‘When he’s away, the thing he misses about Porto is the tripe.’ I was talking to Eduarda Sandeman, wife of George Sandeman, chairman of the eponymous port firm. Despite his illustrious name, George Sandeman isn’t from Oporto (as the British call it). His family are from Jerez and he was educated in England. He speaks English and Spanish fluently but he told me that he is still teased by his wife for his imperfect Portuguese. It’s a hard language to pronounce — a bit like Spanish spoken by a Russian. George’s love of tripe, though, marks him out as a true son of Oporto. The inhabitants of the city are known as Tripeiros — tripe eaters.
This name dates back to 1415, when the Portuguese army were trying to take Ceuta in Morocco. To feed the troops, Oporto’s people went without all meat except tripe. Thankfully there is now more to eating here than offal. A highlight on a recent visit was the home-smoked salmon followed by milk-fed lamb at a restaurant called LSD — it stands for Largo de San Domingo — in central Oporto. The wine list is phenomenal too.
Much of Oporto’s wealth was built on the wine trade and a visit isn’t complete without going to one of the port lodges across the river at Vila Nova de Gaia. At LSD we finished the meal with a vintage port, a still sprightly Sandeman ’63, but the wine the Tripeiros enjoy most is a pale tawny, lightly chilled. If you are in the city for longer than a couple of days, go to the railway station, spend a half-hour admiring the tilework showing scenes from Portuguese history, and then take a train up country to the source of these famous wines. When the British came to Oporto in the 17th century it would have been a dangerous four-day journey on mule. Now the impossibly scenic train ride takes three hours. When you arrive at Pinhão station (again — don’t forget to admire the tiles) it’s as if you are in another country. The climate is baking hot and the air fragrant with thyme, oranges and almonds. With terraces cut into the mountains and the river Douro below, here are the most dramatic vineyards in the world.
Oporto’s setting is pretty stunning, too. It’s built up the side of a steep hill with a series of massive bridges — one designed by Gustav Eiffel — linking it to Vila Nova de Gaia. Rather than specific places of interest, the city as a whole is the sight, so climb the Clérigos tower for an unforgettable view. Despite the hyper-modern airport and tram system, gentrification has barely touched Oporto — I didn’t see a single hipster. Walking the back streets of Ribeira, the medieval quarter, down to the river, you will find a city that would have been familiar to the first British visitors. There’s even a touch of North Africa about the maze of alleys.
‘Now you must try some.’ Eduarda looked deadly serious. Nervously I helped myself to a small plateful of ‘tripas à moda do Porto’ and thought back to horrible tripe experiences from holidays past. My stomach lurched. I took a little bite and… it was nice. Actually, it was delicious. The stew was made with white beans and ham, and the veal tripe was tender, non-gelatinous and didn’t stink of pig rectum (unlike a recent andouillette sausage in Bordeaux). I ate and sipped the dark Douro wine. Perhaps it wasn’t such a sacrifice all those years ago.