Arcos (Portugal) – A Walker cooks for a Driver…

The email asked: what did we want – the codfish or the chicken?

The email was from the hotel my wife and I were due to stay in the next night – our first night in Portugal. The hotelier wanted to know if we would be having dinner in the hotel. And if so, was it to be the codfish or the chicken?

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 6.56.41 AMI must admit, in all my traveling – and I’ve traveled a lot – I’ve never received an email from a hotel asking me what I wanted for dinner the next night. Not even in France. And this was Portugal – not particularly known for it’s gastronomic attention to detail.

My wife and I were in London working, and the email took me aback somewhat. But it also intrigued me. The people who ran this hotel must be serious foodies.

So I said yes, we would be eating in the hotel, thank you. And we’ll have one of each – the codfish and the chicken. I knew my wife liked cod, and I loved chicken. I figured with that response I had all bases covered.

I usually don’t like having dinner in hotels. When I’m traveling I like to get out, explore dimly lit back streets, find a small restaurant  full of locals, and have a meal that’s authentic to the region.

However, I knew we’d be arriving late, and the small town we’d be staying in north of Porto seemed devoid of restaurants. We’d be tired from traveling, and so having dinner in the hotel seemed to make a lot of sense.

The next afternoon we landed in Porto and went to the Hertz counter to pick up the rental car we’d be using for the next week. I take my driving in Europe seriously, and the choice of vehicle is critical to me.

I don’t need a big fancy car, but I need something European (I am in Europe after all), a manual car (when driving on the wrong side of the road, for some perverse reason I like to make it even harder for myself), low kilometers, (I won’t accept anything over 40,000kms) and a car with a bit of grunt. (I hate being overtaken on the Autopistas by Ford Fiestas. I find it personally humiliating and degrading.)

The Hertz Guy must have known all this because he’d covertly upgraded me to a Peugeot 208CC Coupe – a low slung speedster with a retractable roof. The Hertz Guy insisted on showing me how to retract the roof, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it was pouring with rain.

His optimism was inspiring.

I politely pointed out to him that given the weather conditions, I didn’t think I would be going roofless for the foreseeable future, however the Hertz Guy, now soaked to the skin, was on a roll. He couldn’t be stopped, even as the winds began to reach gale force level.

With the rain now horizontal, he explained over the howling wind that I could only retract the roof if I had no luggage in the trunk.

I pointed to our luggage which, like us, was getting soaked. I apologized for carrying luggage, and explained that had I known that I was to be upgraded to a coupe with a retractable roof, my wife and I would have done our trip without luggage.

But, sadly, we had luggage. Which needed to go in the trunk.

You see, the coupe had no back seat. You couldn’t put luggage in the back, much less a passenger. It was not physically possible for any human being to sit in the back of that car, unless that person had recently been to Afghanistan and trodden on a landmine.

The lashing rain not withstanding, you’d think that faced with this incontestable fact – that we had luggage – the Hertz Guy would have brought his demonstration to a swift and merciful conclusion – but no, he continued. He must have assumed that during the next week, the sun would shine and we’d lose our luggage.

The car, with the roof down, was now starting to take on water and was beginning to list to one side. It reminded me of the Titanic after hitting the iceberg.

I didn’t wish to be mean to the Hertz Guy. He seemed like a nice young man, and full of professional zeal which I did admire, but I was now starting to sneeze and worried that I might get pneumonia. I tried to politely wind him up.

He must have got the hint because the demonstration finally came to an end with a theatrical flourish which he must have practiced at home in the mirror.

At last we were on our way.

I’d driven about a hundred metres from the Hertz lot before it occurred to me that it might have been a better use of the Hertz Guy’s time if, instead of showing me how to retract the roof in cyclone conditions, he’d shown me how to turn on the windscreen wipers.

I couldn’t find the switch.

The French, when they design cars, seem to gleefully and maliciously put basic driving instruments in places a non-French person would never guess to look. They must do this to screw with Americans.

As I drove away from the airport in rain that was now sheeting down, I turned on the headlights, I indicated right and left, I heated our leather seats and I began to retract the roof, all in an effort to find which switch would get the wipers to work.

It was too dangerous to drive without any visibility so I had to pull over, and in the safety of a roadside rest stop I finally found how to operate the wipers. Having conquered that prerequisite for driving underwater, I then proceeded to Arcos.

Arcos is a small town about 20kms north of Porto. It’s on the Portuguese Camino de Santiago – the ancient pilgrimage route – and in fact The Way of St. James passes right outside the hotel where we were to stay – the Villa d’Arcos.

Villa d Arcos

As I parked out front, I wondered whether we’d come to the right place. It didn’t look like a hotel – it looked like a luxurious private house in a residential street.

I was tired from the trip from London, I was frazzled after the drive in the rain, and I was anxious about the dinner. During the drive from the airport my wife had informed me that she wanted the chicken.

My wife loves cod. And she knows I love chicken. She also knows I hate cod. So why was she now insisting on having the chicken? Was it to punish me for forgetting to drive on the right hand side of the road?

Cod is not a favorite fish of mine. I don’t like eating a fish that’s been reconstituted. I come from Australia and in Australia we like our fish fresh, still flapping as it hits the plate. Not salted, dried, hung in a warehouse for six months, put in a cardboard box and shipped to other parts of the world, including Portugal where it’s sold in a market to someone from the Villa d’Arcos, who then puts this dessicated chunk of salted flesh into a kitchen sink of water for 24 hours to bring it back to looking something akin to a fish, before preparing it for dinner for a guest who had answered an email one day earlier saying they wanted the cod, not the chicken, thank you for asking…

I knocked on the door, tentatively. I wasn’t sure we’d come to the right place. The door opened, and everything changed.

Because standing in front of us was a beautiful young lady with a smile as wide as my water-logged coupe and a radiance that would have de-fogged the windshield. It certainly warmed me immediately.

This was Catarina, and Catarina was the daughter of Belmira, the lady who co-owned the Villa d’Arcos, and who would be cooking the cod. And the chicken.

Catarina invited us in.

The Villa d’Arcos only has five rooms, and each room is pure luxury. Catarina said we were the only ones staying there that night (mid week, late November – not many travelers) – and so she upgraded us to the suite.

The suite was magnificent, with views out over a valley and a small river. The room was beautifully furnished, with a bathroom that was huge. All marble, totally magnificent.

After settling in, we made our way downstairs to dinner.

A long table had been set for just the two of us, with a crisp white table cloth, silver cutlery, and an array of starters. These included local fresh cheeses, some olives, beautiful village baked bread, and what looked to be a kind of hummus.

dining roomStarters

Starving, we attacked them with reslish, and they were delicious.

Belmira’s husband, Alfredo, was our host and waiter. A truly charming man, he went out of his way to make us feel comfortable, and was as attentive a server as any you’d find in a fancy restaurant.

He told us that Belmira had recently walked the Portuguese Camino, in five days. I did some quick maths, and worked out that was fifty kilometers  a day. I’m flat out walking thirty kilometers a day. Fifty kilometers a day is extraordinary.

I was keen to meet this woman – was she six foot seven with a four meter stride? Was she an Olympian athlete with quads like iron cabling? I had to wait to meet her though, because she was busy in the kitchen, cooking the cod. And the chicken.

Alfredo served us our first course – a home made vegetable soup which he ladled from a silver urn. Yummy. I asked him to choose a wine and he opened a Portuguese white wine that was delicate and sublime.

white wine

Then the mains were served. My wife looked down at her chicken, which looked delicious. Then she passed me her plate. She’d been messing with me. I gave her the cod. It was all I could do not to throw it at her head.

Vila d'Arcos chicken

The chicken had been roasted, cooked with herbs, exotic Portuguese spices and tomato. The bird itself must have been plucked from a nearby farm because it was fresh and the meat just melted in my mouth. It was superb.

The serving was a leg and thigh, and I wolfed it down.

Alfredo saw that I’d eaten it with rapid gusto, and he disappeared, then returned with the other one – the other leg and thigh. He told me they’d cooked it, I may as well eat it. So I had seconds!

Where does that happen in a restaurant?!

My wife meanwhile was taking her time savoring her cod. She told me it was the best cod she’d ever eaten.

Cod on plate

I then proceeded to wolf down the second serving of chicken, while my wife savoured her cod. That pretty much sums up the different way my wife and I approach life –

I wolf, she savours.

Desert was a creme brulee that again was sublime. This was home cooking taken to a truly artful level. I discovered the next morning the cost for the three course meal was only €17 per person.

After dinner, Belmira came down and joined us. She wasn’t Amazonian, as I’d thought. She was petite, fit looking yes, and like her daughter Catarina she radiated warmth and a smile that lit up the dining room.

Alfredo and belmira

Being the only guests in the hotel we all sat and chatted for a long time. We discovered that Alfredo and Belmira had only been running the hotel for about twelve months. It had been their holiday home before they turned it into a luxury boutique hotel.

The next morning we came down to a full breakfast, again laid out beautifully. Local ham, cheeses, eggs cooked any way you want, a basket full of freshly baked breads, croissants, and proper espresso coffee.  Oh, and a jug full of freshly squeezed orange juice.

brekfast

There was also a selection of jams in the craziest containers…

breakfast 2

After paying the bill, which was surprisingly reasonable, we packed up to leave, putting the luggage in the trunk. Which meant we couldn’t retract the roof. And it was now sunny too.

Damn.

Life is cruel.

Alfredo and Belmira waved us off at the gate – and we drove away feeling like we’d just said goodbye to family. That previous evening at Villa d’Arcos has to go down as one of the truly memorable Road Food experiences.

Cod on sale in the markets in Vilar do Conde, about 20kms north of Arcos..

Cod in a local market -

6 thoughts on “Arcos (Portugal) – A Walker cooks for a Driver…

  1. Bill,

    It is 6:49 am here in Arizona and my mouth is watering. It’s watering for the chicken and cod not the breakfast food.

    Is this a place the tour will be staying in? Probably not enough rooms to accommodate everyone on the tour, but it sure looks nice.

    Reminds me of a casa rurale I stayed at just before Palas de Rei. It was a beautiful old restored farm house. I was the only guest and the owner, a gentleman, prepared and served dinner and breakfast for me in a beautiful dining house with a roaring fire in the fireplacee. This dining house and the kitchen was a separate building from the guest house.

    I know I just got home from the Camino, but I am looking forward to the PGS Tour in April. A true Caminophile, huh?

    Arlene

    1. Hi Arlene –

      No, we won’t be staying there because it’s partway through a stage – but believe me, we have better places lined up!!

      i don’t mean to be unspiritual when I say this, but the tour will be food oriented, but not at fancy places, as the kind of local places where you get the real regional food!

      Now that I’m back in Australia I’ll begin to put all this together and post it on the Tour blog I’ll let you know when.

      The scout though was very important in lining up a good deal of these wonderful places

      Bill

      1. Bill,

        As a fellow foodie, I’m not ashamed to say both of my Caminos so far have been food and wine driven. In fact all of my travels are food and wine driven.

        My favorite places to eat are local Mom and Pop establishments. The food is always superb and so true to the region. I simply love down-home, peasant food.

        Sure I enjoy a good meal in a 5* restaurant; but for the true flavor of the region, give me small privately owned establishments where the locals dine!

        This tour is going to be “off the hook” as they say!

        Arlene

      2. Dear Arlene –

        you’re damn right it’s going to be good!!

        We’ll have fun ferreting out some good restaurants. Already I have about 5-6 that are crackers.

        It’s 3:30am here now – Jen and I just got back to Mudgee at 2am, jet lagged like crazy, so should hit the sack now.

        My fast starts on Sunday!!

        best Bill

  2. Hi Bill, thank you for doing all the work for me, regarding Portugal. This looks like a wonderful place to “treat” oneself while walking. Love the Jam containers… great substitute for a flowers, so cheerful. Bet the jam was good too. I am currently going through a fast, so looking at food is fun, albeit, it does create some cravings. 😉

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