April 7, 2009

copious amounts of port and some unexpected treasures

Today's mission was singular in focus: we're in Porto... it's time to drink some port.

Our first stop of the day was at Kopke, founded in 1638 by Christiano and Nocolaus Kopke and recognized as the oldest producer of port. Kopke's tasting room provides a fantastic setting for sampling their wines, with large tables and armchairs impeccably arranged on the second floor, large windows overlooking the riverfront, and a sophisticated and modern urban chic to it all. Kopke was also the only producer we visited who had a vintage port available for tasting, which was a real treat. I sampled the following from their selection:
  • Kopke Ruby: Deep ruby red color with aromas of raisin and plum. Medium weight on the palate with a hint of a white peppery edge on the finish.
  • Kopke Vintage 1978: Burnished golden caramel color with heady aromas of vanilla, toffee and baking spices. Flavors of honeyed toasted walnut and a whiff of burnt almond.
The day was spent sampling ports from several producers, and I quickly gained a new respect for port tasters and critics... I have absolutely no idea how they keep their senses receptive to the nuances of different ports, because my palate was crushed after the first four tastings from the sheer weight of the flavor density, sweetness and alcohol content.

To counteract some of these effects--and because the port tasting rooms all closed from 12:30 pm to 2 pm for lunch, we took a late lunch at a small, simple cafe along the waterfront. Shane had been raving earlier about his new favorite sandwich: the francesinha--"little French girl" in Portuguese--so I knew I had to try one.

A specialty of Porto, the francesinha is Portugal's answer to France's croque monsieur, comprised of toasted bread, ham, sausage, steak and melted cheese, all covered in a slightly thickened "secret" spicy sauce. The sauce used varies from place to place, but is generally tomato-based, with onions, garlic, bay leaf, tabasco sauce and beer. I ordered a francesinha especiale, which comes with a fried egg on top. This was a seriously intense sandwich... rich, hearty, filling... a total guilty pleasure devoid of gastronomic finesse but full of primal satisfaction. The sandwich was surprisingly balanced in flavors, with the heat and the acidity from the sauce contrasting the decadence just enough to tie everything together.

We also had an order of caracois, or snails, steamed with oregano. An incredibly simple dish, the tiny snails were tender and addictive, adopting the flavors of the seasonings in the broth. This would be a fantastic bar snack back at home, if only Americans wouldn't be so queasy about the fact that these are snails...

Later in the afternoon, we stumbled upon a warm and friendly older gentleman roasting chestnuts with a bit of salt in a little cart on the side of the road. Roasted chestnuts are one of our absolute favorite snacks, and though I couldn't speak any Portuguese, I think he could sense my excitement. Through a series of hand gestures and nodding, he told me it would just take another minute before the chestnuts were ready. He then proceeded to stick his BARE HAND into the roasting pot (which was literally glowing orange from the heat of the charcoal fire below) to check the doneness of the chestnuts.

Seeing my look of amazement (and envious respect for his hands of steel), he smiled and said something along the lines of "Don't worry, this doesn't hurt at all..." Once the chestnuts were ready, he poured them out and counted out a dozen for me, placing them carefully in a bag, then paused for a moment and added an extra chestnut as a bonus with a wink and a smile. Huge chestnuts, perfectly roasted, the gently sweet meat accented by the lightly salty char... a great way to stay warm on the walk back to the hotel.

Our evening concluded just as it started... with a wide tasting selection of different ports, this time at Solar do Vinho do Porto, a cozy bar in Bairro Alto. Set in a renovated portion of a 19th century building, the bar's overwhelming library of ports by the glass was easily navigated with the help of the endearing servers as we closed out this day--and the bar--in style.

Tomorrow, we're off to try and see where the grapes are actually grown.

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