Besides the chance to gossip, what excited everyone most was the prospect of investigating the Portuguese way with fish. This is a huge part of the nation’s diet, and presents a mounting dilemma for chefs as demand increases and supply rapidly declines.
I cannot reveal all that was said or drunk over the game of pontoon played in the magnificent bar of the Bussaco Palace Hotel (built in the late 19th century as a hunting lodge for Portuguese royalty). But I can disclose that the conversation turned to the volatility of pastry chefs, how to handle the mounds of rubbish restaurants generate, and whether anyone knew of a builder who had ever finished a restaurant on time.
Dinner on our first night in Porto was at Casa Aleixo, where the octopus caused some delight. But the dish that generated the greatest curiosity was a salad of salt cod and potato in which the two had been melded together with equal amounts of elbow grease and olive oil, the flavour enhanced with garlic, pepper and parsley.
The following morning, rain and low, grey cloud gave a gloomy air to Matosinhos, Porto’s fishing port. Judging from the number of dilapidated sardine-canning factories now open to the skies, it had seen better days. But inside the main market there was sunshine in the faces of the stallholders who smiled as they split sardines with their fingers, held up whole monkfish and prepared yet more octopus. Following in the wake of Tim Hughes was revealing: he pointed out the undersized baby sole that should have been thrown back; the under-appreciated gurnard, mainly reserved for fish soup; and small cuttlefish he can no longer buy in the UK. He explained that if you see too many –
Porto harbour. Above right, Rowley Leigh grilling sardines at Kensington Place- of the same species of the same size -bass or bream, for example – they are more than likely to have been farmed, an increasing occurence as we fail to protect the sea and its stocks. Aside from the freshness, everyone was excited by the price – in most cases a third of what is charged in the UK.