For us, one of the joys or travel is tapping into authentic food experiences.
Something that struck me on our recent trip to Portugal was the shift in my perception of authentic food.
The last time I was in Portugal was over 25 years ago. Back then, I looked almost exclusively for traditional Portuguese food, though even then the restaurant I remember most vividly was fusing those traditions and the local ingredients with a California vibe.
Now it would seem to me somewhat patronizing automatically to choose only traditional food. Our culture, particularly city culture, has become so much more complex in that intervening quarter century. How, then, in an internationalist age, do we define authentic food experiences when we travel?
I think that what I look for is the use of good local ingredients and a dash of inspiration. But I no longer focused solely on ‘Portuguese’ food, which opened the door to some delightful discoveries. On this trip this ranged from the traditional village fish restaurant, through more upmarket but still ‘family’ home-cooked styles, to fusion (sushi) and a high gastronomy tasting menu. Like many things, it is possible to savour and delight in both simplicity and sophistication in food. Part of the pleasure lies in that variety.
Monks, nuns, eggs and sugar
Traditionally, as long ago as before the C18th, monks and nuns used egg-white to clean and starch their habits. They used the leftover yolks to make sweets so as not to waste them, and in order to raise money for their religious communities. Such were the beginnings of two quintessentially Portuguese delicacies, Pastel de Nata and Ovos Moles – truly authentic food!
We were excited to find that one of the most lauded Pastel de Nata bakeries, Castro – Atelier de Pastéis de Nata, happened to be just opposite our Porto apartment. Then, during his scavenger hunt, Paul visited Manteigaria, their main competition for the title of best Pastel de Nata in Porto. Of course he brought a box back with him. The tarts from both were melt-in-the-mouth delicious, with a slight brûlée crispness to the top. I loved that the Manteigaria box included sachets of cinnamon to sprinkle on just before serving.
[As usual, if you click into a gallery you can see the photos at full size and with descriptive titles]
Ovos Moles are a specialty of Aveiro. There is even a monument to them in one of the parks.
Although I have heard the classic Ovos Moles described as ‘very eggy’, I actually quite liked them. But there are also some wonderful variations on the theme. One of the benefits of using egg yolks in this way is that it can preserve them for fifteen days or so without refrigeration.
Long before we arrived in Portugal I had scheduled a stop at Confeitaria Peixinho, which opened in 1856 and specializes in Ovos Moles. It is a magical place redolent of a bygone age. Our beautiful selection box served as supper and more.
On a day when Paul was fully committed elsewhere in Porto, I treated myself at lunchtime to a new and delightful food discovery; pintxos or pinchu, small snacks originating in the Basque region of Spain.
Backtracking slightly, I had walked down to the Ribeira waterfront with the intention of eating on the square. I even sat down at one of the pavement restaurants. But the menu confirmed that this really was not a place for authentic food. I wanted better and headed back up the side-streets towards our apartment.
We had previously noticed what at first glance we thought was a café-bakery. As I walked past, Sagardi once again caught my eye. I’m so glad I decided to explore. Their pintxos brought together fabulous combinations of texture and flavours. My special favourite was a tart filled with smoked cream cheese and apple that wasn’t quite sure if it was sweet or savoury, though everything I tried was delicious. I made a return visit a few days later – it was lovely to be able to introduce Paul and some of his colleagues to something different before we headed to the WordCamp After Party. We discovered that, in the evening, there are also delectable hot snacks straight from the oven. My only regret is that we didn’t have time to try their main restaurant.
To round off my lunch-time treat, I followed up with Portuguese ice-cream from the supermarket next door to Sagardi; chestnut with port and Portuguese custard tart were my flavour choices. I did take my ice-cream back down to the Cais da Ribeira, the waterfront, to soak up the atmosphere. Perfect.
Not unexpectedly, fish featured strongly in so many of our restaurant choices.
At Adega Sao Nicolau, an excellent family run restaurant in Porto specializing in classic, home-style cooking, I chose bacalhau (salt cod). This is quintessentially Portuguese, definitely authentic food.
Then there were a couple of village fish restaurants. Onda Sol in Torreira was a ‘local’ restaurant of a kind that one finds all around the Mediterranean. Nothing beats the delicious simplicity fresh Sea Bass with salad and chips. The food at Restaurante Portelas just outside Sao Jacinto was a little more sophisticated, with a stunning array of home-made desserts on offer and particularly friendly service.
After a few days of traditional fare, we stayed with local fish during our excursion to Aveiro but in the form of delectable fusion sushi at Subenshi Sushi. We ate surrounded by colourful swimming fish and sculptural ceilings, a really stylish and fun environment, and thoroughly enjoyed our departure from the traditional.
Taberna Clandestina in Cascais ticked all the boxes for me. It epitomised my earlier definition of what I look for in authentic food as being ‘the use of good local ingredients and a dash of inspiration’. In addition, the lively, street atmosphere and great service made this a highlight. We put together a meal of shared smaller plates; truffle ravioli, swordfish carpaccio, mixed fried seafood and a fabulous salad. Everything had that wonderful freshness and ‘zing’ that makes food memorable.
Memories Experience – ‘The inspiration that comes from the sea’
In choosing to eat at the Michelin starred restaurant at Fortaleza do Guincho, we understood that this would be about story and spectacle as much as about gastronomy. This kind of meal is what in the 70s was termed ‘a happening’, a kind of sensory performance art. Visually stunning, creative, bringing out flavours, textures and temperatures in ways that go beyond the experience of every-day ‘eating’, this was a meal as memorable as I could have hoped.
When the restaurant first gained its Michelin star in 2001 under Chef Antoine Westermann, it offered French fine dining. In 2015 the concept drastically changed with the arrival of famous Portuguese chef Miguel Rocha Vieira. Then, in 2018, after 3 years of dedication and lots of creativity as Miguel Vieira’s Sous-Chef, Gil Fernandes took the helm. His focus is a menu inspired by the Atlantic and the surroundings of the Fort. It is based on Portuguese products and traditions, especially fish and seafood. That coveted star has been retained throughout this evolution.
“The experience at the table of Fortaleza do Guincho continues to be the one of discovery around the Portuguese culture, traditions and history”
I’m not sure I can fully do justice to the ‘performance’. I can’t remember all the nuances or the subtleties of the storytelling, though our waiter was an excellent guide. But it went something like this.
Cuttlefish surfer (as we looked out at the kite surfers) – cuttlefish ink in tempura was spectacular. Irrigation; and vaccine – the first time I have had a waiter advance on me brandishing a syringe with a scary looking needle! I think I was too startled by the sight of this to think about capturing a photo. It had real drama and humour.
The edible crisp shell was particularly delightful.
Was this a reference to beach-combing? I’m not sure. The clam broth was wonderful.
Even the flannel to wipe our hands after these initial Amuse Bouche was dramatic, swelling in response to water added at table.
Octopus salad with fermented sweet potato. I went without the crisped quinoa as quinoa and I don’t get along! I wish I could recall what the sauces were. Throughout the meal, though, there was a wonderful range of flavours from subtle to intense.
Scarlet prawn from the Algarve, with radish, watercress, citrus – intensely in that golden line and more delicately in the salad below the jellied surface.
Aveiro eel, with a smoky sauce, young broad beans and fennel. Very beautiful and delicious. I love that visual sense of the river. I’m never sure whether I like eel, but when I eat it I often do.
‘Boiled bones’ and beans; intense ‘between courses’ flavours rooted in family food.
Corn bread, seaweed bread and walnut and fig bread with a strong goat cheese, a curry butter and lardon and red pepper butter, served as pebbles.
Sunday lunch – sea bass, various forms of cabbage, turnip and a pork broth.
Seabass, in a much more flavour intense broth, pasta. This was almost better than the Sunday lunch!
Climate change. The ice round the sorbet and apple was dramatically melted with warm raspberry, vinegar and elderflower.
Iberian prey – pork (or maybe wild boar) tenderloin, carrot, pears poached in red wine. Followed up with a strong cheese from the Azores that is matured for three years (stunning), over a really intense pork stew.
Strawberries, very intense sesame cookies (in the background and second photo), more a shortbread, with crème anglaise and very intense rounds of gelled strawberry and sesame ice cream.
Pineapple from the Azores – the dried pineapple formed a delicious ‘cracker’ with drops of rich pineapple flavour. The tart had a wonderful crispy filling, the ice cream was olive oil, drizzled with basil and the little cubes were an olive oil jelly.
Our Surroundings: Mignardises
And to finish . . . Particularly unforgettable were the squares of white chocolate with red prawn powder. Very strange, but I could definitely see that they would grow on me with repeat exposure!
I didn’t think I could handle the full wine pairing but asked the sommelier to pick two glasses of wine for me. Both were exceptional. This was not a surprise given that the Fortaleza has the reputation of having one of the best wine cellars in Portugal.
What a meal! What an experience! Although this is about as far from every-day food as one could get, for me this still qualifies as authentic food in its attention to surroundings, to personal story expressed through fabulous local ingredients in inspired ways.
How do you define authentic food in the context of travel? Please feel free to comment!