Friday 28 June 2013
Friday in Porto did not get off to a great start. My respiratory infection had morphed into a nasty secondary infection in the sinuses which created a crescent of pain in my upper jaw along the top of my teeth. At first I thought this was a side-effect of the pseudoephedrine that is freely available over the counter in Portugal under the trade name of Actifed (if you try to buy a similar preparation in Australia, you are treated like a drug mule). I later found out that this kind of pain is also a common complication of acute sinusitis.
Susie did her best to organise our day. She headed off in the morning to collect some tickets at La Casa de Musica for a free concert only to be told when she got there—despite previous advice to the contrary—that tickets were unnecessary. She returned to the apartment in a dark mood, which was amplified by a blister under her heel from the new sandals that were purchased the day before at the O.K. Corral. It was also likely that she was coming down with the same virus that had laid me low. She was certainly getting stir-crazy from spending too much time in the apartment with a zombie, so we decided to embark on a walk that would take us along the south side of the Rio Douro to a small fishing village called São Pedro de Afurada where, we were told, the seafood was “to die for”. Given my physical condition, this seemed like an appropriate assignment.
We set out at midday and walked across the lower span of the Ponte Luís I over the
Rio Douro. We had a conversation with a woman in a tourist information booth on the other side of the bridge who gave us an impromptu lesson in Portuguese pronunciation. Her patience and evident ability left us with the distinct impression that she had missed her calling as a language teacher.
From the Ponte Luís I we tracked the river west to São Pedro de Afurada and turned left just before we reached the Port. The last move was my mistake, but travel mistakes sometimes turn into serendipities, and we found ourselves entering the village from the back streets which were narrow, tiled and cool in the heat of the day. Susie had flashback memories to when she was a child living in Rome in the 1960s.
The very first restaurant we came across was the Taberna São Pedro. It looked so inviting that we immediately secured a seat outside on the street. As an appetiser, we were given a plate of barbecued, salt-encrusted sardines which we washed down with cold beer. I have always loved sardines, but they have hitherto been mushy food that came out of a tin. These were fresh, crunchy and barbecued in the open air over coals. It was simple fare, but the salt cut through the dullness that was limiting my sense of taste as the result of sinusitis, and the texture lifted it out of the realm of ordinary food. Susie ordered a sort of kebab with prawns and squid that was also barbecued over an open fire. On the waiter’s advice, I ordered the Dourada or “golden fish”. I have not been able to establish the equivalent species in Australian terms. It is a bony fish that is split down the middle and barbecued flat. We ordered the house white to go with the meal, which was refreshingly cold and acidic.
After we tore ourselves away from the Taberna, we decided to return to Porto via public transport. After hunting unsuccessfully for a bus stop and a taxi, we stumbled on a ferry service that our hosts and the woman at the tourist information office insisted did not exist. It runs from a pier just outside the café at São Pedro de Afurada which has a dozen tall, metal posts marking the entrance. The driver charges one euro per passenger to ferry you over the Rio Douro to another pier where you can pick up the number 500 bus into town.
From the centre of town, we returned to our apartment on foot for an extended siesta. I was not up to an outdoor music concert and Susie did not feel like going alone, so we decided instead to continue the food theme of the day and visit one of the restaurants that our hosts had recommended.
Flor dos Congregados was tucked away in a narrow street about 15 minutes’ walk from our apartment. The food was advertised as both typical Portuguese and as “slow food”. The meal certainly took ages to arrive, but this suited us because we were no hurry after our big lunch in the fishing village, and the restaurant had a very pleasant ambiance. The walls were made of heavy stone and it was decorated with what looked like the tools of blacksmith’s shop.
Susan ordered a slow-cooked veal dish and I ordered beans with tripe. Tripe is not something I would normally order, but given that I was unable to be adventurous on foot, I though the least I could do was be gastronomically adventurous. On the waiter’s recommendation we ordered a bottle of what we now know as vinho verde. This is a white wine made from a variety of grape grown in a northern province of Portugal. It creates a slight effervescence in the final product, something akin to a light spumante. It seemed an unlikely accompaniment, but it turned out to be an excellent suggestion. It went beautifully with the beans.
Both dishes were simple yet cooked to perfection. The beans came in a thick sauce with pieces of tripe and the odd slice of chorizo. The side dish was rice served in a clay pot. Susan’s veal was cooked to the point of being “molten” beef. She was unable to finish it, however. The waiter was concerned that she did not like it, but she explained that she was coming down with a cold and so had little appetite. Also, the portions were of typically Iberian dimensions: I now know why my cousin Walter warned me about putting on weight in Portugal!
We declined the offer of a dessert, but Susan did ask the waiter to recommend a good port. He returned to the table with a bottle of 10-year old port which he said was excellent. This was Susan’s first and last port in Porto. She had been looking forward to it, and she lapped it up slowly with a big Cheshire cat grin. The day might have started badly, but it ended in a bliss-out moment that was kindly captured on camera by our slow, friendly waiter, whose cheerful advice helped make for such a memorable evening.