Porto, Portugal - I should be able to do tripe. Eat the blubbery stomach lining of a dead ruminant, I mean. In this case, the combination of its smooth and honeycombed parts slow-cooked into a stew with very delicious white beans and served over rice.
As a daughter of a Pole, I was brought up with offal as a delicacy. The chicken’s choice bits, for example, started with the lungs, the stomach, the heart and parson’s nose. Then came the wings and those two juicy little anything-but-offal oysters from the underside. The legs and drumsticks were okay so long as the skin was crisp. The rest you could do without.
But I must say I would have preferred to read, before setting off for Porto on a recent trip to Portugal, that the defining delicacy was something more appealing to my sensibilities, given that my gung-ho try-anything attitude to eating has been tempered by the years. (Was that really me who used to catch a fish, rip the hook out, give it a gruesome death blow, stick and knife in and gut it with a sense of bravado and achievement?)
One can’t rewrite history and traditions according to whims, sadly, and it turns out that since the 14th or 17th century, depending on which version you read, the citizens of Porto have been called tripeiros (tripe-eaters), accounting for this dish. So, when in Porto, don’t do like the Romans, to garble the proverbial…
I had two nights and almost three days in Porto which, first-off, is not long enough for any city worth a visit in the first place. It’s a bit like a two-night stand. Better than a one-night stand, but no time to begin to enjoy the nuances and subtleties. Or know to be sure that there aren’t any.
I got to Porto on a bus from the Silver Coast and within 15 minutes had found a clean, inexpensive, en-suite room in the Portuguese equivalent of a pension half a block from Rua Santa Catarina, the prime upmarket shopping area, and round the corner from the historic Café Majestic, full of carved oak, Art Deco mirrors and tourists.
Dropped my bags, made sure the internet was working (free in any civilised establishment except, it seems, in SA, these days), then set off asking people where I could go to see/hear fado.
This drew many blanks (turns out Lisbon is the place). Until finally, driven to hunger and thirst, I stopped in at Via Garrett, a restaurant that looked local, and asked for the tripe.
Relief. None on the menu. So I ate grilled sardines, took the waiter’s wine recommendation for a Douro wine (Portugal’s most famous wine region is located up the Douro River from Porto and as was explained to me by a wine buddy, there are many superior wines, produced in quantities too small for export, that you can buy virtually for a song) – and felt that blissful sense of freedom that comes when you’re travelling alone without a set itinerary and realise nobody you know in the entire world has an inkling of where you are.
Porto, one of Europe’s oldest centres – photogenic city of European ambience, coffee shops, eateries and great day and night-time strolling – was registered as a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1996.
First thing I did on my first morning, to get my bearings, was jump aboard the hop-on hop-off bus, where a two-day pass is the only option. Hopped off at the famed old Bolhão city market where stallholders sell everything from fresh fruit and veggies to breads, cheeses, fish and meat. It’s a great place to browse, take pictures (“man-size garlic” someone commented when they saw one I took of a mountain of this Portuguese staple) and to pick up fresh on-the-road snack foods.
And the adjacent Rua Formosa has some of the city’s best delis (including the photogenic Perola do Bolhão, a traditional family-run grocery store that’s been in business since 1917) and pastry shops.
Each town has it’s sweet specialities and I could challenge you to resist the cakes, pastries and desserts, many heavy in eggs, cream and sugar. But why?
Hopped back on the bus later to cross the river to do the (Calem) port distillery tour, included in the ticket price. The city has more than 40 distilleries, most located in Gaia, across the Douro from the Ribeira, Porto’s historic waterfront-and-rising neighbourhood filled with steep narrow streets, alleyways and ancient houses, paint-flaking pastel or mosaic, and dotted with coffee shops, restaurants and eccentricities, which is one of the city’s must-wander parts, day or night.
Port is to the Porto region as Champagne is to the Champagne region of France in that port is not meant to be called port unless the grapes the fortified wine is made from are grown in its specific Douro Valley appellation. We tasted some fabulous ones, dry to sweeter and young to aged. Same as the wine, there are ports in Portugal you won’t get elsewhere – another compelling reason to go there.
My second night’s dinner restaurant again offered no tripe (was this avoidance?), so I got to eat grilled bacalhau, a version of salt cod (reputedly there is the equivalent of a different salt cod recipe for every day of the year in Portugal).
The next morning I headed off for a Douro river tour. Skip it. All they tell you about are a few bridges. A stroll along the river, and hopping on and off the bus, is a preferable option.
On my last afternoon, with departure pending – and rationalising that maybe I could pretend to have eaten tripe in Porto (but then I’d never know what it tasted like) or maybe I could eat tripe somewhere else in Portugal (but would I really?) and maybe I could use it as an excuse to come back (who was I kidding?) – I walked past a small place in a narrow side street and saw people queueing. I stopped and popped my head in to see a bar counter lined with people eating.
I looked at the menu. There was tripe. Priced at e6.50 (R65) – for one. Reasonable.
“But it’s full,” I thought, and moved on. Only to be magnetised back. “Why are all the people lined up?” I ask, and keep asking, until someone is summoned who speaks English and I learn the restaurant is good and, relevant (if unlikely), the tripe is good.
Next thing I am pushed to the front of the queue and through the door. I stand at the end of the counter and order my tripe.
When it comes, I look at it. But not too hard. And try not to think. Hoping that I can chew it, swallow it, that it will stay down. And meanwhile, wondering how much do I need to get through so as not to insult the chef?
As I’m about to give up, my translator comes to check on me. She stands and watches me eat. “Porto specialty,” she says.
“Why the hell else would I be having it,” crosses my mind. But I smile and nod. “Better with red wine than beer,” she says, noting my Sagres.
“Copious quantities of red wine so I don’t know what I’m eating,” I think, but I smile and say, “beer – better at lunchtime”.
Finishing the beans, trying to strategically hide the last bits of tripe and wondering if “awful” derives from “offal”, one of my father’s favourite sayings, “Don’t talk tripe”, suddenly makes good sense.
After a dessert chosen by consensus by my fellow bar-side diners who seem to enjoy the novelty of a non-local eating local, I hurry back to pack my bag. I get on the bus knowing Porto has been done. And that’s no tripe. - Sunday Tribune