Have you sipped a bica, a pingo or vinho do Porto? Have you tasted bacalhau, francesinhas or castanhas?
A significant part of the travel experience is discovering a city’s and country’s regional food and specialty dishes. Porto offered delightful recipes with familiar and recognizable ingredients but in slightly different combinations with interesting names.
Vinho do Porto
Vinho do Porto, commonly called Port in english, was once referred to as Portuguese Gold. Wines dating back at least 2,000 years have been produced from grapes grown in the upper Douro Valley in northeastern Portugal on some of the oldest and most beautiful vineyards in the world.
Wine has been exported from Porto for hundreds of years but it wasn’t until the 17th century that the story of Port wine or Port began. Port, which acquired its name from the city that exported it, began when British merchants, in order to prevent the wine from drastically degrading in flavor during shipment back to England, added distilled white grape spirits to fortify the wine. This addition would halt fermentation before all the sugar was converted to alcohol resulting in a richer and sweeter Port wine that is higher in alcohol content – usually 19% to 20%. The merchants quickly discovered that the stronger and sweeter fortified port wine was much more stable to ship, not to mention the improved flavor. Many of the port wineries in Porto still have descendants of those original British and Scottish families, managing these businesses today.
Similar to the European protected regions of champagne in France and sherry in Spain, only products from a portion of the upper Douro Valley in Portugal are allowed to be labelled as Port or Porto. This wine-producing Douro region is the third oldest protected wine region in the world (1756) following the Tokaj-Hegyalja region in Hungary (1730) and Chianti in Italy (1716). Today port-style fortified wines are produced outside of Europe and European laws and the term port is used. Countries producing fortified wine labelled as port include Argentina, Australia, Canada, France, India, South Africa, Spain and the United States.
One unique thing about the port business that we learned is that Port producers do not “declare” a vintage every year – the average is only about 3 times per decade. After closely monitoring the stored wine, producers will jointly decide to either “declare”, and thereby bottle and sell a vintage or leave the wine to age longer.
Traditionally grapes are harvested by hand and trodden by foot in mid-September and the port wines stay on site at the quintas, or vineyard estates in the Douro Valley until the following spring. When spring arrives but before the summer heat begins, the young ports would be taken downriver in flat-bottom boats called barcos rabelos to the cooler environment in Porto, where the young wines are blended, matured, monitored, managed and eventually shipped worldwide.
Ports are nearly always made from a blend of different grapes although there has been the occasional producer that has tried making a single variety port. In general there are 2 main categories of port: wood aged and bottle aged. Red ports are deeper in color and will develop after bottling while quality tawny port is aged in oak casts and is ready to drink when bottled.
Port is typically served at the end of a meal with cheese or dessert or as an after dinner drink but it is also gaining popularity as an aperitif. There are dozens of port wine companies in Porto but we managed to taste ports from the proverbial ‘tip of the iceberg’. We tried ports from Cálem, Sandeman, Taylor’s, Porto Cruz, Offley, Niepoort and Croft. We thought Taylor’s, one of the oldest founding Port houses and our favorite, stood out amongst their peers.
Um cafe por favor
We love coffee and it is always such fun to learn how and what type of coffee to order in each country we visit. Here are the ‘words of coffee’ we heard in Portugal.
Abatanado – an espresso in a large cup with extra water (aka an Americano).
Café or Bica – an espresso, the most common beverage.
Café Cheio or Café Duplo – a double espresso, ideal if you sipped too much ginjinha (delicious Portuguese-made cherry liquor) the night before.
Café Curto – an espresso with half the water removed, also called an Italiano.
Café com Cheirinho, also known as a Café com Música – coffee with Brandy.
Carioca – this unusual beverage is made with 2nd used beans and is quite weak.
Cafe Galao – cafe con leche or cafe au lait.
Cafe Garoto – espresso with a touch of milk foam – often how kids are introduced to coffee.
Pingo – equal parts espresso and steamed milk and our favorite.
Carioca de limão – a popular drink made of hot water, lemon and lemon peel.
Chá – if you want a black tea, order chá.
Bacalhau is cod, but cod is not always bacalhau. Wait…what?
Bacalhau is the Portuguese word for dried and salted cod. Fresh cod is called bacalhau fresco.
Cod is the common name for the type of fish genus, Gadus, but cod is also used as part of the common name for other fish species.
Salt cod or bacalhau dates back to the late 1500’s when long distance fishermen began curing their catch with salt in order to preserve the fish for the weeks long return to their home port. Salt cod enabled the early Portuguese explorers to sail with a stable source of protein on their long exploratory journeys to the new world. By the 1700’s salt cod had become an inexpensive and vital staple on every portuguese table, earning its nickname, fiel amigo, meaning loyal friend.
Bacalhau is ubiquitous with Portugal, but the dense, flaky and flavorsome white flesh of cod is popular in many other European and Scandinavian countries.
The Majestic Cafe is a historical landmark on busy Rua Santa Catarina, a key pedestrian street in Porto. The ornate façade acted like a magnet when we first strolled this street. On our first visit we ordered a house specialty called ‘Rabanades Majestic’. It was the most delicious pain perdu or French toast-like dish we have ever tried. The crust had a delicate crunch and the sauce was incredible. We highly recommend at least one visit here.
The interior of this spacious café was renovated in the 1990’s and returned the café to its original and spectacular Art Nouveau style. In 2011 it was listed as one of the most beautiful cafes in the world.
The Majestic Cafe opened to the public in 1921 and immediately attracted Porto’s who’s-who clientele. The service offered today continues to be top-notch and the dining options wonderful. The Majestic Cafe may however, best be known as a historical haven and hangout for artists, poets and writers. Poetry recitals, art exhibitions, book presentations and piano concerts on the beautiful grand piano sitting in the center of the cafe continue to this day.
It was in this iconic cafe that we decided to try Porto’s quintessential francesinha.
Francesinha is a sandwich made with bread, ham, smoked pork sausage, steak, covered with melted cheese and a hot thick tomato and beer sauce. It is occasionally topped with a fried egg and always served with a side of fries. Portuguese comfort food and a beloved local dish.
Pastel de Nata
We wrote about our first experience with pastel de nata in a January 2019 blog called: New Year’s in Lisbon. Who could ever forget standing in line in Belém, Lisbon for the warmest and freshest cinnamon dusted custard tarts?
We were delighted to find delicious options in Porto and even better, a small cafe, not far from the train station, that offered an incredibly tasty gluten free pastel de nata accompanied with a cafe galao or a pingo.
Castanha is the Portuguese word for chestnut. Chestnuts are typically harvested between September and November so during our October stay in this beautiful city, we came across chestnut mobile vendors everywhere. As the fragrant chestnuts roast there is a constant stream of smoke spiralling up from the coals. Look for rising smoke and you will soon spot a cart. During one visit to the Igreja de Santo Ildefonso, the brilliant blue tiles on the church were nearly hidden behind all the smoke created by the castanha vendors.
Tasting our way through Porto was delectable. We wish you a happy and healthy new year.
Saúde from these Portuense,
Ted + Julia
- includes the … Gaia Cable Car
- includes the … Majestic Café
- includes the … Portuguese House of Pastel De Bacalhau