Porto: Food and Street Art

2 Jun

As I went through the photos I’ve taken so far of our week in Porto, two themes seem to have especially captured my attention: food and street art.  So before I write about the travelogue sites, I thought I’d concentrate on these topics, which are always my favorite pleasures while travelling.

That Porto has such magnificent opportunities for good, cheap, unpretentious eating was not such a surprise, since we remembered how well we ate in Lisbon last year.  What we were not prepared for was the sheer number of inexpensive places and the discovery of new cuisines. On our first culinary outing, after a number of false starts (places too crowded, too many tourists, didn’t look quite right), we found a little restaurant right around the corner from our house. Since it was filled with locals, we figured it would be a decent bet–Portuenses, as citizens of Porto are called, take their eating very seriously. (Porto citizens are also known as tripeiros, tripe eaters, because during the 15th century they sacrificed meat which was shipped to battling sailors, while the people in town settled for offal. They wear the label with pride, even when they don’t eat tripe themselves).

lunch&rice_dongriffon_porto_may26 The restaurant, Don Grilon on Rua de Passos Manuel, was hopping; everyone seemed to know everyone, and the owner lightheartedly chided the waiter to take the orders more quickly. The man who sat down at the table next to us was obviously a regular, since everyone bopped him on the shoulder as they walked by, and brought him his meal without even asking what he wanted.  A little hand-written daily menu offered several choices, and since it was written in Portuguese, we just kind of  guessed, and then took the owner’s suggestions. When we asked if we should get a full or half meal of the Costeletas, pork cutlets, he laughingly made it clear that a full order would feed a stevedore.  So here’s what we got: a traditional side dish of rice and beans, along with our two pork chops and a whole plate of grilled fish, plus bread, salad and coffee. The price for this feast?  12 Euros. The atmosphere was cozy, too; we felt like members of the neighborhood.

We found our next day’s lunch venue again by chance. I was looking at Google Maps of our neighborhood, and found this oddly named restaurant on the other side of the Biblioteca Municipal, again just up the street from our place. I had no idea what kind of food they had or what the name, Tabafeira, meant, but it looked a bit foodie and interesting.

This one was, for me, a real find. The entire menu of Tabafeira centers on alheira, a traditional rural sausage mix with a fascinating history. Here’s what Wikipedia says about its origins:

The type of sausage that became known as “alheira” was invented by the Jews of Portugal, who were given the choice of either being expelled from the country in 1497 unless they converted to Christianity. Those who converted but secretly retained their beliefs avoided eating pork, forbidden in Judaism; this put them at risk of being noticed not to hang sausages, traditionally made of pork, in their fumeiros (smokehouses).[1] As a way to avoid attracting the attention of the Portuguese Inquisition or in rural areas the Portuguese Christians, they did make sausages, but with other meats, such as poultry and game, mixed with bread for texture.

Eventually, this very creative way to extend meats was adopted by Christian Portuguese as well, and remains a beloved reminder of old country cooking for most natives. The very earnest chef and staff of Tabafeira have adapted this peasant fare for contemporary diners’s tastes, and offer a delicious, if limited, array of variations of alheira dishes. They even make a vegetarian one!  We loved our versions so much that we went back again. 

Finally, our big splurge of a meal–at a grand total of about $28–came at a place recommended online by every travel site talking about Porto. A Grade restaurant is on a little side street near the River quay. It is so small and so smack dab in the middle of touristy Porto that we did have to wait a little while to get a seat (mostly because we didn’t want to sit with the smokers in the outdoors section). But oh, my, well worth the wait! George had rabbit, I had octopus–both of which were as tender as they could possibly be. Mariza, the great fado singer, played on the sound system, the smiling owner was elated that I recognized who she was, and the food tasted like something your very skilled Portuguese grandmother would make. At the end of the meal, the owner offered George a shot of what he says was the best port he has ever tasted. On the house!  If you are ever in Porto, EAT HERE!

As we always do, we do most of our own cooking while travelling, so trips to the markets and bakeries are always enjoyable expeditions. Porto has superb open market places, none more classic than the Mercado de Bolhão–an enormous covered block, where the farmers used to come in from the country with their wares. It now is only half full, but has a selection of everything from fish to flowers to herbs and ceramic tiles.

And pastries!  Unfortunately, I can no longer eat those delightful Portuguese delicacies, Pasteles de Nata, but there are plenty of other offerings to satisfy a sweet tooth. The beautiful Majestic Cafe is always crowded with tourists, but worth a visit if you can get in; if not, the same goodies are available all over town.

We have yet to get to Afurada, the little fishing village across the river that offers by all accounts the very best grilled fish imaginable, so we will have to report on that culinary experience once we get there. In any case, as far as we can tell, it’s nearly impossible to get a bad meal in Porto.

Perhaps because our place in Porto is right across the street from the city’s School of Fine Arts, we have been impressed by the great amount of high-quality street art found on walls and doors throughout the neighborhood. (And as you can see above in that third image, DT’s effect is felt as disastrously here as everywhere.)

The first street art I noticed I can only describe as truly clever student Dada, photomontages and collages made on paper and pasted to the walls.

Then there were the posters for Carnaval, just past, that seem to have been put up as empty-centered silkscreens, to be filled in by others. These showed up all over the city, so the urge to street art is not confined to the art school district.

We love the flippancy, the irreverence, and at times, the radical political statements expressed. My favorites: a recurring image of the Madonna with flaming cow, and a single poster I found indicating that Porto women also marched in January in solidarity with the Women’s March in Washington, D.C.

Finally, we discover in the unlikeliest locations ceramic tiles with some kind of artistic message. The tile with the head of Portugal’s most revered modern poet, Fernando Pessoa, appears all over the city, usually alongside other street art. The other photo is a tile we found outside the entrance to our neighborhood park, Jardim de São Lázaro. We fussed over what it could possibly mean, until our scientist son enlightened us: the chemical formula represents chlorophyll!  A fitting symbol when entering Porto’s oldest municipal park, opened in 1834.

As I knew we would, we like this city a lot:  great food, and signs everywhere of a creative spirit.

And cats, too!


One Response to “Porto: Food and Street Art”

  1. Peter Detwiler June 7, 2017 at 4:24 am #

    George eating great food and a picture of a cat. It’s the perfect blog-post, thanks!

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