Posts Tagged ‘tapas’

Porto or Oporto? Tasting Port in Portugal

May 10th, 2008 at 10:59 am (AST) by Jake Richter

On Wednesday, the day after we visited Lisbon we docked near Porto, Portugal. Porto is also known as Oporto as a result of linguistic mis-interpretation, as apparently when the Portuguese referred the city of Porto, they would precede it with an article “O”, and foreign traders therefore assumed the actually name of the city was Oporto.

A sure sign that we are in Porto, Portugal

The fame of Oporto, or at least the surrounding area, is that this is where the fortified wine known as Port is distributed from. According to our tour guide, there are 35 primary distributors of Port wine (all of whom are also producers of Port), and 35,000 total producers of Port. The large number of producers can be attributed to small mom and pop Port houses, many of whom sell their production to the larger Port distributors for blending into their larger productions. Until relatively recently, Port wine was shipping to London in casks and bottled there, but now Port is bottled primarily in Porto.

Before we docked in Porto, however, we spent the morning in the lounge of the Endeavour for a presentation by National Geographic photographer Massimo Bassano, a short and energetic Italian who has been a blast to travel with these last 10 days or so. Massimo shared some of his background and his storytelling approach to photography, as well as a video presentation on a long term stay with Curthusian monks in Italy. That was followed by photo critique by Massimo of both Krystyana’s and my photography. We both received kudos for our works and our sense of visual balance (i.e. “having an eye for composition”), as well as some suggestions for how to further improve our images. I hope to get some of our images up on this site when we have a faster (and cheaper) Internet connection.

After lunch we boarded a bus which took us around Porto and its environs, with the first stop being the Porto Cathedral, followed by a visit to the so-called Golden Church of St. Francis. The Church of St. Francis was built by the Franciscan monks after permission was granted in the 1300s from King John the First. We were told that John’s marriage to Phillipa of Lancaster resulted in the first official European agreement of cooperation between nations.

The inside of the St. Francis church is covered in gold, estimated to weigh be between 300 and 400 kilograms, which is a contradiction when considering that the Franciscans are an order of monks with a vow of poverty. However, it turns out that the funds for the ornate interior of the church came from wealthy patrons in the area around Porto in the form of donations in exchange for a promise that when such patrons and their families died, they would be buried in hallowed ground inside the church so that they would be “closer to heaven”.

The front of the St. Francis church in Porto, Portugal

During renovations in the 19th century, when laws in Portugal changed and started to forbid burials inside churches, the bones of those previously laid to rest within the floor of St. Francis were excavated and moved to the nearby consecrated grounds of the catacombs at St. Francis, where we were able to see the bones in person after we left the church.

Another thing that was interesting in the church was the rather graphic portrayal in the form of a three dimensional diorama of the beheading of Christian missionaries by Moors in Morocco and the crucifixion of others in Nagasaki, Japan. These missionaries were thus deemed martyred.
Once we had finished view the church and catacombs (sadly, we could not take photos without getting kicked out), we re-boarded the bus for our final destination, the House of Sandeman in Vila Nova de Gaia, across the Douro river from Porto (although arguably still considered part of Porto).

Sandeman’s extremely rare and old vintages are under lock and key

At Sandeman, we were given a tour of the facilities of Porto’s oldest Port house, started in 1790, and now one of the best known names in Port wine. Port wine is wine whose fermentation is stopped before all the sugars have been converted to alcohol, and then fortified with neutral wine spirits to maintain sweetness as well as boost the alcohol content of Port to about 20%. There are three basic types of Port: White, which is crisper and recommended as an aperitif; tawny, which is brownish red in color and aged in barrels before being bottled; and ruby, which has a dark red and burgundy color, and is used for bottle aged vintage Port. After our tour we were treated to a tasting of white and tawny ports. The kids tried them too but weren’t much enthralled. We ended up buying a vintage port “sampler” of three 375ml bottles, the oldest of which was from 1994 at the company store in the tasting area.

Linda and Krystyana are among those at the Port wine tasting at Sandeman in Porto

After a small bit of something sweet at the neighboring café, we hooked up with Massimo as well as new trip friends Gretchen (from Bermuda), and Natalie and Bruce (from Oahu, Hawaii) and went on a walking tour of Gaia to see the back streets and take pictures, finally ending up at Adega & Presuntaria Transmontana 2, a local restaurant recommended to us by several people.

As soon as we sat down we started being served a wide range of local Tapas, including a cold cut plate, local cheeses, olives, marinated pig’s ears, pickled white anchovies, and pork livers. We topped this off with the house red wine, a “vino tinto” of the Douro river area. While we were not particularly wild about the pig’s ears (too chewy), everything else was pretty good. We ended with a large dessert buffet and some more twilight photography before returning back to the Endeavour, sated in many ways.


Barcelona Dining – El Choquito Restaurante

April 21st, 2008 at 5:59 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

Yesterday, after touring the Parc Guell and passing up a visit to the Miro museum (see previous posts), we ended up in Las Ramblas, a busy, touristy section of Barcelona about a 15-20 minute walk from our hotel. We picked a Tapas-oriented place at random and ended up at El Choquito Restaurante, a busy restaurant with mostly tourists as customers, although we did see some locals at the Tapas bar on the way in. Service was brusque – just a slight bit above the sort of service one would get at Dick’s Last Resort back in the U.S. – a chain which prides itself on rude servers.

Fortunately, the food was a bit better than the service, but nothing great – mediocre and expensive would be a better description. We had a blend of tapas and entrees, none of which really stood out, although the patatas bravas were pretty good.

Bas particularly enjoyed his Chicken paella, although I was a bit put out by the lack of saffron flavor and the use of frozen vegetables. However, it’s been pointed out to me that each region in Spain has its own version of paella, with different flavors – but whether that was the reason for the flavor of the paella here or not, I don’t know.

The only thing that was distinctively good was the Cava-based Sangria – Cava is Spanish sparkling wine – and normally Sangria is made with red wine, but it was close to US$35 for one liter of Sangria with Cava.

There’s no question in my mind that El Choquito was a tourist trap. Cost for lunch was about 160 Euros (about US$250) for the six of us – pricey for what we got. I give El Choquito Restaurante a 5.0 out of 10.0 on The Richter Scale.


Barcelona Dining, So Far… Txapela

April 21st, 2008 at 6:41 am (AST) by Jake Richter

As some of you may know, the three older Richters are foodies. Bas is slowly getting more adventurous too, and for an 11 year old boy, does well (his favorite foods include mussels, snails, and steak tartar), but he doesn’t hold a candle to the rest of us.

As foodies, we try to explore the local cuisines of areas we visit, and here in Barcelona, there are three overlapping cuisines we were are working to sample and experience: Catalan, Mediterranean, and Spanish. That’s in conjunction with some excellent Spanish wines, of course, as well as with another wine-based concoction: Sangria.

As mentioned in my previous post, dining times here in Spain are a bit unusual from an American perspective. Most local restaurants are open for lunch until about 4pm, and then re-open around 8:30-9pm (some as late as 10pm) for dinner. Back home we usually have lunch between Noon and 1pm, and dinner starting betweek 6 and 7pm). I’m hoping jet-lag makes the whole adjustment to later dining times easier.

So far we have dined at four restaurants, with a failed attempt to dine at yet one more.

Our two lunch experiences have both been at places which offer a popular form of Spanish dining, namely something called “Tapas“, with the restaurants serving Tapas frequently referred to as Tapas Bars. Spoken quickly this sounds like “Topless Bars”, a misunderstanding which is a source of frequent amusement to us.

Tapas Bars in the U.S. are bars (as in alcohol bars) which serve Tapas, while here in Barcelone, they are bars more along the line of Sushi Bars – you can set at the “bar” and select from a variety of Tapas shown under glass at said bar.

So what are Tapas? Well, the term refers to small plates of a particular food item – it might be a cold food, like marinated octopus or ham on small slices of bread, or hot food like skewers of meat or patatas bravas (chunks of potato with a spicy sauce).

The plates either comes as individual items for one person or as a slightly larger small plate featuring multiple portions of the ordered item, ideal for sharing with others at your table. Our experience with Tapas in the U.S. so far had been with the latter approach – you typically get enough for sharing with one or two other people, and make a meal of ordering a half dozen different Tapas items which are all shared.

Our first restaurant was Txapela (pronounced “Chapella”), a couple blocks from our hotel, right near the busy intersection of Passeig de Gracia and Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes. While the weather was still a bit brisk, it was a beautiful afternoon, so we sat outside at the cafe portion of the restaurant. Our waitress did not speak English, and our Catalan and Spanish were minimal, but thanks to a pictographic menu of Tapas, we were able to order our Tapas-based meal without too many complications. The tapas at Txapela were the first single portion size tapas we had ever experienced. We ended up ordering two or three of each of the kinds we wanted to sample (about ten different kinds overall), and enjoyed them all. We accompanied the meal with a couple of pitchers of sangria, a blend of wine, fruit, fruit juices, and as we discovered in this case, a heavy dose of sugar too. While the food was good, service, while friendly, was a bit spotty. For the six of us, the bill came to around 120 Euros (about US$190). Based on what we’ve been seeing of prices here, that’s not unreasonable, and certainly eating outdoors was a pleasure (albeit a bit cold for those of us with thin blood) as we could do all sorts of people watching. Txapela gets a 7.0 out of 10.0 on The Richter Scale.


Made It To Barcelona!

April 19th, 2008 at 5:36 am (AST) by Jake Richter

Our flights were all on time, and thanks to frequent flyer miles we could use on KLM we enjoyed the comforts of business class travel – very nice indeed across the Atlantic. Business class within Europe is a bit weird from an American perspective, as the seats are all the same size as in coach, maybe with a bit more seat pitch, but with better service than in economy.

By the time we got to Barcelona, the sun was already up a bit in the sky (we got in around 9am). We collected our bags, and then went to get a taxi to our hotel only to discover that the taxis here are just a wee bit too small to handle a family of four, even with only one checked bag per person. So we ended up taking the Aerobus municipal transport to the Plaza Catalyuna and walked the four blocks to our hotel from there.

Now we await the arrival of our Dutch friend Martin and his father so we can bop around Barcelona with them. On the list of things to do are visiting some of Gaudi’s architectural works including the Temple de La Sagrada Familia, the Picasso museum, the Joan Miró museum, and, of course, tapas bars to sample Spanish and Catalan cuisine.

As a side note, I just remembered that one of my favorite musical groups of the 80s, The Alan Parsons Project, has a whole album dedicated to Gaudi, and even a song about the Sagrada Familia. Great album which is about to take on a completely new meaning for me.