Experiencing new cultures through their food is something I have always been a big believer in. Living in the Middle East I experienced a diverse mix of cuisines growing up and I have taken that curiosity for food with me wherever I have trotted around the globe.
While eating a Portuguese inspired Goan curry, in the lead up to visiting Porto, I had no concept of what flavours might greet me in a city where the locals are nicknamed tripeiros (literally translating to seller/eater of tripe), but tripeiros seems to give a more accurate representation of the Porto palette than Goan spices did a few weeks ago.
Porto sits on the mouth of the river Douro as the second largest city in Portugal, after Lisbon. As a big city, trade and migrants have had a huge influence on local cuisine, but it is still a city steeped in traditions with a strong community committed to keeping its history alive.
As a food lover it is always great to travel with someone who shares that excitement for trying new things, however experimental (bug salad in Archipelago springs to mind). Luckily I’ve found a squeeze who will not flinch away from a challenge, so it only seems right that we would not book a getaway without the promise of some exciting taste tests. Porto is famously the home to the Port wine industry (or so we thought, this is actually predominantly Vila Nova de Gaia, just over the Dom Luis I Bridge) and wine seemed a good a reason as any to book a holiday when decisions desperately needed to be made.
My squeeze and I booked the Taste Porto Downtown Food Tour for the day we arrived into Porto as an exciting way to begin our long weekend. Taste Porto was a 3 hour experience of independent cafes and restaurants in Porto with a local guide to take you through the streets and describe some of the history of the city. The cuisine was not just a guide to the typical food of Porto, we were taken to small businesses that each had a story to tell, shown different regions of Portugal and the best of their dishes in Porto, and told about the local dishes with the most history in the city. From learning about the Balhao Market’s importance in the community to eating eclairs in an old dairy shop, Taste Porto was the perfect introduction to this city’s rich culinary heritage.
It isn’t just foodie tours, tripeiros are passionate about the food they have to offer. So proud they are of their olive oil production that the trees are planted in the center of the city under Clerigos Tower for all to behold. And our free walking tour was not complete until we were told to try Francesinha, a thick meaty sandwich with melted cheese, and a hot thick tomato and beer sauce, the perfect hangover cure or a heart attack waiting to happen?
But heart conditions aside, the Francesinha is the sandwhich that you cannot miss if you truly want to experience this city and its food for what it is. Porto is a city of rich flavours and powerful meats: traditional tripe, Alheira (a Jewish sausage with a story to tell), salted cod, roasted goat and the aforementioned Francesinha. It makes perfect sense that the city’s most popular tipple would be an equally strong, but sweet, wine.
When planning a cellar tour in Vila Nova de Gaia, you are spoilt for choice, if you stand at the edge of the Porto Jewish district you will see the names of the biggest producers of port wine lit up across the Douro. Although it would have been nice to visit a smaller producer, we received several recommendations for the Graham’s Port cellar tour and decided to go with that one. Just along and up from the main strip of port producers, Graham’s is not as over-populated with tourists as other Port Wine Lodges, which means you have a good chance for a tour in a smaller group and less chance of being turned away, especially in the busier seasons. It also houses Vinum restaurant, with a spectacular terrace view of Porto and a selective menu focusing on local produce and organic ingredients.
But if you want to be a true expert in Port Wine when you return from the city of Porto, then I would recommend you try a Port tasting class in the city of Porto. On our last night we booked an evening at Touriga, a wine shop specializing in small producers. The class, which lasts about an hour, features a presentation describing the production of Port and the different ways in which it is aged. You finish with a tasting of five Ports, selected by the stores wine expert, and a description of the different properties of each one.
I leave Porto with a new bank of recipes to try at home, and a desperate need to make up for the lost time in the gym. This is a city with a history that is hidden in the details, if you turn away too quickly you will miss the variety of dishes on offer or the famous azulejos that recite from the city’s buildings.
Prova – Livraria da Baixa – The Wall
Taste Porto Food Tour – Free City Walking Tour – Sao Bento Train Station – Se Cathedral – Clerigos Tower – Igreja do Carmo – Ingreja das Carmelitas – Ingreja de Sao Francisco – Graham’s Port Wine Cellar Tour – Centro Portugues de Fotografia – Livraria Lello – Port Wine Class at Touriga
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