‘You need at least 15 people for a piglet,’ says Rui, who sits next to me. His long hair is gathered in a low knot; a metal feline head circles his finger. ‘Trust me, I’m a mediaeval re-enacting professional.’
Leave after breakfast and you’ll get there in time for lunch, but even setting off mid-afternoon (after too many cocktails the night before, say) means a porcine dinner could still be on the cards. This is no white-knuckle drive dodging heavy lorries, but rather a pleasant amble down National Road 1, with its spotless service stations touting artisanal sandwiches and glass jars of home-made chocolate mousse.
Veer off the main road and you’ll be rewarded with ramshackle stalls stocked with local produce: ripe toad melons, bags of snails waiting for a quick bath in butter and garlic, punnets of cherries plump and sweet from their time in the sun.
‘Some of the best restaurants are by-the-road restaurants,’ says Nuno from behind the wheel. ‘They have the rice with tomato there.’
A wistful, respectful silence descends on the car, one I dare not break with the inane questions popping up in my head. What is the rice with tomato? Where can we get some? Why are we not eating it now?
I love my Portuguese friends’ confidence in the food of their country. I’m freed of any decision-making: here are gambas grilled in garlic and herbs, here’s pica-pau (beef strips with pickle), scrambled eggs with smoky Farinheira sausage, secretos de porco – crispy, marbled morsels of Iberian ‘pork secrets’ on a bed of thick-cut chips. Rui waxes lyrical about ovos moles from the region of Aveiro, a sweet treat made from a rich, creamy mixture of egg yolks and sugar. Where can we get some? Why are we not eating them now?
Aware of my boarish greed, my friends have planned a detour through Salinas de Rio Maior, an inland hamlet known for its historic, still-harvested salt pans – the last of their kind in Europe.
Glamorous navigator Silvia stretches her tanned limbs in the car park. Rui rummages in a bush, producing a handful of small orange fruits. He shows me how to peel the thin skin, revealing tangy, honeyed flesh: nêspera. What is nêspera? How have I never tasted this before? Why are we not picking more?
The village produces salt crystals as pale and delicate as snow. It’s a sleepy spot, but we spend a peaceful hour or so checking out the smorgasbord of local bounty on offer in the sturdy wooden huts lining the main drag.
There’s bee pollen and pastries rich with egg yolk; salted caramel liqueur; olive oil from the press down the road; oatmeal stout and rosemary beer; salt rub ‘for piglets’. At family-run Loja do Sal, I eye up a short menu of grilled, perfectly seasoned meats that would make Salt Bae weep. We may have gone off-piste, but it’s clear we are still on the right path.
We reach our destination just as dusk melts into night. Mealhada would barely register as a blip on the map, were it not for the churrasqueiras lining its main road.
You’ll find no charming mom-and-pop barbecue joints here, but rather large, modern halls made for communal dining and the kind of joyful, boisterous feasts where one could gather 15 medieval re-enacting professionals without raising an eyebrow. None hides its piggy profligacies, from the prosaic O Forno Da Mealhada to the regal Rei dos Leitões – the smug-sounding King of Suckling Pigs.
We park by Pedro dos Leitões, where large stone sculptures of pigs in various stages of post-prandial glee call for ridiculous selfies on the lawn. Inside, display cabinets are filled with porky tchotchkes: hogs playing the violin, sows engaged in unspeakable acts, winged swines and other pigs with no specific duties.
Pedro dos Leitões, named after a certain Alvaro Pedro who cut his culinary chops as a chef working the Brazil-Argentina train route in the 1920s, grew to its current Valhallan proportions from a roadside pit-stop selling hog sandwiches to passing drivers. A peer at the pass reveals stern kitchen porters handling platters of melt-in-the-mouth meat, diaphanous crackling like burnished amber, and huge, thick crisps still warm from the fryer.
We descend on our table for four like the 30 to 50 feral hogs we are. Our feast starts with queijinho fresco, a kind of fromage frais served in plastic tubs alongside a pile of floury baps. It’s creamy and tangy, the perfect foil for moreish pasteis do leitão, fried croquettes stuffed with – you’ve guessed it – suckling pig.
When the star of the show appears – the centrepiece to an altar of warm crisps, buttery rice and simply steamed vegetables – we greet it with raised glasses of foamy Bairrada Cava. There’s a jug of simmered-down roasting juices to pour over the whole thing: an ambrosial finish to a plateful of perfect pig.
Later, having reached the end of the road (or a full stop, more aptly) at Tipografia do Conto in Porto, I collapse on my enormous marshmallow of a bed. In the floor-to-ceiling mirror I watch the curve of my stomach rise and fall, plump and taut from too many good meals. I yawn, replete, pot-bellied, and fall asleep – happy as a pig in high-thread-count sheets.
THREE MORE FOR THE ROAD
If you’re dying for a taste of ‘pork secrets’, head to the diminutive Delicia de Arroios. Everything’s good at this real neighbourhood gem. Bypass the pleasant-enough terrace and the cramped dining room for a table on the covered terrace hidden up a narrow staircase. Rua de Arroios 137, Lisbon
Don’t be in a rush at Porto’s intimate Taberna dos Esquecidos: service can be excruciatingly slow. The menu comes scrawled on a large chalkboard carried to your table and the wine list is short, cheap and extremely quaffable. Order whatever sounds good that day; during my visit it was prawns with garlic, pork cheeks on mash, and a pillowy chocolate mousse. Travessa de Cedofeita 40A, Porto
Hip, lively Brasão Aliados rustles up reliable Portuguese classics: pica-pau, steak sandwiches and Francesinha (turbo-charged croque monsieur in a beer gravy). There are vegetarian options too, but why bother? The bread for the table comes with smoked ham butter. Rua de Ramalho Ortigão 28, Porto
Pig out on our full collection of Porto hotels
Additional photography by the author