Flavour comes first

LUCY LOVELL en­joys a food friendly trip to North­ern Por­tu­gal

Accrington Observer - - TRAVEL -

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

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