The Portuguese waiter looked at us, nervously. “Sorry but we have run out of sardines,” he said in an accent that confirmed his three-year stint working in North London. We sat back and looked at the table. It was strewn with plates, chunks of bread and half-drunk wine glasses. Piles of sardine bones, stripped of their oily cream-coloured flesh, shimmered in the early afternoon sunlight streaming through the window.
We wanted more.
“Are you sure?” asked Joaquim Sa, the Portuguese representative at our table.
“Yes sir,” replied the Portuguese-Cockney who, incidentally, looked like a cross between Christiano Ronaldo and Ed Milliband. “You’ve eaten all our sardines.” He sounded amazed, confused and accusatory.
Joaquim shook his head. This was Portugal. This was the town of Oporto. This was Chez Lapin, one of Oporto’s venerable eateries.
And here you are not meant to run out of sardines.
Danie de Wet, another table member, shook his shoulders. “That’s okay,” Danie said to the waiter. “Please bring us another bottle of vinho verde.”
The waiter took a step back.
“Sir, you’ve finished the last bottle of vinho verde too.”
Suffice to say that this had been a real feast, something Portugal’s culinary offerings and wine styles ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ especially white wines ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ is well-suited to.
During this week-long trip, feasts were the order of the day. Although that legendary afternoon in Oporto when we cleaned-out Chez Lapin was in a class of its own. (The Port-pourers at Grahams were talking about it the next day and whilst walking along Gaia, old ladies in black dresses stopped to point.)
In Portugal, it all usually starts with two bottles of vinho verde on ice. The grapes for Vinho verde ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ translated as green wine ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ are picked young to ensure a fresh acidity. It is given a slight zip of carbon dioxide (less than one bar) for a moreish perky p+¬tillance. The usual suspects on the grape front are,Loureiro, Arinto,,Trajadura, Avesso and Azal, with some single-variety bottlings ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ especially under the slightly fuller-bodied Alvarinho.
Two glasses of zippy, zesty vinho verde does wonders for the appetite, as it does the same thing to your stomach acids as Kathleen Turner’s bath-tub scene in Body Heat does to your hormones. By glass three you are ready to eat a cow and its offspring.
But being in the wrong country for cow ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ but the right country for fish ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ you go for seafood.
Portugal has some of the most amazing seafood in the world – bet you that. It’s fresh. Simply prepared. Readily available.
Usually you’d kick-off with sardines. And no haute cuisine here, dude. The fishies are sprinkled with rock salt, splashed with olive oil and grilled on coals for about three minutes a side. Head is kept on, guts in. The heat releases the stomach fats into the flesh, so it is of major importance that the good stuff remains inside and the fish un-cleaned.
Sometimes, like the time at Chez Lapin, the sardines just take over. You eat the one after the other, picking up the fish, sliding it into your mouth tail-first, biting the head-off and stripping the backbone before reaching for the next one. Gulps of vinho verde wash the fishy morsels down to the place where the stomach acids are now contentedly doing the cha-cha.
At other places you’d move on after the sardines. An octopus tentacle the size of a baby’s arm is a popular choice.
Boiled until marrow-soft, the delectable suckered thing it chargrilled to offset a thrilling adventurous flavour. Want more fish? John Dory, Red Mullett, Sea-bass, Bream, Tuna?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-+?-+..the choice is yours.
Besides the sardines, my favourite dish was had at a small town south of Oporto. At a very local caf+¬ I got the best squid ever.
The things were whole ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ body, head, tentacles. The bone and ink had been cut out. Gently grilled, they were served in a cool sauce of olive oil, vinegar, fresh garlic and freshly chopped parsley.
I could have died and gone to the big eatery in the sky right there. At least the sardines don’t run out in heaven.