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TRAVEL-Postcard from Porto.

Summary: Portugal's historic second city is home to stunning food and port lodges that take you back in time, Marina O'Loughlin discovers.

My affair with Portugal is a late blossomer - it's easy to get waylaid by the more obvious pleasures of its Mediterranean neighbours. But the more I see, the more it snakes its ways into my affections.

For one thing, I can't believe how unsung its wines are: vinhEuo and alvarinho are every bit as luscious as rioja and albariEo, but not nearly as well-known. In Porto, we're staying at The Yeatman hotel (the-yeatman-hotel.com), a luxury swankpot with more than just a killer view across the river Douro. Beds are carved out of oversized wine barrels and there's a bottle-shaped swimming pool. Yes, folks, the Yeatman is all about the vino: the cellars groan with one of the world's greatest collections of Portuguese wines.

We pitch up to one of its regular Thursday wine dinners, each one hosted by a different producer - ours is the celebrated Dona Maria from the Alentejo. We're fed course after course of elaborate dishes created by the hotel's Michelin- starred chef Ricardo Costa whilst being guided through the vintages by chic young wine director, Beatriz Machado. It's a delicious, somewhat blurry blowout.

The Yeatman is on the south bank of the river, as are all the major port lodges; they form a unique urban landscape. We choose historic Taylor's (taylor.pt) for our mandatory visit, a few hours of shady vines, fragrant, ancient barrels - the flavour of the wood is not desired - and fortified wines: the caramelised orange and almond notes of everyday glugger, tawny port; dry white Chip, a perfect aperitif. Taylor's own invention, the late-bottled vintage is a dream with cheese.

The Douro's banks are lined with bars and restaurants, but most are tourist magnets. Porto's steep, cobbled streets reward the explorer however, with gems like local culinary whizz Rui Paula's DOP (ruipaula.com), for instance. His modern, thoughtful menu delivers refined versions of traditional dishes like tripas a moda and Porto's beloved francesinha (an E-ber croque monsieur with ham, cheese, sausage and spiced beer and tomato sauce) in the setting of a beautiful, 14th-century building.

Next, we try a cute, off-piste little townhouse, Solar Moinho de Vento (solarmoinhodevento. com). Fado music plays in the background, and food is unabashedly old-school Porto - linguadinhos tritos (small, fried sole); pataniscas (cod fritters); vast metal saucepans of acorda (bread porridge) or arroz malandrino (a soupy rice dish), plonked on the table. I'm enchanted by the wrinkled little ladies who run the kitchen, industrious and smiley. Little wonder - they appear to be entirely fuelled by port.

Like Lisbon, Porto bristles with Art Nouveau shop fronts - delicious chocolatier ArcEidia (arcadia.pt), for instance, its interior unchanged since 1933 - and bars trapped in time. Fifties gem Cafe Ceuta (cafeceuta.pai.pt) perhaps, where we have 'liquid marzipan' amarguinha. Or Cafe Guarany (cafeguarany.com) in the main square, across from a hilariously opulent, chandeliered McDonald's, where your toastie and pastel de nata are delivered to marble-topped tables by waiters dressed for The Titanic. And that's before I even touch on the outrageously gorgeous Majestic (cafemajestic.com), with its elaborate mirrors and ceiling covered with fat, romping cherubs. There isn't a lovelier place to wallow in the unabashedly calorific francesinha.

Equally time-warped is Mercado do BolhEuo, its scruffy, ramshackle air hiding all sorts of treasures. I love Leandro's for pungent sausages and paio lombo (smoked pork loin); and stalls laden with bacalhau or dense, brown Avintes rye bread. Upstairs, the market is even more evocative - butchers selling pernil (smoked pig's knee) are guarded by cages of live songbirds. Outside the market is Rua Formosa - a street where every second store is an immaculate, perfectly-preserved vintage grocery store serving candied fruits, sausages and addictive meat pastries known as pasteis chaves.

In the Bombarda art district, we reject the lures of the chic bars that line these gallery-crammed streets, heading instead to Churrasqueira Domingos (churrasqueiradomingos.com) for Portugal's signature rotisserie chicken. Imagine a Nando's where the food is cooked by angels and you're close - vast platters of sensationally smoky chicken and heaps of crisp, yellow chips with a half bottle of vinho verde for 11 e1/4? Oh, yes!

And we can't get enough of the old fisherman's district, Matosinhos, where outdoor grills belch smoke and sardines. In slightly more upmarket Mariazinha (restaurantemariazinha.com) there's a wall of wine bottles with a TV perched nearby and a gentlemanly senior waiter.

A whole meal's worth of freebies arrives before we even hit main courses - think rissEis de camarEuo (a blissful, prawn-stuffed crisp pancake), bread filled with cheese and ham, and marinated octopus. Plates heaving with fresh shellfish are served next, then mains of seafood rice, cabrito (kid, a typically northern dish), and posta Mirandesa (a mammoth veal steak with a piquant garlic and wine vinegar sauce).

Plus, of course, plenty of local wine. And port. Porto isn't a fling, it's a keeper.

TRY THIS

Francesinha

SERVES 2 25 MINUTES Easy P

This sandwich means 'Frenchie' in Portuguese and traditionally comes with a tomato and beer sauce. It's not for the faint-hearted.

2 minute steaks, fat trimmed

2 chipolata sausages, halved lengthways

4 slices of white bread

2 slices cooked ham

4 slices linguica (smoked sausage) or salami

4 slices cheese (use a melting cheese like Swiss or Monterey Jack)

Gravy

A' onion, finely chopped

olive oil

500ml pilsner beer

chicken stock cube

2 bay leaves

2 tbsp tomato puree

1 tbsp cornflour

1 To make the gravy, fry the onion in a little olive oil until soft. Cook the steak and sausage in the same pan then lift out and keep warm. Add the beer, stock cube, bay leaves and tomato puree and bring to a simmer. Cook for 5 mins until the alcohol flavour is cooked out. Add a little water to the cornflour to make a paste and then stir this into the gravy, simmer until it thickens a little, then season. Remove the bay leaves and blend the gravy until smooth.

2 Heat the oven to 200C/180C fan. Make two sandwiches using the bread and meats and put each in an ovenproof dish. Lay the cheese on top of the sandwiches and pour over the gravy. Bake for 15 mins until the cheese melts.

PER SERVING 846 kcals, protein 56.5g, carbs 40.7g, fat 42.9g, sat fat 19.6g, fibre 2.7g, salt 4.7g

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Publication:BBC GoodFood Middle East
Article Type:Recipe
Date:Feb 28, 2013
Words:1093
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