Just like when I wrote my last blog post all those many months ago from a café in Mexico City, I am finally fulfilling my promise of an article on Portuguese grub. Yet again, from the secluded comfort of one of my favourite coffee spot in town. This place, (Duas de Letras) lacks the shiny gleam of some my other regular coff spots in Porto, but for me, it imbues much of what I love about Portugal and its cuisine.
It is simple. It is homely. You enter this little establishment and are welcomed by a simple menu which offers what you want. That sounds like a ridiculously redundant statement, but I mean exactly that. You don’t get any of the fancy, overly fiddly sandwiches with pretentious little flowers on the side, or matcha kombucha and such. Nah. You get really nice toast with really nice butter. Or toast loaded with perfectly sautéed mushrooms and a generous grating of cheese to melt unctuously under the grill (€3.90 guys…). Brilliant. Simple. What u want! Portugal’s ‘toast culture’ is strong and fiercely present, and I love it! There are times you want bread, but there are also times that you want toast. Ahh… butter <3
Chefs around the world have all banded together to decide on a definition of ‘good food’. In the modern restaurant scene, I sometimes feel that ‘good’ and ‘nice’ are synonymous to the creativity of a concept, to the range and depth of flavours on a plate. This is great, and readers of this blog will know I am certainly not impartial to a bit of the booj when it comes to eating. But at times, I am grated by the lack of attention and time afforded to serve simplicity. Comfort food, if you will.
The essence of comfort food is maybe just a little bit more complicated to capture when you are trying to ‘serve’ customers, and I guess it makes sense. In a way, it doesn’t really lend itself as a concept to our modern consumer habits. Comfort food is for the home. If you’re English, it may be a jacket potato with butter and cheese. If you are from X country, you will have been raised having Y, and that will be your comfort food. Trying to replicate that sense of ‘home’ is not simple and may be a big factor in the café and restaurant culture is how it is today.
But, as I am sure you gathered, the point I am making is that really good comfort food is something Portugal has mastered. From the now overly-hyped toast with butter from the Açores (a region of Portugal which is constituted by an archipelago of islands found in the Atlantic Ocean and which is held in particularly high esteem for the quality of the dairy products produced there) to a big, hearty bowl of Tripas ao Modo do Porto (tripe with white beans, chunks of fork-tender pork, chouriço and a generous sprinkling of love and care), Portuguese food has this remarkable ability to fill you up, make you happy and in so many ways, capture that sense of ‘homeliness’ which you crave.
Little of the food you will try in Portugal is going to blow your mind. I haven’t had my tastebuds challenged here as I did in Mexico, and I must confess that I have perhaps been unfair in constantly comparing the meals I have here with the quite frankly louca quality of food I was indulging on in my beloved Mex. A plate of bacalhau à bras (codfish with onions and lil’ potato crisps) may not make you feel tingly and ecstatic like a richly complex plate of mole or birria (probs dream about birria 2 to 3 times a week, guys…), but it is definitely gonna hit the spot. It will put a smile on your face. You will feel nourished, looked after and cared for.
In all of the Tascas (kinda like bistro-vibe restaurants/taverns that are dotted around the city) in Porto where I have eaten, I have sampled the food of varying quality ranging from the OMFG-fantastic to the, unfortunately, meh and bland. But, and a big but it is too, I have always enjoyed it. Comfort food! Magical, isn’t it?
The rest of this post is basically gonna be a tribute to some of the people who have filled my tum. A homage to the wonderful satisfaction these people provide locals on a daily basis.
So here goes…
1) a shout-out to the OG bossman who owns Murça. A tiny little gaff hidden away from the hustle and bustle of Bonfim (a super cool trendy area of town) on a street that forks off the main road. Upon arrival, you will be greeted with a little queue of locals chatting and smoking cig as they wait for their tables. You will be nearly guillotined a number of times by the faulty automatic door, which is as feisty and temperamental as the dear cooking away in the kitchen! I love how the restaurant has very visibly not changed in 50 years… and then there is just a glimpse of modernity in the form of a broken electric door… kinda jokes. Anyways, for €5.50, you will be served a bowl of steaming soup (normally a clear chicken broth similar to the timeless Jewish classic I am used to at home), a main dish (I’ve been 3 times and I had: a hearty plate of chops, perfectly grilled sardines with grelos (kinda swiss chard vibe) rice, bacalhau à Braga, lightly fried fish fillets with fried potatoes and onions). For an extra euro, you can get a dessert which my mate Dan and I decided tastes like a mix of tiramisu and Weetabix). We salute you.
2) The bossman in Régua (look it up it is really pretty) who very arrogantly and smugly claimed he made the ‘Best Arroz com Pato (rice with duck)’ in the world’. Quite a claim, mate, simmer down ye? One bite later, my eyes had rolled to the back of my head, and I genuinely just spluttered out ‘f*ck me’. It was DIVINE. He knew. He knew. It was a beautiful plate of perfectly cooked, fluffy rice with the rich fattiness of duck and bacon taken to the next level with bits of fried onion and offal. I began to praise him and compliment his incredible cooking rather enthusiastically, and he just shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘I know’… hero. What a guy! We salute you.
3) The guys at Astro Cervejaria by the train station fill me up with a gorgeous bifana (kinda braised beef in a spicy-ish tomato sauce) every time I get off a train from one of my trips. Heroes. We salute you.
4) The geezer at Xico dos Presuntos who does you a ham and cheese sandwich like you have never seen before. A lovely crusty roll will be filled, literally FILLED TO THE BRIM AND BEYOND, with some of the smokiest, richest, most umami-packed ham I have ever tried and a generous slab of the much revered Queijo de Serra, kind of like Brie but not and also better. Under €2. We salute you.
Right. I am gonna wrap this up here. I believe my point has been made. Portuguese food is love on a plate and I have absolutely loved getting to know the food culture here. The mere fact that the country has managed to keep my culinary curiosity alive after leaving the exotic gems of Mexico is remarkable. Given how I basically flew to Madrid to try a taquería I had found online, you can begin to sympathise with how much I miss Mexican food. However, as only true comfort food can do, Portugal’s cuisine has given me that metaphorical hug I so desperately needed to get over my post-Mexico blues, and I am most certainly grateful for that.