You mention Portuguese food to foreigners and they either look at you quizzically or mention the ubiquitous custard tarts. Unlike its Mediterranean neighbors, France, Italy and Spain, traditional Portuguese food can’t be summed up in one word, like croissant, pasta, or tapas!
I know that is simplifying the great cuisines of the world into one word but, I don’t think I could name a dish that was iconic to one of the oldest countries in the world, until my first taste of Portuguese cuisine in Braga. This trip to Northern Portugal opened my eyes to, not only the flavors of the region, but also the history of the dishes, thus introducing me to Portugal herself. Even a day trip from Porto to Braga and Guimarães can you have tasting all dishes of traditional Portuguese food in one lunch.
Traditional Portuguese Food
If you are beginning your exploration of Northern Portugal, I would say start in Braga. Your first taste of traditional Portuguese food can even be at a modern restaurant. I suggest to head to Brac, a chic, modern restaurant set directly within the ancient Roman walls of the city and I mean directly! The Roman walls surround you as you are eating. It’s not only one of the best Braga restaurant but also seriously cool.
Ask for a bottle of Vinho Verde, the hyper-local wine from the nearby fertile Minho province. The verde (green) alluded to, not its color, but its young, vibrant, fresh taste, making it the perfect first lesson in your education in Portuguese cuisine.
If you are a carnivores, there is only one dish to try and that is the Steak covered with Queijo Serra da Estrela. Earning the sobriquet of “King of Portuguese Cheese,” due to its popularity, Queijo Serra da Estrela deigned to join us for our intimate jantar. Produced in the mid-North of the country, atop the highest peaks, this tangy, runny, brie-like sheep cheese made a plain steak into a culinary delight and the first bite of traditional Portuguese food!
The first dessert to try in your education of Portuguese cuisine is the Brigadeiro. No, a military man was not lying atop the table, as its name would lead you to believe. This originally Brazilian, but adopted by Portugal, omnipresent after-dinner sweet, contains everything good, like condensed milk, cocoa powder, butter and then is covered with chocolate sprinkles and is typically Portuguese.
An extremely important lesson to learn is how the Portuguese translate the word macchiato. French – une noisette, Spanish – café cortado and as we are in Portugal, it was imperative to know how to call the coffee you drink after every meal. Here in Portugal – it’s the perfect café pingado.
Make your way to Guimarães for your next lesson in the art of Traditional Portuguese food at the nearby Pousada Mosteiro Guimaraes in the Convent of Santa Marinha, one of the best restaurants in Guimarães, and as beautiful as the food is delicious.
In the 1940’s, the Portuguese government bought up many culturally important buildings before they were either destroyed or fell into disrepair, e.g. monasteries, castles, palaces. After restoration, they were opened as hotels for those to rest one’s head or fill one’s belly.
The dining room at the Pousada Santa Marinha, a 12th C Augustin Monastery, with its glorious cloisters, garden, fountains & spectacular view over the city, served as classroom for your second lesson in traditional Portuguese food.
Begin your lunch with Caldo Verde, literally meaning Green Soup. I was told you couldn’t get something as Portuguese as this hearty mixture of greens, potatoes, and sausage. A drizzle of Portuguese olive oil atop and served with bread makes this one of the highlights.
Try the Alheira, but don’t assume that just because it’s called sausage that it contains pork. During the inquisition, the Jews were given two choices – conversion or exile. Those who stayed and “converted” still practiced Judaism on the sly. In order to avoid detection by the Grand Inquisitor for not consuming pork products, Alheira was born. Looking identical to a regular link, Alheira has nary a porcine feature, but constructed from poultry or game. So delicious, it caught on and now all faiths enjoy it.
Your main course should be the quintessential Portuguese Arroz Malandrino – a wet rice crammed with local prawns and monkfish in a fish broth, that is more like a soup. Wetter than a paella, but with all those great flavors that have made this rice dish one of the favorites of Portuguese cuisine.
Don’t miss out on the traditional Portuguese desserts. Three sweet treats, Pudim abade, a slice of orangey Bolo de Laranja, and Toucinho Do Céu – all indicative of the country’s love for tooth-aching, syrupy, post-savory selections. Don’t be lazy and order a custard tart!
As you can imagine, after completing a graduate degree in Portuguese cuisine at one of the best restaurants in Guimarães., you need a walk around town.
Dominated by the threatening Bragança castle, this medieval jewel was settled as early as the 9th C and rumored to be the birthplace of Portugal.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Guimarães’s windy streets, quirky shops, and pleasant squares, invite visitors to spend the day exploring, unless it’s pouring rain, like it was for us!
If the weather is not with you, then stop by one of the many coffee places for a café pingado and jesuíta, the pastry whose meringue-like topping resembled the Jesuits’ collars.
If you are heading to Porto for a few days, try more traditional Portuguese food, now that you know the basics.
Take a tour up here if you don’t have a car:
I can recommend this easy day trip from Porto, or if you are staying nearby, then don’t miss a trip to the Douro Valley!
Book the Pousada Mosteiro Guimaraes and then you can lounge after lunch in their lovely garden. However there are some lovely hotels in Porto:
- InterContinental Porto – Palacio das Cardosas
- Pestana Palacio do Freixo
- Casa da Calcada Relais & Chateaux (outside of town)
PS: Port always followed every meal! If you want to know more this ruby-red liquid, listen to my podcast with Ana Margarida Morgado from Taylor’s Port.
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I was the guest of the Porto & Northern Portugal Tourism Board. To learn more the area, visit their website. TAP Portugal flies direct from London Gatwick to Porto twice daily, prices start at £43 one way including all taxes and surcharges. For further information, visit www.flytap.com or call 0345 601 0932.
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