It’s not only the port wine which ages in Porto, Portugal’s second city. Humans, too, can put on a couple of years between arriving at a restaurant and being served
How long would it take you to make a toasted sandwich? Granted, I’m talking about quite a complicated version. It comes double-deckered with steak, ham and sausage, covered in cheese, topped with an egg and surrounded by a beery, winey sauce. But I’m also assuming, for the sake of argument, that you’re a professional. Your livelihood depends on serving toasted sandwiches.
So how long would it be? Ten minutes, perhaps? Fifteen? Twenty topside, surely - especially if the sauce were pre-prepared? If so, I urge you not to set up in Porto. The city will never cope with such whirlwind catering.
The francesinha sandwich – containing, roughly, one developing nation’s daily intake of calories – is a speciality in the capital of northern Portugal. Clearly, my party and I had to try it. This would get us out of tackling tripe, the city’s other food of preference. Though excellent for the poor and deprived, tripe is not a holiday dish.
So the francesinha it was to be. As there were four of us, we determined to try it at four different places, each of us ordering it once. Given that we were on a short-break, this was fool-hardy – but how could we know that the cooking of francesinhas was measured in geological time? The very fastest restaurant managed to get the sandwich to table in around 50 minutes. The slowest took one hour, 20 minutes.
These places, let me emphasise, were not moving to the leisurely and much-loved rhythms of laid-back Latins. On the contrary, the staff raced around as if their underwear were on fire. They were quite simply charmingly, dashingly, bumblingly hopeless.
The record-breaking eatery was on a first-floor terrace overlooking the River Douro, the riverside edge of the old Ribeira district. Here, bars and restaurants outnumbered the potential clientèle. We nudged along the terrace, which served not only other catering establishments but also private houses barely wide enough for a front door. We rounded old chaps dozing outside on plastic chairs and glanced in on even older women making the beds.
The restaurant was at the end. The choice of outside tables was large, for they were all empty. We sat down and were studied quizzically by a good-looking young Portuguese chap stationed by the restaurant door. Within minutes, though, he had clicked. He darted across with menus. Barely had I had time to favour my companions with the entire history of the port wine business than he returned to take our order. Then he returned again with beers.
Brilliant! Game on! And, initially, it was lovely waiting in the sun. The port-wine houses coated the riverbanks and hill opposite, their roof-top signs (Sandemans, Grahams, Croft, Cockburn) recalling happier times when Britain ran pretty much any trade it damned well wanted to. Before us, the Douro shone darkly under a huge sky. Flat-bottomed barcos sail-boats, once used to bring wine down-river, swayed at moorings. To the left, the Ponte Luis I iron bridge soared across the urban valley.
Every so often, the waiter erupted into the tranquillity, disappearing into diverse doors off the terrace as if in desperate search of something vital. “The chef, perhaps” said a companion. Moments later he would hurtle from a different door, crying: “Minute! Minute!” Then everything went quiet again. Time moved on. Glaciers melted.
Porto was, in short, running true to form. Over previous days, I had warmed to the city as one warms to a fine and friendly mongrel. The noble blood line showed through in Gothic and, especially, Baroque places of worship: the San Francisco church dripped with gilt and rich décor. A sense of past grandeur swirled around the monumental Avenida dos Aliados. And, from up the 225 steps of the emblematic Clerigos tower, the city looked stately enough to have sustained both port wine and José Mourinho.
At street level, though, the nobility was set about with tail-wagging daily life. Down from the magnificent cathedral, steep streetlets and tight stairways dropped rapidly ramshackle, infused with the despair – and jollity – of low expectations rarely realised. Repairs to ancient buildings had been approximate, at best. Blokes smoked outside hole-in-the-wall bars, hailing anyone in a skirt. In tiny, dark food shops, sell-by-dates were historical documents. Reality had scurried through here for centuries and the visitor remained just that, a visitor. Then one burst out to the broad river, as if emerging from Dickens.
Wonderful, of course – but little guarantee of reliable service in the eateries. Spurning francesinha a couple of days before, we had gone for a “selection of pizza” in a grill room. “This can’t take long,” we argued. How terribly naïve. The selection came slice by slice over a two-hour period, served by staff delightfully surprised to discover we were still there. Our favourite was a ground-breaking bacon and banana confection. An earlier lunch at a restaurant on the coast had been so leisurely that even Portuguese locals grew restless. At dinner the night before, the restaurant owner and his maître d’ had quite forgotten the starters we’d ordered. Fortunately, their powers of recall returned just in time for them to put them on the bill. Otherwise, we never would have had an argument in Porto.
And now we were into the second hour of our wait on the river-side terrace. In the meantime, one other group of three had flooded into the restaurant, increasing our waiter’s frenzy accordingly. They too were waiting. Then, on one hour, 20 minutes, our food arrived – francesinha for me (it was my turn) and salads for the others. The salads had been ready earlier, indicated the waiter, but had been held back that we might all eat together. Catastrophic though he might be in catering, the chap perhaps had a future in counselling.
So we ate. And the francesinha? In truth, disarmingly unremarkable, like a Big Mac in Sunday best. Somehow, it made me like Porto all the more. I ate it in 10 minutes – and we all refused the waiter’s offer of the dessert menu. We couldn’t risk that. We had a plane to catch the following day. We paid and moved on - leaving, of course, the handsomest possible tip.
Where to stay
Right by the Douro, the Pestana Porto Hotel (Praça da Ribeira, B&B doubles from €152) has light modern comfort in old stones, and unbeatable river views. Or try the contemporary Eurostars das Artes (Rua da Rosario, B&B doubles from €79). Meanwhile Cities Direct (01242 536900, www.citiesdirect.co.uk) has decent short-break packages to Porto.
Where to eat
Choice needs to be made with care. The Café Guarany (Avenida dos Aliados, 00351 223 321272, www.cafeguarany.com) has a art deco style recalling Porto’s gracious days, what counts for razor-sharp service in this city - and a good list of Porto favourites. Chez Lapin (Rua dos Canastreiros, 00351 222 006418) may be the best of the river-front eateries where visitors congregate – although many prefer the bright, bustling Abadia (Rua Ateneu, 00351 222 084442) on a tiny street a little back from the Douro.