Flavour comes first
LUCY LOVELL enjoys a food friendly trip to Northern Portugal
IT’S gridlock – but not as you know it. The car is brought to a stand-still in the northern mountains of Portugal, surrounded by goats. Hundreds of tiny, hardy goats.
Far from the guided Port tours and Pastel de Nata, the rugged mountains near the National Park of Gerês is a side of northern Portugal that seems untouched by tourists. Even the shepherds are nowhere to be seen.
“They don’t need people - the goats know when to come back,” our guide Francisco tells us from the driving seat. “These two young dogs at the back are learning from them, once they’re old enough, they will go out in the mountains with the goats.”
The goats are a staple of the local diet; the rough terrain makes for hearty meat perfect for slowcooking, and makes for some incredible meals.
For a foodie escape in Europe, Portugal might not be the first thing you think of, but it’s a haven for food-lovers, stocked with some of the finest produce around.
And it’s not all rustic. For those looking for a touch of decadence, many of these areas are serviced by boutique, luxury, independent lodgings, made easier to find by the reputable umbrella of Small Luxury Hotels of the World (SLH).
But before we trek into the undiscovered gems in the north of the country, the trip starts somewhere with fewer goats: Porto.
Now a well-trodden weekend destination, the area still boasts some incredible restaurants.
The central and historic base of the Hotel Infante Sagres is a good place to start. From here, we are well placed in the bustling city, not to mention in luxury surroundings brimming with classic Portugese architecture.
Sidestep the tourist traps along the River Douro; locals love the no-frills diners, like the Taberna Dos Mercadores – a softly-lit, bottle-lined restaurant on the R. dos Mercadores. Or try the Casa Guedes on Praca Poveiros, where the traditional pork sandwiches have people queuing round the block.
For a better look at the city cross the river – just €3 one way by boat – to Porto Cruz. The stunning blue-tiled building is about as ‘Porto’ as it gets, serving a refined menu of classic tapas style dishes from its stunning rooftop terrace.
‘Beiras’ local black pudding with soft apple and onion (€4.90), sticky Iberican pork ribs (€5.10) and salted padron peppers (€3.20) are a humble and delicious introduction to Portuguese food.
But we don’t stay long in the bustling capital. Our guide takes us north, deeper into the country’s rich traditional cuisine.
En route to the hotel, grapes grow in every corner of the countryside, and we pass vineyards which will provide the wine for dinner that night. Vans full with fresh fish from the coast beep their horns to let people in-land know that their delivery has arrived.
Amares is a country retreat, relatively unknown to tourists. For a minimal yet luxurious stay, visit the Cisterian monastery-turned-SLH hotel Pousada Mosteiro de Amares.
Embracing a more simplistic, monastic way of life, this is a boutique hotel with a difference. The head chef was recruited locally around twenty years ago, and still works to this day with recipes from the surrounding region.
Chefs here are mostly local mums who were at home and not working, explains the hotel manager. Once recruited, they impart their years of cooking wisdom and learn how to present beautiful food.
“Flavours come first, presentation can come second,” they add.
Dinner is served in the monastery’s old kitchen, using the rich produce from the nearby land.
Goat from the mountains is slow-cooked and unctuous. Bacalhau – dried and salted cod – is rolled into balls with potatoes and breadcrumbs and served fried like croquettes. A simple dish of black eyed peas resembles a meal eaten in these hills for centuries. It’s accomplished food, but undeniably homely.
And the wine? Well, in Portugal, there’s more than just red, white and rose. Here there’s green – a young white wine, which is often lightly carbonated. Vinho verde is served here from just over a kilometre away, on a neighbouring vineyard. The sommelier gestures out of the large windows over the hills ploughed like thick corduroy, where we can almost see where the bottle was corked.
For the really adventurous foodie heads further north to Ponte de Lima, where the countryside is even richer with vines. Potted in every crevice of every garden, they grow seemingly like weeds in the fertile ground. “Here, everyone knows how to make their own wine,” our next hotelier welcomes us with a grin.
Raquel do Carmo Barbosa owns Carmos Boutique Hotel which boasts 15 exquisitely decorated rooms, and its own blossoming vineyard.
“People have wine for their family, and take it to the local cooperative to ferment it,” Raquel adds on a tour of the grounds.
Here, two-year-old vines have already produced a bounty of homemade wine, which line the shelves of the eclectic dining room. And as wine fans, Raquel and her family have an impressive collection from local producers, some just a stones throw from their luxury hotel. Some of these exemplary bottles can be sampled during the wine tasting events, which take place in the cosy wine cellar. Of course, vinho verde features heavily; an outstanding bottle of Loureiro by Quinta do Ameal is made just opposite Carmo’s and tastes amazingly light and fresh. But other grapes, such as the Alvarinho are just as delicious. We taste an Alvarinho Contacto produced by what Raquel thinks is one of the best winemakers in the region: Anselmo Mendes. It’s a silky and light white, with a minerality which I’ve struggled to find in any wine since.
And that’s just a sliver of the wines on offer from Carmo’s wine cellar.
Like Portugal’s food and drink scene as a whole, there’s so much more to discover further inland. But for now, it’s back to Porto, to fly back to Manchester and the city’s gridlocked roads - if only it were with goats, not cars.
Typical produce on display in Porto shops
Pousada Mosteiro de Amares