Everyone knows Porto, and its most famous product, Port Wine, but that is extent of their culinary knowledge about the region of Central Portugal. Travel south from Porto, across the River Douro, and you have got an undiscovered mix of sea and mountains that have been shaping the cuisine of the area for 1000 years.
My journey started in Aveiro, a Roman town that sits on a large lagoon, and it was from here in the 16th centuries that the first cod fishing expeditions set out for Newfoundland. The cod was brought back, salted and dried, and started the Portuguese love affair with what is known as Bacalhau. The love of this has remained undiminished over the years and I on this trip I would eat Bacalhau in all its forms.
My introduction to the local food was at Obarrio restaurant, overlooking one of the town's canals, and almost within touching distance of the local fish market. A fish stew to start was followed by an entree of partridge in pastry, game is abundant in the area. Monkfish with a sweet potato puree was the flavourful main and a speciality, rice with chestnuts, brought the meal to a conclusion. The matched wine, a Bairrada, Principal Reserva white 2010, showed good fruit and floral notes with a touch of wood smoke.
After a night at the stylish Hotel Moliceiro, the next morning I watched the fish market come to life, squid, octopus and live eels were laid out on slabs, looking as if they had been in the sea minutes earlier. Wanting to find out more about the fishing process I set off for nearby Ilhavo. Here the Maritime Museum tells the story of the cod fishermen's bravery, many of whom spent six months away.
The stop for lunch was in the non-descript Bela Ria restaurant, in the back were two dining rooms that belied its humble facade. The place was packed, the menu featured cod and the meal enabled me to get intimately acquainted with its anatomy. Deep fried tongues were followed by the fish raw. There were cod faces, roe with garlic and the gelatinous bladder that aids its buoyancy, unusual, but delicious.
The dessert was the equally intriguing, Aletria, angel hair pasta with cinnamon. A bonus was that I was able to chat with a cod fishing sea captain who had survived his vessel sinking off the Canadian coast.
It was time to move inland to the historic town of Viseu, the old quarter is of Roman origin. Dinner was next door to our antique strewn hotel, the Casa da Sé, at the rustic Maria Xica restaurant. Built with huge stone blocks and warmed with a wood stove, the fish from the coast gave way to mountain food.
What seemed like a tidal wave of dishes kept my palate entertained all evening. Olive tapenade, oven fresh bread with oil for dipping, three types of chorizo, cumin spiced black pudding, pungent sheep's cheese, filo parcels, pasties and quiches. There was just room for desserts of apple crumble, crème caramel and wraps of cheese and pumpkin. These delights were all washed down with Morgado De Silgueiros, well structured red and white wines from the local Dao vineyards.
The next day gave me the opportunity to visit one of the Dao wineries, Paço dos Cunhas de Santar. Here I sampled their Bairrada sparkling wine and the elegant reds and whites they produced. The vineyard had an on-site restaurant and again cod was at the forefront of the menu. Beautifully presented tongues in tempura batter with a cod carpaccio, dressed with estate grown olive oil were followed by cod steak with pureed potatoes and the dessert finale was matched with a luscious pudding wine.
My final destination was the ancient city of Coimbra. I dined at the Arcadas restaurant in my hotel, the Hotel Quinta das Lágrimas. This was fine dining at its best, with a four piece amuse bouche, the standout being the octopus pate. The starter was coated hen's egg in an oyster and truffle sauce followed by a main of the prized Iberian black pig. The Portuguese wines were well matched and dessert, which included basil ice cream, was complemented with a 10 year old tawny port.
The next day there was just enough time to look at the historic Coimbra University before a tapas lunch in the very small and charming Fangas Mercearia Bar. Fish, smoked sausage and stuffed peppers were a fitting end to this culinary adventure in Central Portugal which, when I wasn't eating, was enhanced by visits to world class cathedrals, museums and art galleries.
Direct flights, which take two hours, are available from TAP
All images ©Peter Morrell