I have always loved Portugal, the discreet charm and friendliness of their people and the old world patina of the cities and countryside. In the last couple of years through I have been disappointed by the “gentrification” of Lisbon. So I decided to try a new city: Porto and I discovered it is a gem – the pearl of Portugal in my eyes. Wikipedia describes a pearl as: “a hard object produced within the soft tissue of a living shelled mollusk” – how fitting for Oporto as it is known to English-speakers.
Narrow streets and alleys, wide avenues, tons of churches, white sandstone buildings and lots and lots of traditional shops. Of course there are very ugly concrete buildings in-between all of this old world loveliness. But it is a combination of the old and the new – like the shine and the patina of a pearl – that also gives Porto its charm. Gazing out at the wide Atlantic from the mouth of the river Douro serves to remind one of the important role this “tiny nation” with its mighty history played, first during the Reconquista period on the Iberian peninsula and then throughout the world during the Age of Discovery.
Dublin may have its pubs but Porto has its pastelarias (cake shops) and padarias (bakeries). And they all serve the most wonderful often egg yolk-based natas similar to the petit fours of the French. This is in part due to the fact that in the 18th century Portuguese nuns developed many sweet recipes based on egg yolks, since egg whites were needed in large quantities both for starching clothes, such as nun habits, and by the wineries, in the clearing of wine such as Port, for which egg whites were used and subsequently many egg yolks were left over to make pastry with. One could spend all day wandering through Porto from one pastelaria to the next and trying all the pastries – we did.
The other wonderful treat for foodies traveling to Porto is the Mercado do Bolhao, a two-tiered and wrought iron market built in the 19th century. Its stalls and offerings are rustic and one can get a good overview of the traditional ingredients of Portuguese cuisine – very seasonal and heavy on vegetables and the famous bacalhau (dried salt cod). Meat plays a smaller role in Porto except for offal such as tripe since tradition has it that most meat was loaded on the departing ships so innards was what was left for the landlubbers.
On the whole the food in Porto was rustic, seasonal, filling, fresh and inexpensive. Since the Portuguese like to eat 2 warm meals a day, you can order ½ portions – meia dose – for lunch, for example in one of the toscas (family-run restaurants) or churrasqueiras (meat grilling restaurants). Add a ½ liter of wonderful ice cold Douro house wine and strong espresso stirred with a cinnamon stick and you spend less than the price of one entrée in Frankfurt.