“The thing about Portugal is that on the one hand it seems like nothing has changed and they’ve been doing things the way they were doing them decades ago, but on the other hand if you consider North America, we’re trying to change back to do what places like Portugal never stopped doing.”
Okay, so I bounced around some ideas for this post for a couple of weeks since being back from Portugal, but this quotation (said by my partner while we were there) kept swimming up to the top of my pool of ideas, so, I’m going to deviate from my usual documentation style blog post. Besides, these days anyone travelling and willing to invest a little planning time can easily google (or search social media) for the trendiest restaurants and hotspots, and seek the wisdom of professional travel writers for the “must see” historical sites of most places in the world. So instead I present you with some quirky and unusual (for non-Europeans anyhow) facts that you may not know about Portugal; some things I once took for granted, but have since fallen in love with. Fret not, I will follow with some photos; the best part of sharing.
First, a little background: I haven’t been back to Portugal in 15 years. As a kid, I went often with my parents. My father was born in Porto, and my mom in a very small village in the Douro region called Pinhal do Norte. I was born in Africa, which if you know anything about Portugal’s colonial past you will recognize this as quite common. We moved here as a family in 1976 and left quite a bit of family behind. In my younger years we spent as many summers as we could afford vacationing in Portugal. Since then, most of my family members have moved or passed away, and I have spent the last 15 years discovering other parts of this vast world.
We planned for this trip over a couple of years, knowing it would be our longest to date, and that we would attempt to see Portugal from the top to the bottom as well as visit the family I still have there. In hind sight, we both agree that we should have heeded the advice of family who strongly encouraged us to visit for much longer than our 18 days, but we both came away with a new (for him) and renewed (for me) appreciation for this small, yet incredible country. Sometimes appreciation for the things we take for granted grows out of experiencing things through the eyes of someone else, and many of the observations that follow, in fact, came from my (Canadian born/non-European) partner, who is now equally enamoured. So, without further ado, here are some things you probably don’t know about Portugal:
1. Coffee culture is everywhere. You do not have to go to a trendy town and find the latest hipster coffee house; everyone is a barista. From the city coffee shops to highway rest stops, you can bet on an excellent cup of coffee (always espresso, unless you ask for something different). You can also bet on the fact that everyone sits down to enjoy their coffee; this time is expected and respected. Nothing is too important that you can’t interrupt to have a coffee, and I wish that mentality existed here. The other great thing about how the Portuguese consume coffee, is that there is NO WASTE, ever. You can’t get your coffee to go; you have to sit down and drink it. I think we call this being “environmentally friendly”.
2. Support for locally derived food and drink is not the latest trend, it’s just the way it is. Wherever you eat you will enjoy regional specialities made with whatever is in season. The wine list, in almost all cases, will have Portuguese wine exclusively. This may sound restrictive, but Portugal has 14 different wine regions which produce wines that celebrate a heritage of over 25o different grape varieties, some of which can not be found anywhere else in the world. We asked one restaurant why they didn’t have wines from, say France or Italy, and the reply was “why would we; we make lots of wine here”.
3. The “house wine” is usually the best. Here in North America, asking for house wine is akin to asking for the cheapest, crappiest wine a restaurant has to offer, but in Portugal (and this was confirmed by a number of servers we talked to), the house wine is selected “to represent the restaurant” and is often the best or favourite as selected by the owner or sommelier. You can also be sure, that in most cases this specially selected wine is very, very reasonably price.
4. There is so much natural and historical beauty to be seen in Portugal, and the Portuguese love it when people visit, but don’t expect them to make anything convenient for you. What I mean is, you won’t find signs leading you to the cliffs of Sagres to watch the sunset, you won’t find escalators, stairs or even walkways to the beautiful beaches in the Algarve, you won’t even find information easily online for the 66 wineries you can visit in the Alentejo, you won’t find convenient operating hours, and you definitely won’t find safety railings on any natural wonder to keep your kids from falling. But somehow, people get there, and this stoic determination to keep things they way they were is a marvelous thing.
5. As a tourist, Portugal is the best deal in Europe. Even in some of the upscale restaurants in Lisbon and Porto we were unable to spend more than 100 Euros despite copious amounts of food and wine. Again, because the wine and food is locally produced and there aren’t ridiculous rules and taxes associated with and imposed by government bodies (ahem, I’m talking to you Ontario LCBO) excellent wine is very inexpensive (and very readily available), and food is very affordable. Lodging options are also plentiful and affordable, but my suggestions to you is to stay in a bed and breakfast, small inn or Posadas where you will enjoy the personal attention and suggestions of your hosts.
And now for some photos; a short slide show from the different areas we visited:
Douro Region (the North):
Thanks so much for reading and viewing. I hope one day you can visit this marvelous place.
PEC has a special place in my heart because it is the first road trip we ever took together about eight years ago. Back then beautiful landscape, a charming B&B, and delicious local restaurants were all we looked for out there. We did pop into a few wineries but were horribly disappointed by the offerings. Fast forward five years, and the wine scene changed drastically, I suspect, in response to many city-transplants who saw a golden opportunity. Prince Edward County has since become one of my favourite areas to visit for incredible farm to table eats, and local award winning wines. Our most recent visit started with a fantastic Countylicious lunch at East and Main, followed by a one night stay in Bloomfield at Angéline’s Inn, a family run property with charming suites, coach houses and the newly renovated Walter Motor Inn. Saturday evening we also had an opportunity to enjoy the culinary delights of Chef Elliot and the wine wisdom of Sommelier Laura at The Hubb eatery and lounge. It was a perfect spot from where we headed out to visit, taste and buy some of the incredible wines of the area. This time around we visited Hubbs Creek Vineyard, Lighthall Vineyards, Casa Dea Estates Winery, Rosehall Run, The Old Third, and Hinterland Wine Company for their latest (& greatest) offerings. It was, indeed, just what needed to forget about the stresses of everyday life, and the horrible winter we’ve had this year.
So while unpacking all the great local food we brought back from Burlington, Vermont I was reminded of a conversation I had recently with someone who insisted that eating local and organic was only possible for the rich. I don’t believe this is so, mostly because I was raised on whole, local food. We did not eat processed food, not even “sliced bread in a bag”. We were not rich; my parents were new immigrants and worked hard, but their food habits stemmed from their own upbringing, most especially my mom (who did grow up poor) whose family ate food when it was in season and preserved it for the times it was not. Now as an adult, I continue to eat only whole natural food, but in our house we don’t exercise the same “in-season” restraint my mom practiced. Our income allows us to buy organic whenever we see it in store, and I know that makes us food-priviledged. But convenience aside, and even though it is changing slowly, I still think we lack a real appreciation and expectation for local food. We do not love and demand food from our local farms in the same way other places like Burlington, Vermont do. Everywhere you go you see pride of local farm and industry, and a local food culture that is so ingrained in the fabric of the whole state. Just in case you are wondering where I am going with all of this (again), consider this: we purchased all the food items below at City Market (a grocery co-op) in Burlington. You’ll notice that we bought some big ticket items like meat, cheese, milk, butter, etc. (including enough for a dinner party next week), but what you can’t see is that, in addition to all the fun local goodness below, we also purchased our “regular” weekly groceries, two bottles of wine, freshly made deli sandwiches for our drive home, and a snazzy new cooler bag for the SAME money we spend on our weekly groceries alone here in Toronto. So I ask, how long can we really afford not to eat local?
Of all the places I’ve been, nowhere celebrates the local goodness made by neighbouring farmers, brewers, and cheese-makers as much as Burlington Vermont. I’ve been here yearly for the last five years, but always in the summer when crops are plenty and it’s easy to eat/buy local. I wasn’t sure the same would be true in February, but I was dead wrong. The pride of food and drink can be seen everywhere.
While it’s probably not that big a deal that we’re hosting a dinner party, it does feel extra special today because of what we’re serving: Quebec cheese to start, then local Ontario rack of lamb with Swiss chard, beets and butternut squash from my own garden followed by locally made organic ice cream with raspberries (also from my garden). This, of course, will all be enhanced with Ontario wine. It feels good to eat this way, as well as to share it all with good friends. I hope they like it – it doesn’t get more local than this
My raspberry plant has been equally fruitful this summer. These will become sauce to accompany grilled Ontario peaches and vanilla ice cream later.