Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Flavors of Portugal

I’ve been on the road for the past few weeks, or actually mostly on a river, the Douro specifically, in Portugal. My mom and I took a trip together in celebration of her 75th birthday, and then I traveled down to Granada for five days to visit some friends who are living there on sabbatical (a Granada post will follow this one). While the trip was primarily a vacation, I was also happily doing “research” for a few articles I’ll be writing for Whisk on the food and wine of the region. Not bad work, I have to admit.

For the first three days my mom and I were in Lisbon, and then we headed up to Porto to board a small cruise ship and set off to explore the Douro River Valley. The Douro cuts across the northern part of the country, through one of its main wine producing areas. Spectacular scenery floated past us: terraced vineyards spilling down steep mountains to the river’s edge, with olive trees and lavender interspersed to prevent erosion. 

Ancient quintas, or Port wine estates, grace the hillsides, ranging from grand manors with internationally recognized names such as Sandeman 

to rustic cottages.

My favorite thing about Portugal, aside from the magnificent scenery, is how unspoiled it is. It’s not overrun with tourists; in fact, as our small boat cruised down the Douro, it was not uncommon for locals to stand on the banks and watch us go by, waving cheerfully. They marveled at us with almost the same fascination as we marveled at their terraced neighborhood.

There’s an old world authenticity in the villages and even the cities, such as Porto, center of the Port wine industry. I wasn’t very familiar with Port before this trip, having only had bad, cloyingly sweet Port (most likely fake, produced elsewhere) on a few occasions. Real Port is something to be savored: complex, full-bodied, and silky smooth. Thanks to visits and tastings at several quintas, our palates became well educated. 

My mom loves good food and wine as much as I do and believes, like I do, that it’s one of the best ways to get to know another country, so we took the opportunity to enjoy long lunches and sample all the local delicacies—from salt cod

to octopus,

from custard pastries

to a myriad of sausages

and the ubiquitous ham. 

Portuguese wine, too, is excellent, but not exported to the US very much (except for Vinho Verde) because they don’t produce the quantity Americans would demand. The reds are surprisingly good, possessing an oomph similar to a Spanish Priorat or Ribera.

Fish and seafood are abundant in both the markets 

and the restaurants. Simply grilled with a little olive oil and lemon, it doesn’t get any fresher than this.

Caldo verde, a cabbage or kale soup with a puréed potato base, can be found on almost every menu and makes for a tasty, quick lunch. 

The cheese is excellent too, and of ample variety. My favorite was an aged goat cheese dusted with smoked paprika. It was the perfect accompaniment to a glass of Port at the end of dinner.

At some point during the trip, I realized that this was the longest uninterrupted time I’ve spent with my mom since I left home for college. And even then, as a teenager, I was caught up in my own life and wasn’t at home very much. My mom and I share a love of travel and adventure, so experiencing this trip together as two adult friends was special and gratifying. Sometimes, though, it was also a little disorienting. I found myself being simultaneously that daughter who was buried deep within my middle aged self, while at the same time I'd be skyping with my own teenaged daughters about their high school dramas, my head swirling as much as the water outside our tiny cabin's window. Perhaps this is simply what midlife means: to be in the middle, in every sense of the word, not only of the number of years (hopefully) that we’ll live, but also of our life, in all of its complexity and fullness.

No comments:

Post a Comment