I first discovered food tourism in Portugal on a trip to Porto, where the locals are nicknamed tripeiros, literally translating to seller or eater of tripe.
With ancient streets and buildings clothed in azulejos (hand painted tiles used to control temperatures in homes as well as decorating ornate buildings) it’s no surprise that Porto has got as much tourist attention as Portugal’s capital Lisbon in recent years. The city is steeped in tradition with eager locals wanting to show off history, music and food to anyone willing to ask. It was a walk through Porto’s local dishes that gave it a special place in my heart.
Tripe isn’t always the most appealing thing on the menu, but with a taste (ahem) for trying new things, a holiday to Porto was an easy decision. It also doesn’t hurt that the Port industry is right on its doorstep in Vila Nova de Gaia.
On researching what to do in Porto, my boyfriend and I came across Taste Porto, who were offering food tours of the centre. We timed this so we could get straight off the plane and into the 3 hour Downtown Tour to sample the city. It was a great way to get our bearings when we arrived and dinner was of course sorted.
Taste Porto sets you up with a local guide who takes you to visit the local Bolhao Market as well as traditional restaurants and independent cafes. We also stopped for some less traditional, but much appreciated, éclairs from Leitaria da Quinta do Paco, a former dairy.
It was the first food tour my boyfriend and I had ever been on and with Anthony Bourdain’s ‘Parts Unknown’ Portugal episode giving it a claim to fame, it’s unsurprising to hear that it won us over completely. We haven’t booked a holiday that doesn’t include one since.
They have varied in quality and quantity everywhere we have been but, although we have had great experiences on every one, nothing has beaten the first. Our guide was really clued up on Porto’s history and was able to apply the dishes we were eating to the context, telling us more about the wider city at the same time. We also tried the free walking tour from the city centre the next day and we preferred the tour offered by our Taste Porto guide, finding that it offered more information around the stories shared across the city.
One of the best stops on the tour was the Bolhao Market, formerly the main hub for food shopping in the city. As with every major city, supermarkets and bigger chains have taken over at every corner, so shopping is more of a chore then a leisurely Sunday activity. Not to mention, a detriment to vibrant bazaars like this one.
Whilst there, we sampled some incredible tinned sardines with a specialised smooth olive oil and glass of white, all local to that particular Portuguese region, in Bolhao Wine House. The then new owner, who had inherited the stall from his mother, talked about offering customers tastings and a place to sit and drink to try and drive crowds back into the store. Often holidays saturate us with new food, sites and cultures but you rarely get as in touch with the locals as we did during this tour.
Olive oil was a recurring theme throughout our time in Porto. It is so proud of its production that olive trees are planted under the skyline’s Torres dos Clerigos. They can be seen from the bookshop said to have inspired the moving staircases in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Good to note in case you find yourself looking for a shady spot to recover in after the claustrophic atmosphere provided by the crowded shop.
As these trees suggest, aside from food tours, Porto has a lot on offer making it a utopia for food-loving omnivores. One thing we were told we couldn’t leave without trying was francesinha – a thick meaty sandwich topped with melted cheese and a hot tomato and beer sauce. It could be the hangover cure we have all been looking for.
If you’re a small eater, you will definitely be better off sharing your francesinha. My boyfriend wasn’t happy that I forced him to split his with me rather than get my own, but it turned out to be a good call (he still disagrees, but it is a plausible excuse to go back for seconds). It is a rich and delicious dish that is just the tip of the iceberg in the powerful meats Porto’s locals have retained their nickname for loving.
The Alheira sausage was another must-try, this time with a thought-provoking story behind how it came to be. Apparently, the original Alheira was a pork-free sausage, still filled with garlic like it is today. It is rumoured to have been invented by Portuguese Jews during the Inquisition. When their faith was outlawed the Jewish people were easily spotted because they lacked the traditional pork sausages that hung outside smokehouses in their own establishments and homes. To stay hidden they invented their own recipe using scrap meats, which was soon picked up by the wider community and became a staple dish of Porto.
Porto’s Jewish District offers more than garlic packed sausages with a view allowing Port’s biggest producers to claim the Vila Nova de Gaia skyline for their own.
You can’t really leave Porto without heading over the bridge to one of the many Port Lodges, but when choosing a port lodge, you are slightly spoiled for choice and narrowing down your options can be overwhelming. We chose to go to Graham’s Port Lodge. It is placed just off the end of Vila Nova de Gaia’s main strip, meaning many tourists have dipped into other port lodges before getting that far. This keeps the tour sizes reasonable and means you’re less likely to be turned away in busy season if you haven’t pre-booked.
A port lodge will take you through a tour of the cellars and its own collection, ending on a tasting with a selection of best sellers showing off the diversity of its range. Probably at least one ruby and my personal preference, a tawny. Many snub white Port, believing it is a less refined version of the grape, but a splash of tonic and lime make it a perfect sundowner if you do come across the chance to try it.
I’d also recommend you double up your lodge tour with a port tasting in one of the city’s local wine shop. We chose Touriga, a store specialising in small producers. At a shop you’ll try a wider variety of flavours without the bias towards any particular brand. You’ll also be taken through an overview of production with details on the region and the different properties to look for in each port.
It’s a slightly less interactive way to get the jist of port production and some information will be repeated, but both will offer a unique snippet to take away. You’ll probably try more ports in a wine shop as well and there could possibly be an opportunity to sample a vintage.
Porto ticked off two firsts for me: it was my first in Portugal and my first time experiencing a place through its food. If you’re a foodie traveler, or want to become one, this is must-do. If you want to see a beautiful city and try something different, it might whet your appetite too.