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The Algarve has it all, if you know where to look: sandy beaches, secluded coves and postcard-perfect whitewash villages where traditional tabernas make gourmet treats out of simple grilled sardines drizzled in olive oil and lemon juice. From abundant fish and seafood, to sun-ripened vegetables and flame-cooked meats, don’t leave without trying these dishes…
Although not a dish in itself, many meals in Portugal begin with couvert, or starter. This can be as simple as a bowl of olives, bread or a selection of cheeses, although marinated carrots are also popular. Try making them for yourself by lightly boiling sliced carrots for no more than 10 minutes before mixing with olive oil, white wine and garlic and leaving to cool in the fridge. Add parsley to serve.
Conquilhas à Algarvia
Succulent clams, fresh from the sea, take centre stage in this signature dish from the Algarve. To recreate it, fry onions, garlic and sliced Portuguese sausage in a pan before adding the clams and garnishing with parsley or coriander. Don’t forget to thoroughly wash the shellfish in cold water to remove any grit and never eat any that haven’t opened. Enjoy traditional marisco (seafood) dishes or small plates of queijo (see below) and cod ceviche against the blue-and-white tiled backdrop of the simple Tasca Jota in Lagos.
Cataplana de marisco
If you just can’t get enough seafood then make sure you hunt out cataplana de marisco – a celebration of lobster, clams, squid and whatever else is available on the day. They’re all gently fried with herbs, white wine and tomatoes and served with the heavenly liquor that forms. Seafood abounds at the rustic Restaurante a Barrigada where a fixed price buffet gives you access to supreme quality grilled sardines, octopus and enormous prawns, all served with a simple salad and garlic potatoes. Set just 100m from the beach in Lagos, it’s also the perfect place to watch boats come and go in the marina.
Petiscos de taberna
As you wander the winding streets of Lagos, be sure to stop off for a spot of petiscos de taberna. Similar to Spanish tapas, these snacks are best enjoyed with a cool glass of locally brewed cerveja. Expect tiny meat sandwiches, typically pork or beef, seafood fritters and slices of cured sausage (chouriço). Sausage is king in Portugal, with numerous dedicated festivals. Don’t miss the Feira dos Enchidos Tradicionais in nearby Monchique. Held in early March, you can sample an endless array of sausages and meet artisan producers.
You might be forgiven for thinking that food in the Algarve is all about fish, but you can also find feijoada, a hearty bean stew usually made with pork, beans, cured meat, vegetables and herbs. Offal, like ears and trotters, may also be used but rest assured, it’s delicious. Try it in the secluded garden at popular Brazilian/European Lagos restautant No Patio.
Tarts and pastries are extremely popular throughout Portugal but Dom Rodrigos are an Algarve specialty. Made using fios de ovos (strings of egg yolks finished in syrup, or ‘angel hair’), egg yolk, cinnamon and almonds, these sweet little nests are normally presented in colourful foil wraps.
Few things are more joyful than finding a restaurant that serves leitão – suckling pig smothered in herbs and roasted on a spit for up to 24 hours. Suckling pigs are just a few weeks old and after slow cooking, the meat will be tender and the skin crispy.
Less indulgent than suckling pig, this frugal but satisfying soup originates in northern Portugal but is now a national dish. The main ingredients are potato and kale but bacon and sausage can also be added for extra flavour. The beauty of this caldo verde is that it can be easily re-created at home.
Portugal produces some fine cheeses rarely found in the UK. The craggy landscape makes it ideal for rearing sheep and goats, and their milk is used to make a variety of hard and soft cheeses. Enjoy these on their own, made into chewy pão de queijo (cheese bread), or with bread and locally produced sweet pumpkin jam. For fine dining, try marmelada de abóbora e salada de espinafres (pumpkin jam and spinach salad) served with goat’s cheese, the regional speciality served at Artistas in Lagos old town.
The four regions of the Algarve – Lagos, Portimão, Lagoa and Tavira – have their own distinct wine varieties, all quality assured with Denominação de Origem Controlada status. Bathed in sunshine for most of the year, the region produces everything from light, refreshing whites to accompany fish and full-bodied reds ideally suited to stews and cured meats. If you need a little fire in your belly, explore the backstreets of Lagos, behind the marina where locals linger over glasses of Aguardente de Medronho – a strong brandy made using fruits from the Arbutus tree.
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Former resident of the pretty village of Olhos d'Agua, Peter Jenkins is an Algarve expert for Sun-hat Villas & Resorts.
Have we missed any dishes? Lets us know in the comments below...
Image credits: Elsa Baker, Vila Mourisca