Monday, March 31, 2014

Eating and the Algarve

Have just come back from a far too brief trip to Olhao, Portugal’s main fishing port about 20 minutes by taxi from Faro. I’d never been to Portugal before, let alone the Algarve, but the man had read long ago that this particular place was a kind of paradise and had hankered since to visit. We found a great holiday let for the week – an old house in the centre of town, with impossibly high domed ceilings in every room and a series of terraces outside to breakfast in the sun or perhaps relax in the shade of the afternoon, reading. On the first morning we went to Clamy 2, the pasticeria across from the market and bought a couple of chocolate croissants and, of course, a couple of egg tarts, pastel de nata. Home to the terrace with a pot of coffee I cut into the croissant – it was incredibly crisp with a lovely thick ooze of dark chocolate in the middle. I thought the chocolate would be the highlight –and it was amazing – but it was the pastry that astounded me.
The first mouthful revealed that all that golden crisp deliciousness came not from using butter a la francaise but rather lard – resulting in a pastry that was very light and very rich at the same time. With the serious chocolate centre it was the most decadent breakfast I have eaten in a very long time. A subsequent visit to the local mercado revealed more blocks of pork fat than butter in the fridge. Paradise indeed.

I’d had mixed fortunes trying to find anything on line about where and what to eat. There was a well-established bar next door – Tapas E Lendas – that was recommended by the landlady and came up a bit on google so we tried for dinner there only to find they were fully booked for the weekend. That was okay – we had bbq plans with some great spicy sausages from a butcher in the market and lots of lovely fresh veg plus good olives and roasted pistachio and dried figs and fresh strawberries. Chickpeas too, lots of dried pulses in fact and local honey. We dropped in to the other bar near the house, Gosto Disto, recently opened by a welcoming young local couple, for a snack at lunch, strips of black pork and a bowl of hot garlic prawns with a cold beer. Simple fresh and cooked while we made use of their free wifi, it was a great lunch.

Sunday we headed out to Culatra one of the islands in ria Formosa on the old ferry. It was another gloriously sunny day – in fact we had nothing but blue skies the whole week, joy, and the morning ferry was busy with couples and families mostly, and a few dogs for colour. There are no cars on the islands, only a few old tractors that pull the boats in. It has a small community, mostly fishermen who seem to enjoy hooning about in the water in their down time as well as a few caffs, a mini mercado and lots of birds. I found it slightly disconcerting at first, everyone from the boat proceeding one behind the other in an orderly fashion along the boardwalks while the locals chased their dogs across the sand hills – all felt way too *local*. Once we’d broken out of the queue we followed an empty boardwalk for ten minutes or so, loving the sun and the blue sky. Then there was the sound of feet approaching rapidly from behind – we stepped out of the way of a young man running full pelt pushing an empty wheelchair towards the horizon. He disappeared in a moment. Five minutes later he was back, slowly this time, with a woman in the chair, her arms up covering her face, and a couple of others walking in silence alongside.

The end of the boardwalk tipped us onto an empty beach, pale sand, gently lapping waves, freezing water, brrr! We read books for an hour or so, the winter chill slowly leaving our lazy bones then headed back towards the little village to find CafĂ© Rui, cool and dim inside and lots of tables out the back looking over the water. I was hoping for a kind of magical experience like we found on the beach at Malaga a few years ago. Sadly the food was average at best and way too literal in the case of the pork and clams – that was precisely what we got!

Through the week we wandered about town admiring the tiled exteriors of the old houses, went out to Farol in the hope of lunch on the beach to find the island essentially closed till summer and spent a day in Tavira, a really beautiful town a bit further up the train line, but given over almost entirely to tourists. Really enjoyed strolling the old streets and along the river with its variety of old and new bridges, resisting the temptation to poke the ‘statue’ stood still on the end of the main crossing. I don’t see the appeal of them in heavily populated Covent Garden – it’s just plain weird in an almost empty town in Portugal. We stopped for a beer in what turned out to be the second placed restaurant on Trip Advisor and contemplated lunch but the menu wasn’t tempting, focussing mostly on South American beef with cream and pepper sauces. The rest of the very happy clientele were fat to bursting Essex golfers and the chef was also high up the hierarchy of the local golf club. We went off in search of lunch elsewhere but with the plethora of tourist cafes it soon became apparent why the first place was rated so highly. Eventually down a back street we found a noisy bar and took a chance.

Greeted with a curious look from the woman behind the bar I smiled and mimed lunch? She smiled back and pointed to a table and came and offered us pork, basically, and then egg? Definitely yes but I wasn’t really sure what would come – the rest of the clientele were old men drinking shots and playing cards or watching the daytime soaps. The owner brought us a litre bottle of local red – a litre at lunch! - but indicated we’d only pay for what we drank so we poured a couple of glasses and awaited lunch. So glad we did – not only was the wine a good example of Algarve red the lunch was simple but great – grilled slices of pork topped with a fried egg, rice laced with orange zest, thin sliced potatoes and salad. We polished it off then the owner cleared our plates and brought us a bowl of fruit. We shared a sweet juicy orange before finishing with coffee, an enjoyable lunch at Snack Bar Inacio, though I doubt they trouble Trip Adviser!

Olhao is a fully fledged fishing port but is also heavily reliant on tourists, even in early March most people in most of the cafes spoke English not Portuguese. At a distance it was easy to tell who was who – the tourists, like us, were loving the warmth of the sun and wore t shirts and shorts and bright coloured frocks. The locals were still in winter mode – summer days are 40C plus – and were still wearing jumpers, boots and coats. On the harbour front there are two large market halls open Monday to Saturday, one devoted entirely to fresh fish the other to half a dozen butchers, and a couple of charcuteries selling the local fresh cheeses – which are made using cow, sheep or goat milk and are intended to be eaten within a couple of days so they are light and wetly crumbly a bit like feta. This market hall also had a central block of stalls selling a great variety of fresh fruit and vegetables as well as coarse corn meal to make the local speciality xarem, pack of salt from Tavira where salt flats have yielded an income for generations and also lots of dried pulses. Great place to shop. One day there were trestles set up outside with a dozen chefs teaching teenagers how to fillet anchovies and sardines - really impressive way to keep the skills passing down the generations.

Across from the market the full length of the main road was wall to wall restaurants and bars, an interesting array that included four Indian restaurants, both a Chinese and a sushi place, an Irish bar that had a scone menu for the ladies and a wine menu for the men, lots of seafood places but most popular of all was pizza/pasta. All of them hoping for the tourist euro, to walk the street was to be constantly greeted with exhortations to stop here, great food, see our menu! Cavernous inside, most places were empty – too early in the season I guess and no local takers. Not really what we were looking for, when we ate out we ate mostly at the two local tapas bars and it was a real treat. Tapas e Lendas was the more ambitious of the two and the most professional being owned by a long term restaurateur, offered lots of charming service and a good menu. Before ordering one of the delightful young waiters takes you on a little tour to see the specials of the day – like slow cooked pork cheeks or baked sausages – and then to the refrigerated counter to show off the fish and to explain how it would be cooked. It’s a great way to start.

We had some good dishes here over the couple of times we visited and some that were a bit disappointing like the too dry crumbed anchovies but the slow cooked pork cheeks were unctuously good and both the prawn skewers and the mussels were particularly fine. Always busy – they do take reservations – with mostly expats with a good smattering of locals.

Our other destination of choice was Gosto Disto, definitely the simpler of the two, has only been open for a couple of months. It’s run by a young couple, the husband cooking and his wife front of house and both of them really welcoming. Assuming it was simply a caff the offer of free wifi tempted us in but the first plate of garlic prawns made me realise there was a lot more on offer. We tried a lot of the menu by the end of the week and everything was seriously good, there was not a duff dish amongst them. Loved the garlic prawns and was curious to try another pork and clams – it was simply brilliant.

A tasty mix of pork and clams cooked with stock and chorizo and paprika and finished with coriander and lemon it is easy to see why it is one of the dishes of the region. I’d heard of dried salted tuna but never had an opportunity to try it before – here it was simply served on top of slices of fresh cheese on top of squares of lightly toasted bread and sprinkled with a bit of dried oregano, a great mix of flavours and textures, the tuna like an elegantly fishy air dried ham.

We tried to order it again another day but they’d sold out the night before and we had tuna tartare instead with spankingly fresh tuna and diced mango mixed through with lime and coriander. When I told the chef it was great he laughed and said he got the idea from a food show on the TV. My other favourite dish was a surprise to me – xarem. Another one I’d read about but wasn’t much fussed to try, it is cornmeal porridge mixed with clams and bacon. I’m not a fan of polenta, especially the quick cook stuff, and I couldn’t see how this would be any different. How wrong I was. The man decided to order it just to see and we were told it would take half an hour to make but the other dishes would be served in the meantime – fine by us. When it eventually arrived it was a bowl of rough ground corn porridge that had been cooked in a light stock and then stuffed with clams and prawns and hunks of smoked bacon, really good stuff and not at all like the polenta I’ve tried!

We ended the trip with a couple of days in Faro, a city that seems to exist for tourists but not in a good way! In mid-March it feels almost post-apocalyptic in the extent of its emptiness. We had a fun trip on the little touring train – plucked from a story book with its blue and white stripes and it’s tooooot before moving, it took us all around the middle of the city with a few interesting titbits as we went. We passed the central market at one point, so we went back in search of lunch – lots of cafes, so we chose the busiest. The food was disappointing, can’t remember the name of the one we chose.

Friday night we strolled around the empty streets till about 7.30pm then headed into an empty winebar/restaurant SE7E Pedras where they were playing a compilation disc of 1960s British pop/rock – lots of Beatles and Joe Cocker, I have no idea why. We had a drink and, having seen nothing remotely inviting on our travels, decided to order some food. A sharing platter seemed best with grilled chorizo, a tasty black pudding, some parma ham and something we were told was game sausage but no one could tell us what the meat actually was. With some spongy bread it was just about okay but certainly not troubling greatness.

We set off for the Maritime Museum Saturday morning but it only opens through the week. Disappointed we headed for the regional museum – it too is closed on weekends. Third time lucky we could visit the Cathedral in the old town – but if it’s your plan it closes at 1pm. It is a pretty amazing building, great views from the bell tower it was incredibly ornate in the main church with a small interesting museum upstairs.

Then on to the History Museum, also open, which is in the process of restructuring its exhibition space. Really interesting exhibits and a gorgeous old building.

Then we set off for our final lunch – hoping for Faz Gosto as it has the best things said about it on line but sadly it was closed on Saturday lunchtime. We wandered about and looked at a few menus and I felt uninspired and bit apprehensive that the last meal was going to be a squib – such a bad way to end a holiday. Then we came across Tertulia, with its clean white exterior and collection of outside tables, admittedly pretty much unoccupied.

The menu read well, promising a true taste of the Algarve and we knew already from Gosto Disto that it could/should be great food to eat. How well we chose – the food was the most accomplished of any we ate in Portugal, starting – of course – with garlic prawns, a last one for the road! We followed with a gorgeous tranche of tuna for the man, served with a riff on xarem – it was set and topped with mashed sweet potato. I ordered the lushly rich Iberico pigs cheeks cooked in red wine and had it served with coriander flecked rice and steamed vegetables.

Fabulous. There was honey cake to finish with almond cream and coffee ice cream and a garnish of early strawberry adding the slightest bite to the sweetness. Fig brandy, definitely a *holiday purchase* par excellence, rounded out a really enjoyable lunch. It was easy to understand why the restaurant had filled with a local clientele over the couple of hours we were there.

So if you’re heading this way anytime soon hope this round up gives you some ideas of the food and a few good places to seek out.