At mealtimes or cocktail hour, Portugal’s second city proves it’s no second fiddlle.
Explore Porto’s culinary culture and discover a place with a huge appetite for life
Words ORLA THOMAS
Photographs ADRIENNE PITTS
Shop where the locals do
Every morning, as the sun begins to strike Porto’s stone streets and azulejo tile façades, young and old head out for their daily retail ritual. Eschewing the one-stop shop, they fill their bags with produce from the central market, Mercado do Bolhão, and the tiny grocery stores, mercearias, that populate surrounding streets. Each has its specialty, and the oldest, Mercearia do Bolhão, smells of smoked meat and coffee, with a base note of spices. A few doors up Rua Formosa is century-old A Pérola do Bolhão (‘the pearl of Bolhão’). Inside, owner António Rodrigues Reis maintains a statesmanlike position at the till, while his son António Alves dos Reis serves customers, filling the crammed shop with joyful laughter when a pensioner buying its prized nuts cracks a joke.
António the younger looks a little like Picasso in his prime, and confesses that he’s more fired by presentation than produce. “I am an artist and a sculptor, so my passion is for the creative side of the business,” he says, showing me a wall collage he created using old wine crates and black-and-white photos. “I also love getting to know the different people who come in here. They come to see what’s good, to taste and to smell – but also to talk.”
I step across the street and inside Comer E Chorar Por Mais. When it first opened in 1916, the business specialised in importing goods from Portugal’s colonies. It changed its name after a local newspaper reviewer said the place made him want to ‘eat and cry for more’. Today, floor-to-ceiling shelves offer a cornucopia of canned goods, wine, chouriço (the Portuguese equivalent of chorizo sausage) and the mountain cheese for which the shop is particularly known. The squat orange wheels fill the room with a heady scent as they age.
Start a conversation with coffee and pastry
Many Portuenses begin their day with a pastry and a coffee at one of the city’s cafés or bakeries. Among the oldest is Confeitaria do Bolhão, established in 1896. In the morning rush, staff greet regulars across the glass counter, where there’s a colourful display taking in marzipan animals and a giant triangular confection called ‘the Jesuit’. In Portugal, baking is almost literally a religion, the profusion of pastries a legacy of monks and nuns supplementing their orders’ incomes. The best-known example is the pastel de nata: the baked custard tart is Confeitaria do Bolhão’s top seller. However, the house specialty – an almond tart called tigelinha do Bolhão – is equally fine, leaving you wondering why it’s only the custard variety that’s achieved fame outside Portugal.
Locals all have a preferred spot to partake in their daily ritual, and 73-year-old João Pessanha’s is Café Guarany, a hub for the city’s literary elite since 1933.
Every day for two decades, he has sat at a marble-topped table here to write poems and drink coffee. “Being here makes me feel connected to Porto’s artists and writers,” Joaõ says. “It’s almost as though you can drink in the inspiration.” Taking a sip, he reads me one of his poems and, though I can’t understand a word, his voice is lyrical, his delivery full of emotion. “I write for myself, but my poetry is free to whoever wants to read it.” Before I leave, he presses a poem into my hand. For Joaõ, it is creative fuel, but, to Gonçalo Cardoso coffee is a passion in itself. “Before us, no-one was making specialty coffee in Porto,” he tells me, working in his shop, Combi, in up-and-coming Bonfim. “Everyone was drinking 80-cent espressos.” He hands over a superior cup, made from single origin beans roasted on site. “Our coffee is more acidic, more fruity, than what people are used to – but Portuguese people are curious. They love to try new things.” Combi’s best ambassador is the van for which it was named, a repurposed classic Mercedes. “People are always messaging us saying “Where will the van be today?” remarks Gonçalo. “She gets a lot of attention. But the earnings from the van paid for the shop, so I’d say she deserves it.”