We were off and the first thing we learned was Clara knows Ireland! She once visited her brother who works in Dublin. Both she and he love Dublin. I was chatting with a friend on emails about how we Irish always think we’re going to meet a neighbour (or cousin or someone who knows someone) who just happens to be in the same county on holidays at the same time as us… And here we were in almost that situation… no, not exactly but you know we are going to look up her brother.
Our tour was off to a great start, we were now discussing how very alike the Irish and Portuguese are, something I have believed for a while. We’re very friendly, curious, interested, maybe even a bit nosey? We’re a bit, sure it’ll be grand, no rush, have another cup of tea – the Portuguese love tea too. But Clara insisted we really had to get on with the tour so we did. First stop was an old fashioned grocery store. It was a small exquisitely cared for space. There was fruit, nuts, sweets, wine, port, tins of sardines and chocolate. All Portuguese products.
Clara explained that these shops have had approaches from big food companies interested in buying their property in order to put in a fast food (or other) outlet. We felt very grateful that this hadn’t happened and we could stand in a place that had served generations in Porto. But I can imagine these shops and others like them in cities all over the world won’t be here forever, especially if we’re not buying from them, supporting them.
Then we were off to the Bolhão market. This farmers and producers market has been closed for renovations for three years but now it’s back in business and it’s busy. Everyone seems very happy to be back. The market building itself is open to the air but the market stalls are covered. This makes for a very pleasant visit, no fishy smells and protection if it rains. One thing we noticed was plenty of people sitting around eating and soaking up the atmosphere.
This is the market where I wanted to ask lots of questions about how I should behave in general at markets. Like, Can I take pictures? How will I cook unfamiliar foods? Will they gut the fish? The big answer is, Don’t be afraid to make mistakes! That’s actually the answer to most of my questions about behaviour… but maybe that’s not just me. The gist of what Clara said was, Just open your heart, trust your voice and ask. Most people will speak English or the other shoppers will help. And yes, it’s ok to take pictures. The stall holders are so passionate about their produce that they are happy to help in ways that allow you to support them. They won’t be here either if we don’t buy from them, support them.
Minerva have been canning sardines (and other fish) in a Portugal since 1942. I had to admit I thought all the tins of sardines were just for decoration. Well, they are very attractive, but no, they are also for eating. We tasted tuna in olive oil and it was very good. The lady who was giving the tasting loved her product and that made the visit very enjoyable. Clara’s other job is in advertising or maybe it was marketing… anyway, we had a very interesting conversation about packaging. Packaging helps us buy and support producers. I love Minerva’s packaging.
We also visited the Portuguese chocolate shop, Casa do Chocolate, where I had a caramel chocolate (yum!) and the Pastel de Nata bakery where I had another lovely nata… cannot get enough of the natas.
What do you get when you cross a chemist with a painter? Meia Dúzia! Here we tasted the food created by a chemist who was a painter in his spare time. His creation looks like paint. This tasting was the most fun and really appealed to me because I never feel creative when it’s time to make dinner but… ingredients that look like I’m about to play with paint? I can enjoy that! You are probably familiar with a crushed garlic product that you get in a plastic tube? Well this is much more interesting. There were over 30 different tubes of things like olive paste or chocolate orange or fig. We tasted most of them! There wasn’t one I didn’t like. And all made with Portuguese produce.
Our last visit was to a tiny restaurant where we chatted about writing, poets in Portugal, history including the dictatorship that lasted for 50 years in Portugal and ended in 1974, when the dictator died, followed by a peaceful revolution. And while we chatted we ate threes different types of ham, three different types of bread and olive oil. And then it was all over. We were sad to say goodbye to Clara, she had made our visit to Porto so enjoyable and we won’t forget her… and we’ll definitely be looking up her brother.
Clara pointed us in the direction of São Bento and we rambled down the steep hill. We were tired and ready for bed but it was only 3.30pm and we had a train journey to take first.
At the station we saw a photo exhibition with photos from journalists taken in 1974 on the day of the peaceful revolution. One showed two soldiers with rifles and in the muzzle of each gun was a carnation. Clara had told us earlier that the people wanted democracy and the army were fed up fighting with their own so when someone put flowers in their guns, they didn’t stop them. Freedom Day is celebrated on the 25 of April each year.
The train driver got off the train again on the way home but this time we knew what to do – wait, soon you will be going in a different direction. We loved our tour with Clara in Porto. I know what to do in the markets and on the trains and I know flowers can be powerful.