by Ellen Barone
[this is the final article in our SPOTLIGHT ON PORTUGAL series this week... ]
When the only vices of a place involve food and wine, booking a flight is a no-brainer according to my travel rules. Throw in sandy beaches, cultural riches, mild climate, a lost-in-time pace of life, and an inexpensive cost of living, and you won me over, Portugal.
On a recent visit to the northern wine country, I spent four delicious days table-hopping from hearty lunches, rustic meals featuring unpretentious fare and artisanal feasts prepared by innovative young chefs who bring a creative flare to traditional specialties. Each meal was paired with the region’s fresh, light, aromatic wines known collectively as Vinho Verdes.
In Porto, the Confeitaria do Bolháo (Rua Formosa 339) proves it doesn’t have to be expensive to be good. I’d wandered into the café for an espresso and to sit out an afternoon rain shower. But I quickly upgraded my order to the meal of choice among the elderly patrons in wool caps and sturdy shoes who packed the place. “Yes, it’s fantastic”, said the waiter, when I asked to have what the couple at the table beside me were so obviously enjoying – a plentiful plate of crispy sardines, crusty bread, a delicious stew of red beans and rice and a carafe of robust red wine. Total bill: 7-euros. Nice.
A perfect example of the region’s rustic fare is Restaurante Páteo das Figueiras (Rua do Além 257), a homey establishment near Braga which serves exquisite local cuisine family-style in a simple and cozy room. The caldierada, a stew consisting of a variety of fish and shellfish with potatoes, tomato and onion, scooped up with a garlicky bread, was delicious.
Aromatic Portuguese cheeses, especially those made from goat or sheep milk, are among the country’s top foodie draws. For delicious homemade cheeses and fresh, floral, mineral and beautifully balanced wines, drop by the Quinta das Arcas, (444-392 Sobrado) winery. Don’t miss the Mozinho Roman and Pre-Roman ruins that border their Villar Estate.
Eyeing the multitude of cutlery and wine glasses adorning the massive linen-covered table at Cozinha do Convento, an elegant restaurant in an ancient monastery leaning over the Minho river, I figured we were in for a treat. For the next three and a half hours, I didn’t move from my seat, take notes, hail a waiter or want for anything. And after the last espresso was served and the final brandy savored, I realized that I’d been shown what Portuguese hospitality boils down to: good food, fine wine and the sheer joy of sharing a meal.
[IF YOU GO]
The Vinho Verde wine region is home to nearly 1,000 brands. Most of them offer terrific wine. And many of them are willing to pour you a taste. Whether you’re on the wine trail in Portugal or exploring new tastes at your neighborhood wine bar, here are a few names worth your attention:
PROVAM: A small, high-quality cooperative in the sub-region of Monção, the 2003 PROVAM Portal do Fidalgo (100% Alvarinho) we tasted shattered the misperception that Vinho Verdes must be consumed young. For those who enjoy a mature Riesling, the aged Portal do Fidalgo presents an intriguing alternative. PROVAM: 4950-045 Barbeita – Portugal; Tel: (+351) 96 123 47 47; www.provam.com
Afros: One of three bio-dynamic vineyards in the Vinho Verde region, Afros is the ultimate ‘green’ wine. Both harmonious and pure, the citrus color, fruity aroma and crisp minerality of the Afros Loureirois is a true Vinho Verde standout. Mountain horses, sheep and bees are part of the agricultural team at Quinta do Casal do Paçco, the 16th century country estate that is home to Afros wine. You won’t find these single-estate hand-crafted wines on your supermarket shelf, but it’s worth the trip. For equally eco-friendly lodging nearby, check out Sobre Natura and Casas de Alem. Afros: 4970-500 Arcos de Valdevez -Portugal; Tel: (+351) 251 534 207; www.afros-wine.com
Aveleda: Aveleda is an example of a successful family business (producing more than 1 million liters per year) fueled by passion for more than three centuries. Picture-perfect and tourist-ready the winery grounds include a vine-covered mansion, private chapel, lush gardens, miles of rolling vineyards, woods, an ancient wine cellar, a modern bottling facility, tasting hall and gift shop. Their lively, fruity wines are known for their freshness, intense aroma and affordability. The popular Casa Garcia white and rosé sells for a recession-friendly $6.99 US. Quinta da Aveleda: 4560-556 Penafiel - Portugal; Tel: (+351) 401 723 05 90 www.aveleda.pt
Quinta da Lixa is the outcome of the passion and commitment of the Meireles family. Since entering wine business in 1996, the modern-minded winery now produces 3 million bottles, 40% of those exported overseas. Their popular Monsenhor is everything Vinho Verdes are known for – it’s young, fresh, effervescent and as easy to like as its price, $4.25 US. Quinta da Lixa: 4615-658 Lixa – Portugal; Tel. (+351) 255 490 590; www.quintadalixa.pt
[WHERE TO STAY]
Home for the week was the scrumptious Tiara Park Atlantic Porto hotel, an elegant landmark of the Avenida Bonavista area in Porto (yes, just like that delicious drink, port wine, which originated there). Located just 15km - less than an hour - away from the Francisco Sá Carneiro Airport. Porto is a UNESCO World Heritage Site a treasure trove of museums and cultural attractions, historic quarters, and contemporary architecture. Tiara Park Atlantic Porto: Tel: (+351) 226 072 500; www.tiara-hotels.com Enjoy!
Travel journalist Ellen Barone did what many of us only dream of doing: at the age of 35, she traded a successful academic career for the wild blue yonder and set out to explore the world and herself. In the decade since that intrepid decision, she has turned passion into profession, journeying to more than 60 countries in search of evocative images and life-enriching adventures. For the latest travel news, tips and reviews visit EllenBarone.com.
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