Cruising with the windows down, the cool breeze off the ocean is welcome in the August heat. We follow the river in the direction of Oporto. Hugging the bend we pass beneath a beautiful bridger. I am awestruck by the sight before me. To my right I see an ancient city climbing the banks of the Douro river stretching up to the top of a mountain. It is a phenomenal sight; as if time has frozen in place. This ancient city is a world heritage site, and its streets pulse with vibrant history. At the mouth of the Douro River, the city center bustles with tourists and day to day life. Museums, art, and architecture stand out in this metropolis. Oh yea, and lets not forget Oporto’s most famous contribution to the world - Port wine. Port as we know is a fortified wine produced only in the Douro River valley. Divided into two categories, bottle aged and barrel aged Ports. They come in various styles from sweet to dry, and in both white or red. All Port is fortified with aguardiente (distilled from grapes) which stops the fermentation process keeping the sugars from becoming alcohol. This is the process that changed the way the world ends a meal forever. Now, Port wine can wave farewell to the Douro River valley, and make the journey to your table in the Hudson valley. At this point, I am eager to get exploring. What to do or taste first? Where to begin? We only have one day, so I put on my blinders and forge ahead.
Parking, as in any city, is near impossible. We sit online forever waiting to enter the lot. Russ suggests that we head out and get some water while he waits. I don’t hesitate. As I stroll up the sidewalk, from the street to the cafe ahead. Russ has caught up. I decide it is a good idea to start our visit with a traditional Portuguese “snack” Russ knows just the place. We walk up the street; or hike rather. One block in manhattan is nothing in comparison. In this hundred degree heat I am wishing I brought hiking gear and a camel pack. The incline of this beautiful cobblestone block is close to 45 degrees. We reach the corner, and thankfully we are on somewhat level ground. Our destination is ahead.
We seat ourselves at a table outside. Russ orders for us all. Tres Francesina. I have heard a lot about this popular food. It is so beloved by the people that they even have festivals completely dedicated to these babies. A francesina, or little frenchy, is a sandwich made of bread layered with beef, ham, sausage (in my case chorizo & linguica sausage) covered with cheese and generously drowned in a beer and tomato molho (sauce), surrounded by french fries. Thats right - cheese, chorizo, beer and fries - francesina, how have we not met before? I’s every bit as delicious as it sounds. Calling this meal a “snack” is a bit misleading, but I’m not complaining. For lunch, I have had enough calories to last me till tomorrow, but I can’t help dreaming about how good this would be after night on the town. I brace myself for the climb up the mountain that is Oporto. Off we go.
Through the winding streets. One wrong turn and you’re in a never ending maze of narrow side streets strung with clotheslines, and decorated with painted tile. Romanesque, or Medieval style churche, entire streets with perfectly preserved art nouveau buildings. There are street performers of all kinds; a mud painted cobbler who will hammer a shoe if you drop a coin in his box, a man playing a violin, a painter selling his art, a group of gypsies playing accordion and tambourine, dancing a hand crafted puppet to the music. I am overwhelmed by all there is too see, but It is hot. I duck into an open doorway.
I call to everyone and gesture for them to follow. We have found some Port. Not just any Port, Niepoort Vinoteca. (http://www.niepoort-vinhos.com/en/) The first time my fiance went to Portugal, she was served one of these Ports at a fantastic restaurant. It was instant love. So she brought a bottle home to share with me. Suffice to say, Niepoort is now one of my favorite port houses. In the United States port is typically considered a dessert wine, here in Europe it is more of an aperitif- white port and tonic makes a great starting cocktail.
Innovative and creative Neoport has been bottling niche ports and other fantastic wines from the Douro Valley and surrounding regions since 1842. A top priority stop for me on this trip. I am excited to begin sampling. We came at the right time. Lunch just ended so we have the place to ourselves. Guided through the tasting with Nadia, she was given permission to open two very special bottles of Port for us. The condition- once opened the whole bottle must be consumed. There is no way I am turning down an invitation to enjoy a vintage bottle of Port in Oporto on a hot afternoon. Nadia doesn’t hesitate to pop open the bottle. We taste a 10 year white port, LBV, and moved into their other family wines. I am excited to learn of the other varieties Niepoort has to offer. I was only aware of the small selection available to us in the US. Nadia is doing her job well. At this point I can not see it going any other way, it has been decided -the wines we are enjoying will be coming back to the menu at Dish. I consider myself to be fairly knowledgeable about wines, but this girl knows her stuff. We talk wine and Port and surprisingly Gin too. She tells us a few of her top secret Port recipes, and dares me to give them a try. I believe one had something to do with scrambled eggs! (I’m definitely trying it) We learn that one of the most delicious parts of the Port, is called “the heart of the wine.” It is the sediment that settles on the bottom of the bottle after years of aging. This I have never heard. I will save this pleasure for home. For now, we have completed our mission. All glasses are empty and smiles are on all of our faces. I collect as many bottles as I can fit in my arms. I thank Nadia for taking her time to share her company and knowledge with us. It had been an unforgettable day- now to buy new luggage. Hudson Valley, we are coming your way.
Peter A Milano
Eat, Drink, and Explore from chef Peter's blog about his food experiences, recipes, and travel.