Later this month, on the 23rd, the famously hard-working city of Porto will let its hair down at the Festa de São João. The festivities last all night: the aroma of grilled sardines is more pervasive than usual and celebrants equip themselves with pots of manjerico (basil) and plastic hammers to biff strangers on the head. As dawn rises, the hardiest of revellers head for the beaches to keep the party going.
Aside from sardines, Porto is famous for two kinds of food: tripe, usually cooked with white beans and scraps of ham and sausage (the city’s inhabitants are known as tripeiros), and the francesinha, a monstrous sandwich filled with various meats, topped with melted cheese and usually served with chips and a sauce made from tomatoes and beer.
I sampled neither delicacy on my last visit; instead, I grazed contentedly among the plethora of bars and restaurants that the city has to offer. The Baixa area, north of the cathedral, is particularly fertile ground for the curious gastronome.
Stick to petiscos (Portuguese tapas) and you can try several places in one evening: start at Tascö for a plate of pataniscas (fritters made with salt cod or octopus), some lulinhas (tiny squid cooked in breadcrumbs) and a glass of vinho verde. The strikingly modern interior belies its kitchen’s reverence for classic dishes.
The decor at Museu d’Avó (Grandmother’s Museum), by contrast, makes the average jumble sale look like a triumph of minimalism. Its walls and high ceilings are covered with what might be politely described as knick-knacks and curios, or less charitably as junk. It contributes to a terrific atmosphere: the close-set, candlelit tables are invariably packed with diners enjoying moelas (chicken gizzards cooked with tomatoes and white wine); sweet, shiny little clams with garlic; rich, fatty, scarlet chouriço sausage; and octopus with molho verde, a sort of herby vinaigrette.
Rather than reeling to the beach at five in the morning clutching a plastic pint of Super Bock, as São João revellers are wont to do, I awoke the next day and took the Metro to Matosinhos in search of fresh fish for lunch. Rua Heróis de França is the place: just inspect the barbecues in front of the street’s dozen or so restaurants and see what takes your fancy. The constant wafts of smoke and grilling fish are the perfect appetiser: I ate at Restaurante O Lusitano, which seemed to have the plumpest sardines, but there was splendidly fresh seafood everywhere.
Settled down with a chilly bottle of apricot-scented Alvarinho, some simple but flavoursome boiled potatoes, a salad, and those handsome, well-padded sardines, fresh from the grill, it was hard to imagine a more blissful lunch: unpretentious but thoroughly civilised, much like los tripeiros themselves.