Food and drink, Vinho Verde: young, crisp wine from the Minho

Vinho Verde: young, crisp wine from the Minho

Vinho Verde is a very young, crisp wine that is produced in the Minho region. Its name translates to mean ‘young wine’, referring to the fact that it should be drunk soon after it has been bottled (and is not related to its colour, despite ‘verde’ meaning ‘green’). The Vinho Verde region, which lies between the Spanish border and the Douro Valley in the north-western corner of Portugal, was demarcated in 1908 and only permitted grapes are allowed to be used in wines that carry the Vinho Verde DOC (Denominação de Origem Controlada (Controlled Denomination of Origin)) on the label, along with the seal of guarantee and an official number.

While the majority of Vinho Verde drunk outside of Portugal is white, within Portugal it is also possible to buy rosé and red Vinho Verde. The flavour of wines from the Vinho Verde region embody the cold, damp climate and granitic soil in which the vines grow, often draped over pergola trellises or even trees to keep them off the ground to prevent the grapes from rotting. The white Vinho Verdes have a characteristic light-bodied acidity with fruity and floral notes and, at around only 10% alcohol, it is the perfect drink on a hot day. The main grape varieties used in white Vinho Verdes are Alvarinho, Arinto, Avesso, Azal, Loureiro and Trajadura, usually in blends, but some wine producers are creating single-varietal Vinho Verdes with the more-complex Alvarhino and Loureiro grapes. The rosés have a freshness with flavours of strawberries, raspberries and cherries from the Espadeiro and Padeiro grapes, while the reds, made with Amaral, Borraçal and Vinhão grapes, are an acquired taste with high tannins, a deep-red colour and, let’s not beat around the bush, a sharp taste, but are still widely drunk in northern Portugal. Red Vinho Verde is often served from a cask in a traditional small terracotta or ceramic drinking bowl rather than in a wine glass.

Another characteristic of Vinho Verde is its slight fizziness, although not enough fizz to call it a sparkling wine. In the past the fizziness was a result of malolactic fermentation (in which malic acid converts to lactic acid and during this process releases carbon dioxide), but this fermentation resulted in an unappealing cloudiness which meant the wine had to be sold in an opaque container. Nowadays, producers of Vinho Verde add the carbon dioxide artificially. It is the combination of this slight sparkle combined with the light fresh acidity that makes this a perfect wine to drink on its own on a summer’s day or as an accompaniment to white meat, fish, seafood and salads.

Pictured wines (prices as of 2020):
Casal Garcia, Quinta da Aveleda, Vinho Verde DOC (blend of Trajadura, Loureiro, Arinto and Azal), NV, €4.55
Leira do Canhoto, Quinta de Melgaço, Vinho Verde DOC (blend of Alvarinho, Loureiro and Arinto), 2014, €3.35

Food and drink, In praise of the Touriga Nacional grape: the (not so) secret ingredient in Portuguese red wine

In praise of the Touriga Nacional grape: the (not so) secret ingredient in Portuguese red wine

Until recently it is probably fair to say that Portuguese wines weren’t great. Although they were enjoyed by the Portuguese, they were unpalatable to the rest of the world. Up to the mid-1980s (when Portugal joined the European Union) wines were solely produced by co-operatives (set up during the years of the dictatorship), where traditional mindsets and working methods didn’t allow the excellent varieties of grape that grow throughout the country to be used to their full potential. In recent years small vineyards and wine producing companies have turned this around by embracing new methods and technology, combined with an understanding of blending grape varieties to create wines of a quality that can compete with those of other wine-producing countries. The success of the Portuguese red wine blends is down to one grape variety in particular, the Touriga Nacional. This is the grape used to produce the best ports and can be seen growing along the length of the Douro Valley.

River Douro

Although this variety has been grown in Portugal for centuries (and has even made its way to Brazil, most probably brought over by Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century, where it is used in their wine production), its importance was only recognised 30 or so years ago. It had almost died out by the 1970s due to low yields and disease, but a decade later research was done by some of the top port houses to determine which grape varieties make the best port and, of the ones they short-listed, Touriga Nacional was named the best. As a result of this research, a hardy clone was produced and Touriga Nacional is now grown in every wine-making region of Portugal, from the Douro to the Algarve. Portuguese red wines are made up of blends of grape varieties such as Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz/Aragonez (better known as Tempranillo), Touriga Franca, Trincadeira and Jaen, but the addition of Touriga Nacional (a dark-skinned grape rich in tannins, which on its own can be a bit over-powering) gives the wine its structure with intense aromas, flavours of blackcurrant and other dark fruit and spices, with a hint of liquorice and bergamot, and a capacity for ageing well. Even a small percentage of this grape (such as the 10% Touriga Nacional blended with 60% Tinta Roriz and 30% Touriga Franca in Casca Wines’ Bote (Douro)) can turn a mediocre blend into a full-bodied wine of international quality, so it is not surprising that in the wine industry Touriga Nacional is often referred to as Portugal’s answer to Cabernet Sauvignon. Don’t be put off by the low prices (around €4 a bottle in supermarkets) which belie the quality; good wine is, thankfully, still relatively cheap in Portugal.

Pictured wines (prices as of 2020):
Adega de Vila Real (Douro – blend of Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca and Touriga Nacional), 2018, €3.14
Vale do Viso (Douro – blend of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Tinta Roriz), 2016, €3.94
Cartuxa Vinea (Alentejo – blend of Aragonez, Trincadeira, Alicante Bouschet, Touriga Nacional and Syrah), 2017, €3.05
Bote (Douro – blend of Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca and Touriga Nacional), 2016, €3.85
Cabeça d’Velho (Dão – blend of Tinta Roriz, Jaen and Touriga Nacional), 2015, €2.55

Food and drink, Understanding the 'couvert': a Portuguese take on the bread and olives course

Understanding the ‘couvert’: a Portuguese take on the bread and olives course

The word Couvert on Portuguese menus can be a bit misleading to foreign tourists, as it isn’t the typical fixed-fee cover charge which is added to the bill in some other countries. The term couvert in Portugal is used to describe the small dishes that are served as appetisers before the meal. Common appetisers include: pão (bread), manteiga (butter), manteiga de ervas (herb butter), manteiga com alho (garlic butter), patê de sardinha (sardine pâté), patê de atum (tuna pâté), azeitonas (olives), queijo (cheese), maionese de delícias do mar (mayonnaise with seafood), cenouras à Algarvia (Algarvian-style carrots), grão de bico or feijão-frade com bacalhau (chickpeas or black-eyed peas with cod), among many others.

In most Portuguese restaurants appetisers are brought to your table as soon as you have sat down, but there is no obligation to eat them. In Portugal you only pay for what you eat, so if you don’t eat anything from the selection you won’t be charged. The couvert should be listed on the menu, so if you are concerned about how much it is going to cost you can ask to see the menu before you decide to accept it, however, they aren’t usually very expensive. Some restaurants charge per person for a selection of appetisers, for example, for €2 per person you may get a variety of bread rolls, herb butter, garlic butter, olives and tuna pâté. Other restaurants charge per item, for example, bread (€1), olives (€1.50), tuna pâté (€2.50), cheese (€3), so you can just try the ones you want. One thing that tourists who haven’t been to Portugal before often complain about is the fact that the food is presented as if it is free and they feel ripped off when they see it included on the bill, but it is not a tourist scam, it is just a cultural difference. The presentation of appetisers is standard practice in restaurants throughout Portugal, with the intention that diners have something to nibble on while looking at the menu and waiting for their food. It is perfectly acceptable to ask the waiter/waitress to take it away if you don’t want it, or just ask him/her to leave certain items, such as the bread and olives. The quality of the appetisers can vary from restaurant to restaurant; in some you may get pre-packaged sardine pâté, whereas in others it may be freshly made in the restaurant. You may also get offered regional dishes that you wouldn’t normally get to try and, as the Portuguese proverb goes, ‘Quem não arrisca, não petisca’ (‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained’ or, literally, ‘He who doesn’t take a risk, doesn’t get to have a little snack’!).

Bom apetite!

Food and drink, Poejo: pennyroyal liqueur from the Alentejo

Poejo: pennyroyal liqueur from the Alentejo

Porto has port, Lisbon has ginjinha and, as I discovered on a recent trip to Evora, the Alentejo region has a liqueur little known outside of Portugal called poejo. Poejo (the Portuguese name for pennyroyal) is a slightly minty sweet liqueur made from the herb pennyroyal. It is served at the end of a meal, as it is said to be a good digestive. While the flavour reminds me of a sweet minty mouthwash, that’s not a criticism, as, when served with ice it is very refreshing, especially after a heavy meal on a hot day – perfect for those Alentejo summer nights! However, it is best drunk in small quantities, as it is made from a base spirit to which pennyroyal, water and sugar are added, resulting in a fairly high alcohol content of around 20%!


Bacalhau com natas: the ultimate Portuguese comfort food, Food and drink

Bacalhau com natas: the ultimate Portuguese comfort food

Italy has lasagne, Greece has moussaka and Portugal has bacalhau com natas (cod with cream). While the three dishes are very different, there are a few things that unite them: they are all baked in the oven, have a creamy sauce and are a comforting dish on a cold day. As cod is the national food of Portugal, it is not surprising that it features in Portugal’s main ‘comfort food’ dish and, as with all traditional dishes, everyone has their own recipe and it is hard to find a definitive one. The key ingredients are dried salted cod, onion, garlic, potato and double cream and many recipes also include a béchamel sauce, grated cheese and/or breadcrumbs, while the potatoes may be cubed or finely cut like matchsticks. All the ingredients are cooked in a frying pan, the mixture is then poured into a ovenproof dish and cooked in a hot oven. Chef Miguel Mesquita’s recipe on the Teleculinaria website shows how easy it is and (as someone who is not a big fan of salted cod) I can attest to how delicious it is!

Bom apetite!

Food and drink, Polvo à lagareiro (Octopus in olive oil)

Polvo à lagareiro (Octopus in olive oil)

I discovered how delicious octopus can be in a small restaurant in Porto. Initially I was slightly scared of the strange-looking tentacles (or arms as they should correctly be referred to) with suckers which, as a Northern European, I had never seen on a plate before, and I expected them to be rubbery. However, I had ordered polvo à lagareiro (which literally means ‘octopus à la olive presser’) in which the tentacles are boiled and then roasted in garlic and olive oil (hence the name ‘à lagareiro’) to make them very tender. They are served with batatas a murro, small potatoes baked in their skins which, at the end of the cooking time, are pressed down on to break the skin (‘murro’ literally means ‘punch’) and added to the oil that the octopus is cooking in to soak up the flavours. I have always associated this dish with summer holidays, but in the Trás-os-Montes region in the north-east of Portugal it is eaten on Christmas Eve. As with many Portuguese dishes the secret is in the freshness and quality of the ingredients and the simplicity of this recipe is testament to that fact.

Coconut cakes: surprisingly simple but utterly delicious, Food and drink

Coconut cakes: surprisingly simple but utterly delicious

Bolinhos de coco (coconut cakes) are one of the easiest cakes to make and I am grateful to my good friend Célia for sharing her recipe with me. The cakes contain only three ingredients: eggs, sugar and desiccated coconut and take only 10 minutes to bake. When cooked they should have a slight crust on the outside and be very moist on the inside.

Despite their popularity in Portuguese baking, coconuts are not native to Portugal. The fruit was introduced into Portugal during the era of the discoveries when Portuguese ships brought them back from India. The Portuguese named it ‘coco’ from their word cocuruto (crown of the head) because it resembled a head and from that we get the English word coconut.

Coconut cakes recipe
(makes 20)

3 eggs
150g caster sugar
200g desiccated coconut
Fairy cake paper cases

Preheat the oven to 200°C.
Whisk the eggs and the sugar together and then add the coconut.
Put a heaped dessert spoon of the mixture into each of the paper cases.
Bake in the top of a pre-heated oven for 10 minutes until they start to form a crust on the top.

Algarve, Cataplana: an Algarvian stew in a special pan, Food and drink

Cataplana: an Algarvian stew in a special pan

Fish and shellfish cataplana

It is tempting to dismiss the cataplana as a touristy gimmick. The globe-shaped copper (or, increasingly, stainless steel) cooking utensil with a hinged lid is sold in every gift shop in the Algarve and I wonder how many have been bought by sun-drunk tourists and are now stored at the back of cupboards unused and forgotten.

However, far from being something just for the tourists, the cataplana is still widely used in cooking in the Algarve; most Portuguese restaurants proudly include a cataplana dish on their menu and it is understandable why both the dish and cooking utensil have remained a staple in Algarvean homes since Moorish times. It is believed that the cataplana pan was used by fishermen and hunters in the past. They would fill the pan with chopped vegetables before leaving home and once they had caught some fish or killed an animal they would add the fish or meat to the pan and cook it over a fire for their lunch. Nowadays, apart from not having to hunt your own food, the principle hasn’t changed. The two most popular cataplana dishes on restaurant menus are cataplana de peixe e marisco (fish and shellfish cataplana) and cataplana de carne de porco com amêijoas (pork with clams cataplana), but any kind of fish, meat or vegetable can be cooked in the cataplana, which due to the tight fitting of the two halves, works like a pressure cooker, steam-cooking the food in a short amount of time. Most recipes recommend a cooking time of 15 to 20 minutes and the unique shape of the pan allows it to be turned over on the flame during the cooking process, ensuring everything is evenly cooked. All cataplana dishes use the same basic ingredients of onion, garlic, olive oil, tomatoes, red and green peppers, white wine, coriander, bay leaf, chilli and salt and pepper and then the fish, shellfish or meat is added. The fish and shellfish cataplana usually includes clams and prawns (and other available shellfish) added to meaty white fish such as monkfish, skate, dogfish or grouper (basically whatever fish is available that day) and sometimes potato.

Fish and shellfish cataplana

The pork with clams cataplana usually has prawns and sausage or chouriço added to it and sometimes sweet potato.

Most restaurants serve the cataplana as a meal for two or more people to share (as it would be in the family home), but I have noticed several restaurants in the tourist areas of the Algarve offering cataplanas for one person. It is often accompanied by rice, but just as often with bread. The dish is brought to the table in the cataplana pan, which is guaranteed to make everyone else in the restaurant turn and look. Then notice how your waiter or waitress serves it onto the plate with pride and delight.

Clams Bulhão Pato: a simple dish with an enigmatic name, Food and drink

Clams Bulhão Pato: a simple dish with an enigmatic name

Portugal is famous for its seafood and of all the many seafood dishes on the menus of coastal restaurants the most popular is the enigmatically named amêijoas à Bulhão Pato (clams Bulhão Pato). For a long time I have wondered who or where Bulhão Pato was. Was he a chef who created this simple but delicious recipe or was the dish named after a place with excellent clams? In fact, it is neither of these. Raimundo António de Bulhão Pato (1828-1912) was a writer of poetry and prose who was also a bon vivant and wrote about the food he enjoyed. He lived on the south bank of the River Tejo, which at that time was said to have clams of the highest quality. The exact details of how the dish came to be named after him are lost in history, but it is believed that it was created by the chef at the Estrela de Ouro restaurant in Lisbon, of whom Bulhão Pato had written favourably, and the eponymous clams Bulhão Pato may have been a thank you from the chef. The dish has stood the test of time and continues to make a great starter to an evening meal or as a light lunch in a beachside café. The ingredients are basic, consisting of clams, olive oil, garlic, coriander, lemon juice, white wine, salt and pepper, and the dish only takes a few minutes to cook. Serve it with lemon wedges and lots of crusty bread to soak up the broth and you will almost be able to smell the sea air!

Food and drink, Pastry pillows and sweet cheese tartlets: two sweet specialities of Sintra

Pastry pillows and sweet cheese tartlets: two sweet specialities of Sintra

The variety of pastries on offer in Portugal is endless. Everyone knows about the ubiquitous pastel de nata (custard tart), but the pretty town of Sintra (approximately 30km from Lisbon) also boasts two sweet pastries that give the pastel de nata a run for its money: the travesseiro and the queijada de Sintra.

The travesseiro is a rectangular puff pastry shell, sprinkled with sugar, surrounding a filling of egg yolks, sugar, ground almonds and cinnamon. The name ‘travesseiro’ means ‘pillow’ and describes the shape of the pastry. The original convent recipe was revived by the owner of the Casa Piriquita bakery in Sintra

in the 1940s and the café is still famous for its travesseiros today, although they can also be found in cafés and bakeries all over Sintra.

The queijada de Sintra, which translates as ‘Sintra cheesecake’, is nothing like the cheesecake sold in the United Kingdom. It is a small tartlet with a thin, crispy pastry shell filled with a mixture of egg yolks, flour, sugar, cinnamon and queijo fresco (a Portuguese mild, white cheese with a custard-like texture; the closest cheese to it outside of Portugal is ricotta). This recipe dates back to the thirteenth century, when, it is said, the queijada was used as a form of currency. In the late-nineteenth century King Carlos I made queijadadas popular when he came to stay in the Pena Palace, his Sintra summer residence, and asked the Casa Piriquita bakery to make them for him. Like travesseiros, these little tartlets can now be found in cafés and bakeries all over Sintra. The Fábrica das Verdadeiras Queijadas da Sapa on Volta do Duche has been making queijadas since 1756 and its queijada recipe is one of the few in Sintra that is officially recognised by the town council.