From outward appearances, it would be easy to dismiss Portuguese food as predictable and, dare I say it, a little conservative and boring. Many Portuguese restaurants have near-identical menus and in several, it seems as if everything comes with chips, rice and salad.
Portuguese cuisine, and the food has its root in ‘hearty peasant’ food, usually drawn from seafood and pork. Mediterranean ingredients and spices are found with influences of the East Indies and the Far East as well as Africa. Many herbs and spices such as pepper, saffron, ginger and coriander were introduced by the Portuguese, as well as coffee, pineapples, potatoes and rice. Piri piri, vanilla, cinnamon and saffron are characteristic of Portuguese recipes, as well as Arab and Moorish influences.
In the UK, there is an ever-growing movement towards food being fresh, local and sustainable; well, in Portugal it’s always been that way. In the Algarve alone, there are annual festivals celebrating everything from chestnuts to chorizo sausages, via octopus dishes and, of course, the ubiquitous sardines.
And while the latter are available year-round for the tourists, locals know that the only time to truly enjoy the real thing is in early summer, when they come fresh from local waters and not the deep-freeze section.
You will find that soup is an essential part of Portuguese meal times, and the most popular of these is the Minho speciality, caldo verde, made from kale, potatoes and spiced sausage. Another Portuguese staple bacalhau (dried codfish) is also found everywhere.
Fish is a key ingredient across the country, and the most common of these is the ‘peixe’ dishes, heavily featuring sole, sardines, salmon and trout. These are fried, grilled or served in a variety of sauces. Grills are common outside restaurants, with the thick smoke of charring meat regularly blowing along the streets. Portuguese grilled chicken is world famous – usually marinated in chilli, garlic and olive oil.
Traditionally, vegetarians expats are likely to find less choice and availability. Vegetables are usually only served as a side dish to the main dish, and even those advertised as ‘vegetarian’ will usually have tuna as a substitute for ham or sausage. Despite this the ‘choose-5-items’ salad bars have become popular, along with Indian, Chinese, Mexican and Italian. Salad will usually come sprinkled with salt.
Some restaurants in the rural and non-tourist locations will have no menu – you will have to go in and ask the waiter when you are seated for a list of dishes. It is always advisable to get prices at this point, so you do not get a nasty surprise when the bill comes! Usually the price will be fixed for a certain number of courses.
You will often find a selection of snacks appear at the start of your meal – bread, butter, olives, cheese and other small bites. Do not be afraid to ask for the cost of these - it will usually be quite reasonable, but it’s still a good idea to make sure you are not being ripped off.
Portugal is the seventh largest wine producer in the world, and is well known for the Port and Madeira. Two wine regions in the country are protected by UNESCO as World Heritage sites – the Douro Valley wine region and the Pico Island wine region. The Douro Valley has the oldest appellation system in the world and was created nearly two hundred years ago. Other well-known wine regions include the Alentejo and the Dão regions.
Minho, in the northwest, is famous for its Vinho Verde, or green wine. These are either red or white, and are produced from grapes that do not reach a high level of sugar. Its short fermentation period gives the wine a low alcohol content.
Douro is best known for its Port wine – produced in Douro but exported in Porto (hence its name!) The production of Port is subject to very strict regulations and classified according to grape crops, sugar content, the amount of alcohol, age and type of wood used in the barrels.
Dão wines are made from grapes protected by the mountains from maritime and continental influences. Red wines produced here tend to be fruitier, white wines drier.
Alentejo produces 12% of the nation’s wines, the most preferred wine of consumers in the country. Red wines here are slightly acidic, whilst white wines are fruity.
Restaurants will usually be open from 1200 to 1500 for lunch, and for dinner from 1930 to 2300 or late. Bars are open 2200 to 0400.