We meet Luis, our guide with Taste Porto Food Tours, on a sunny street corner close to the central market, Mercearia Do Bolhao.
Luis (pronounced Lu-ish, in Portuguese) explains that during our 3½-hour Saturday morning walking tour, we won’t necessarily be seeing the “best of” Porto or the places most often frequented by tourists. Instead, we will be introduced to the real gastronomy of the city via stops at six key tasting spots. He gives us a simple printed map we can follow along this food trail.
A well-educated marine biologist by training, not only does Luis introduce us to tastes but he also intersperses information about the city’s history, architecture, customs and culture.
Stop 1 – Loja Dos Pasteis de Chaves
We start the morning off tasting two types of flaky, filo dough pastries shaped like shells, called pasteis de chaves, along with coffee. Eaten as a quick snack at any time of day, the buttery pastries derive their name from the city of Chaves in northern Portugal, close to the border with Spain.
We taste a savory one filled with minced veal (the original flavor) and another sweet one filled with rich chocolate. The recipe for this traditional product is controlled by the European Commission. While we chat and nibble, Luis teaches us a few essential Portuguese words and phrases (e.g. obrigada, f. and obrigado, m., for thank you.
Stop 2 – Bolhao Wine House
Once housing 400 vendors, the century-old Bolhao open-air market now hosts only 80. Many vendors have died and don’t have the right to transfer ownership outside their families. Those remaining sell fish, meats, cheese, baked goods, flowers, linens and other products, most of which is grown or produced locally.
The name Bolhao means “big bubble.” Of course, numerous stalls sell Port wine, the namesake of the city. Luis explained that Porto is a city “ruled by women.” Even its patron saint, Our Lady of Vandoma, is a woman. We observe the market from the second floor and then walk through the crowded aisles.
Situated at the confluence of the Douro River and Atlantic Ocean, fish and shellfish are a mainstay of local cuisine. Traditionally, Portuguese men went out early in the morning on fishing boats and women sold the catch when they returned. The market is still predominately run by women. Although the most popular fish dish in Porto (and most other parts of Portugal) is bacalhau (dried and salted cod), it typically comes from Norway, Iceland and Newfoundland.
We meet Leandro, the most famous butcher in the market. Here, shoppers purchase his handmade sausages made in wood-fired smoke rooms. We see many unusual cuts of meat because the Portuguese have traditionally used every part of the animal.
When we reach our destination, the Bolhao Wine House, we meet Hugo who inherited this stall from his grandmother (who owned a flower stall) and has since renovated it into an attractive wine bar. Here we get to sample low-acidity, cold-pressed olive oil and sweet Moscatel wine from the Douro Valley and delicious hand-cut sardines boiled and dressed with oil and oregano. Dessert is a cheesecake-like specialty called queijadinha.
Stop 3 – Flor Dos Congregados
One of the benefits of taking a food tour at the beginning of a visit is that you discover places to which you would love to return (ones that may not even have websites). Flor Dos Congregados, one of the oldest restaurants in Porto, is one of them.
Outside the small family-run restaurant is a sign signaling the establishment’s association with the “slow food” movement. It is known especially for its delicious meat sandwiches, called sandes Terylene, which have two layers: pork belly and cured ham roasted in spices. Traditionally, working people who lived on the outskirts of the city ate these sandwiches before their long commutes home. The savory meat is cooked in a wood-fired oven for 24 hours and pairs perfectly with a fruity, red sparkling wine, Vinho Tinto Bruto da Quinta de São Domingos.
Stop 4 – Café Guarany
Cafes have played an important role in the political and social fabric of Porto. Intellectuals, journalists, artists and revolutionaries met here, exchanging ideas over coffee when the country’s dictator, Antonio Salazar, forbid outdoor congregations of more than three people that were considered a rally. Open since 1933, the elegant art deco-style Café Guarany is one of the oldest cafes in the downtown business area.
It is situated at a corner of the wide street, Avenida dos Aliados (Street of the Allies), one of the most important streets in the city, which is anchored by the municipal hall at one end and Palacio das Cardosas (now the Hotel Intercontinental Porto) on the other.
The café has been beautifully restored with some of the original furnishings and art, including a marble relief of a South American Indian. After all the food and wine, we stopped here to sip a cup of richly brewed coffee. The “pick-me-up” is called cimbalino, named after one of the first Italian espresso machines brought to Portugal. The coffee blends two types of beans, Arabica and Robusta. Ours is served with a piece of delicious dark chocolate.
Stop 5 – Leitaria da Qta Do Paco
When we think we can’t eat one more morsel, we find ourselves sitting at Leitaria de Qta Do Paco. Originally a dairy shop when it opened in 1920, it produced milk that was delivered on the heads of the dairy ladies. The graphics on the wall are reminders of its history.
Now, this contemporary patisserie features whipped cream sweets. We taste two types of delectable eclairs, lemon curd and chocolate, both served with a hefty side of whipped cream. Bottom line: Irresistible.
Stop 6 – Taberna Do Largo
Because Porto isn’t only about Port, we stop at this taberna to sample wines from other regions of Portugal along with small plates (petiscos) of meats and cheese. (Petiscos are the Portuguese version of Spanish tapas.) This unique wine bar is owned by two women who went on a yearlong food tour to find the best small-scale producers.
We taste two other Portuguese specialties: olives (azeitonas) and Lupin beans (tremocos). You shell the salty beans, which pair well with beer, right in your mouth. One of the highlights of the tour was when a woman in our group accidently flipped her bean out of her mouth and into my wine glass!
All good things come to an end
Before we say goodbye to our new friends in the group and waddle back to our respective hotels on very full stomachs, Luis reminds us that we now have another friend in Portugal. Taste Porto Food Tours maintains a staffer who responds by email to any questions participants have about food or any other questions they have during their stay in the city. He also tells us that on the other side of our maps is a list of meal/food discounts at various places, negotiated for us by the company.
This tour was fantastic, very reasonably priced given the quality and quantity of food and drinks provided, and we highly recommend it to anyone visiting the city.
What we liked about the tour:
- Before we arrived, everyone was queried about their food sensitivities, allergies and aversions and the company followed up on its promise to provide alternative tastings to those with gluten intolerance and seafood allergies.
- The tour group sizes are kept small, always 10 people or less. People on food tours are usually interesting people, from different walks of life, all sharing a common passion for food and learning.
- The tour was extremely well-organized. Each stop was prepared for our arrival with a special table and a warm greeting, even during the busy lunch hour, so there was no time wasted waiting for tables or service.
- The selection of stops was varied and interesting.
- Food samples were full-size—much, much more than ample.
- Our guide was extremely knowledgeable, engaging, and fluent in English.
- The pacing of walking, tasting, talking, and give and take was perfect. We got to see some of the most important monuments and areas of the city, clocking about a mile and a half, in total, on my Fitbit.
IF YOU GO
- Tours are offered Tuesday to Saturday, excluding holidays, at 10AM, 10:45AM and 4PM
- Taste Porto is a socially responsible business and 5% of each ticket sold is donated to a local charity that helps feed the poor.
- Also recommended: The company maintains an excellent blog chock full of information about gastronomy in Porto.
Disclosure – We paid a discounted media rate for our tour.