thanks to a rejuvenated industry.

The Douro Valley is so rich it’s worth exploring thoroughly in its own right but those eager to catch a glimpse can day trip from Porto by boat or rail. The region’s famous vinho verde is known for its fizz but, along with many changes to local wine production, is now filtered, preventing the secondary fermentation that creates bubbles. I’m told to check the minerality of the wine – it should ‘smell like a rock’. The rosé Espadal is cheap and cheekily carbonated, but still makes a surprisingly good pairing with some dry aged pata negra or presunto ham.

The caves in Gaia offer a glimpse of the wealth generated by the port trade. Visits here can be a bit of a sausage factory, with groups squeezed through a potted history before being washed out by some decent tasters. Still, you can’t not experience at least one. I enjoyed the Ramos Pinto tour that features some interesting history of branding and illustration.

Those after a more detailed analysis may try independent merchants like Touriga on Rua da Fabrica, many of which offer better value tastings than more obvious places. Wine bar Prova on Rua Ferreira Borges is the place to try a huge variety, including vintages from the 1930s. A curated tasting of ten to twelve wines here costs around €20.

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The olive oil tasting at Oliva & Co is a great way to see how the local oils have helped shape Porto's cuisine
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The famous Portuguese custard tarts are everywhere in the city

Back to the land

The cuisine in northern Portugal is admittedly meat-heavy, but there are delights in the veg patch too. One of the novel attractions for us Brits is the use of purslane in soup and salads.

The Portuguese excel at potatoes, from roasted to shoestring, and giant tomatoes for gazpacho. There are pointed cabbages for caldo verde and, of course, the umbigo, or navel orange. The country was so instrumental in the orange trade that the name for the fruit in several languages is derived from the word for Portugal.

Another favourite is olive oil, which you can explore in depth at Oliva & Co on Rua Ferreira Borges. Oliva & Co’s founder Helena Ferreira says it is not so much a store as ‘a project to promote the best Portuguese olive oil’. Everything here is born of the olive tree, from tea to tapenade and a very fine selection of PDO-protected oils that are free to taste.

Nearby Chocolateria Equador is run by artist-entrepreneurs who have their own Equadorian cacao farm, factory and a growing chain of shops. Try their explosive caramel bar, inspired by Harry Potter or the chocolate sardines with sea salt. It’s fair to say that chocolate is a big thing here but so are the signature pastries or bolo, which feature lots of lots of eggs.A case in point is the melting-middle sponge cake Pão de Ló.

Portuguese croissants, typically doughier and sweeter than the French variety and dressed in gleaming glazes, make for a satisfying breakfast. Then there’s the famous pasteis de nata: crisp, buttery pastry shells filled with a miraculously deep layer of perfectly set custard.

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Carnivores won't go hungry in Porto, with all sorts of meat-heavy dishes being served in the city's restaurants
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Charcuterie is important to the local cuisine, too, with hams hanging in many a shop window

The birds and the beasts

Meat is huge in Porto. You can get all of it: a range of game or maybe pork maw, cow ear or chicken gizzards. Papas de sarrabulho is a traditional soup of potato, pork, chicken and pig’s blood.The Francesinha or ‘little Frenchie’ is like a carnivore’s croque monsieur that is said to reach 3,000 calories in a single serving. Stuffed with ham, steak, pork loin, sausage and cheese smothered in beer and tomato gravy, the sandwich is a hangover cure of such renown that the landlord of my local at home said my visit would not be complete without one. I had to avoid the cardiac arrest in bread, but I’m told Golfinho, on Rua Sa de Noronha, offers a good one.

I did sample the feted Alheira, though. The smoked sausage was invented by persecuted fifteenth century Jews who were given the choice between conversion to Christianity or expulsion. During this time, Jews displayed these sausages to demonstrate that they had converted. However, Alheira are in fact kosher, made from a mixture of game, veal and poultry, and designed to fool.

There are many places to enjoy Alheira as a tapa or starter followed by a satisfying ‘meat and two veg’ dinner. Traça is a popular restaurant at the enviable location of Largo de Sao Domingos. Their T-bone steak for two is enviable, but I enjoyed the lightly breaded boar loin stuffed with served with shoestring potatoes and apple compote. A smart meal served without pomp.

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The tinned fish industry is so competitive in Portugal, it has resulted in some beautiful branded tins that make the perfect souvenir
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As well as sardines, cod is a popular fish, often salted and turned into stew

All the little fishes

Ask any visitor about Portuguese fish and I bet they’ll say ‘tinned sardines’. The fishing and canning industry in Portugal was one of the most incentivised by the former dictatorship, resulting in a booming industry.

Tins of sardines, garfish, tuna, octopus and roe are thus displayed abundantly in shops like Loja das Conservas on Rua de Mouzinho da Silveira, their beautifully illustrated wrappers an attractive by-product of industry competition.

It is common to see baskets of gleaming sardines outside small local grocers on catch days but, as I am told enthusiastically by the owner of the super cheese shop, ‘in Portugal, cod is king’. Although the cod is always imported, it often comes salted and is consumed in myriad ways, as fritters perhaps, or as a simple ‘salad’ with garlic.

In Afurada you can find restaurants serving fresh fish and the classic Caldeirada stew. A rival, however, is the nearby port of Matosinhos, a few kilometres to the north.For lovers of fresh fish and seafood, Matosinhos is worth a pilgrimage. Within minutes of disembarking the Metro, a tantalisingly sweet smell of barbecued fish will hit you. All along the Rua Herois de Franca and in streets nearby, restaurants have charcoal grills with chefs cooking the day’s catch to order outside on the street.

At Casa Mota Restaurant in Matosinhos a charcoal grilled sea bass is my holy grail. The freshest ingredients, simply cooked with good bread, olive oil, lemon and greens. Barbecued padrón peppers, tender octopus salad and sweet, juicy beef tomatoes. I know now that I’m not the first to have fallen in love with the Porto region, or with its cuisine.

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