Wine, History and Salt Cod
In northern Portugal, Henry Jeffreys discovers that the beautiful city of Porto is being transformed by a growing tourism industry, while the remote vineyards of the Douro valley have a charm all of their own
By Henry Jeffreys
April 27 2019
After three days in Porto, the true reason for the ancient alliance between the English and the Portuguese dawned on me. Yes there’s wine and having a common enemy in the Spanish, but it’s really about a shared love of stodgy food. The city’s most famous dish is called a Francesinha, a sandwich stuffed full of steak, sausage and ham, covered in melted cheese and baked in a spicy beer sauce. With a fried egg on top. And it’s served with chips. Of course it is! It tastes like it was invented after rather too much herbal refreshment.
Forget any thoughts about a Mediterranean diet, the other classic local dishes are tripe stew and salt cod served dozens of ways (my favourite are the deep-fried croquettes stuffed with cheese from Casa Portuguesa do Pastel de Bacalhau.) The English originally brought the cod, caught on the Grand Banks, and exchanged it for wine. The Portuguese noted how enthusiastically the English drank the stuff: there is still a popular insult, bebabo Inglez – it means ‘English drunk’.
And that’s how it was for centuries. Porto was a working town based around wine, and the vast majority of the visitors were British. But now the rest of the world has woken up to the city’s charms. This is my third visit and, according to Richard Bowden of Porto’s Yeatman Hotel, “the city is rocking at the moment.” Why has it taken so long? It’s a gorgeous-looking place, built up the steep side of the valley leading down to the Douro river, with bridges (one of them designed by Gustave Eiffel) linking Porto with Vila Nova de Gaia on the opposite bank. Vila Nova is where the British built their warehouses so that they would be outside the jurisdiction of the city.
All the old names are still there emblazoned above the old warehouses: Taylors, Fonseca, Croft, Dow etc. But they’ve been joined by bars and restaurants along the shore. The grungy city that I first visited in 2014 is fast disappearing.
It was the Yeatman Hotel which put Porto on the international tourist map when it opened in 2010. It was the brainchild of Adrian Bridge, CEO of the Fladgate partnership, which owns Taylor’s, Fonseca, and Croft. The hotel has a two Michelin-starred restaurant, and even a couple of suites with beds built into huge oak port barrels. The hotel sits in an elevated position overlooking those old warehouses. From the terrace – or indeed the infinity pool – you can catch splendid sunsets over Porto.
At the moment the famous view is rather impinged upon by the cranes working on Bridge’s latest project: a museum of wine that’s set to transform Vila Nova, a place where the old warehouses are already like working museums. For now, we recommend the visitor experience at the Taylor’s lodge.
Port has been through some tough times. Many of the old names were bought by multinationals and quality deteriorated, but the wines are now better than ever. Sales by volume may be down (hence the switch to tourism) but the premium market is booming.
In Porto they drink tawny port, wood aged, mellow and pale in colour, drunk lightly chilled; as well as white port and tonic instead of a G&T. The table wines are now also excellent.
To get across the river you can take a boat, or cross at one of the bridges.
The city has a modern tram and metro system but we spent two days walking fuelled by ice cream (our daughter) and Port (my wife and I). The Fladgate empire continues on the other side of the river at the Infante Sagres hotel.
It’s a Porto institution (one port CEO told me louchly, “I had one of my honeymoons there”), now returned to its former glory. The attached Vogue cafe has a glamorous bar and does recognisably Portuguese food like salt cod, but lighter than the traditional style. Well, it is called the Vogue cafe.
After time spent in Porto, you need to go up country to find the source of the wine. It would have taken early British merchants weeks to get there braving bandits, rapids and extremes of temperature. We took the train: a charming old number that trundled slowly while we watched the scenery change from the lush vegetation of Porto to the dramatic, sunbaked Douro valley.
It takes about an hour and a half to reach Pinhão, a village perched on the banks of the Douro. I was expecting a sleepy, one-donkey kind of place, but it was crammed with buses and umbrella wielding Chinese tour parties. Luckily, our driver Manuel was waiting for us in an old Mercedes to whisk us up into the hills, to the premises of Quinta da Gricha. This is a winery owned by the Churchill Graham family, which happens to have guest rooms to stay the night, and for those that want them,
offers cooking classes, wine tasting and vineyard tours. Very soon we were alone with only ancient pickup trucks ferrying grape pickers to the vineyards.
The weather was baking, so on arrival we cooled off in the pool and ate oranges and grapes straight off the trees.
Our daughter befriended the vineyard dogs and went exploring. At night I got an idea of just how remote the quinta (farm in Portuguese) is. From the terrace there were almost no other lights on the hillside. It was deeply peaceful. That night we dined with the other guests (salt cod, inevitably – and deliciously); not even a couple from the West Midlands wittering about Brexit could spoil the moment. With a glass of 20 Year Old Churchill tawny in my hand, I fell into a state of Port-fuelled bliss. 2019 rates at The Yeatman are from €195 for a single room.
For more information visit the-yeatman-hotel.com. Quinta da Gricha is a working winery with four suites available. For information go to churchills-port.com/quinta-da-gricha.
TAP Air Portugal has 20 weekly departures from London City and London Gatwick to Porto. Prices start at £49. For further information visit flytap.com