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In her book Invitation to Portugal, Mary Jean Kempner gets to the heart of the Portuguese diet: "The best Portuguese food is provincial, indigenous, eccentric, and proud -- a reflection of the chauvinism of this complex people. It takes no sides, assumes no airs, makes no concessions or bows to Brillat-Savarin -- and usually tastes wonderful."

Dining Customs -- Much Portuguese cooking is based on olive oil and the generous use of garlic. If you select anything prepared to order, you can request that it be sem alho (without garlic).

It's customary in most establishments to order soup (invariably a big bowl filled to the brim), followed by a fish and a meat course. Potatoes and rice are likely to accompany both the meat and fish platters. In many restaurants, the chef features at least one prato do dia (plate of the day). These dishes are prepared fresh that day and often are cheaper than the regular offerings.

Cuisine

Couverts are little appetizers, often brought to your table the moment you sit down. These can include bread, cheese, and olives. In many restaurants they are free; in others you are charged extra. It's a good idea to ask your waiter about extra costs. In many places, the charge for these extras is per person. Remember: Not everything served at the beginning of the meal is free.

Another way to begin your meal is to select from acepipes variados (hors d'oeuvres), which might include everything from swordfish to olives and tuna. From the soup kitchen, the most popular selection is caldo verde (green broth). Made from cabbage, sausage, potatoes, and olive oil, it's common in the north. Another ubiquitous soup is sopa alentejana, simmered with garlic and bread, among other ingredients. Portuguese cooks wring every last morsel of nutrition from their fish, meat, and vegetables. The fishers make sopa de mariscos by boiling the shells of various shellfish and then richly flavoring the stock and lacing it with white wine.

The first main dish you're likely to encounter on any menu is bacalhau (salted codfish), faithful friend of the Portuguese. As you drive through fishing villages in the north, you'll see racks and racks of the fish drying in the sun. Foreigners might not wax rhapsodic about bacalhau, although it's prepared in imaginative ways. Common ways of serving it include bacalhau cozido (boiled with such vegetables as carrots, cabbage, and spinach, and then baked), bacalhau à Bras (fried in olive oil with onions and potatoes, and flavored with garlic), bacalhau à Gomes de Sá (stewed with black olives, potatoes, and onions, and then baked and topped with a sliced boiled egg), and bacalhau no churrasco (barbecued).

Aside from codfish, the classic national dish is caldeirada, the Portuguese version of bouillabaisse. Prepared at home, it's a pungent stew containing bits and pieces of the latest catch.

Next on the platter is the Portuguese sardine. Found off the Atlantic coasts of Iberia as well as France, the country's 6- to 8-inch-long sardines also come from Setúbal. As you stroll through the alleys of the Alfama or pass the main streets of small villages throughout Portugal, you'll sometimes see women kneeling in front of braziers on their front doorsteps grilling the large sardines. Grilled, they're called sardinhas assadas.

Shellfish is one of the great delicacies of the Portuguese table. Its scarcity and the demand of foreign markets, however, have led to astronomical price tags. The price of lobsters and crabs changes every day, depending on the market. On menus, you'll see the abbreviation Preço V., meaning "variable price." When the waiter brings a shellfish dish to your table, always ask the price.

Many of these creatures from the deep, such as king-size crabs, are cooked and then displayed in restaurant windows. If you do decide to splurge, demand that you be served only fresh shellfish. You can be deceived, as can even the experts, but at least you'll have demanded that your fish be fresh and not left over from the previous day's window display. When fresh, santola (crab) is a delicacy. Santola recheada (stuffed crab) might be too pungent for unaccustomed Western palates, though; amêijoas (baby clams) are a safer choice. Lagosta is translated as "lobster" but is, in fact, crayfish; it's best when served without adornment.

The variety of good-tasting, inexpensive fish served here includes salmonette (red mullet) from Setúbal, robalo (bass), lenguado (sole), and sweet-tasting pescada (hake). Less appealing to the average diner, but preferred by many discriminating palates, are eiros (eels), polvo (octopus), and lampreas (lampreys, a seasonal food in the northern Minho district).

Piri-piri is a sauce made of hot pepper from Angola. Jennings Parrott once wrote: "After tasting it you will understand why Angola wanted to get it out of the country." Unless you're extremely brave, consider ordering something else. Travelers accustomed to hot, peppery food, however, might like it.

Porto residents are known as tripe eaters. The local specialty is dobrada (tripe with beans), a favorite of workers. The cozido á portuguesa is another popular dish. This stew often features both beef and pork, along with fresh vegetables and sausages. The chief offering of the beer tavern is bife na frigideira (beef in mustard sauce), usually served piping hot in a brown ceramic dish with a fried egg on top. Thinly sliced iscas (calves' livers) are usually well prepared and sautéed with onion.

Portuguese meat, especially beef and veal, is less satisfying. The best meat in Portugal is porco (pork), usually tender and juicy. Especially good is porco alentejano (fried pork in a succulent sauce with baby clams), often cooked with herb-flavored onions and tomatoes. Cabrito (roast kid) is another treat, flavored with herbs and garlic. Chicken tends to be hit-or-miss and is perhaps best when frango no espeto, or spit-roasted golden brown. In season, game is good, especially perdiz (partridge) and codorniz estufada (pan-roasted quail).

Queijo (cheese) is usually eaten separately and not with fruit. The most common varieties of Portuguese cheese are made from sheep or goat's milk. A popular variety is queijo da serra (literally, cheese from the hills). Other well-liked cheeses are queijo do Alentejo and queijo de Azeitao. Many prefer queijo Flamengo (similar to Dutch Gouda).

While locked away in isolated convents and monasteries, Portuguese nuns and monks have created some original sweet concoctions. Many of these desserts are sold in little pastry shops throughout Portugal. In Lisbon, Porto, and a few other cities, you can visit a salão de chá (tea salon) at 4pm to sample these delicacies. Regrettably, too few restaurants feature regional desserts.

The most typical dessert is arroz doce, cinnamon-flavored rice pudding. Flan, or caramel custard, appears on all menus. If you're in Portugal in summer, ask for a peach from Alcobaça. One of these juicy, succulent yellow fruits will spoil you forever for all other peaches. Sintra is known for its strawberries, Setúbal for its orange groves, the Algarve for its almonds and figs, Elvas for its plums, the Azores for their pineapples, and Madeira for its passion fruit. Some people believe that if you eat too much of the latter, you'll go insane.

Portugal doesn't offer many egg dishes, except for omelets. However, eggs are used extensively in many sweets. Although egg yolks cooked in sugar might not sound appealing, you might want to try some of the more original offerings. The best known are ovos moles (soft eggs sold in colorful barrels) that originate in Aveiro. From the same district capital comes ovos de fio (shirred eggs).

Wine

For generations, much of what the English-speaking world knew about Portugal came from the reports that wine merchants brought back to Britain from the wineries of the Douro Valley. Today Portugal is famous throughout the world for its port wines, and many parts of central and northern Portugal are covered with well-tended vines sprouting from intricately laid-out terraces.

  • Port: Known for decades as the Englishman's wine, port was once the drink uncorked for toasting in England. In gentlemen's clubs, vintage port (only 1% of all port made) was dispensed from a crystal decanter. Later, when the English working classes started drinking less superior port in Midland mill towns, they often spiked it with lemon. Today the French consume almost three times the amount of port that the British do.

Some 40 varieties of grape go into making port. Made from grapes grown in rich lava soil, port today is either vintage or blended, and ranges from whites to full-bodied tawnies and reds. The latter is often consumed at the end of a meal with cheese, fruit, or nuts. You can visit a port-wine lodge to learn more about port -- and, more important, to taste it. The best lodges to visit are concentrated in Vila Nova de Gaia, a suburb of Porto across the Douro from Porto's commercial center.

  • Vinhos Verdes (pronounced veen-yosh vair-desh): These "green wines" are more lemony in color. Many come from the Minho district in northwest Portugal, which, like Galicia in the north of Spain, gets an abundance of rain. Cultivated in a humid atmosphere, the grapes are picked while young. Some wine aficionados don't consider this wine serious, finding it too light. With its fruity flavor, it's said to suggest the cool breezes of summer. It's often served with fish, and many Portuguese use it as a thirst quencher in the way an American might consume a soft drink. The finest vinhos verdes are from Monção, just south of the river Minho. Those from Amarante are also praised.
  • Dão: Dão is produced from grapes grown just south of the Douro in the north's mountainous heartland. "Our vines have tender grapes" goes the saying throughout the valleys of Mondego and Dão, each split by a river. Summers are fiery hot and winters wet, cold, and often bitter. A lot of Dão wine is red, notably the vinhos maduros, matured in oak casks for nearly 2 years before being bottled. The wine is velvety in texture and often accompanies roasts. At almost every restaurant in Portugal, you'll encounter either branco (white) or Dão tinto (red). The best bottles of red Dão wine are the reserve ("reserva" is printed on the label). Other names to look for include Porta dos Cavaleiros and Terras Altas. (No one seems to agree on how to pronounce the name -- daw-ng, da-ow, or, least flattering, dung.)
  • Madeira: Grown from grapes rooted in the island's volcanic soil, this wine traces its origins to 1419. Its history is similar to that of port, in that it was highly prized by aristocratic British families. George Washington was among the wine's early admirers, although the Madeira he consumed little resembled the product bottled today. Modern Madeira wines are lighter and drier than the thick, sweet kinds favored by generations past.

The wine, which is fortified and blended, includes such varieties as Malmsey, Malvasia, and Boal -- sweet, heavy wines usually served with dessert or at the end of a meal. The less sweet Verdelho is often consumed as a light drink between meals, in much the same way that a Spaniard downs a glass of sherry. Dry and light, Sercial is best as an aperitif and is often served in Portugal with toasted and salted almonds. None of these wines is likely to be consumed with the main dish at dinner.

Beer

Cerveja (beer) is gaining new followers yearly. One of the best of the home-brews is sold under the name Sagres, honoring the town in the Algarve that enjoyed associations with Henry the Navigator.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.