Porto: world capital of (very) slow food

by Anthony.Peregrine

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.


For generations, the rich, noble and celebrated among English-speaking peoples have had their foot-holds in the South of France. In 1988, I was among a subsequent wave of the poor, common and unknown. I arrived as a freelance journalist, working for the wine and food press, then the travel pages of the Sunday Times  and Daily Telegraph. None of these materially altered my condition but, frankly, I'd had no choice in the move. My French wife had insisted. She loved England and, more particularly, Lancashire – where we lived. Still does. But, after a few years, she’d forgotten what the sun looked like. “That’s acceptable in November, not in August,” she said.

So we left in search of heat, and found a lot more besides. Space, for a start. (France is two and a quarter times the size of the UK, for roughly the same population). And crystal-clear light. Long meals, longer beaches and a lifting of restraints. The kids could play outside pretty much all the time, and we, too, felt freer.

Of course, the French authorities can be as meddlesome as any but, as I discovered, French people will only put up with so much. On a micro-level, they insist on being left alone. Heaven knows what a British local council would make of the bulls which charge through our village streets at festival times. Or the mountain roads where barriers are placed, at best, whimsically. Or the summer friskiness for which certain remoter beaches are famed. There are busybodies in France but they get less of a hearing than in health-and-safety-crazed nations.

Felicity Kendall

Over two decades of reporting from the country, this is something I have come to appreciate quite as much as I appreciate grandeur of the mountains or of the beauty of a sunset over the sea. I also admire the French respect for their past, its protagonists and the sites which history has left. This can get out of hand; sometimes it seems that every wall more than 20 years old has a preservation order. But both landscape and the nation are deeper for it.

In Provence – even amid the glitz of the Côte-d’Azur – you’re never far from a reminder that man has been on this land for millennia. It’s a great sub-plot to pleasure-seeking. Talking of which … sometimes, the finest pleasures are the simplest. A good day for me would involve a decent walk in the hills or along the coastal path, followed by a early-evening dip in the sea. Then on to town for dinner on a warm evening terrace. We might later take in other terraces for a night-cap or two, safe in the knowledge that we shall not be inconvenienced by excitable youths falling into flower tubs, showing their bottoms or vomiting upon us.

By and large, Southern French cities remain the preserve of everyone – grandparents, strolling couples, kids – until well past the time that I want to go to bed. It’s the Latin way, and quite a surprise after Friday nights in Lancashire.

There are elements of France which drive me nuts. (Only innate decency stops me mowing down French civil servants whenever I’m called upon to deal with them.)

And there are aspects of Britain I miss – Sandwich Spread, Felicity Kendall, Preston North End and, not least, the newspapers. No paper in France has the variety, depth, wit and colour of the Sunday Times or Daily Telegraph, to pluck two examples at random. (By an astonishing coincidence, also the two I tend to write for.) The stilted tedium of most French papers tells us a lot about public life in France, but you’ll not want to hear that. What you want to hear is that France in general, and Provence-Côte-d’Azur in particular, are terrific places. As they are. I’ve been roaming all over them for 20 years and wish I’d started earlier.

I would return to GB only if Felcity Kendall beckoned me back to play for PNE, a jar of Sandwich Spread in her hand. And even then it’s not certain.

My Provence

Where I get a coffee: To do it for me, a French café needs to be a French café and not a lounge bar. It needs the scrape of metal chairs on a wooden floor, blokes at the bar talking horses over mid-morning beers and photos of an amateur soccer team c. 1974 on the wall. It’s an extension of the street by other means; local life must flow through. No point in picking out a particular favourite. They’re all over the south of France, usually called Café du Commerce, Café des Sports or Chez Juju. Coffee’s much cheaper too, especially if you stand at the counter.

Favourite stroll: Tempting to say that the best walk is wherever you happen to park the car; it’s hard not to have an uplifting amble on this outstanding coast. But a real favourite? Well, if you can tackle the coastal path from St-Tropez village round the peninsular via the Rabiou headland and not feel the world is a better place, I’ll be surprised. You’ll have deserved Tahiti beach by the time you arrive, mind: it’s a tidy trek.

Literature for inspiration: The most perceptive account of Provence remains James Pope-Hennessy’s 1952 classic, Aspects Of Provence. The much more recent Seeking Provence by Nicholas Woodsworth comes pretty close, though neither really touch on the Côte-d’Azur.

The best coverage of the Côte that I know is Robert Kanigel’s High Season In Nice. It has its faults but gets the story told eventually. Fiction-wise, you shouldn’t miss Marcel Pagnol. His My Father’s Glory and subsequent My Mother’s Castle may be soft-filtered but they’re mighty heart-warming. For grittier coverage of Marseille, I turn to the crime novels of Jean-Claude Izzo. One Helluva Mess is a stirring place to start.

Breathtaking view: Just open your eyes pretty much anywhere: this coast was created by the Almighty to show what he could do when he really tried. The panoramas from the top of Castle Hill or Mont Boron in Nice, or from Notre-Dame de la Garde in Marseille are the ones I expect to see when I’m ushered through the Pearly Gates myself.

Peace & quiet: Head out of Cannes, along the Esterel corniche towards St Raphaël. The land grows wild. Red porphyry rocks drop direct to the Med. Tales of the over-development of the Riviera suddenly seem absurd. Here, humanity hangs on where it can. Stop when possible: there’ll be a little-populated creek below and, behind the Esterel mountains. I’ve walked this untamed, savage massif in July and met no-one. You’d never guess you were 30 minutes from a cornetto.

Shopaholics: Bad question for me. I hate shopping more than I hate folk-dancing, and that’s saying something. Except if it’s for food, and except if there’s a market on. You may leave me among the North African uproar of Marseille’s Capucin market, or the sensual promise of the Provençal stalls on St Tropez’s Place-des-Lices for as long as it takes food-lust to overcome me completely.

Soundtrack: There’s a lot of rap from Marseille and Italianate balladeering further along the coast. But a quiet southern mood is best accompanied, I reckon, by jazz-crooner Henri Salvador. The music isn’t specifically Provençal but has a gentle sipping-in-the-shade vibe that’s quite irresistible. Try the Chambre Avec Vue album, recorded in 2000 when old Henri was 83. (He checked out finally in 2008, still performing.) The man is a legend in France. Even in the unlikely event that you don’t like the album, say you do: this will enhance your popularity immeasurably.

Favourite place for regional food: I have a soft spot for the Voyageur Nissart in Nice (19 Rue Alsace-Lorraine, 0493 821960). It’s not hip, star-rated or impressive to look at. And it’s in an indeterminate district, not far from the station.

All it has going for it is an outstandingly friendly welcome (the young owner speaks English better than I do) and the best traditional Niçois food at prices significantly lower than you’ll pay in the Old Town and other busier tourist zones. Fifteen euros sees you fed admirably. I discovered the restaurant only recently. Now it’s my Nice staple.

Don’t leave without…glancing at the gardens: The Côte-d’Azur has horticulture like Venice has canals. It’s a distinguishing feature. Our green-fingered British forebears started gardening down here in the 19th-century – it’s what noble residents did back then – and locals have taken up the trowel with gusto. Pick of the lot is, I’d say, the Domaine du Rayol at Rayol-Canadel (between St Tropez and Hyères, www.domainedurayol.com). Staggering steeply to the sea, the 48-acres are coated in flora from every region of the world sharing a Med climate. It’s a wonder-world. I took my garden-crazed wife there last year – and had to return two months later to find her.

Sport: Along the coast, one may take part in every sea-related activity known to man, short of whaling. But there are times when only a big, professional sporting event will do. For soccer, I go to Marseille and the Vélodrome – the only stadium in France which generates an atmosphere comparable to that at Anfield or the Emirates. For rugby, it has to be Toulon – where our own Jonny (known locally, if oddly, as “Sir Wilkinson”) has punted standards up-field with panache.

Where to be seen this winter: As Sigourney Weaver said recently, real A-listers never go where A-listers are supposed to go, because they only get mobbed and fawned over. I’d suggest you follow this advice. The best place to be seen this winter is, then, wherever you actually want to be. It’s even better if you’re with a loved one – and don’t care a toss whether you’re seen or not.