Sunday, April 8, 2012

Bacalhau in the Port Capital

In Portugal’s second city, Porto – famous for its port-wine lodges – the revitalized riverside Ribeira district is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and provides a magnificent backdrop for sampling that most Portuguese of foodstuffs: bacalhau, or dried, salted codfish. In skilled hands, this defies its unpromising beginnings to become no less than the country’s national dish.

Arriving in Porto by rail or road, there’s a first, dramatic view of the broad Douro River, which – more than any monument or museum, more than its stunning Baroque architecture – gives the downtown its distinct character. From the elevated medieval cathedral, an intricate jumble of stepped alleys tumbles down to the river’s north bank and to the sparkling waterfront known as the Ribeira. Fish restaurants line the arcaded quayside, some tucked into former warehouses, while above looms the iconic Ponte Dom Luís I, the 19thcentury double-decker bridge whose graceful profile frames both river and city. A meal here on the quayside, looking across the river to the port-wine lodges with their names emblazoned across their roofs, is an absolute must on a trip to Porto.

 For all the Ribeira’s alfresco restaurants and riverside promenades, Porto remains at heart a straightforward working city, something that is reflected in its down-to-earth cuisine. The locals, for example, are known as tripeiros – tripe-eaters – due to their penchant for tripe dishes, but there’s another classic dish on the menu in every Porto establishment that’s more palatable to most visitors.
 In the 15th and early 16th centuries, the Portuguese were the world’s greatest maritime explorers, opening up trading routes to Africa and India. Long sea journeys were made possible in part by the preservation of food, notably dried, salted codfish (bacalhau), which became one of the first truly global dishes – eaten from Portugal to Scandinavia, and in far-flung Portuguese colonies from Brazil to Macau.
After centuries of experimentation, the number of Portuguese bacalhau recipes is famously large – some say 365, one for every day of the year, others say a thousand. Every region has its own specialty, and so does every chef. In Porto, the favored preparation is named after the 19th-century cod merchant who invented it, bacalhau à Gomes de Sá – baked with potato and onion, and garnished with olives and hard-boiled eggs – but it also comes boiled, roasted, or fried, poached in olive oil, and cooked with everything from cream to chili peppers. It’s a popular festive meal, with Portuguese families sitting down on Christmas Eve to bacalhau com todos (“with everything”), served with boiled potatoes, chickpeas, cabbage, and carrots. It may seem strange to anyone brought up on the idea of a Christmas turkey or ham, but the bacalhau-loving Portuguese wouldn’t have it any other way.
The Best Places to Eat Bacalhau
 Dom Tonho expensive
 Dom Tonho occupies a favored position on the Ribeira quayside, its dining room windows and outdoor terrace looking directly onto the Douro River and Dom Luís I bridge. It has a sleek look that marries stylish design with the building’s ancient, slabbed granite walls and arches, and visiting celebrities are very much on its radar, but for all its undoubted star attraction, it’s what comes out of the Dom Tonho kitchen that seals the deal. The exciting menu puts a contemporary twist on traditional Portuguese dishes, not least its own take on salt cod, bacalhau à Dom Tonho, in which the fish is fried with potatoes and eggs and served with garlic-sautéed onion, bacon, and cabbage. This or another bacalhau dish is always on the menu, while for an appetizer try the tantalizingly named peixinhos da horta (little garden fish), which are actually deep-fried green beans – nothing less than Portuguese-style tempura. Cais da Ribeira 13–15, Porto; open 12:30–3 PM & 7:30–11:30 PM daily;
 Also in Porto
Filha da Mãe Preta (+351 222 055 515; inexpensive) is one of the best-known traditional Portuguese restaurants on the Porto quayside, its tiled arches and river views forming a charming backdrop for local dishes, including a daily bacalhau choice. Café Majestic (; moderate), a gloriously decorated Art Nouveau café, also has bacalhau on its lunch menu, while a 30-minute metro ride from downtown takes you to the in-the-know suburb of Matosinhos for the city’s finest fish and seafood restaurants.
Also in Portugal
 Virtually every restaurant in Portugal serves a bacalhau dish – favorites to look for include bacalhau à brás (fried, with egg, onion, and potatoes), com natas (baked with cream), and com piri-piri (cooked in chili pepper sauce). At Lisbon’s fashionable dockside Bica do Sapato (; expensive) they serve an unusual bacalhau risotto accompanied by deep-fried bacalhau fillets.
 Around the World 
Portuguese salt-cod preparations are rare outside the Portuguese-speaking countries, though bacalhau itself has traveled the world (as it was intended to) and turns up on menus as bacalao (Spain), baccalà (Italy), klippfisk (Norway), saltfish (Jamaica), and morue (France). In the Spanish capital, Madrid, one of the signature tapas dishes at the famous bullfighting tavern, La Taberna de Antonio Sánchez (+34 915 397 826; inexpensive), is tortilla de San Isidro, a classic madrileño salt-cod omelet.
 On the Port Wine Trail
 Since the 18th century, port wine has been shipped downriver from the Douro vineyards to large quayside warehouses – lodges – in Porto, with historic company names that resonate through the ages. All offer fascinating tours (often free) of their premises, and at lodges like Sandeman (, Cálem (www.calem. pt), and Ramos Pinto (, you can get to grips with the difference between a ruby, tawny, or vintage port before a tasting or two of their wines. There’s more information on the Port Wine Institute website (, while the Rota do Vinho do Porto ( guides visitors on the Douro River “Port Wine Route.”
 A Day in Porto
 Porto regards itself as the capital of northern Portugal, and it’s a vibrant, cultural university city with a strong Baroque heritage and a fascinating riverside district.
Start with coffee and fresh bread in the Mercado do Bolhão market, then walk to the Torre dos Clérigos (Clérigos Tower) for an eagle-eye city view. Visit the medieval Sé (cathedral), after which you can descend the stepped alleys to the Ribeira district, where former merchant wealth is evident in buildings like the stunning Baroque São Francisco church and the Palácio da Bolsa (Stock Exchange).
 The Douro River has been at the heart of Porto’s life and trade for centuries, and taking a river cruise under the city’s famous bridges brings much of the history to life. Afterward, take the bus out to the Fundação Serralves, Porto’s stunning contemporary art museum and sculpture park.
 Drink an apéritif in the Solar do Vinho do Porto, the bar of the Port Wine Institute, before returning to the quayside restaurants of the Ribeira.
 Porto Airport is the main airport for northern Portugal. Fast, reliable intercity trains connect Porto and Lisbon (around three hours).
 Grande Hotel de Paris (inexpensive) is a charming downtown mansion.
 Guest House Douro (moderate) has stylish B&B riverside rooms.
 Pestana Porto (expensive) is a classy boutique hotel on the quayside.
Posto de Turismo Centro, Rua Clube dos Fenianos 25;

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