The north of Portugal has roast chestnuts, rabbit stews and mountain cheeses; the south has olives, oranges and almonds. From the rustic to the refined, food here is fresh, local and full of flavour. Wines too are of huge interest. Vineyards cover the country, with 29 demarcated regions and everything from local brews served in village bars to limited Vintage editions which compete on the world stage.
VINEYARDS & WINE
Portugal is a major wine-producing country, with vineyards crammed into every suitable corner. It has a huge diversity of wine styles, resulting from all its terroirs (soils and landscapes) and micro-climates, types of grapes used (many of which are specific to Portugal), viti-cultural practices (how the vines are grown) and methods of fermentation, storage and ageing (from age-old methods used on small farms to the highly-controlled techniques of large wineries).
The most famous wines from Portugal are Port and Madeira, delicious, sweet, fortified and exported worldwide. The Douro region, traditionally associated with Port, is also a premier region for deep rich red wines, comparable in style to those of Ribera del Duero and Bordeaux. The landscapes here are magnificent, with steep, terraced and vine-covered slopes, protected by a UNESCO world heritage listing.
Also in the north is the lush green coastal Minho region, which produces young and slightly effervescent red and white Vinho Verde wines. Vines here arch high over Galician cabbages and grazing sheep in small land-holdings.
Each of the 29 wine regions is unique in some way and well worth exploring. In addition to the above, those of note include:
- Bairrada for coastal plains and sparkling wines
- Dão for rolling granite hills and smooth reds
- Setúbal peninsula for a limestone coastline and Moscatel dessert wines
- Ribatejo and Alentejo for cork forests, wide open spaces and rich reds
- Azores, for volcanic islands and vines surrounded by boulders to keep out strong gusts
In Portugal you can grow just about anything.
The south has all the things typical of the Mediterranean- huge amounts of olives and wine of course, plus pomegranates, figs, almonds, lemons and oranges. There is honey and coriander, thyme and garlic. Black pigs graze freely on wild acorns, and the rolling plains have black bulls, cork oak forests and fields of wheat. The coast is abundant in cockles, clams, lobster, octopus and sardines.
In the verdant north, there are olives and grapes too, along with cooler climate apples, pears, cherries and plums, chestnuts, hazel and walnuts. Also typical are onions, potatoes, cabbages, pumpkin and corn. This area is ideal for grazing sheep and cows, and small-holdings have pigs, chickens, ducks and rabbit. Its rivers are full of trout and the cool seas hold mussels, mackerel and squid.
Out to sea, Madeira is most famous for its dessert wine and is a big producer of bananas and tropical flowers. The green Azores, settled by Portuguese and Flemish, are most famous for dairy products, notably strong Queijo das Ilhas, which are big exports to mainland Portugal. The Azores is also known for its fragrant pineapples, cultivated in glass houses. And, of course, Madeira and the Azores are great places for fresh seafood.
Food in Portugal is fresh, flavoursome and generous. It does not try to show off or be over-complicated. Dishes are generally simple, down-to-earth and local.
Seafood is central to Portuguese cuisine and found throughout the country. Bacalhau (salt cod) is a traditional staple and a national dish, with dozens of ways of preparing it. Most typical are Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá (fried in olive oil, then baked with potatoes, onions and olives), Empadão de Bacalhau (salt cod pie) and Bolinhos de Bacalhau (cod fritters with potato, onion and eggs). Also consumed on a national scale and particularly in the summer months, generally with cool crisp Vinho Verde wine, are Sardinhas Assadas (sardines grilled over charcoal embers). If there are lots of people and a party atmosphere, this becomes a Sardinhada, a veritable feast of grilled sardines. Not to be missed are all varieties of peixes assados (baked fish), Polvo com Arroz (octopus rice stew), Lulas Grelhadas (grilled squid) and Chocos com Tinta (cuttlefish in their ink). More obscure regional specialities include Caldeirada de Enguias (eel stew) from Aveiro and Lampreia (seasonally-caught lamprey) from the Minho river.
Soups and stews, often as a starter, are popular throughout Portugal and are one of the main ways of consuming vegetables. National favourites include Caldo Verde, originally from the Minho region, made with shredded Galician cabbage, plus a slice of cured chouriço and thickened with blended potatoes. Just as popular is Canja, a chicken broth with rice and vegetables. From the inland provinces come the hearty Sopa de Castanhas (chestnut soup) and Sopa de Perdiz (partridge stew). Lisbon has its Sopa de Camarão (prawn soup) and the Algarve is famous for Sopa de Ameijoas (clam soup).
There is also a great variety of meats. Frango assado com batatas fritas (barbequed chicken and chips) is an all-round favourite as are Bifes (steak) and Bifanas (a pork escalope and bread roll snack). More specialized and from the mountainous Beiras is Cabrito Assado (roast kid), while the hills of the Minho are famous for Vitela à Barrosã (veal from the traditional Barrosã breed). From the central Bairrada region comes Leitão (suckling pig served with sparkling wine), and there are all manner of enchidos (cured sausages), plus the fine Presunto de Porco Preto Alentejano (cured ham from the acorn-eating black Alentejo pig). There is also Coelho em Vinho (rabbit stewed in wine) and Arroz de Pato (duck rice baked in the oven). Finally, for the more adventurous, there are many offal and blood-based dishes, such as Tripas à Moda do Porto (tripe stew from Porto) and Arroz de Sarrabulho (blood stew rice).
When it comes to vegetables and root crops, Portugal has great abundance and variety. The best place to find these are in local street markets, where farmers bring in their local produce. In the cuisine however, most of these are cooked together with meats (in soups, stews and roasts), or served as a simple boiled accompaniment, meaning that most Portuguese restaurants still do not cater particularly well for vegetarians. Dishes which are mainly vegetable-based (but may include some cured meats) include many of the sopas (soups) and feijoadas (bean stews). Also typical are Feijão Frade (black-eyed beans), Feijão Verde (green beans), Favas (broad beans), Nabos (turnips), Cogumelos (mushrooms), Arroz de Tomate (tomato rice) and saladas (salads).
If you have a sweet tooth, then Portugal is the place for you. Pastries quite often combine eggs and huge amounts of sugar. The best place to see these are in the glass cabinets of Pastelarias and Padarias (Patisseries and Bakeries). Most famous are Pasteis de Nata (custard tarts). Also well-known are Pasteis de Feijão (sweet bean tarts), Queijadas (cheese tarts), Bolos de Arroz (rice cakes), Rabanadas (a version of french toast), Fogaças (sweet buns), Pão de Ló (a sponge cake made with massive amounts of eggs and sugar), Bolo Rei (cake with glazed fruit, typical of Christmas), Marmeladas (quince jellies, excellent with cheese) and Doce de Figo (fig jam). Popular desserts in restaurants include Pudim Flan (crème caramel), Mousse de Chocolate (chocolate mousse), Toucinho do Céu (a pudding with almonds and eggs), Papos de Anjo (angel’s breasts made from sugar and eggs), Pudim Molotov (sounds explosive, but it’s just fluffy eggs whites and sugar) and Quindim (eggs yolks, sugar and shredded coconut).
Finally, are the queijos (cheeses) made from goat, sheep and cows’ milk. Notable ones include Queijo da Serra (liquid and rich in the centre, from the Serra da Estrela), Queijo das Ilhas (a rich hard cheese from the Azores, not unlike a mature cheddar or Manchego), Azeitão (a hard goat’s cheese from the Setúbal peninsula) and Queijos Frescos (young cottage cheeses).