I submitted this piece for the “The AA Gill Award for Emerging Food Critics” competition.
Let’s imagine that I am boarding a train to Bristol from London Paddington. It is far more likely than not I will experience the tell-tale rumble in my tum which informs me that yet again, the munchies have struck. It is then that I feel the intense disappointment of looking around and seeing the limp meal deals at Boots or the underwhelming options at Upper Crust that the true magic of O Astro begins to rear its head. O Astro is a slightly less-charming-than-normal traditional Portuguese snack bar located at the foot of the central train station in the second city of Porto. As you leave Campanhã station, there she will be. Waiting for you. Blending in amongst the mass of posing suitors, a true diamond is found in the rough.
The indelible mark of O Astro was left on me whilst I was living in Porto. Seeking to explore as much of Portugal as I possibly could during my six-month university placement, a big box I had to tick was the humble and comforting gastronomy of this often-overlooked culinary land. Having toured the best eats that I could find in the city, aided by every website and ‘best-of’ list I could find online, it was with great surprise that upon asking a dear colleague at work, “where is the best bifana in Porto?”, he said, “No questions asked! O Astro”. I couldn’t believe it. Train stations are notorious for being black holes when it comes to food. They are transitory places where consumers buy the first thing they see to sustain themselves on their journey. Look at Paddington! There aren’t many hidden gems around there that I know of. Rent tends to be high, competition tends to be even higher and yet, as O Astro so spectacularly proves, this makes no sense. Why is ‘mediocre and fine’ ever acceptable? O Astro, for me, was the ‘hug of juicy, slightly spiced sliced beef in a crusty roll’ that anyone would want to greet them after a long train journey. It certainly beats a Pret!
Travelling is, perhaps more than anything else, an exercise in creating memories. A train station is perhaps the perfect embodiment of this endeavour. There is a palpable hubbub of excitement that seems to find its way into every major station I have visited. The power of memory is, therefore, most certainly and irrefutably strengthened when you extend the sentiment and emotion of it to a €1.80 snack of fatty, humbling bread. It becomes progressively easier to understand why this little sandwich shop holds such a special place in my heart. Every time I prepared for an adventure, I knew that I was going to walk past any of the other perfectly fine establishments, some of which had even been avidly recommended to me, in favour of a sweet, sweet bifana sandwich from O Astro, an ice-cold Super Bock and a dent of just €2.80 into my paltry student bank account. The same comforting feeling every time. The same affordable satisfaction and joy every single time.
You will feel a smug satisfaction in walking past a stretch of 4/5 other ‘station joints’ to see nobody dining there, not a soul, not even a led astray tourist who could have been duped by the oh-so European feeling plastic menus that are proudly emblazoned outside, knowing that you are heading to O Astro. A place where you are greeted by the affable management staff like true family whilst being prompted to leave to make room for the next customer with equal aplomb just a moment later. There is an energy present that is befitting of its location. A sense of high footfall, efficiency and clockwork-like delivery that feels station-like in more ways than one. All O Astro lacks is one of those puffy, red-faced train conductors running onto carriages as they realise they are 3 or 4 minutes late after their mandatory coffee and cigarette breaks.
The memories I have from here depend on the nature of my adventure. Memories of heartache; saying farewell to the woman of my dreams who ordered “something vegetarian” who was then swiftly sent on her merry way back down south to Coimbra (why would they possibly need a vegetarian option in a place like this?). Memories of frustration, where a beastly bifana was my only consolation to soak up the liquor of a dreadful away day to Guimarães to watch my team Arsenal stumble to a quite miserable 1-1 draw. Memories of friendship, coming home from far more successful adventures in the charming cities of Aveiro and Viana de Castelo, of ‘one mores’ after wonderful days lazing in the sun with friends. And, of course, memories of simple, easy dinners. Of banal Tuesday evenings where I wouldn’t know what to make, where the prospect of cooking was just too unthinkable and terrible to even consider. When the only comforting and sensible option I could think of would be to make that 10-15-minute walk (depends if I got lost or not) down Rua do Heroismo, ignoring the slightly less pristine but equally cobbled streets I had seen time and time again. I would go, focused on one of my rushed and hurried frenzies to arrive at O Astro and gobble down my dripping gargantuan sandwich.
For me, what makes O Astro even more humbling is the fact that hundreds of Tripeiros, the name given to Porto folk, will have the same loving and nurturing relationship with the owners, the establishment and those comforting, warming bifanas. Of course, some may go for something else; perhaps a plate of delectable and oddly satisfying chicken gizzards or moelas, slow-cooked in the same wonderful tomato gravy, which, quite frankly, are indeed as moreish as a plate of peanuts or wasabi peas in their own right. Some may go for the humble Caldo Verde soup or just for a couple of cold ones with mates before they settle down on their train to whatever destination it may be. However, most go for one thing: that wonderful, lucid, simple, ethereal, warming beef cooked to perfection lovingly nestled in the premium spectacle of human innovation, a crusty bread roll. This sandwich is the first or last memory of countless adventures for Portuguese locals and foreigners alike, and for this reason, for this very simple reason, O Astro is an institution to savour for all who profess to understand the true emotive value of food.