Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Douro River, dinner in Porto, and cat tongues ...

On Saturday, Oct 23, Peggy and I took a boat cruise from Porto up the Douro River into the Douro wine region, the oldest and perhaps most famous wine region in Portugal. This is the place where port wine is born.

We started out at 9:00am from Vila Nova de Gaia, the town across the Douro River from Porto. Initially the weather was cool and a bit hazy but at least it wasn't raining as had been forecast and it cleared up quickly.

Leaving Porto we pass a number of quaint villages.

And if you're in the market for an old fixer-upper, there are a few to choose from...

The Douro River has two dams on it, constructed in the 1960's I believe, for hydro-electric power and to make the river more useful for commercial traffic. The locks in the dams were dramatic, especially the second one. It is 35 meters deep. So when the boat pulls in and they shut the big steel gate at the back, you are at the bottom of a pretty deep hole.

It is also a tight fit - the boat is quite close to the walls.

We were also well fed on the boat. Before lunch it was a glass of white port and traditional Portuguese treats - "cod cookies" and a fried meaty concoction.

For lunch we had a Porto favorite - a francesinha. The literal translation of this is "little French girl" - but how a little girl could eat this I don't know. It is a sandwich only in that it has two pieces of bread. These are filled with three or four kinds of meat; ours had some pork and beef pieces and two kinds of pork sausage. On top of the second piece of bread is more meat and a thick layer of cheese. It is all covered in a light tomato sauce that is not like anything else I've had before. It is a serious nap-inducing meal. Peggy made a good effort with hers and I'm especially proud (or should that be embarrassed) to say that I did finish all of mine...

But the real attraction is the scenery. The vineyards with the terraced grape vines are fantastic.

Mining of granite and other rock is also a big operation along the river.

Of course, it doesn't always go as planned ...

It was a great day out on the water.

After disembarking, we took a trip to a winery for a sample of white port. After this we headed to the Museo do Douro. This museum had lots of great artifacts relating to wine production in the area. Two things stuck up for me. One was a picture of the old rabelo boats that would carry several large barrels of wine down the rushing Douro River to be stored in the wine cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia. The new dams make the water very peaceful but, from the photos, the old Douro would have been a challenging ride.

The other was a photo of men creating the terraces for the wine plants. To say that it looks like hard work is an incredible understatement. The land is very rocky, mostly rock actually and there is no easy way to get any machinery in there. One of the tools they used is a 6 foot steel bar over an inch in diameter. The photos showed men using this to stab into the ground to blast away the rock. They had one of theses bars there and I could barely lift it! Granted, being a computer scientist doesn't exactly put much meat on your bones, but still. How these guys would hoist this thing all day long I don't know. (My brother-in-law Brian borrowed something like this from his father when we helped him put in his backyard fence - he said they called it the "man killer", and it was. In Portuguese that would be "assassino do homem".)

After this we took the train back into Porto. We could have headed home, but instead decided to go back to the restaurant that so impressed us on Friday night. We'd come to Porto on Friday night for a nice dinner and to avoid having to catch a very early morning train to get to the boat by 9:00am on Saturday.

On João's recommendation we went to a small very out-of-the way place up, up, up the hill from the old Stock Exchange building. João's sister is good friends with the chef and her two daughters who run the front of the restaurant. This is one of those places in which you feel like you've been invited into someone's home for dinner. In fact, on our second night we were invited into the kitchen to see what was on the menu for that night as our Portuguese is still quite rusty and we looked sufficiently confused when one of the daughters explained it to us.

All of the food was fantastic, the dessert the first night was a real standout. It was sheep's milk ricotta cheese with a candied pumpkin preserve. The cinnamon and walnuts in the preserve, along with the sweet pumpkin, were nicely balanced by the creamy cheese. It was a great way to end the meal. I had to move fast in taking this photo as Peggy did not wait for me when I reached for the camera.

Lastly, a mention of our first gastronomic treat from Porto. On Friday evening we stopped at the Arcadia chocolate shop for these small slivers of delicious dark chocolate. The are called "linguas de gato" - translated this is "cat tongues" - due to their small, thin, and apparently cat-tongue-like appearance.

A few of these and a nice glass of white port have been nice companions in writing this entry.



  1. I thought just Germans had cat tongues. I guess Europe has more crazies than I thought :-)

  2. We have to get up there. The food sounds wonderful and yummy.Steve and I are addicted to white port with tonic water and lemon. I may pass on the cod cookies :)