The first meal in Portugal is whatever’s closest to the hostel. Flying into Porto from Madrid was no problem, but figuring out the metro system, finding the hostel, dehydration, sleep-deprivation––all help create a healthy appetite. The streets in Porto smell like grilled meats. At a local churrasqueira, you can watch a couple of guys sweat over a large charcoal grill full of sizzling butterflied chickens, crispy sausages, giant skewers of pork and beef. I know nothing of the Portuguese language, nothing on the menu looks vaguely familiar. I don’t know whether to order at the bar or a table. I only know I am thirsty and hungry. A man at the bar, a waiter enjoying his dinner, recognizes this international language of hunger. He sends us upstairs, walks us through the menu, and immediately brings us vinho verde, a young white wine with a tiny bit of effervescence (we will be drinking this like water for the next week or so). He drops off a basket overflowing with two kinds of bread. One is more dense, has a bit of a cornbread texture, the other is a dinner roll. The meal is nourishment, nothing special. Fried codfish and fries; grilled pork with onion and pepper seasoned with a splash of soy sauce; everything garnished with shredded carrot and raw onion; sustenance. Within a couple of days I find out I can pretty much spend a day drinking a amazing ports without spending much, and maybe because of their sweet caloric content I didn’t get very hungry.
I wanted to get away from the restaurants in the old town. I’m not eating three meals a day (because of the port) so I want the one restaurant to count. If a menu looks nearly identical to the restaurant next door and is translated into four different languages, I move on. I read about a spot in Gaia across the river that serves only grilled fish and wine right there in the street, but when I ask someone how to get there he looks at his watch and shakes his head. “It’s too late. You need to catch ferry across river.” We hop on a bus anyway, get off a few kilometers west along the edge of the river and walk into the first spot we could find: Tasquinha D’ouro. Inside: a middle-aged woman in a dirty apron, a stove with a few simmering pots, a bar, and four wobbly tables. Outside: a man, perhaps the woman’s husband, is waiting on two tables on the patio, and an old man is leaning against the building, chain-smoking. At one table a couple sips beer as the sun goes down. At the other table a fat guy hovers over a bowl of something stewed, a tall beer, and an overflowing ashtray. Again, we don’t know what to eat. The waiter tries his best to describe the menu in Spanish but I can hardly understand. We end up with pataniscas: a sort of codfish pancake with diced onion and herbs, served with fries. It’s pretty tasty, but I feel like he offered us the easiest thing to eat, something a tourist can’t deny. Something with fries on it. Then I lean over and ask if I could have what the fat guy is eating. “Moelos,” says the server. Then in broken English, “Insides chicken!”
I finally found what I was looking for.
Something hearty, local, delicious. Chicken parts braised in red wine with bay leaves, salt, pepper, pimenton, served with more of that local corn bread. So good, none of the rusty iron flavor normally associated with chicken parts. I want to stay, finish eating and in turn translating the chalkboard menu. But we must leave (and I’m full), and we’ve been convinced by a man in a port house in Gaia and another lady at a port tasting shop that it’s necessary to go to Douro Valley and taste the wines where they’re made.
After a long day of getting lost, we glide around switchbacks into the valley. The hills are sewn up, it seems, ol’ zipperneck. Vineyards, vineyards criss-crossing the hills. Vineyards, vineyards, broken in parts by olive groves, ancient stone walls and tiny roads. This is what the Romans brought so many years ago and what the Moors preserved for hundreds of years after, then when the Moors were pushed out, and for hundreds of years more.
We find our little Quinta da Azenha in Folgosa, a tiny village right off the lake (the Douro River is dammed up here). The property is beautiful. A few acres of vines on the hill behind the quinta, fig trees, persimmon, apples, pears, olives trees, lavender, nasturtium, sage, rosemary, roses, and plenty more I’ve never seen before. The church bell rings, then, two minutes later, the church bell rings from the village across the lake. In our room the hosts had left a bottle of their homemade vinho verde that is tart and delicious. For breakfast they feed us cured meats and sheep cheese (salipicão, chorizo, ovelha churra) from towns like Pinhão and Sabrosa. Fresh tomatoes from the garden doused in olive oil, salt, pepper. Dark coffee with hot milk, fresh bread from the panadería. Chocolate cake the first morning, carrot cake the second morning. Homemade tomato jam. The steep hills surrounding the Quinta are dry and rocky, all terraced for the grapes. This is the best soil for Port grapes, they say. The roots grow deep to find water. There is not much rain here, which allows the grapes to become more concentrated: more sugars mean better quick-fermentation.
When I think of a place that I could one day call my own, a life self-sustained, it is in a scenic valley near the water saturated by all the most glorious smells in the known universe. It is a day started early, rising to the sounds of shears snipping bunches from the vine. The crunch of fig seeds in your mouth. A thousands birds gossiping in a hazelnut tree. Only one rooster off in the distance, not hundreds, and always at an appropriate time.
Skip ahead to Lisbon. It’s 3am in a smoky hookah bar. I’m sipping on ginjinha––cherry liqueur––listening to an old drunk man explain to a couple teenagers that we are all vegetables. “We are all cabbage,” he says. “I do not discriminate, a cabbage cut in half is a living being cut in half. It doesn’t matter if you are cabbage or rabbit, I have respect for all living things in the universe. You can be carrot, but as long as you are prepared correctly you will enjoy this life.” He laughs loud, proudly. “You see? We are all cabbages! Here, now, is the most important thing. Family, memory, history is the sea on which you sail. I sail on this!” He drinks from a wine glass.
“What is it?”
“Gin and tonic.”
Portugal is a wonderful place and I regret not spending more time there. There is a lot more than Porto, the Douro River, Lisbon. So many secret spots to find, menus to
translate. As far as the food was concerned, I was able to find some wonderful dishes but had to seek it out. In Porto grilled sea bass and bacalao was everywhere. Every corner in Lisbon smelled like grilled sardines, and more bacalao. And the roasted kid with potatoes from the wine country still permeates my clothing.
_moelos_ is pronounced mo-ÉL-osh
_ginjinha_ is pronounced jin-JIN-ña
More pictures and stories coming soon.