Jul 11 2011
The Portuguese waiter looked at us, nervously. Γò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö¼├║Sorry but we have run out of sardines,Γò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö¼├æ he said in an accent that confirmed his three-year stint working in North London. We sat back and looked at the table. It was strewn with plates, chunks of bread and half-drunk wine glasses. Piles of sardine bones, stripped of their oily cream-coloured flesh, shimmered in the early afternoon sunlight streaming through the window.
We wanted more.
Γò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö¼├║Are you sure?Γò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö¼├æ asked Joaquim Sa, the Portuguese representative at our table.
Γò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö¼├║Yes sir,Γò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö¼├æ replied the Portuguese-Cockney who, incidentally, looked like a cross between Christiano Ronaldo and Ed Milliband. Γò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö¼├║YouΓò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö£├╗ve eaten all our sardines.Γò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö¼├æ He sounded amazed, confused and accusatory.
Joaquim shook his head. This was Portugal. This was the town of Oporto. This was Chez Lapin, one of OportoΓò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö£├╗s venerable eateries.
And here you are not meant to run out of sardines.
Danie de Wet, another table member, shook his shoulders. Γò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö¼├║ThatΓò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö£├╗s okay,Γò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö¼├æ Danie said to the waiter. Γò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö¼├║Please bring us another bottle of vinho verde.Γò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö¼├æ
The waiter took a step back.
Γò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö¼├║Sir, youΓò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö£├╗ve finished the last bottle of vinho verde too.Γò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö¼├æ
Suffice to say that this had been a real feast, something PortugalΓò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö£├╗s culinary offerings and wine styles Γò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö£Γöñ especially white wines Γò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö£Γöñ is well-suited to.
During this week-long trip, feasts were the order of the day. Although that legendary afternoon in Oporto when we cleaned-out Chez Lapin was in a class of its own. (The Port-pourers at Grahams were talking about it the next day and whilst walking along Gaia, old ladies in black dresses stopped to point.)
In Portugal, it all usually starts with two bottles of vinho verde on ice. The grapes for Vinho verde Γò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö£Γöñ translated as green wine Γò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö£Γöñ are picked young to ensure a fresh acidity. It is given a slight zip of carbon dioxide (less than one bar) for a moreish perky p╬ô├╢┬ú╬ô├«├ëtillance. The usual suspects on the grape front are╬ô├╢┬╝Γö£├¡Loureiro, Arinto,╬ô├╢┬╝Γö£├¡Trajadura, Avesso and Azal, with some single-variety bottlings Γò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö£Γöñ especially under the slightly fuller-bodied Alvarinho.
Two glasses of zippy, zesty vinho verde does wonders for the appetite, as it does the same thing to your stomach acids as Kathleen TurnerΓò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö£├╗s bath-tub scene in Body Heat does to your hormones. By glass three you are ready to eat a cow and its offspring.
But being in the wrong country for cow Γò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö£Γöñ but the right country for fish Γò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö£Γöñ you go for seafood.
Portugal has some of the most amazing seafood in the world – bet you that. ItΓò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö£├╗s fresh. Simply prepared. Readily available.
Usually youΓò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö£├╗d kick-off with sardines. And no haute cuisine here, dude. The fishies are sprinkled with rock salt, splashed with olive oil and grilled on coals for about three minutes a side. Head is kept on, guts in. The heat releases the stomach fats into the flesh, so it is of major importance that the good stuff remains inside and the fish un-cleaned.
Sometimes, like the time at Chez Lapin, the sardines just take over. You eat the one after the other, picking up the fish, sliding it into your mouth tail-first, biting the head-off and stripping the backbone before reaching for the next one. Gulps of vinho verde wash the fishy morsels down to the place where the stomach acids are now contentedly doing the cha-cha.
At other places youΓò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö£├╗d move on after the sardines. An octopus tentacle the size of a babyΓò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö£├╗s arm is a popular choice.
Boiled until marrow-soft, the delectable suckered thing it chargrilled to offset a thrilling adventurous flavour. Want more fish? John Dory, Red Mullett, Sea-bass, Bream, TunaΓò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö¼┬¼..the choice is yours.
Besides the sardines, my favourite dish was had at a small town south of Oporto. At a very local caf╬ô├╢┬ú╬ô├«├ë I got the best squid ever.
The things were whole Γò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö£Γöñ body, head, tentacles. The bone and ink had been cut out. Gently grilled, they were served in a cool sauce of olive oil, vinegar, fresh garlic and freshly chopped parsley.
I could have died and gone to the big eatery in the sky right there. At least the sardines donΓò¼├┤Γö£├ºΓö£├╗t run out in heaven.