Pilgrimage to Porto

June 2, 2011

The Portuguese have a saying about their cities: “Lisbon shows off, Braga prays, Coimbra studies, and Porto works.” On our recent trip to Portugal, we absorbed the beauty of Lisbon, skipped the praying and the studying, and took a fast train north to Porto to work very hard at sampling as vast amounts of port wine.

Old Porto across the Douro River

Northern Portugal is known for its lush river valleys, forested hillsides, and the world’s oldest demarcated wine region. Its greatest landmark, the Douro River, runs some 900 miles from deep within northern Spain, across Portugal, and into the Atlantic. And it is there, at the mouth of the Douro, that people from around the world gather to sample Portugal’s famous fortified wine.

The river divides Porto from the town of Vila Nova de Gaia, home to about 30 port-house tasting rooms and cellars (“caves,” pronounced cavesh). From our rented apartment in Porto’s old town, a quick stroll over the Ponte Dom Luis I, a bridge designed by a student of A. Gustave Eiffel – which happens to look a lot like the Eiffel tower tipped on its side, brought us to “Gaia.” Dow, Graham’s, Taylor Fladgate, Kopke —  all the famous brands beckon the thirsty traveler with free samples of their inexpensive white and ruby ports, and then charge anywhere from $10 to $100 and beyond for a mere taste of their finer tawnies and vintages.

Kopke, "The Oldest Port Wine House"

Trekking up and down the cobbled streets, we sampled our way from tasting room to tasting room, making sure to soak up the alcohol with a Porto specialty – la Francesinha (little French thing) – a layered concoction vaguely reminiscent of lasagna that packs a year’s worth of cholesterol in a single bowl. Strata of bread and melted cheese are piled with cured luncheon meats, a slab each of pork and steak and halved sausages, which are topped with more bread and another layer of cheese. It’s all bathed in a peppery tomato sauce, topped with an egg, and baked just long enough to set the white of the egg. And as if that weren’t enough, they spread a helping of French fries around the centerpiece to soak up the extra sauce. I imagine the French are horrified that this dish is named after them, but my husband and I enjoyed it so much that we ate it two days in a row.

Our highlight of Vila Nova de Gaia was touring the Sandeman caves, a centuries-old building on the river’s edge, where the cobbled floor is made from wooden blocks so the oaken barrels aren’t damaged when they’re rolled around.

Hundreds of years of port wine production have stained the floors and infused the stone walls with the musty aroma of fermenting grapes. We heard more information than we could absorb about the differences

Endless Kegs at Sandeman

between whites, rubies, tawnies, late-bottled vintages, vau vintages, and true vintage ports. And all the while, I couldn’t keep my eyes from settling on the barred and locked cellar that stored crates upon hundreds of crates of vintage port – a single bottle of 1906 recently sold for 3000 euro – nearly $4500 dollaresh!

Locked Cellar of Vintage Port at Sandeman

On our last day in the “port zone,” we traveled by train a couple of hours up river along the Douro to the town of Peso di Regua, the historic home of the port wine trade and home of the port wine museum. The hills are comprised or schist, the rocky “soil” imperative, we’ve learned, to producing perfect port. Terraces rise from river to sky, and most of the vineyards are too steep and narrow for modern machinery to navigate—their entire bounty must be cultivated and gathered by hand, as it has been done for hundreds of years.

And there in Regua, in a back-alley-hole-in-the-wall café, we ate the next best thing to a home-cooked meal, ordered with bit of Portuguese, backed up with Italian, hand signals, and peeks in boiling pots. For a mere 13 euro (less than half of what an average meal-for-two has run), we had a bowl of locally-cured olives; bread; cheese; two full plates of meat, veggies, and rice (plus an extra dish of “grellush,” the broccoli-raab like greens sautéed in olive oil and doused with lemon juice that I’ve come to love; a full liter of house vinho tinto (house red); topped off with to-the-brim glass of “illegal,” unlabeled port from a dusty keg in the corner. The lunch and the port—especially the port—is some of the best we’ve yet enjoyed.

After all our hard work tasting port, it was time to fly south to Portugal’s southwestern tip for some rest and relaxation. The sandy coves and rocky cliffs of the western Algarve were once considered the edge of the world and are the former home of Prince Henry the Navigator’s famous navigational school (Magellan studied there). With the sweet taste of her wine still on our lips, we left Porto longing for the days before a precious collection of 3-ounce containers of liquid had to fit inside a quart Ziplock bag, when it was still okay to carry-on a stash of a favorite liqueur to share with family and friends back home.

The Edge of the World

At least while you’re taking them? My problem starts when I get home and can’t quite slough off the taking-it-easy attitude while simultaneously facing the mountains of work that have piled up during our absence. I’m sure some of that post-vacation exhaustion comes from the questionable habit of trying to see everything and do everything while traveling. More often than not, I return home needing a vacation from the vacation. And there you have it — my excuse of an excuse for not posting in 2 months. Bad, bad blogger.

Lagos beach, Algarve region

Yes, vacations. Nearly 23 years ago, I was working my way from the rains and blustery winds of Amsterdam toward the promise of Portugal’s sun-drenched shores when I happened across a Spanish circus, a handsome Italian boy, and his 6 elephants. Married the elephant keeper a few years later; never made it to Portugal. I’ve teased him for years that he owed me a trip there. In a few months, we’ll celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary, and this year seemed the perfect year to make that trip happen.

Ruins, Carmo Convent, Lisbon

Ruins, Carmo Convent, Lisbon

For the last two weeks in March, Portugal plied us with her pleasures. Lisbon’s castles and monasteries, Porto’s wine, the Algarve’s rugged coastline — we loved every bit of it. The Portuguese people were welcoming and friendly, patient with my limited Portuguese, and anxious to point out an obscure sight we may have missed or a particular specialty we ought to eat.

Quinta de Regaleira, Sintra

There was a lot of eating — and just as much drinking. According to my guidebook, the Portuguese have the highest consumption of alcohol per-capita in Europe. Immersing ourselves In that When in Rome spirit, we did our damnedest to keep up. Not certain we succeeded, but sure enjoyed trying. Our favorite place to drink? A neighborhood bar in Lisbon’s Alfama district. The whole place couldn’t have been bigger than 100 square feet, and the walls were lined with every type of alcohol made in Portugal (uncountable). The proprietress, a motherly 60-year old who stood barely as tall as her bar and spoke not a word of English, greeted us with a smile each night we passed by and was happy to pour us a shot or two or three of some previously-unknown libation such as ginjinha (jeen-JEEN-ya), a sour cherry liquer typical of Lisbon. Our favorite thing to drink? Port wine, of course, hands down. We’ve developed quite a liking for the stuff over the years, especially aged tawny, and we had no problem turning a good portion of our trip into a pilgrimage to the Douro river region, home of the port-wine trade for nearly 400 years and one of the oldest DOC regions in the world. (A few sentences cannot do the Douro justice — follow-up post coming soon.)

Tasting at Sandeman's

Of all the food we ate, my favorite was a dessert. (Is anyone who’s read a few of my posts surprised?) Pasteis (pas-taysh) de Nata, a lovely bite-sized egg custard tart. The original Pasteis de Belem is named after the town where it was created and its fame grew steadily after Portugal’s liberal revolution in the early 19th century forced the local monastery to find new ways to make ends meet. After visiting the nearby Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, we made our way to the pastry shop where I contentedly consumed 4 pastries in about 4 minutes. Crispy. Creamy. Flaky. Buttery. I regret not eating even more.  The bakery itself is a rabbit warren of a place – room after room after room of bistro tables and chairs to seat the masses that come from near and far to eat these delicacies. The “nata” version is available across Portugal, and we sampled them multiple times in every town we visited, but none compared with the original. Apparently, only three people in the world are privy to the original recipe.

Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, Lisbon

What’s a girl with an insatiable sweet tooth to do but get into the kitchen and bake? I downloaded two recipes I found online — an easier version with pre-made puff pastry dough and the custard made entirely on the stove top; the other with handmade dough and the custard an interesting mix of homemade syrup, hot milk, and half again as many yolks. I have yet to make my own pastry dough, so I tried the puff version. The custard turned out okay, but the pastry was way too… puffy. Though quick to make and certainly enjoyable, they were nothing like the pastries in Belem. The second recipe, found on David Leite’s  culinary site, seems much more promising. I see pastry making in my near future! And likely a blog post dedicated to these lovely little treats.

I wish I would have thought to photograph the originals…. too busy eating, I suppose. (The one culinary thing we did photograph was a chorizo sausage, flame-roasted per a grocer’s instructions, by igniting pure alcohol poured into a ceramic dish made just for this.)

Flame-roasted Chorizo, Lagos

Funny… I feel a hankering for something sweet coming on. With the promise of more posts to come (and a second promise to not wait two months to fulfill the first promise), I’m off to rifle through my baking cupboard.

A presto ~

Mom's Orchard

How can it still be winter?

Maybe it was yesterday’s pounding rain or last weekend’s sneaker snow. Or maybe it’s because my daffodils refuse to show their happy yellow faces. Whatever the reason, I AM READY FOR SPRING! I want the sweet smell of daphne and narcissus. Warm breezes that send fruit blossoms falling like confetti. Evenings pleasant enough to eat on the porch. For the moment, however, I suppose I’ll have to settle for the pleasures of winter — cuddling with a good book near the wood stove, sipping big, red wine, and feasting on heartwarming bowls of steaming pasta.

Lately, I’ve been aching to dust off my pasta maker and roll out sheets of fresh egg pasta to turn into lovely cheese ravioli. Perhaps with a roasted walnut sauce… or sauteed in butter and fresh sage. Unfortunately, late winter is also the season to complete time-sensitive tasks like inventory and taxes. So I’ve settled for simpler dishes, such as smoked salmon cream sauce and broccoli and penne — the recipe I’ll share today.  It may not be homemade ravioli, but it still warms me on a cold day.

I learned this recipe from my Italian mother-in-law. My husband often jokes that he has the only Italian mother who doesn’t like to cook. While there may be some truth to that, she does excel at some dishes, and this is one of them. It goes against most modern methods of cooking vegetables in that the broccoli is boiled to near-disintegration. I have tried to make this dish without overcooking the broccoli, but it just does not create the same creamy sauce that makes this dish so yummy.

Although the recipe is “Broccoli with Penne,” it can be made with many hearty pastas, such as rigatoni, fusili, and (as shown in my pictures) radiatori. And although I usually make this with regular old broccoli since it’s what is most readily available, don’t hesitate to use a stronger flavored variety such as broccoli raab — or, if you happen to be near the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, my all-time favorite friarelli.

Broccoli and Penne

  • 2 broccoli crowns, total weight from 1 to 1.5 pounds
  • 2 to 4 cloves garlic, sliced medium-thin
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • dried pepperoncini, crushed
  • 1 pound hearty pasta, preferably tubular
  • freshly grated Parmigiano
  • salt and pepper to taste

Start your pasta water first, and add a nice palm-full of rock salt. Wash the broccoli and cut into smallish florets — not too much stem as it won’t cook down as quickly as the rest. Split any larger stems.

Aside, in a frying pan large enough to fit a pound of cooked pasta and the broccoli, saute the garlic, pepperoncini, and olive oil over low heat until the garlic turns golden. Keep a careful eye to make sure it doesn’t burn. Once the garlic reaches the perfect stage (for me, that’s deep blond and semi-caramelized), remove the pan from the heat. Here is a picture of the little pepperoncini we haul home from Italy a quart bag at a time (that’s just a regular-sized paring knife). That quart of dried peppers lasts us for years and years. You’d think they would be horribly bland after all that time, but these little nuggets just seem to get hotter and hotter as the seasons pass.

Hot Italian Pepperoncini

Once the pasta water boils, toss in the prepared broccoli and let it boil for 3 or 4 minutes. If you use a firmer broccoli, either cut the pieces smaller, splitting the stems, or cook it a little longer before adding the pasta. If you’d like a garnish on your finished plate, pull out a few bright green florets at this time and let cool. Then add the pasta to the boiling water and cook together until al dente. Don’t forget to keep an eye on your garlic and oil if it’s still cooking.

By the time your pasta is nearly cooked, your broccoli should be close to falling apart in the water. If not, don’t hesitate to pull some florets out and manually break them apart. Note that you don’t want the broccoli so well cooked that the stems are bared of florets and they all go down the drain when you strain the pasta and broccoli. Once the pasta is cooked, strain well in a colander.

Turn the flame under the oil on to medium, add the broccoli and pasta, and toss. The broccoli should easily break apart as it’s mixed. If the mixture looks too oily, add 1/4 cup or so of freshly grated Parmigiano — which will thicken the sauce. If it looks too dry, either drizzle with oil or add a tablespoon or two of butter (yum!).

Serve piping hot with freshly grated Parmigiano.

Enjoy ~