Food | The Gannet

Storm in Oporto

The viticulture at one hotel and restaurant helps to tame Portugal’s gutsy cuisine.

November 10 2011
Bill Knott

In each room at the palatial Yeatman Hotel in Porto there is a copy of 1066 and All That, the comic masterpiece that condenses Britain’s glorious history into “103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates”. Its co-author, Robert Julian Yeatman, is the reason for the book’s welcome presence on the bedside table: he was born into the port company of Taylor, Fladgate & Yeatman, which owns the hotel. Taylor’s cellars are a short, precipitous walk down the hill and offer – like many of the port houses – a tour and tasting for a reasonable price.

The view from the restaurant terrace (and every bedroom) is a panorama of Porto, notably the magnificent Dom Luis I bridge that spans the Douro in 385m of elegant wrought iron, providing a link between Porto proper and the historic port town of Vila Nova de Gaia.

The city is a good place to eat, although not for the faint of stomach: Porto’s traditional delicacies are tripe, often cooked with white beans, and the francesinha, a huge sandwich stuffed with various meats and sausages, covered in melted cheese and a sauce made with tomato and beer. “Indelicacy” might be a better word for it. It is usually served with chips and is a particular favourite of hungry football fans.

The food at The Yeatman’s restaurant is altogether more polished. Chef Ricardo Costa is blessed with a talent for smartening up his native cuisine without losing the point in the process: the Portuguese, for instance, like their sardines with heads, scales and guts intact, grilled on a charcoal brazier. My dinner started with delicately smoked sardine fillets with a tomato confit and wine-braised artichokes: fiddly to prepare, certainly, but a joy to eat.

Slow-cooked suckling pig was masterfully yielding and sweet; serra – a great cheese, although little known outside Portugal – was silky, runny and ripe, with a hint of mountain herbs; and the wines were a revelation, especially a peachy 2008 Soalheiro Alvarinho from the Minho, which knocked spots off any Albariño (the Galician name for the grape) I have tried in the past few years. Wine director Beatriz Machado has put together a fabulous cellar of Portuguese wines – and no, not a single bottle of Mateus Rosé.

The Yeatman’s wine theme extends to the rooms, each sponsored by a Portuguese wine producer; to the Vinothérapie spa, which offers various wine-based treatments for people who, bafflingly, prefer their wine applied externally; and even to the decanter-shaped infinity pool.

Tours of the port vineyards can be easily arranged, too: the Douro Valley is one of the most beautiful wine regions in the world, and The Yeatman a great place from which to explore it. I have no doubt that RJ Yeatman would have pronounced his namesake hotel a jolly Good Thing.