Although it’s just a leisurely one-and-a-half-hour drive from Porto, this isolated province, close to the border with Galicia in Spain, feels like another world. The region of Alto Tâmega, which covers its northern part, is one of the most culturally and culinary diverse places in Portugal, where locals are still self sufficient, eating what they grow, baking their own bread (often in their village’s ancient community oven), stepping on grapes from their vineyards to make wine, and slaughtering pigs to make sausages and ham, which they smoke above their kitchen fireplaces. It’s one of the only places left in southern Europe where travellers can sample local food in small tabernas, often hidden in the humble stone houses of residents.
In 2004, the region of Alto Tâmega created a culinary network with the aim of preserving the traditions of Trás-os-Montes. Today it consists of 14 taverns spread across the municipalities of Boticas, Chaves, Montalegre, Ribeira de Pena, Valpaços and Vila Pouca de Aguiar. The well-known Portuguese chef Vítor Adão, based in Lisbon but born in this region, was invited to be a project curator and ambassador. Adão may own the famous Plano restaurant in Lisbon but he remains strongly connected to his roots, with a deep knowledge of Alto Tâmega and its produce. In Carvela, where he was born, villagers attach great importance to potatoes because they were once, together with bread, the most important food source.
Chefs around Portugal still consider potatoes from this region to be the best in the country, almost like a delicacy. Sometimes they are grown next to vast bodies of water such as the Albufeira do Alto Rabagão dam where tiny, medieval villages such as Vilarinha almost tumble into the crystal-clear water. The road along the lake twists and turns and leads to more rural villages, perfect to discover on a slow road trip.
Casa do Pedro
A 10-minute drive from the lake through a desolate landscape of rocks and bushes of wild herbs sits the tiny village of Vilarinho Seco. At taberna Casa do Pedro Dona Ana Pereira and her husband Pedro serve the most traditional local food to every diner who shows up at their door. The restaurant operates in the 300-year-old stone house belonging to the couple. It’s a gorgeous dwelling with characterful wooden balconies and a small terrace built with ancient stones that tell stories of a pared-back life filled with hearty food. The air is filled with the scent of firewood, used to cook and heat the house. Winters are long and cold here and snow often covers this mountainous region.
Pedro has a small adega in the back, stocked with wooden barrels for house wine and hams and other cured meats hang from the ceiling. All the produce that goes into the food at Casa do Pedro is grown right next door, except for the rice and cod. The recipes are, of course, regional, and depend on what comes from the land. ‘I learned from my mother,’ says Ana, after serving lunch. ‘In the old houses, dishes like cabidela rice are made with wild duck.’ In addition to this speciality, stewed and oven-baked goat, Transmontana-style feijoada (bean stew) and stuffed cod are all dishes made according to Barroso tradition. There is no need for innovation in this region. What has been passed down from generation to generation supersedes anything contemporary cooking has to offer.
Casa de Padornelos
Another slow drive along rural roads leads to the village of Padornelos where less than 130 people live in age-old stone dwellings centred around miniature, natural fountains and water reservoirs. This hamlet became famous due to the historical novel Terra Fria – ‘cold land’ – by Ferreira de Castro, one of the most celebrated writers in Portugal. He describes the harsh and almost medieval living conditions in the early 1930s in these villages of north-eastern Trás-os-Montes.
Padornelos is also the village where home cook Aldina Moura hosts visitors in her house, serving them the most delicious rustic food. Aldina and a group of elderly women prepare everything in the kitchen before dawn. Her husband Ricardo brings in firewood for the gigantic hearth that heats the room with a long wooden table at its centre. It’s here, next to the warm fire, that diners are served endless plates of food. The simple fare is hearty and filling, with dishes such as barrosão stew with pork, pumpkin, homemade chorizo and farinheira (a traditional sausage). The meat is boiled for three hours until it is super-soft. Cabbage, carrots and potatoes come from the garden. While the blood sausages are cooked separately, so their flavour does not mix with the other meat.
In her tiny kitchen, Aldina swirls between cooking pot and kitchen table where homegrown vegetables are cut and slices of cured ham are laid out on wooden boards. Traditional bread and house wine, served in tiny taberna glasses, accompany every meal, whether it’s a small tapas-like petisco or a four-hour feast, and the long table is always dotted with small plates of presunto (cured ham) or chorizo. The hospitality and kindness are boundless. A visitor never leaves hungry or with empty hands.
Casa de Souto Velho
The R311 spins through unspoilt countryside from the compact city of Boticas to the small village of Souto Velho. It’s almost impossible to overtake another car on roads like these, swirling through this mountainous region filled with pine forests and endless plateaus of rocks and wild herbs. Another well-hidden gem for sampling the local culinary heritage is the taberna Casa de Souto Velho. Eufrásia and her husband Osvaldo Almeida work full-time to produce everything they serve to their guests: behind the old house is an enormous vegetable garden and the alheiras (typical pork and bread sausages) are home smoked.
The taberna sits just above the Rio Tâmega, amid lush greenery, with a beautiful terrace overlooking the landscape. The interior is super-cosy with vintage wood panelling and tables dressed in classic white linen. Often the food is served on stunning, matte-black ceramic dishes from Bisalhães, and everything is homemade, from dried meat to rabbit stew and cozido à portuguesa (a hearty stew with lots of vegetables and meat). ‘The only thing that is not from us in this dish is the salt and the rice,’ Dona Eufrásia says. Never leave a Portuguese table without ending the meal with something sweet, and here you can choose from an endless medley of cakes and puddings.
Ti’Ana da Eira
Driving to the small village of Parada do Outeiro in the Peneda-Gerês National Park feels a bit like travelling through New Zealand. The vistas are wide, the scenery is pure and pristine. Our next stop is Taberna Ti’Ana da Eira, probably one of the most remote and secret restaurants in Portugal. Where the road ends, in a stone house with comfortable modern interiors, they still cook like in the days of Ti’Ana – Aunt Ana. ‘We spent hours talking beside the fireplace,’ says Bruno Pereira, one of the owners. It was out of his passion for the village where his mother Lúcia was born that Bruno decided to open ‘this humble house’, which belongs to the Tabernas do Alto Tâmega network.
Lúcia is always in the downstairs kitchen, finishing a stew or grilling the most succulent Barrosã meat. Someone else is peeling kilos of garlic, because almost every dish is blessed with a good dose of it. Eating here is an explosion of tastes – rich, deep and honest. ‘It’s all made with products from the region, even from the village, and it’s how I cook in my own home,’ says Lúcia, who is a happy character, clearly loving her job and this place. Accompanying the amazing food is a stunning panorama over the Paradela dam and the Peneda-Gerês National Park, seen from a little patio or through the large windows inside.
Setting off after yet another amazing long lunch, we realise that there is one common denominator to road tripping and trying the food of this region: the genuine kindness of the people and their generosity in sharing the extraordinary variety of local dishes and wines. It does not matter that these villages are isolated and that life is very simple; it’s here that the memory of popular gastronomy is kept alive, well hidden in the tiny kitchens, adegas and smokeries of the kind-hearted people of Alto Tâmega.
Where to stay
We loved Casa da Eira Longa in the tiny village of Vilar near Boticas. The collection of old stone houses contains comfortable rooms for connecting with slow-paced village life. A beautiful swimming pool and delicious homemade breakfast complete the experience. Doubles from about £55. booking.com/casa-da-eira-longa
For a more refined option in a very central location, there is the Vidago Palace Hotel in the town of the same name. Constructed in the style of an English country house, it actually opened as a royal palace in 1910 and its glittering ballroom is now a restaurant. There’s also an 18-hole golf course and a smart spa. Doubles from about £155. booking.com/vidago-palace
Where to eat
All the tabernas mentioned can be found on the Tabernas do Alto Tâmega website – booking is strongly recommended. tabernasdoaltotamega.com
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