I Went to Porto, Portugal for the Wine, But Fell in Love with the Pastel de Nata

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This post is fitting after my last post on Brazil for a couple of reasons. First, this was my first real solo trip since I went to Brazil 10 years ago. Second, Brazil was colonized by the Portuguese so it was fascinating to see the influences. There were some moments were I felt like I was wandering through the Pelourinho in Bahia, Brazil instead of the Riberia in Porto, Portugal.

One of the notable differences for me between the two countries though are the people. Brazilians are a gregarious bunch while the Portuguese are much more reserved. The difference is night and day…or maybe cachaca and port wine.

Speaking of port wine, it was indeed the port wine that drew me to Porto. As soon as I got my US passport, I booked a trip to this city that promised an overflowing amount of fortified wine. However, while port wine was readily available everywhere it wasn’t a part of the culture in the way that I originally thought it would be. In Brazil caipirinhas made from cachaca was such a part of the culture and the experience, but in Porto, if I didn’t actually go to visit the port cellars I wouldn’t have thought anything of it. Yes, I saw it on menus in most of the restaurants that I visited, but it just seemed to be there with no real imprint on the culture. It’s possible that it’s because the British are actually the ones that created port wine. They came to Portugal to discover wine after a fallout with the French. Because of the distance, they added brandy to it to make sure it would survive the long trip. And while delicious, that’s exactly how port wine feels in Porto. It’s there on the outskirts, but it doesn’t really feel ingrained into the moment.

What did seem to play a part in daily Portuguese culture on the other hand was pastel de nata. I’m not sure how I never heard about natas before I went to Portugal because as far as I can tell, this is the most Portuguese food item ever. I was walking through the Riberia to get to the river on my first day and stumbled into a little coffee shop where I ordered my first one. Heaven! This Portuguese egg tart became my daily treat after that. Natas were created before the 18th century by Catholic monks in Lisbon. And this most definitely is a holy bite.

As it turns out, natas are the saving grace for port wine in Portugal. In the evenings, a tawny port (normally aged in wooden casks for about 10 years) proved to be the perfect pairing for these little delights. This is ultimately how I finally made sense of port wine in the culture.

Here were a few of my favorite places in Porto for either natas, port wine or both:

  1. Capela Incomum - This is a bar in a former chapel. I sat here and drank port wine with cheese that was baked with honey and rosemary while listening to reggae. It was the oddest scene and I loved every minute of it.

  2. Combi - This coffee shop was not far from my Airbnb. It also served as a reminder that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I’d found a photo of a vintage coffee van on the internet about a year ago and loved it. On my first visit to this coffee shop, the van was parked there. The natas here were great along with the coffee and as a bonus, they have acai bowls!

  3. Cantina 32 - This is a modern Portuguese restaurant. My favorite thing about it was the design. Incredibly moody and the perfect place to drink a glass of port wine while eating cheesecake out of a clay pot that’s made to look like a plant. I could have sat here all day and night.

  4. The first cafe - It saddens me that I can’t remember the name of the first place that I had the pastel de nata. I’ve tried searching for it through Google maps, but I keep coming up short. However, it reminds me that that’s what I travel should be, so I implore you to wander through the streets and get lost until you find a place like this of your own.

  5. O Buraco - Ok so I had no natas or port wine here, but it was my favorite classic Porto restaurant. It reminded me of the beauty of salt and good olive oil to let simple food shine. The house wine is cheap, the atmosphere is vibrant and the food is delicious.

I’m glad I had a chance to relieve Porto through this post. I forgot how beautiful this trip was. There are so many great places to eat and drink and the city is incredibly charming even in the beginning of January. I can’t wait to make it back to see what sunshine brings. Maybe they’ll be pouring port wine in the streets and partying the way Brazilians do. Not that they need to. Classic Portuguese is quite ok with me.