Thursday, October 26, 2017

Portugal - The very mediocre food.

As often is the case, this post is written with the usual disclaimers. Opinions are hurriedly made, with inadequate knowledge and information, based on a biases and may deeply offend people. However, every word of I write has been personally experienced and none of the facts are false. Opinions and surmises may be damaging, but facts, incontrovertible.

To start off, Portuguese cuisine does not really exist as a stand-alone business opportunity. There really are a miniscule number of Portuguese restaurants. No one says – let’s do Portuguese tonight! There is a reason for this, Portuguese food is rubbish.

Please do not tell me about Goan food being Portuguese. Vindaloos. Cafreals, Reachado and so on are heavily Indianised versions of food with a very suspect Portuguese origin. So much so that Chicken Vindaloo in the UK is an Indian dish. Certainly not Portuguese. You do have a couple of Portuguese dishes that have survived without being subsumed by local influences. Caldo Verde or the famous Potato Soup with Kale is one. This is widely recognized world over as a Portuguese creation. The other, strangely is Chicken Peri Peri or Frango Assado or grilled chicken. This we know not because of Portugal, but, because of the South African chain called Nando’s that has popularized the dish. So, finding Portuguese food in a restaurant is next to impossible.

Chicken Peri Peri

Now there are two Portuguese ingredients that are literally all pervasive. The first is obvious, Bacalhau or dried salted Cod. This ingredient is beloved by all Portuguese. It is said that there are 365 ways to make a dish with Bacalhau. The most popular way to use Bacalhau is to reconstitute the fish and flake it. Then they seem to make a “bhurjee”. Literally, I kid you not. This is known as Bacalhau a Bras. This dish drives all Portuguese mad with delight. Onion is sautéed till softened, then the shredded reconstituted Bacalhau added with beaten eggs and finally some “Sali” or potato straws. This is cooked to various stages and served in many presentations. You could have the mix put into a ring mould and served as a neat circular tower. Or slop it on a plate or even serve it with the egg still runny, quite loose.

The second all pervasive ingredient is the egg. In the 8 nights we spent in Portugal, I have not eaten as much egg. Eggs are all over. You get them in cocktails as foamed egg white, you get fried eggs topped on steak on sandwiches and anything else you can think of. Desserts are made with egg, the famous Egg Tart or Pata Negras. Other desserts are also made with egg sugar and flour. You get Doughnuts filled with an egg custard. Little or no cream is used. A Parsi would have been happy with the amount of egg consumed.

A cocktail - Port Wine Sour. The layer of white is foamed egg white

The legendary and reasonably good Pata Negras or Egg Custard Tarts from Belem

The food we ate was by and large very mediocre if not poor. The food looked and tasted like the kind of food you get at a Club in Mumbai that is stuck in a time warp. Much like the “Conti” food you get at the Willingdon or CCI or Bombay Gym or Yacht Club. Meat or fish simply cooked in a pan or on a grill, Some generic brown sauce poured over and served with a side of boiled vegetables and possibly a salad and topped with fried potato. The fried potato is not a French fry nor a wafer but something rather weird. It is a thickish wafer which sometimes is crisp and often soggy. Very disappointing food.

Portuguese Steak. Note fried egg and fried potato.

Grey green overcooked Broccoli 

Pork, Veal & Chorizo skewers - with fried potato

Sausage [non pork] with fried potato and fried egg

Another Portuguese Steak by a different name. Egg & Potato

Rabbit stewed with vegetables

Now it is possible that you may argue that we simply went to the wrong restaurants. But, I have to point out that we were staying in two very good and expensive hotels. The restaurants were recommended by the Concierges. The kind of food on offer at these recommended restaurants was almost exactly the kind of food served at other restaurants which appealed to us. So, if all typical Portuguese restaurants were similar, including those suggested by Concierges as being examples of good Portuguese food, it seems to me that Portuguese food is rather mediocre.

An odd dish was decent. Like an Octopus at a nondescript cafe in Alfeme. A Shrimps with Garlic and Clams with Garlic were decent too.

Octopus Grilled

 Prawns with Garlic

 Clams with Garlic

Fried Mackerel

UFO - Unidentified Fried Objects

Yes the food was cheap but at the end of the day it was a waste of money. As I have written previously, the food was like Club food. When you are on holiday this is really not something you want as an example of local food. The point I am making is we had no intention of eating fast food or Pizza or Indian food. It was Portuguese food we wanted. Cheap has nothing to do with quality of food. Just by way of example, the food at Gajaali or Delhi Durbar or Khyber or Trishna, Apoorva or Thakkars or Friends Union Joshi and so on, is also relatively cheap. The food served at these Indian restaurants also happens to be an excellent example of great Indian food. None of the meals, and I mean none, excited us. Do have a look at the photos and tell me if I am wrong when I say Club food.

There was some very drinkable wine. This was served in a restaurant at 10 Euro a bottle which is Rs 700/-. This wine beat the living daylights of anything served in India, Indian or Imported. So, yes, wine was cheap and very good. No, it did not make up for the food.

One meal that we had in Lisbon was at a restaurant called Pateo by a highly regarded Portuguese Chef named Jose Allivez. He holds 2 stars in Michelin, thought the restaurant we went to does not have any stars. The restaurant was attractive, the vibe positive but the food was probably the worst we have had in a long time. A shellfish soup tasted like a fishy sweet tomato sauce. Strange. Both dishes, their interpretation of the clichéd all pervasive Bacalhau a Bras and a prawn dish called Prawn Açorda described as “A Must-Try Portuguese Dish: Shrimp, Bread, Garlic, Cilantro, Red Chilli And An Egg Yolk Cooked At Low Temperature” were positively disgusting. This was baby food, all mush, devoid of any texture and of the consistency of “Khichadi”. I must point out that on the table alongside us were two local girls, who, after much discussion, ordered the Bacalhau a Bras. It was hilarious watching them struggle to eat the mush. They spent their time making neat squares of the food, then rectangles, then dividing the rectangles into squares. They tried dousing the slop with Olive oil. Our plight was tragicomic, watching them made us smile, having to attempt to eat the paste and eventually waste it, was tragic. Truly horrible food.

Cheese and Ham served at Pateo. Good.

Octopus Salad with a Kim Chee Dressing

Fishy Sweet Tomato Sauce - Seafood Soup

Mushy Bacalhau a Bras

Mushy Prawns Arcoda

On the last night in Porto we decided to eat at the very swish and highly rated restaurant “Book” that was located in our hotel. This decision went against our grain but we were really so disappointed with mediocre food we were desperate for a decent meal. As you probably know if you have been reading my blog regularly, our policy is normally to eat local. In France, Italy, Germany, Spain and many other places eating local means really good food. Here in Portugal that was not true. Anyway, the food at Book was better, presented with much flair and in the end a rather good meal.

Fried Cheese

A "Millefeuille" of Cod, Spinach & Corn Bread or Broa

Duck Breast with Pomme Dauphinoise

One of the specialties or local dishes in Porto is called Francesinha. This is a sandwich with steak, cured sausage, fresh sausage & Mortadella plus whatever other meat the establishment thinks fit. The sandwich is toasted the covered with cheese, grilled and served doused in a spicy sauce and French Fries. Oh, did I forget to mention, topped with a fried egg. This is formidable, so we requested our Francesinha to be split into two. The most highly rated Francesinha are served at 3 places, Café Santiago where we went being one of them. Francesinha was fairly nice but overrated. It came nowhere near a good Club Sandwich or Croque Monsieur or even a proper ham sandwich!! .

A few final points on food and drink in Portugal. The beer is excellent, really exceptional. The local brands Sagres and Super Bock served on tap were top notch. Drank plenty of beer. Ice Cream is very popular. You have several parlors all over often multiple parlors on a single street. Hamburgers are even more popular and there are several hamburger bars dotting the landscape. No, we did not eat any. Lastly, Portuguese Charcuterie is of good quality with excellent dried, smoked and cured Pork products. The famous Goa Sausage had its origins here. The cheese is also of good quality as is the Olive Oil. Please do remember that none of this i.e the Beer, Ice Cream Olive Oil, Cheese or Charcuterie is cooked in a restaurant. It is sourced, bought out and sliced or served. So, thankfully, the restaurant cant do much to fuck it up. Tells you something does it not?

A Portuguese Chorizo cooked on the table. Decent 

To conclude, food and drink in Portugal is cheap, probably the cheapest we have experienced. However, the quality of food and skill needed to prepare the food is very mediocre. If, you want to go to visit Portugal and are happy eating at the generic chains or eating generic quasi Italian food like pasta and pizza, then you should not have a problem. Otherwise, remember what I have started with. You do not have Portuguese Restaurants for a reason. Their food is unfortunately no good.    

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Porto - Better than Lisbon but not by much.

After 5 nights in Lisbon, it was time to catch our train to Porto. There is a very convenient very fast train to Porto. It is called the Alfa Pendular. These trains run on some lines with special tracks. The train is comfortable and travels fast with speeds exceeding 200 kmph for long stretches. The Lisbon station was a mess. No proper indicators of the trains or train numbers. The suburban trains and outstation ran from the same station [like VT or Dadar] but the ticket booths looked the same. The platforms had no boards stating which coach came where nor any indication of where First class would arrive. Finally we found an official who guided us as well as several other equally anxious and confused passengers.

Our hotel in Porto was extremely charming. Built sometime in the 1950 but with an even more old world design. Delightful. Not my taste in style – which is modern – but nonetheless very good. When we got in there was a drizzle, so we collected umbrellas from reception and headed out to get bearings. I knew that photography would be impossibility and would have to wait for sunshine, which was promised the next day onwards.

Porto was far more pretty as compared to Lisbon. The buildings and monuments seemed better. However, there was a big feeling of decay all over. Several abandoned buildings, closed and shuttered shops and several buildings completely collapsed from inside with only the outside shell standing. The Jewish area was positively dodgy and probably dangerous at night. Not nice at all. Reminded me of Dublin which was similarly run down when we visited it in 2012.

Porto is Portugal’s second largest city and is probably best known for its most famous product and export – Port Wine. Port Wine is made from grapes grown in the Duoro Valley, which, is one of the oldest grape/wine producing areas in the world. Port is unusual in as much it is sweet and is fortified with a neutral spirit thus giving it an alcoholic strength of about 30%. Port comes in many styles and colours, but all of them are sweet. Port is drunk as an aperitif or digestive, Port is often served with cheese as it combines deliciously. White Port is sometimes mixed with Tonic and makes a delightful drink, sweet, but great for a glass. The English have a strong association with Port. In the 1600’s British wine merchants had sent representatives to Porto where they tasted the excellent sweet wine. To everyone’s delight they found that Port with its higher alcohol content could easily be shipped from Porto to England without  damage or loss of quality. Then, during the French war in the 1700’s English merchants were permitted to import Port with a lower duty. The English citizens who were deprived of French wine consequent to the war, lapped up Port. Today, because of the historical English association many of the Port wines are sold with very British names – Taylor, Cockburn, Sandeman and so on.  

Porto has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996. In my view, despite Porto being a World Heritage site, I did not see much indication of it. Signage at sights was minimal at best. The condition of the sights was rather ordinary. HRH the Queen of Kutch told me that Angkor Wat which she had been to, and was a World Heritage Site, was in worse condition. I have no explanation.

If Lisbon was 7 hills, Porto was worse. It is really hilly. You are continually going up or down a slope. If not a slope, it was steps. I have not climbed as much. Porto is very popular with tourists. It is very hard work being a tourist. We are reasonably fit and we walked no less than 10 kms every day, at times going up to 17 kms. This is actually measured and not a fib. We were worn down by Lisbon and Porto every evening. We felt we had earned our evening beers and they went down well. The maps were a little better as compared to Lisbon. That was partly due to the fact that the sights of Porto are in a more compact area. We did get lost a couple of times. Getting lost in Porto or Lisbon is not romantic. Perish the thought. Getting lost means you have to walk up 100 feet extra and climb down too. It is painful.

Why not throw in a few statues for good measure.

Azulejos or the famous Portuguese blue tiles are everywhere. Churches have them and the Train Station is particularly beautifully decorated with these tiles. You will see from the photos that many of the Churches are so decorated. The Churches, like in Lisbon were plain, heavy stonework but plain. Of course with a magical blue cloudless sky in the background you got picture perfect postcard photos.

The central square Aliados has some really beautiful buildings. Many of these buildings are bank headquarters and are in excellent condition. Really very attractive. At the top of the Aliados Square is the Town Hall which was completed as recently as 1957. This is really a beautiful building, and I am surprised it was constructed so recently. Imagine that this design, architecture and style were used in 1957 when the Empire State Building was constructed in the 1930’s.

Porto proper is situated on one bank of the river while Gaia where the Port Houses are located is on the opposite bank. The two sides are connected by several bridges. One of the bridges, now not in use, was designed by Gustav Eiffel. You can clearly see his style. Another bridge is the Maria Pia Bridge which has two levels, the upper for the Tram and the lower for cars. This bridge also had inputs from Eiffel however it is believed that his partner actually designed the bridge. One point I forgot to mention is that in Lisbon there is an elevator leading up to a viewing platform. This entire steel structure was designed by a student of Eiffel. You will clearly see the same style here too.

You can walk across from one bank to the other, which is what we did, giving you some really fantasatic views of Porto as it rises up from the river bank. To get better pictures we decided to walk from the upper level which entailed yet another very steep, very high climb. But the results and view were well worth it. Lots of photos were taken. We also took a river cruise which was pleasant. Not the most magical but pleasant.      

Porto has another claim to fame. It is said that JK Rowling spent a lot of time in a café called Majestic when writing her breakthrough book Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone. Whether she actually wrote there or was inspired when sitting there I do not know. It is a very beautiful café indeed and with this, shall I say, folklore around it, lines of people wait to enter.

In India we often use a phrase “Note Chhaapne Ka Machine” or to translate a machine that prints currency. This phrase is used when someone is sitting on goldmine making money hand over fist. There is a bookshop, very beautiful, but thoroughly useless, known as Livraria Lello. This has been voted “best bookshop” by two Jholawalla publications, you guessed them – The Guardian & Lonely Planet. To add to the mystic Ms JK Rowling is said to have frequented the bookstore when writing …………. You have to pay 4 Euro for the privilege of entering. Most books are in Portuguese which for us is gibberish, and the other books are coffee table books. Useless books in a beautiful building. Of course HRH the Queen of Kutch an MA in Literature insisted on going in. On entering my only thought was “Note Chhaapne Ka Machine”.

For some reason, there were 3 stunning Art Deco buildings in Porto. 2 were movie theatres, which were on very narrow streets so I simply could not photograph them as I was too close. The third was a department store of all things, sort of run down. Strange and incongruous.

Porto was quite nice. But, I maintain, nothing compared to sights and cities that are real stars in Europe. My frank advise, do not go to Portugal unless you have really exhausted the rest of Europe. Overall, I maintain my earlier position. Portugal is sub-par and “Thakela”. Not worth the money.