November 10 2011
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.