Gastronomic and viticultural delights of Northern Portugal
Portugal is one of our favorite places to visit. The country still possesses the charm of Old World Europe, but the highlight for us is discovering amazing food and wine all over the country. A recent visit to the north of Portugal rivaled our trip to the Alentejo region in 2022, especially as it relates to interesting cuisine and world-class wine.
Our touring of the north would begin with a Douro River cruise originating in the tiny village of Pinhão, which lies in the heart of the country’s Port wine region. On the way, we stopped at the 3 Pipos restaurant in the tiny village of Tondela. The restaurant does not look like much from the street, but inside is a rustic atmosphere of stone walls and wooden tables covered with white tablecloths. There is also an al fresco option in the rear garden, where we dined on a sublime dish of roasted goat dish paired with a glass of Douro red wine.
When I think of Portuguese cuisine, I think of fresh ingredients from the sea (octopus, sea bass, sea bream, cod, etc.) or the countryside (goat, suckling pig, roast chicken, etc.) that are beautifully prepared, even in the most unlikely, off-the-beaten-path locations. This stopover in Tondela at the unassuming 3 Pipos was emblematic in that way – an authentic approach to simple and wholesome food that was world-class in terms of quality.
A two-hour cruise along the Douro from Pinhão to Tua in a traditional Rabelo boat provides a great introduction to the most prominent vineyard estates of the region, among them Quinta do Crasto, Quinta do Bonfim and Quinta das Carvalhas. Afterwards we were treated to a succulent wild boar at the Terrace Restaurant of Quinta do Tedo near Regua - a relatively short drive from Pinhão. From there we would be on our way to the cultural capital of the north – Porto – and some of the best wine tasting rooms in the country!
I do not think there is a more emblematic dish of Portugal than cod (bacalhau), usually salted cod that is reconstituted for use in numerous traditional dishes – it is said there is a Portuguese cod dish for every day of the year! One of the more popular is cod fritters (pastéis de bacalhau), which generally is offered as a snack or side dish. Two of my favorite salted cod dishes include bacalhau com natas, which is basically a creamy and cheesy scalloped potato dish with cod, and bacalhau à brás which is cod scrambled with egg and potato sticks (or straws). I prefer mine topped with cilantro and sliced black olives.
You cannot visit Porto without a visit to one (or more) of the many tasting rooms that sit on the waterfront of the Douro in Vila Nova de Gaia. There are more than 50 cellars and tasting rooms on this waterfront, many of which have tours and/or opportunities to taste a small sample of wines - a flight - or even just by the glass. Our favorite was the 10-year Port wine flight offered by Quinta do Noval in a bright tasting room directly on the waterfront.
We had an unexpected discovery later in the week during a driving tour through the Peneda-Gerês National Park. We marveled at the indigenous copper-colored, long-horned Cachena cattle roaming the high plains of the park and were delighted to find that as a menu option at the restaurant Casa do Videira in the tiny village of Soajo.
The golden color of this cattle breed was mirrored in the perfectly cooked, melt-in-the-mouth steak. This cattle breed also has a special designation (PDO, or protected designation of origin) that identifies it as exclusively from this geographic region). As a rule, Portuguese beef is not generally tender, so we prefer dining on pork, fish and chicken while there, but this Carne Cachena de Peneda was amongst the most tender cuts of beef I have ever sampled.
Apart from a good spit-roasted chicken, there is one dish that I will try not to miss when I am traveling in Portugal and that is suckling pig. The best dishes are made from the acorn-fed pigs of the Bairrada region in northcentral Porugal, and comprise a roasting method that crisps the skin, which creates a moisture barrier that produces a tender, succulent pork meat within. Locals tend to pair this dish with a slightly effervescent red or rose wine that is typical of the Bairrada wine region.