There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 24 October 2011

Drinking the Algarve

Even a cursory glance at Eating the Algarve will show that a glass of wine is the essential accompaniment to any Portuguese meal. Fish being our usual choice in most restaurants, we have inevitably absorbed a considerable quantity of ‘house white’ over the years. You cannot travel far in the Algarve without stumbling over a vineyard, but we have yet to encounter a restaurant with an Algarve house wine.

There goes another bottle of house white

Although the region has four Denominaçãos de Origem, nobody, not even the locals, has a kind word to say about Algarve wines.  We frequently drive past the sizable cooperative that makes most of the wine of the Lagoa DOC, much wine classified as Vinho Regional do Algarve and plenty else besides. I have drunk some pretty poor wines from this winery, several others which have been reasonable, but none that came close to being exciting.

Not that this worries the Algarveans; they drank local wine when they were too poor to drink anything else, but today they quite happily enjoy vintages from any and everywhere else in Portugal.

The country as a whole is awash with wine, with something to suit everybody’s taste and pocket, so does it matter that Algarve wines are so moderate? Think global, drink local, as Friends of the Earth do not quite say, though my friend Francis often does. For those of us who like to drink local there is light on the horizon.

I am old enough to remember Cliff Richard as a lip-curling teenage rebel somewhat unconvincingly marketed as the British Elvis Presley. The same girls who screamed at him in 1960 have recently been queuing overnight for tickets for his new tour. The ‘girls’ may now be grandmothers, the teenage rebel has become Sir Cliff and an official national treasure, but little else seems to have changed. If such longevity seemed unlikely fifty years ago, it was a less remote possibility than the same Cliff playing a major part in the revitalizing of Algarve winemaking, though that, too, came to pass. (I say re-vitalizing, but no one remembers when it was ever vitalized.)

Sir Cliff, the granny's heartthrob, hawks his wares on the streets of Lagos

Sir Cliff planted a vineyard on his estate near the village of Guia in 1997. He built the Adega do Cantor, a state of the art winery,  next door and suddenly premium wine was being made in the Algarve. When I tried a bottle of his Vida Nova in 2006, it was the best and most expensive Algarve wine I had ever drunk - though the bar was not set very high in either case.

Most supermarkets now have a ‘local wine’ corner. I do not know if Adega do Cantor was actually the first boutique winery, but it was certainly among the earliest. Not all the wines in the ‘local corner’ are good, but I can recommend the wines of Herdade de Pimenteis near Portimão, Borges da Silva and Monte da Casteleja both in Lagos*. With an oenology degree from Montpellier University and a masters from Wagga Wagga in Australia, Guillaume Leroux (French father, hence the name) at Monte da Casteleja epitomises the new wave Algarve wine farmer. The peasant winemaker – indeed the Portuguese peasant – died out last century.
Monte de Casteleja's Maria
It is a touch ironic that in a region famed for its fish, the red wines are by far the more reliable. As in other sun drenched seaside areas – Provence and Corsica come to mind - the answer may be rosé, and rosés are beginning to appear in the ‘local corners’ in increasing numbers. Not all are enjoyable, Algarve sunshine makes it difficult to retain sufficient acidity, but the best - like those from the Quinta dos Vales in Estombar and João Clara in Alcantarilha - suggest this might be the way forward. Alcantarilha is an unremarkable collection of buildings around a crossroads on the main N125, but it is impossible to drive through the village (or write about it, I have just discovered) without saying the name out loud – several times. ALCANTARILHA, ALCANTARILHA. Our daughter Siân could so easily have been called Alcantarilha, or maybe chipolata.

Algarve Rosé


Properly chilled, Portuguese beer can be refreshing on a hot day. Its main qualities are that it is wet and fizzy. There are not, to my knowledge, any breweries in the Algarve. Sagres, one of the bestselling brands, may carry the name of an Algarve town, but is brewed near Lisbon.

Sagres Beer


Medronho is the traditional Algarve firewater, made from the fruit of the Strawberry tree. It should be tried once, as should the various tooth achingly sweet almond liqueurs. Those, like me, who do not find Medronho’s strange vegetal flavour attractive, can resort to readily available alternatives from elsewhere in Portugal.

Local brandy is very drinkable. As in Spain it is coloured with caramel, but I find the caramel flavour less pronounced in Portuguese brandies. Macieira is one of the better brands; my mother was a devotee for many years. The story that shares in the company dropped sharply when my parents sold their home in Portugal is probably apocryphal.

Old style Bagaceira

Bagaceira, like French marc or Italian grappa, is distilled from the skins and pips left over after wine making. There was a time when it was sold for very little in litre bottles with six stars round the neck - the same bottles the French used for vin ordinaire - and sealed with foil over a plastic cap. It was considered an old man’s drink and as sales slumped the producers attempted, with only partial success, to give it a more up-market image. Bagaceira, like other drinks of its kind, has a distinct flavour of the cowshed. Those who like that sort of thing will find this the sort of thing that they like. It is my regular Algarve nightcap, which is not inappropriate as I am, inexorably, becoming an old man. I like the Aldeia Velha (Old Village) brand, even though it is made by the giant Pernod-Ricard company. It feels right at 40% alcohol; some are stronger, but they tend to give me a headache ('And whose fault is that?' as Lynne might say).

Bagaceira - newer image

And finally
Long standing links with Brazil define the Portuguese taste in coffee, which suits me fine. Morning café con leite with a cake is an indulgent pleasure. Lunch or dinner out is not complete without one of the small, aggressive espressos known as a Bica. ‘Bica’ is Portuguese for ‘nipple’, and, no, I do not understand the connection, either.

Café con leite, Loulé

I might add that not all drinks are alcoholic or contain stimulants. The tap water is perfectly safe to drink if you have a thirst.

* Pronounced Lah-goosh and definitely not the capital of Nigeria.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Eating the Algarve

After our Algarve holiday last October I posted The Algarve: Depredations and Delights about the changes we have seen in the region over the last thirty years. As we have just returned from our eighteenth visit, the delights must outweigh the depredations, so this year I have decided to be positive and concentrate on one particular delight. Being who I am, it is hardly surprising that the delight I have chosen is the food.

Despite having no Mediterranean coast, Portugal is often thought of as a Mediterranean country. Portuguese is a Latin language, the climate, particularly in the Algarve is Mediterranean and the diet is Mediterranean. Tomatoes, garlic and sweet peppers are important, olive oil, used as a cooking medium, condiment and salad dressing, is essential.

Warm & blue, but definitely not the Mediterranean

Portuguese food inevitably bears some resemblance to that of their bigger neighbour (though the locals would, doubtless, protest at any comparison). Meal times, though, are undeniably different. The Spanish like their lunch at 2 or 3 in the afternoon, and in the evening nobody eats before 10 o’clock. Portuguese restaurants expect customers to arrive for their almoços around 1 o’clock and for their jantares between 7 and 8 - which suits us far better.

Carvoeiro, where we have stayed each of the last seven years, may be only a village, but it has enough restaurants to last a fortnight without repetition, deviation or hesitation. There is at least one English restaurant and two or three that advertise all-day English breakfast, which is a sad reflection on some British tourists. There are also Chinese and Indian restaurants, which we have never visited - with so many local goodies on offer, it seems foolish to eat food we can get at home*. Most restaurants, though, could be classified as Portuguese. Their menus do not differ greatly, nor do their prices and the cooking is essentially simple. At its best, it involves using the freshest ingredients and treating them with respect; this is not fine dining (though the Algarve has its Michelin starred restaurants) this is good food at everyday prices – something the Portuguese do supremely well.

Until very recently, no sooner had you sat down than you would be brought bread, olives, sliced carrots in olive oil with crushed garlic, sardine paté, maybe even a small cheese. You were never asked, they were not written on the menu but they appeared in the bill as a modest ‘cover charge’. That has changed; everything is now individually priced and offered to you rather than plonked on the table. Sometimes you even have to ask for them. I do not know if the change is Portuguese inspired or a reaction to tourist’s perceived needs, either way I feel something has been lost.

If dining in, we start with three great Algarve staples, almonds, olives and Port (all right Port is not Algarvean, but it is essentially Portuguese.) Port before dinner? Yes, but not vintage port, this is cheap-as-you-like port, €4 a bottle port - less if possible. Tawny is ideal, earthier and less sweet that ruby. Among many varieties of olives, we prefer the small, black and shiny. English bought olives are usually pre-stoned, even though punching out the stone knocks out half the flavour; Portuguese olives are always sold intact. Port, black olives and salted almonds is a combination made in heaven or, at least, Portugal.

Port, olives & almonds
The Algarve is roughly rectangular, about 100 km long by 50 wide. As two sides of this rectangle are Atlantic coastline it is hardly surprising that fish is pre-eminent in Algarve cuisine. Several types of bass, bream and mackerel which always sound better in Portuguese (Dourado, Robledo, Carapau) are simply grilled and served whole, with a salad and maybe a few boiled potatoes. Cuts from larger fish like haddock or hake are served ‘Portuguese style’ - hidden in an earthenware dish beneath a blanket of garlicky tomatoes and sweet green peppers . Sole is generally filleted while tuna, swordfish and cuts across the strange scabbard fish are served as steaks.

Scabbard fish
Olhão market

The cataplana – a pair of hinged copper shells that can be sealed together - is a peculiarly Algarvean piece of cookware. It allows complete retention of flavour and can be placed on the heat either way up. A cataplana, usually serving two, will contain several pieces of fish - whatever is available - and, typically, prawns and mussels. The smell when a cataplana is opened is wonderful, though sadly the mussels are now often large green-lip mussels imported from New Zealand rather than local fruits de mer.

Restaurant Vimar, Carvoeiro

The Portuguese love affair with Bacalhau (salt cod) dates from the days before refrigeration. It was once the major source of protein and there are, allegedly, 365 ways of cooking it, so it can be eaten every day. It is sold as dry sheets in shops and markets everywhere, but is an acquired taste and has found less favour with tourist orientated restaurants. Bacalhau à Brás, flakes of salt cod, onion and fried potatoes mixed with scrambled egg, is an undemanding introduction to this delicacy.

Dona Barca
Sardines are typically Algarvean and appear on most menus. Like all fish they are best eaten as close as possible to where they are landed. Since 1982 we have been making what has become a pilgrimage to the Algarve’s second city of Portimão to eat sardines. The scruffy trestle tables on the dock have long been tidied up, but ducking under an arch from where they used to be brings you to a small square where Dona Barca, an old style restaurant with communal tables, has set up its grill. They have a full fishy menu, but their sardines, at €4.50 for half a dozen, are as fine and cheap a feast as could be wished for.

A man who is never afraid to put his fork where his mouth is
Squid, too, is a delight. Served whole (it is a crime to cut them into rings and cover them with batter) they are best simply grilled. We like to eat squid at Maria’s on the beach at Quinta do Largo. The combination of food and setting make this about as good as it gets. I ought to say a word here, too, for the squid’s uglier cousin, the cuttlefish. With a fishier flavour and a softer texture, cuttlefish might look like a huge yolkless poached egg, but Lynne regards them highly.

Lynne and a squid
Maria's, Quinta do Largo

Arroz de Mariscos (rice and shellfish) is, like a cataplana, usually a dish for two. A large bowl of fragrant stock is placed on the table from which you spoon out the rice, langoustine, prawns, mussels and anything else that might have been in the market that day. Mariscos without their shells are like olives without their stones, so fingers are required to liberate the tasty morsels. It all gets wonderfully messy.

Small scale clamming has always been important, but the last decade or so has seen serious over-fishing. Amêijoas à Bulhão Pato, clams in a garlicky broth, still appears on most menus, but the cheapest I saw this year was €12, which hardly makes it the cheap starter it once was. Pork with clams is a common main course and remains reasonably priced. It is sometimes cooked in a cataplana, sometimes not, when it is called Carne de Porco à Alentejano (Alentejo is the next province to the north). Both are good. In China standard practice is to dump your clam shells on the table and  someone will come along later with a greasy rag and sweep them onto the floor. The Portuguese, however, provide you with a tidy bowl for your emptied shells.

One pork and clams, one goat chop
Dois Imão Restuarant, Faro

Portugal and the chilli: a small digression. We think of the Mediterranean diet as being largely chilli-free. This is not true of the south coast; the Egyptians and Moroccans like their chillies, but to the north, in Italy, France and Spain, the chilli is absent from traditional cuisine. The same is broadly true in Portugal – but not entirely.

The African birdseye chilli, known in Portugal as piri-piri, can be bought strung into necklaces or as piri-piri sauce. Chicken piri-piri is not only ubiquitous but every restaurant’s cheapest dish. Given the quality of Portuguese chickens (not to mention my own chilli habit) it would be a poor holiday that did not involve at least one lunchtime chicken piri-piri.

I had always assumed that piri-piris came from Portugal’s former African colonies, and indeed they are much appreciated  in Mozambique, but that is not the whole story: it was the Portuguese who first took chillies to India. Vindaloo, the ultimate test of British diner's machismo, includes vinegar (the ‘vin’ in the vindaloo) and, often, pork - distinctly un-Indian ingredients. Vindaloo, originally from Goa, is a product of Portuguese/Indian fusion cuisine. Digression over

Piri-piri chicken apart, we rarely eat meat in Portuguese restaurants although Lynne enjoyed some goat chops this year – goat meat, though excellent, is difficult to find in England. We always buy a chicken to cook ‘at home’. They look scrawny - carcases are not routinely injected with water - but what you get is more meat than you would imagine possible, a wonderful texture and the flavour that chicken used to have before it became an industrial product. Quails, too, are good. They rarely appear on menus but are available, very cheaply, in all butchers. We like them pot-roasted with the usual Portuguese suspects.

Lunches at home are also often meat based. The air-dried ham, presunto, is similar to Italian prosciutto or Spanish jamon. Chouriçãos (Sausages),  are perfect with a salad and may contain some piri-piri, as may the ubiquitous but moreish sardine paté. Cheeses come in a variety of styles and an even bigger variety of prices. They are generally mild; the best have richly subtle flavours, the cheapest are bland and factory produced. The milk of cows, goats and sheep are used, unusually they are sometimes mixed in one cheese.
Lunch, chourição a salad and a small cheese

Dessert menus usually involve a large glossy folded card produced by a manufacturer of synthetic desserts and ice creams. Stuck somewhere on the card there will always be a small, often hand-written, list of the real desserts, many of which will have been made in-house. Ever present is Pudim Flan, a rich eggy caramel custard, which is perfect when you have too little room for anything heavier. Sometimes it is just perfect. Other residents of the dessert menu are also suitable for morning cake and coffee - another reason why a trip to Portugal is traditional followed by a diet. There will be an assortment of bolos (cakes) and tartes (translation unnecessary) made from local produce including (but not limited to) almonds, figs, carobs, oranges and apples. The cakes will always be made with one egg more than would be normal elsewhere and they are universally wonderful.

Coffee & cakes, Ferragudo

The queen of the coffee and cakes treats is the pastel de nata, a custard cream, but so much more than the name suggests. The fine people of Macao think they have turned the pastel de nata into their speciality, and have even exported it to Hong Kong. They are good, but the Portuguese original is better. The pastry flakes perfectly, the filling has flavour not just sweetness, and if they look a little burned on top, the more of that colouring the better.

Dois pasteis de nata

By the time you have eaten all that you are stuffed, but happy - and I have not even mentioned shaped marzipan sweets! Algarve regulars will probably have favourites I have omitted - put a comment in the box and I will try to put that right.

With all that food, you will need a drink – and that will be the next post.

* Were we expats rather than holidaymakers my attitude might be different – when living in America I once drove 130 miles for a pound of British sausages and a bottle of HP sauce, and thought the time well spent.

Other Algarve posts

Sunday, 2 October 2011

October in Staffordshire: The Weather's Gone Weird Again

This is a travel blog, so it is not concerned with events at home, and by at home I mean right here, in our house and in our garden. But it is my blog and they are my rules, so if I wish to rewrite them – ignoring the small matter of their actually being unwritten – then I can.

The world is becoming warmer, and the activities of our species are almost certainly to blame; but for those of us who don’t have access to the numbers, its nigh on impossible to pick out the signal from the noise. Over the last twelve months the weather noise over this patch of the world has been spectacularly chaotic.

I felt moved to write about weather last November, when we had an unexpected dump of snow. Coping with a Cold Snap  has been one of the least visited postings on this blog (as maybe this will be, too), but that does not alter the fact that it does not snow in England in November. Only last year it did....

The First Dusting of Snow, November 2010

.....and then it hung around, and it got cold.

Cannock Chase, 20th of December 2010
And in April? The skies were blue, the sun was warm, I went walking in shorts and a t-shirt.

Walking the Stone Circle - or, in this picture, not walking the Stone Circle
9th of April 2011
Even on the 24th March Brian and I tramped across a dozen miles of the Peak District and drank our lunch sitting in the garden of the Jervis Arms.

The White Peak, blue skies, warm sun
24th of March 2011

But summer could not be arsed to put in more than a token appearance. Lynne and I lunched in the fresh air more often in April than in July or August. We had dinner outside only once as even dry, sunny days – and there were precious few of them - seem to lose their warmth as the sun began to dip.

So now we have reached autumn. Next week we go to Portugal, where the southern sun should allow us to lunch al fresco every day, whether in our own (rented) garden or picnicking in the hills or sitting outside a favourite restaurant. By dinnertime, though, the evening cool will usually have forced us inside.

Normal October weather - in Portugal
But before we go we will enjoy the Indian summer here. Even in Staffordshire, even in a village on a hill with its own dismally cool microclimate, the temperature has leapt cheerfully into the mid twenties. Yesterday, on the first of October, we had dinner in the garden for the second time this year. The autumn equinox has passed, so we lacked the light we would have had in July – at least the hours of daylight have a reassuringly predictable pattern – but there was not a breath of wind, so we ate by candlelight.

Sitting outside and expecting to be served with food and drink - when the waiter's finished
 taking photographs.  October 2011
This should not happen in October, not here, not in Staffordshire.