In mid-December 2016, my daughter and I planned a low-cost escape from the mythopoeic jolliness of the Christmas season – it was basically a week’s visit to Porto, one of the cheaper destinations by plane from London.
We just needed an escape, both from the dank, deceitful spectre of Brexit and the irritating, worrisome Trump – the world has gone mad and we could not face the ostentatious artifice of Christmas shopping on top of everything else.
We have been to Portugal before, in the Algarve, which was a little like wandering around boring Essex coastal golf courses on a sunny day, so hopes were not high.
In my mind, I had rationalised this return to Portugal by thinking of leisurely samples of port, munching on Portuguese food and mooching around the historic centre of Porto, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
How completely wrong we were – on all counts.
A simplified geography
The country of Portugal was named after the Roman region of Portus Cale of which Porto is the capital, so this gives an idea of the historical significance of this town nestling on the north bank of the River Douro near the Atlantic.
Before then, prehistoric and Lusitanian settlements have straddled both banks of the Douro at Porto for many thousands of years, enjoying access to both the sea and other parts of the Iberian Peninsula via the 897km River Douro.
Porto as a town practically glistens with an endearing combination of grittiness, charm and raw history. Built on steep granitic rocks and a substratum of ancient Upper Proterozoic and Palaeozoic metasedimentary rocks, old churches and imposing buildings dot the town, many of them with sloping foundations to accommodate the hilly streets.
Many of the roads are still intricately paved with patterned cobblestones or tiles, some of them centuries old, rendering them a touch hazardous due to the unevenness and a little slippery after rain – but nevertheless quite beautiful and almost sensual to walk on.
Rather too many of the houses in the town are run down, with windows bricked up to deter squatters – but there are now signs of restoration and regeneration, and it won’t be a minute too soon, for large sections of many streets do look very dilapidated and decrepit.
Also, there are many ramshackle steep stairs around town which are without handrails, making them extremely perilous to use, especially after a few drinks. It may be a coincidence but we saw many people hobbling around town on crutches, and we sometimes took detours because the stairs down a hill were just too steep or precarious to use sensibly.
This is not to say that Porto is wholly stuck in the past – for there are many modern aspects to the town as well. Cool art shops are scattered around town, shopping isn’t inferior to other major towns in Europe, the transport system works well, fine dining is plentiful, hotels easily meet global urban standards and good, free wi-fi is everywhere, even on buses.
The port (wine)
As a food writer, it would be terribly remiss if I did not include a few words about port wine in Porto, though my previous familiarity with port mostly involved sipping fine vintage port, usually during social events in the City of London.
I do have some ruby port at home but that is mostly used for making port sauce rather than drinking. So it was interesting to discover and investigate the various configurations of port, which include tawny, ruby, white, vintage and a recently-invented pink or rosé port.
Port wine has a quirky history but the ascent of Vinho do Porto (as it is known in Portuguese) can be traced back to France forbidding the export of wines to England in the 17th century after a series of inconclusive wars.
Deprived of good French wines, the English were forced to source wines from other regions, including the Douro Valley in Portugal – this is a region which the locals describe as having nine months of winter and three months of hell each year.
The quality of Douro Valley wines then must have varied considerably as over 100 varieties of grapes were grown (now reduced to around 32 varieties) and they were all pressed together to make wine with little consideration for the blending.
The common denominator was that most of the wines were rather dense due to the heat in the Douro Valley and the English therefore usually added very strong alcohol (over 70% strength) into the wine barrels to kill the yeast and prevent any explosive fermentation within the barrels during the transport back to England.
This addition of very strong alcohol is still done today, except that it is now added very early during the making of port rather than at the end – this kills the yeast while the grape juice is still acutely sweet and it also increases the alcohol content of the port.
The wine is then stored and rested in accordance with the requirements for producing the various kinds of port. Much fewer varieties of grapes are used these days and the focus now is on blend quality and consistency.
The stages and processes for making the various types of port are really fascinating but it would require a rather long dissertation which is probably more suited for another dedicated article.
The other wines
Instead, I would like to mention that many Douro wines are really competent and comparable to fine wines from other regions. It was startling as I have never tasted many of the grape varietals before and yet many wines are staggeringly good and inexpensive – I have seen some in the supermarkets for less than €7 (RM35) a bottle, and a comparably comforting wine in France would be at least double or triple the price.
Some of the grape varieties in the Douro Valley are Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinto Barroca, Castelao, Sousao, Trincadeira das Pratas, Baga, Alfrocheiro Preto, Tinta Roriz, etc.
The only recognisable variety out of that lot for me is Tinta Roriz, which is more commonly known as Tempranillo though some vineyards are now also growing and adding classic grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah into their wines.
And now, food
There are several layers of gastronomy in Porto, ranging from greasy spoons to Michelin stars. To be honest, we never had a really bad meal in town though not every restaurant was worth the clamber around the hilly streets, despite the comments and ratings in the guides.
Pork features a lot in Porto restaurants and the portion sizes are not for the faint-hearted – we had a pork knuckle that probably exceeded in size the schweinshaxe in Saxony, even though the Saxons are hefty Germans compared to the petite Portuguese.
Many restaurants serve pork knuckle and I am not certain if ours was the best because I can only eat one a month or so.
For lighter dining, there is a Portuguese version of tapas called “petiscos”, although they are usually a little larger than normal tapas – but most lack the finesse of Basque pinxtos or good Catalan tapas. Nevertheless the petisco is a simple, direct and often delicious insight into the local food culture and possibly the two best places to sample petiscos would be Tapabento and Tascö – note that both places require booking and they will also gently prevent you from ordering too much if you’re being exuberant.
Somewhere in size between pork knuckles and petiscos is the signature dish of Porto, the Francesinha. The history is somewhat murky and it may have dated from between the 19th century to the 1960s.
It is generally not a pretty dish but it is extremely popular and we saw queues outside francesinha joints late into the night.
This is quite remarkable as there is no set recipe for francesinha – most are made with meat and slices of ham topped with egg, some also include smoked sausages, mushrooms and cream while others are based on prawns, fish and other seafood.
The only common elements are the beer (used in the sauce), the cheese (which is grilled or baked on top), the accompanying plate of fries, and the thick slices of white bread.
Basically, the francesinha is a Welsh rarebit or croque monsieur which one would enter for a Mr Universe competition for toasted sandwiches.
We managed to pick through a francesinha between the two of us at a food bar, while discreetly watching slim Portuguese women tuck into their plates alone.
The slender waistlines of the Portuguese is all the more remarkable because practically every street has a traditional pastelaria (cake/bakery shop) – very often, more than one – and they are invariably packed.
We have tried quite a few pastries from several of them and to be frank, they lack the finesse of proper French patisseries – despite appearances, most of the items are rather more bread than cake or pastry and often also a little too heavy for us.
But none of the food was wasted because there are always seagulls to feed in Porto.
Saying that, the Portuguese do make awesome desserts – at Restaurante Escondidinho, we had the Toucinho de Céu (translated as the Lard of Heaven), a glorious custardy dessert made with almonds and egg yolks; eating this dish is definitely one of the best things you can do with clothes on.
Actually, the traditional Portuguese food at this restaurant is still a highlight of our trip, especially the Tripas à Moda do Porto (traditional Porto tripe).
Modern fine dining is also readily available – for this, the immediate suggestions would be Terra (upstairs, for downstairs is a plush sushi bar) and DOP.
We had made the effort to go to Cantinho Do Avillez, a place run by a two-star Michelin chef and we think the earlier suggestions might be better (and cheaper).
An unmissable suggestion is the Mercado Bom Sucesso, a gourmet food hall with a variety of delectable Portuguese specialities and quite inexpensive for the quality.
We came for a quick snack near lunchtime and had to be dragged out hours later – this apparently is a common occurrence for newcomers and tourists, so you have been warned.
It is very common to see both the outside and inside of buildings in Porto covered with exquisite hand-painted Azulejo tiles. These tiles were introduced by the Moors and the word Azulejo comes from the Arabic “az-zulayj” which means “polished stones”.
It is rather odd but seeing these tiles always somehow snaps you back in time, into odd crevices of Porto’s history, especially when viewing the wonderfully-preserved tiles at the town’s main station at São Bento – these depict epic scenes from Porto’s illustrious past, inside one of the most beautiful train stations I have ever encountered.
Porto is a town living in, and with, an illustrious past. Perhaps it is treading a little gingerly into the LED glare of the modern world – and yet it has no choice for it needs external investment to restore the town and prosper again.
Perhaps the idiosyncrasy of Porto can be summed up by the symbol used by an old port wine house: a bemused emu which looks like it is holding a magnet in its beak – the emu is a bird that cannot walk backwards, and it also cannot fly, but it is nevertheless a grand, magnificent creature.