Recently, I had an opportunity to travel to Portugal to attend a sponsored conference for food and nutrition communicators to be held in Lisbon. A few days prior, I flew into the charming coastal city of Porto to explore its unique sights, food, wine and culture. Porto truly sits at an intersection where old meets new in its architecture, traditions and, of course, its food and wine.
A touring highlight of Porto is Ribeira—the riverside quarter and nearby twisting alleyways through the historic parts of the city—leading to the Douro River and breathtaking views of hillside houses with pastel facades topped with deep orange terracotta clay tile roofs. After crossing over the Ponte de Dom Luís I Bridge, it’s an easy walk to visit a myriad of port wine lodges, cafés and restaurants.
I can’t think back on my time in Porto without images of fresh laundry hanging from balcony clothes lines and hand-painted tiles (azulejos) adorning the walls in mesmerizing patterns or artistic depictions of historic events juxtaposed with a splattering of street art graffiti that uses both words and striking images to send its modern-day messages.
As an introduction to Porto’s food and wine, I went on a 3 ½-hour walking tour with a local guide to visit unique gastronomic locations sprinkled around in the city. Here’s a bit of what I experienced and learned during my trip.
Tascas (taverns or traditional Portuguese restaurants) offer fish dishes and other inexpensive home-style meals in a relaxed atmosphere. I tasted traditional Bacalhau – grilled cod served in broth topped with hard-boiled egg, onions, garlic, potatoes and olive oil and a terylene sandwich— slow-roasted (and I mean really SLOW-roasted over 24 hours) pork loin and a lean, sweet cured ham served on a crusty-on- the-outside and warm-and-tender-on-the-inside sandwich roll served at a quaint, rustic tasca called Flor dos Congregados known for its slow food.
Petiscos (small plates) are mini tastings of a particular dish. One of my favorite spots for eating pesticos was called Casa Ribieiro. This is where I first tasted this delicious Portugeuse green broth vegetable soup topped with kale, a slice of chorizo and a drizzle of olive oil. It may be eaten with a side of crusty bread as a main dish or an appetizer. It was very flavorful and satisfying!
Port Lodges such as Graham’s, Croft, Churchill, Ferreira, Taylor and others offer Port wine tastings and tours. Port wine dates back to the 17th century when British merchants added brandy to wine of the northern Douro region to keep it from souring during transport. Port blends may feature up to 40 different grape varieties. Red port deepens in color and develops flavor and complexity with age after bottling. Wood-aged port, including tawny port, is ready to drink when bottled. White port, made from white grapes, can be sweet or a bit dry and is typically served cold as an aperitif (a refreshing drink served before a meal to stimulate the appetite). If you are wondering about the rooster figurine next to the Port in the photo, it is the legendary Galo de Barcelos, a common emblem of Portugal sold in countless souvenir shops.
Pastelarias (pastry shops) serve freshly baked pastries that commonly feature egg yolks. According to local legend, egg whites were used centuries ago to stiffen clothing while ironing, giving rise to incorporating the remaining egg yolks into Portuguese pastry recipes and other dishes. When the spice trade and sugar industry was booming, Nuns and monks of the 15th century contributed to both the creativity and diversity of Portugal’s now famous confections. A few favorites include Papos de Anjo (Angel’s double chin) which is made with about 20 whipped egg yolks baked firm and then boiled lightly in sugar syrup, Touchinho do Ceu (Bacon from Heaven) an almond cake made with pork lard, and the iconic Pastel de Nata (custard Tart) that’s best served fresh out of the oven.
Leitaria da Quinta do Paco
This particular pastry shop in Porto began as a dairy but later expanded to offer éclairs topped with chocolate sauce or lemoncurd, stuffed with light and fluffy whipped cream and served with—you guessed it—an extra serving of whipped cream. You may be thinking, “wow, those are some calorie-laden foods”! I completely agree and was thankful that my fitbit registered more than 16,000 steps during my food tour!
Arcádia, Casa do Chocolate
Arcádia was established as a house of chocolate in Porto in 1933. My leisurely afternoon visit to Arcádia included sips of strong espresso coffee paired with fine, hand-crafted deep dark chocolate. The café area was relaxed and their chocolates are noted by locals to be some of the best in Porto.
Bolháo Market is a bustling historic, bi-level market where you can find fresh produce, fishmongers, butchers, florists and hand-crafted items. You can also buy dry beans and spices by the scoop. A butcher happened to be breaking down a hog to add to the meat case while I was passing his stand.
Francesinhas—The name translates to “Little French Woman”. It is a traditional and indulgent Portuguese dish of thick white bread, ham, Portuguese sausage, steak (or roast beef) topped with melted cheese, (sometimes an egg) and a beer sauce. If that doesn’t sound like enough calories, it’s also typically served with French fries!
I can’t write about foods of Portugal without talking about Sardines. Just outside of Porto, in the areas of Espinho, is a thriving fish cannery industry. Sardines are several types of small, oily fish related to herrings. Canneries typically boil the sardines in salt water and then season and preserve in olive oil. Look for them labeled as “Em azeite” and watch for “Em tomate” for a version packed in tomato sauce. You’ll find “filetes” or “sem pele”, “sem espinha” (skinless boneless) or “inteiros” with skin and bones but no head. The bones soften during the canning process to become an edible source of calcium. Sardines have become so popular in Portugal that gourmet shops sell high-quality canned sardines in artfully decorated cans or wrapped in paper like little presents. Try pairing them with a light, acidic white wine such as Moscatel do Douro or Espumante.
Portuguese cardiologists recommend eating canned sardines at least three times a week to lower risk of heart attack. Four ounces of sardines supply more than 1000mg of essential omega-3s that are beneficial for heart health, brain development and mood, impulse control and psychotic disorders.
Karen Buch, RDN, LDN is a Central Pennsylvania-based Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who promotes the healthy enjoyment of food and helps consumers better understand the connection between food, nutrition and health. As owner of Nutrition Connections LLC, Karen provides a variety of food and nutrition communications consulting services to the food industry nationwide. Connect with her on the web at NutritionConnectionsLLC.com or follow her on facebook: Nutrition Connections LLC, instagram: @karenbuch1, twitter: @karenbuch or subscribe to her blog: Food News & Reviews.