“You’ve never tasted crispy sea cucumber before?” a fellow patron whispers as if it’s just another Saturday night staple. “Of course,” I lie while stuffing a morsel into my mouth and gulping it down with relief. Sea cucumber isn’t going to win any beauty pageants. In its purest form, it looks like an alien in a low-budget Sci-Fi film, but it’s surprisingly tasty.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise. Porto is full of culinary curiosities. The city’s signature dish is the francesinha – a hearty, meat-heavy gravy-soaked sandwich. It’s also home to the world’s most beautiful McDonald’s – something I’m happy to verify late one night after a few ports. Locals here are nicknamed ‘tripeiros’ or tripe eaters. It’s anyone’s guess as to the origin, but the most reliable story goes that when Infant D. Henrique and his crew sailed to conquer Ceuta in 1415, they took every inch of the city’s meat. Natives, therefore, were stuck eating offal or tripe.
My first taste of the city’s food scene is not tripe. Nor is it a francesinha at A Regaleira (the birthplace of the aforementioned French-inspired sandwich). Nor is it, A Cozinha do Martinho, where the late Anthony Bourdain chomped on Tripas à Moda do Porto – a dish made up of white bean, tripe and cow’s stomach that dates back to Portugal’s colonising Age of Discovery. Instead, I’m at a turquoise-tiled space – an up-scale fishmonger – and the man now carving up aged bonito (yes, tuna-like fish strung like steaks is very much on trend these days) in front of me is Vasco Coelho Santos, one of Northern Portugal’s ever-growing inventory of Michelin kitchen-leading chefs.
I’m in Portugal’s second city as part of a group invited by Michelin Guide, which is hosting its first-ever provincial celebration in Portugal. Having lived in the country on and off since I was a kid, I’m eager to understand the city’s culinary scene beyond the headliners. Port and pastéis de nata (custard tarts) might be the most famous exports – other than Ronaldo – but they are far from all Portugal’s has to offer.
Sustainability takes centre stage
Santos is one of many Portuguese chefs who have returned home in recent years, injecting environmentally-conscious practices into their menus – as much as their skills developed abroad.
“Everything is sustainable and seasonal, brought straight from the boat”, he assures us while spooning out the water inside an oyster to blend a fresh-to-order mayonnaise. “There’s no waste at the end”.
You won’t usually find Santos behind the peixaria counter in Foz do Douro. This pop-up, almost theatrical, performance is typically reserved for his intimate Michelin-star restaurant, Euskalduna Studio. Sprinkling crispy fish scales over an ice cream dessert – it’s delicious, believe it or not – the charismatic cook would be as at home on stage as behind the marble slab. And it’s his endearing, laid-back Portuguese personality which has helped his clutch of restaurants thrive.
After the final dish of the twelve-course all-local seafood menu, I feel like I have experienced a masterclass not just about the seafood but about the ocean’s secrets.
“When you sit at the chef’s table, you’re with me and the other chefs for five, maybe six hours. We want with every dish we serve that you have all our knowledge too,” Santos says, almost sensing our group’s newfound understanding of maritime culture and the effects of climate change.
Traditional and tinned still rule supreme
Unsurprisingly, seafood has long been a staple in a country that’s essential 97% water – when you account for the area between the mainland and the two autonomous archipelagos, the Azores and Madeira. But what is slightly bewildering is that bacalhau – Portugal’s beloved salted cod – doesn’t hail from nearby shores – it’s largely imported from Norway.
Cod imports, which date back to the 15th century, once came from Newfoundland – salting fish was the only way to preserve it for the long journey home. Portugal has been mastering the art of seafood preservation for centuries. Nowadays, the county’s refined tinned goods garner more modern appreciation.
After a hearty breakfast at Vila Foz Hotel, my gorgeously-renovated palatial digs – which also houses the Michelin-star restaurant of Chef Arnaldo Azevedo – I head to the wild Atlantic beaches north to Matosinhos, a municipality at the heart of this seafood story.
Since 1920, the hardworking team at Conservas Pinhais has been braving the early hour markets from May to November, come rain or shine, to secure the best sardines, which are then returned to the factory and prepared in a traditional method until this day.
“‘I’d like to welcome you to 1920”, Marta, my guide and long-standing canning expert announces as yelping seagulls blare over a short video about the Nuri brand of tinned sardines. Over the next hour inside the factory (visit on a weekday to see production in full swing), I learn the critical rules for successful preservation: pick the freshest fish and the best olive oil before preparing it without machinery.
“What is done by hand eats better”, she says as we help wrap the finished cans in labels. With over four million tins produced and sold last year, the secret seems to be out in the world: Portugal’s seafood is worth preserving.
The Atlantic gives the gift
Slightly further along the wind-whipped coast, it’s time for lunch in a tucked-away heritage venue, formerly a teahouse. Low-slung and practically built into the waterfront, the wood-clad Casa de Chá da Boa Nova is now a national monument for its architecture and wave-crashing views. Though Chef Rui Paula, a veteran of Porto’s food scene and the leader of a restaurant trio, dishes deserve the title equally.
“Portuguese fish… it is the best in the world”, he says, spooning a maroon red shrimp sauce over the juiciest prawn I’ve ever seen. Just beyond the multiple wine glasses dotting the table, the lull of Atlantic in all its far-reaching cerulean beauty mumbles in agreement.
Over six courses, Paula remains close to the table, adding anecdotes about Portuguese life alongside foams and finishing touches to the dishes. By his admission, Paula is a chef who likes to cook by memory so that each bite would pay homage to traditional ingredients from his youth, such as tripe, chickpeas jazzed up as foam, or the most tender octopus I’ve ever tasted.
Everything is a regional flavour served with precision. Still, as with much of Porto’s dining scene, the ingredients take centre stage. From the award-winning to the traditional tascas and cervejarias (beer snack bars). The chefs and teams serve like an unpretentious support act in the background.
A world of wine paired with panoramic plates
But Porto is a city evolving, and not every arrival in recent years has been so understated. Across the double-decker Dom Luis I Bridge from Porto’s historic Unesco-listed centre, Vila Nova de Gaia has undergone a massive facelift.
Once visited predominantly for the vintage port lodges, which line the riverbank, each storing the treasured fortified wines harvested further upstream, Gaia has its own new post-pandemic attraction: the hulking World of Wine.
Part educational, part cultural and culinary complex, a handful of museums are spread across the vast construction. Once I get over just how handsome Porto looks from the sprawling terrace, I head inside the museum’s signature space, the ‘Wine Experience’ to learn everything one could ever want to know about grapes, fermenting and age-old production methods on a journey through all of Portugal’s major wine regions.
Crowning this new complex is the more established Yeatman Hotel, a lavish affair of infinity-pool views and refined interiors – though the two-Michelin-starred kitchen of Chef Ricardo Costa lures me upstairs for dinner.
Welcomed by a glass of espumante (Portugal’s sparkling wine) on the terrace, this is perhaps Porto’s best panoramic view – though sunset hotspot Serra do Pilar may have something to say about that. Once seated in the grand dining room, with expansive windows framing the city at dusk, I lose count of the delicious dishes. Each perfectly paired with Portuguese wines, such as the standout 2017 Alvarino from Quinta de Santiago, which flows freely from the kitchen. Codfish-infused meringue, flawlessly seared eel, and Algarvian prawns show the chef’s talent while highlighting local produce.
Just as I’m wondering how a nitro-frozen tomato salad can be so delicious, we’re called into the Gastronomic Experience kitchen, where the man himself – and one of MasterChef Portugal’s presenters – invites us to sit at a small table alongside the pass. Here we share conversations over a faultlessly prepared spider crab accompanied by waffles and caviar.
But it’s not just the city where the chefs come to cement their culinary status. Northern Portugal has upwards of 43 restaurants recognised in the latest Michelin Guide, with some of the newest tracking the waterways inland.
Historic upriver wines meet new menus
With the clock ticking down on our visit to this part of Portugal, it’s only fitting that we follow the Douro River upstream to the world’s oldest demarcated wine region – accessible by boat, car or scenic train. Here, amongst steeped UNESCO-listed vineyard terraces, some of Portugal’s finest wines, including the country’s famed fortified offering, port, begin their life.
Inside the Museu do Douro, I’m educated about all things viniculture, from scenes and tools of Portugal’s long and proud history of bottling the good stuff. Upstairs, above the museum and looking out on the river-cruise heavy waterway, I embark on a tasting of regional grapes selected by Luis Gutiérrez, one of the world’s leading wine experts. The 1992 Vintage Taylor Fladgate goes down a little too well.
Continuing the river journey to the postcard-perfect village of Pinhão, lunch comes courtesy of Pedro Lemos, a long-term player on Porto’s restaurant circuit and one of the city’s first Michelin-starred chefs for his self-titled restaurant in Foz do Douro.
Like many of the region’s most acclaimed cooks, he has followed his heart and headed inland, opening a restaurant at Quinta do Bomfim, part of the long-respected Port-producing Symington Family Estate. Inside the airy barn-like space, the vineyards and river are framed in all their glory, the lobster rice being today’s standout dish.
This growing trend of celebrated chefs opening second or even third restaurants can be attributed to a few things, but many of the culinarians I speak with mention accessibility. With a Michelin star raising the restaurant’s profile and the precision and price point, inviting diners to enjoy first-class recipes in a more wallet-friendly and relaxed setting has become appealing.
Collaboration is also rife in Portugal’s north and in Quinta do Ventozelo – the gorgeous vineyard hotel overlooking the Douro where I lay my slightly tipsy head to rest towards the end of the trip. My sore head the next day is thanks to Chef Diogo Rocha, holder of a Green Michelin Star in Mesa de Lemos, who hosted us at a pop-up dinner for hotel guests the night before.
Making a name with Michelin
Ending my overindulgent weekend in the gold-gilded Islamic-inspired room of Porto’s Palácio da Bolsa, cheers erupt as this year’s cohort of culinary experts are awarded their Michelin recognition. Though an unspoken question hangs in the air. With a dedicated Michelin guide to Portugal coming next year for the first time – finally lifting the nation out of Spain’s shadow – which would be the first Portuguese kitchen to claim the converted three-star designation?
My bets are placed, and the accolades will be announced next February. And who knows? Perhaps Porto’s nickname as Invicta (the invincible) will ensure it champions over long-time rival Lisbon.
Plan your trip
Rooms at Vila Foz Hotel & Spa start at £307 per night for B&B.
TAP Airways – who are currently pairing with Portugal’s top chefs as part of their Local Stars programme in partnership with The Art of Tasting Portugal, offer direct flights to Porto from London Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester.