Category Archives: Europe

Porto – Pedro’s Frangos

Alimentation cropped

I have a nose.

Well, if it’s not a nose, then it’s a stick – like a divining rod.

Viana do Castelo maid

I can find a restaurant in the most unlikely of places. And by “restaurant,” I mean “unique cultural food experience.” It could be a hole in the wall, it could be a street stall, it could be a nameless signless eatery known only to the locals. I can find these places.

REstaurant graffiti

I don’t ever read guidebooks, or check websites to see what other people say are the best joints. I don’t want to eat where everyone else eats. I don’t want to sit down at a table with a bunch of tourists clutching their Lonely Planets or their Rough Guides or their iPhones with their Yelp apps. I want to eat at the places that would never get to Trip Advisor. I want to discover places.

For me, that’s part of the road food experience.

Two restaurants

I have a knack for it. It’s like a radar. And my radar spins at revolutions that are in direct proportion to however hungry I am. So if I’m starving, I’m highly attuned. I’m like a truffle dog in a forest of oaks. I’m like a great white shark sniffing blood in the water. I’m a heat seeking missile zig-zagging a jet. I’m relentless, because I know the perfect place is there, somewhere nearby, if only I can find it. And when I find it I will have a profound food experience that will be remembered for decades.

Or at least until I’m hungry again.

Restaurante sign

You should not be with me when I’m like this. I’m not much fun to be around. Because like a sniffer dog in an airport checking a flight from Columbia, I go nuts. I know there’s booty to be found, I just don’t quite know where to look first.

So what happens is I walk down lanes and I cross streets oblivious to traffic and to my health and safety, I hurry into cul de sacs, only to retreat when I haven’t found my anticipated restaurant, then I walk down more lanes and I get more and more agitated the more I look, because I just know the perfect food experience is somewhere close by – I just have to find it. And invariably I do.

Boulangerie copy

I operate by certain rules. Here are my top 20 –

  1. You do not find a good restaurant on a main road. Period.
  2. You do not find a good restaurant in the main plaza or square. Don’t waste your time even looking.
  3. You do not find a good restaurant anywhere near a tourist attraction.
  4. Any restaurant that displays a menu outside with pictures of its food should be avoided at all costs.
  5. Any restaurant that accepts Diners Club should be avoided at all costs.
  6. Any restaurant that has a menu with a calorie count should be avoided at all costs. In fact, you should run from the premises screaming.
  7. Any restaurant that has a tout outside should be avoided at all costs. A restaurant is not a strip show.
  8. Any restaurant that has a brochure at the local Tourist Information Office, or is featured in the free guide booklet, should be firebombed.
  9. Avoid seafood restaurants in the desert.
  10. Avoid steakhouses by the beach.
  11. Do not eat in restaurants that have good views.
  12. Do not eat in restaurants that revolve.
  13. Do not eat in restaurants that offer high chairs for kiddies.
  14. Do not eat in restaurants that offer discounts to Senior Citizens.
  15. Do not eat in restaurants that offer you a bib.
  16. Do not eat in restaurants where the other diners look like you.
  17. Do not eat In a restaurant where you can see the food alive before you eat it.
  18. Do not eat in a restaurant that is empty.
  19. Sorry – NEVER eat in a restaurant that is empty.
  20. And never eat in a restaurant that offers you a menu in English, unless you’re in England.

Menu on wall

Here’s what I do. If I lob into a town or village where I’ve never been before, I first go to the main square, then I radiate out from there. I explore all the back alleys and lanes. I look for those dingy little joints that barely have any signage. The good restaurants don’t have to advertise. The locals know where they are.

Back Alley

If it’s lunchtime I look out for people obviously heading to lunch. I follow them. This has taken me to some spectacular places I never would have found any other way. It’s also got me into some heated confrontations with folk who thought I was stalking them.

If I’m driving, I always look for a place that has trucks parked out front. Truckers always know the best places to eat. I judge a restaurant not by its online reviews, but by its carpark. If its carpark is full, that’s recommendation enough for me.

Another thing I do is I ask at the reception desk at my hotel. I ask: Where’s a good place to eat? And they tell me. And then I say – No, I don’t want to go there – because they’ll want to send me to some safe tourist place that everyone goes to. I ask: Where do YOU eat when you want a good feed?

Ah, they say, you wouldn’t want to eat there… And then I know I’m onto something special! I find out where they eat, and that’s where I go. Sometimes I have to really prise this information out of them, because they’re too frightened or shy to tell me.

Oh no, they say – you wouldn’t like it. It’s too rough and noisy. Or… You wouldn’t like the food. It’s very particular to this this area.

Ah, I say, my eyes lighting up… tell me where this place is. And invariably I have a great meal in a restaurant that’s not in any of the guide books.

That’s how I found Pedro’s Frangos.

Frangos

Pedro’s Frangos was recommended to me by the lass on the front desk of Porto’s Grande Hotel de Paris. As an aside, I love the delicious anomaly of a hotel in Porto, in Portugal, being called The Grande Hotel de Paris.

Bar Paris

There’s something wickedly skewed and brazenly geographically challenged about that, which I find attractive. It’s like the hotel somehow got lost during construction. It took a wrong turn at the Arc de Triomphe.

Here is the public phone booth in the Grande Hotel de Paris –

Phone and Rose

Here’s another tip about finding a good restaurant – if you ask at the reception desk of your hotel, as I’ve suggested, don’t ask the Concierge, if your hotel has a Concierge that is. And don’t ask the manager. Ask the lowliest desk clerk or porter. The Concierge and the Manager will always point you towards the fancy tourist joints. If they’re not getting a kickback, it’s professional pride. They’ll always want you to have the best eating experience in their town or city.

That’s not what you’re after. You’re after a genuine cultural experience.

So I asked the porter at the Grande Hotel de Paris, in Porto, and he directed me to Pedro’s Frangos. Actually it’s Pedro dos Frangos. Frangos in Portuguese is “chicken,” and this is one of the best grilled chicken places in Porto.

I liked Pedros as soon as I walked up. Firstly, it was in the backblocks up a small alley. Tick. Then I saw it was full of locals, at 5:30pm. Tick. They grilled their chicken by the shopfront window. Tick. When I walked in I was ignored. Tick. It was so crowded downstairs I had to walk upstairs. Tick. There was no-one who spoke English. Tick.

Ext Pedros

Int griller

This was getting too good to be true.

I sat down upstairs and all I saw was frango on the menu. That’s all I wanted. I could get a full frango, grilled Pedro’s special way, with chips and salad for €8.50. Tick Tick Tick. This place was getting so many ticks it was like a clock on speed.

Salt and vinegar plate of chicken

Pedro dos Frangos was a wonderful road food experience. It was great finding the place, it was great knowing that I was connected with the real people of Porto eating what they ate, oh and yes, the chicken was fabulous.

The restaurant was full of families – parents who’d taken their children out to dinner. And workers who were having a quick meal before heading home. There were a couple of student looking types, in the early stages of a romance it seemed. Everyone was enjoying their meal. Their Pedros Frangos.

It was the kind of cultural food experience I’d been searching for in Porto.

I got up to walk downstairs to pay the bill. And as I was walking down the stairs, I noticed a bunch of people coming up. They were obviously tourists, they were chatting excitedly, and there must have been a dozen of them. I stood to the side to let them go by – and I noticed that several were clutching a copy of the Lonely Planet Guide to Portugal.

Oh noooooooooooooo.

If you want to know where Pedro dos Frangos is in Porto, look it up on Trip Advisor. It’s #51 of top restaurants there, evidently…

Pedros dos Frangos.2

Germany – The Romantic Road

The Romantic Road in Germany is a marketing construct really – loosely based on an old Roman trade route through the southern provinces, but resurrected in the 1950s to promote tourism in post war Germany.

It stretches approximately 350kms from Warzburg in northern Bavaria, through to Fussen down near the Austrian Alps. It links some of Germany’s most beautiful medieval towns and cities, and each day it attracts busloads of tourists from around the world.

Romantic Road.3At the southern end the road includes the fairy-tale castle of Neuschwanstein, said to be what Walt Disney based his Fantasyland Castle on –

Fussen Castle2

Fantasy Land2

In November I drove a couple of hundred kilometers along the Romantic Road. I ticked off some of the major towns, including Warzburg, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Dinkelsbuhl and Augsburg. I hope to go back in the next year or so and complete the journey.

I started at the northern top of the road – Warzburg – at the central markets which are nestled in beside the town’s dramatic cathedral. In the true Bavarian tradition my first meal was a Bratwurst sausage hotdog with locally made mustard, all for €2.

Warzburg cathedral

hot Dog Stand int

Menu board

Hot Dogs

I’ve had hotdogs in Harlem in New York, at Pinks on La Brea in Los Angeles, I’ve had a cab driver take me around the scariest parts of southside Chicago looking for the definitive American hotdog, and I’ve driven through Krakow in Poland looking for the definitive Polish hotdog (never found – they don’t eat hotdogs in Poland!) and yet this Warzburg hotdog has to be the best I’ve had. Probably because the Warzburg sausage was so damn good.

Suitably nourished for my trip south, having eaten my three favourite food groups – bread, mustard, and hotdog – I headed down to my next stop, Rothenburg ob der Tauber.

Trees

Rothenburg ob der Tauber is the kind of town you see on biscuit tin lids. Its perfect in every way. The old town lies within ancient walls, and is largely free of traffic. The buildings have been beautifully restored, and the town probably contains more Americans per square meter than Dodger Stadium.

Rothenburg door

Rothenburg is famous for its Schneeballes, or snowballs, which are rolled biscuits containing plum schnaps, deep-fried and dusted with confectioners’ sugar. They have a long shelf-life and are sold all over the town, often as souvenirs.

Snowball Snowballs

Suitably nourished from my Rothenburg snowballs, containing three of my favourite food groups – sugar, flour, and deep-fry – I then headed further south to Dinkelsbuhl.

Dinkelsbuhl is so romantic it’s the kind of place where you just want your buhls dinkelled.

bottles

Dinner in Dinkelsbuhl consisted of duck with grapes and croutons and sticks of roasted potatoes, followed by strudel, all washed down with Weissbeir.

Duck

Strudel

Weissbeir

Suitably nourished by my three favourite food groups – duck, strudel and weissbeir – I then headed further south to my last stop on the Romantic Road – Augsburg.

Augsburg was established by the Romans in 15BC because it was on a trade route through to Italy, but it’s perhaps most notable Wikipedia entry is that it was the home of the Messerschmitt aircraft factory, supplying German fighter planes during World War 2.

I didn’t see much of Augsburg because I headed straight to Dichtl’s.

Dichtl ext

Dichtl is a pastry joint I could live in. I would be prepared to take up German residency to live in Dichtl’s. I would hide in the bathrooms during the day and come out at night, like a rat. I would forage, and be prepared to forgo my other favourite food groups to embrace my new three favourite food groups – cake, cake, and cake.

white cake green cake

Red Cake.2

Red cake int.

Dichtl’s is also a fabulous chocolate shop – all hand made of course. And in November, they had all their Christmas stuff out…

Goldenengel Chocolate Christmas trees

Chocolate santas

I had to leave the Romantic Road. I was getting fat. Too many damn favourite food groups.

I’ll go back and complete the journey. I want to get to the Fantasyland castle. See if I can find Tinkerbell… there’s things we need to discuss. Like did she invent fairy floss?

Tinkerbell 2

Porto (Portugal) – King of Sardines

I don’t like sardines as a rule.

I grew up knowing sardines as those greasy little fish-like things that were crammed into flat tins whose lids you folded back in a roll. The tins were filled with stinky oil and the sardines were prised out to be spread onto toast.

TinTin opened

The skin, bones, tiny sardine-heads and tiny sardine-tails were easily mashed into a barely edible paste that you applied thickly to the toast, mixing it with the butter, then you quickly took a bite and gulped it down before the smell and the whole idea of it induced you to regurgitate it for a second look.

Toast

The notion of eating a tiny oily fish which you exhume from a crypt-like tin is not appealing to an Aussie. We like our fish big, fresh, and covered in fried batter. We don’t eat steak from a tin. We don’t eat lamb from a tin. Why should we eat fish from a tin?

Also, tiny anything doesn’t appeal to us. Look at the rock in the middle of our country. It’s not tiny.

Ayers rock

And as Crocodile Dundee so famously said: “That’s not a knife… THIS is a knife!”

Croc Dundee.2

So I would say of a sardine: That’s not a fish…. THIS is a fish.

Great White Shark.2

(Yes, we happen to have the biggest Great White Sharks in the world in our waters…)

It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I saw real sardines in a fish market. They didn’t look anything like the sardines I knew. They were larger, fat, and although they were still small, they at least looked like proper fish.

Sardines in school

Still, I had no desire to cook them up. They were faux-fish. Like white-bait. I don’t trust a fish you can eat in one bite. You might inadvertently eat its genitalia. In my quest for food experiences, I have to draw the line somewhere. I need to scale and gut my fish before I eat them. How can you scale and gut a sardine? You have to eat it in its entirety – scales and guts and genitalia and all.

My attitude to sardines changed however when years later, someone told me of how they’d spent glorious sun-filled afternoons in small exotic restaurants on the beaches of North Portugal, eating … yes… grilled sardines. Fresh, straight from the seas. Washed down with delicious Portuguese wines.

Based on that romantic vision, I was prepared to give sardines a second chance.

I later discovered that the region is famous for its sardines, so when I went to North Portugal recently, I kept an eye out for a restaurant with the faux-fish on the menu. But all the restaurants seemed geared towards its other famous regional food – grilled chicken.

It wasn’t until my last day in Portugal, when I went down to the port district of Porto, that I stumbled upon the King of Grilled Sardines restaurant.

I’d been checking out hotels in the area, prepping a Camino Tour I’m leading next year, and the guy on the front desk of a hotel directed me towards the district’s “eat street.” He said that’s where people came from Porto if they wanted a great seafood meal.

The area is called Matosinhos – it’s well off the tourist trail, and you need to take a 40 minute train from Central Porto to get there. It’s where the fishermen dock, it’s where they sell their catches in the markets, and it’s where you’ll find some of Portugal’s great seafood restaurants.

What makes them so good? The fish are literally straight off the boats. And these restaurants aren’t fancy establishments with huge prices – they’re little hole-in-the-wall joints that cater largely to the local workers. It’s hard to spend more than €10 on a meal.

I followed the directions the hotel guy gave me, and of course I got lost. (How am I going to lead a tour next year??) He’d given me the name of particular restaurant that he’d recommended, and even with the aid of his front desk map, I couldn’t find it. But I rounded a corner and I spotted something which immediately got my restaurant-radar twirling.

Restaurant WS

Diners sitting at small tables outside in the sun. Even at 3pm on a weekday, it was crowded. It’s like trucks filling parking lots outside roadhouses – I veer towards restaurants that are full. Conversely I stay away from restaurants that are empty.

I wandered over.

Many of the diners were finishing up. I was seated, somewhat brusquely, and I wasn’t even given a menu. Because there was only one thing everyone was eating –

Sardines.

Vinho Verde

I ordered a bottle of Vinho Verde – the Portuguese “Green” wine renown in that part of the world – and waited for my 12 sardines to arrive.

I’d ordered 12 sardines because I was hungry. And I assumed they’d be small. Also, I’ve never met a fish that got bigger with grilling. They get smaller. So 12 sardines seemed about right.

Sardines.1

After a short wait the plate came out – but they must have got my order wrong because I only got 6 sardines.  I didn’t care. Because they were massive. The fishermen must put steroids in the waters off Portugal, because these weren’t the sardines I knew – not even the ones I’d seen in markets. There were real fish.

They’d been grilled to perfection, covered in freshly aromatic olive oil, and crusted with salt. I poked at them with my fork. I was looking for their genitals. The sardines hadn’t been gutted or scaled – but they looked so damn delicious that I took a deep breath and barreled in anyway.

With the fork I separated the flesh from the spine. The white fish-meat came away effortlessly, which told me this was a very fresh sardine. Like, just-caught fresh. I scooped the fish up – and it melted in my mouth.

This was unlike any fish I’d ever eaten.

The white flesh tasted of the sea, the olive oil tasted of sunlit hills, the crunchy grilled skin tasted of brine and wind-whipped white caps. It was sublime. I ate the head, I ate the tail, I left the genitals.

Very soon the 6 sardines were finished.

My empty plate was immediately whipped away, replaced by a second plate of 6 sardines. The restaurant had broken my order down into two servings so that the 2nd serving would come out straight off the grill, just as the first had.

Sardines.2

Total cost? €12 – one euro per sardine.

I went inside to see the kitchen. The kitchen was simply a grill, fired by wood. There was an open window nearby, and I noticed that fishermen would regularly arrive with a box of freshly-caught sardines, which they’d pass through the window to the cooks. They’d then take them directly from the box and put them on the grill.

You can’t get fresher than that.

Restaurant.2

I returned to Australia with a new-found respect for the much maligned sardine.

Sardines should not be judged by their tinned compatriots. You’ve not experienced sardines until you’ve sat in a shack of a joint down by the water in North Portugal, sipping Green Wine in late afternoon sunshine, crunching down on a small grilled fish which only that morning was swimming gayly towards Africa.

Now THAT’S a sardine!

Sardine pic

Bavaria – Worms Roadhouse…

I believe a roadhouse defines a country.

In America for instance, the roadhouses serve apple pie and donuts and breakfasts of waffles and maple syrup that come in at 2,000 calories. You can have eggs any which way, hash browns, and bacon that looks like it’s been struck by lightning.

breakfast7 breakfast 6 breakfast 4breakfast 8

You are served by waitresses that are straight out of all the American movies you’ve ever seen. Think Five Easy Pieces and Jack Nicholson. The waitresses work hard for their tip. But let’s not mention that they pour completely undrinkable American coffee.

Five Easy Pieces sc

Then in France there’s the L’Arches, which literally arch over the motorways that crisscross the country.

L'Arche.1

You can have a gourmet meal in one of these very strange architectural feats. Cassoulets or duck confit with freshly fried pommes frites, hams and charcuteries and of course cheeses of a standard you’d find on sale in Fauchon on the Champs-Elysees .

Oh yes, and the bathrooms have bidets. Of course they do.

It Italy the roadhouses have bathrooms that should be nuked.

Italio cow

But they also have amazing pastas and pizzas, which compensate somewhat. In an Italian roadhouse you can buy rosaries from Lourdes and pornographic postcards from Russia. While imbibing the most exquisite coffee you’ll find in any roadhouse anywhere in the world, you have to keep an eye out for your car in the parking lot in case someone tries to bust in and steal all your belongings.

That’s Italy.

Then there’s Germany.

Precise, ordered, efficient, meticulous, rigorous, Germany.

Germany, that makes Mercedes Benz cars and Leica cameras and Zeiss optics. Germany, that has an economy that keeps most of the rest of Europe functioning. Germany, where you can set your watch to the trains because they always run on time, down to the second. Germany, where you can fit out your bathroom with a shower that will give you water temperature down to half a degree Celcius.

Germany, where the roadhouses are completely and utterly weird.

Worms is a town that I had to visit. How could you not visit a town called Worms? You would regret it always if you drove past Worms and didn’t pop in.

Worms was an important stop on an ancient trade route across Europe. It vies for being the oldest city in Germany. And on it’s outskirts it has a roadhouse, catering to modern day travelers on their way across Europe.

Ext Worms Roadhouse

I judge roadhouses on the number of trucks outside. The Worms Roadhouse had about forty big mothers parked in the lot out front. I figure if forty German truckdrivers choose the Worms Roadhouse to stop, then it’s got to be worth a look –

Segafredo

The first thing I notice as I walk in is a very impressive coffee bar – an Italian coffee bar. Segafredo. This is a good start, because German coffee sits only marginally above American coffee in drinkability rankings.

Germans don’t do coffee – they do beer.

NordSee

Then I notice a big NordSee section, where you can buy North Sea stuff, like cod and smoked salmon and other marine life pulled from those freezing waters. NordSee is the McDonalds of fish & chips in Germany.

Roadhouse sitting area

Roadhouse sweets

I then notice that the place is immaculate. There’s a capacious sitting section where you can just – sit. And racks of sweet goodies that are perfectly in order. Nothing out of place. So too the pre-made rolls and sandwiches. Everything has been carefully and precisely put out on display.

Rolls

You suspect that salmonella doesn’t abide here.

It wouldn’t dare.

But then again, there’s probably no flavor in the food either. Flavor after all is arbitrary. Subjective. And so by definition, imprecise. In this roadside temple of exactitude, imprecision is verboten!

Sausages in roadhouse Roadhouse Schnitzel

The food they’re cooking though looks yummy. Bavarian sausages, pork roasts, schnitzel, roasted potatoes. Good solid German fare for forty German truckdrivers, all at reasonable prices. I look around for the forty German truckdrivers but can’t see them.

Perhaps they’ve all gone to the restroom.

The restrooms are downstairs.

This in itself makes me suspicious.

I’ve never been to a roadhouse where the toilets are downstairs. Usually they’re out the back, or behind the office, or in a separate block or shed where you need a key, supplied spitefully by the person who just swiped your card for $85 for fuel, as if resenting that at the end of his or her shift, he or she will have to clean the putrid mess that you made.

Here the toilets were downstairs.

Why?

I walk down, the stairs immaculate. I consider dirtying them. Dropping some rubbish perhaps, or better still, cleaning out my nasal passages with a sharp snort which would have the contents sling-shoting onto a shiny wall where it would cling there tenaciously in all its disgusting glory.

But then I think my desecration would be probably be caught on a security camera and I would be imprisoned for lacking precision.

I walk down to the toilets, aware now that my need is more than just one of curiosity. I did actually want to avail myself of the urinals. But then I realize that … I have to pay.

Toileet entryentry machine

PAY?

PAY TO USE THE BATHROOMS AT A ROADHOUSE?

ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

I can’t believe it. This is the first roadhouse I’ve ever been, anywhere in the world, where I have to pay to use the toilets. And it’s not cheap either. €0.70. That’s about US$1.

It’s not the amount of money that bugs me – I can afford it. It’s the principle. Why should I have to pay to use the toilets in a roadhouse? I notice that they offer a deal – if you pay the €0.70 to use the toilet, then you get a €0.50 discount on a €3 cup of coffee upstairs at the Segafredo coffee bar.

That’s cool. So it only costs €0.20 to use the bathrooms.

If I buy a €3 cup of coffee.

But I don’t want a cup of coffee. €3 or otherwise. Because if I had the cup of coffee, I’d want to use the toilets again. So I would then have to pay another €0.70. And then to justify the outlandish cost, I’d then go back upstairs again to have ANOTHER cup of coffee. For €3. And then I’d have to go to the toilet again. And pay another €0.70.

I could imagine myself being there all night. Going up and down those immaculate stairs, between the toilets and the Segafredo coffee bar.

I paid the €0.70 and went inside.

It was like I’d walked onto a set in a Stanley Kubrick movie. Think A Clockwork Orange.

Urinals WS

The urinals were… precise. Cold and precise. And of course they were spotlessly clean. No cigarette butts in these beauties. No wads of chewing gum. No little yellow puddles in the toilet bowls that hadn’t as yet been dispatched to the North Sea.

Nope – if you pay €0.70 you get hygiene with a capital H.

Urimat

This is thanks to a contraption attached to each urinal, called a Urimat. Urimat is made by Sanifair. Sanifair as a name just makes you want to smile, doesn’t it.

Smiling, I wonder what a Urimat does. I consider that it might automatically make me urinate, but when nothing happens I dismiss that possibility. I’m momentarily disappointed that precise German engineering hasn’t yet delved that far into helping us all live full productive lives, our bladders automatically emptied.

Presumably a Urimat, made by Sanifair, sanitizes your urine – fairly – before it disappears into the North Sea. I must admit I could suddenly start to see value in my €0.70. I was using a Urimat. It looked expensive. The product of precise German engineering. All this to clean my urine.

I feel good about this, and immediately I feel ashamed for thinking that the roadhouse had ripped me off €0.07.

Toilet screens

I notice as well there are large black screens separating each urinal. This presumably so that the truckdrivers don’t peak at other truckdrivers penises. I wonder if this is something particularly German. I make a note that I should look into this further.

I use the urinal, thankful for the screen – although I was alone.

I wonder where the forty truckdrivers are.

As I walk out I notice something on the wall. A vending machine. I wander over, curious to see if it dispenses hair combs, or dental floss, or antiseptic.

Vending machine

No – it dispenses penis rings.

This is probably where  the truckdrivers are – in the cubicles trying on their penis rings.

Vibrat PR

I notice that some of the penis rings actually have inbuilt vibrators. My goodness the Germans are inventive! I would calmly state here that I’ve lived a full and colorful life, but I’ve never heard of a penis ring with a vibrator.

Perhaps I should get out more.

The dispenser can also provide a German truckdriver with a travel vibrator. I wonder why a dispensing machine in a men’s toilet would have a travel vibrator. Is this to make the long kilometers on the autobahns more enjoyable for the truckdrivers? Where would they place it? Or insert it? And does it need batteries? Are the batteries included?

I wonder if you buy a penis ring or a travel vibrator, do you get a discount voucher for coffee?

I walk upstairs. I hear a loud crash, and see that the magazine rack has crashed down and spilled magazines everywhere, all across the floor.

The roadhouse manager rushes over, his face pale. He looks at the chaos, distraught. This was not how his life was meant to go.

As I walk out to my car, I smile. Not because of the Urimat, but because I viciously drop an icecream wrapper on the ground as I get into my rental. I revel in my celebration of chaos.

Coke and glasses

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 -

Barcelos – Is this the best Portuguese Chicken joint in the world?

You would walk right past it and never know.

I did, several times. And I was looking for it.

Furno ext.

And then you’d notice all these people walking quickly inside, with a certain sense of urgency. As though they were going to miss out on something very special if they didn’t hurry.

People were walking out too, clutching a package wrapped in white paper – clutching it as though it were precious. There was a palpable sense of anticipation as they scurried away.

I looked for a sign to tell me this was a restaurant. The restaurant. There was nothing. No signage at all. Just a bland shopfront with a wide open window. So I wandered over to take a closer look – curious.

Ext restaurant2

As I approached I saw a man inside, standing at a large barbeque. He had a long handled fork, and he was flipping cut-and- splayed chickens, Portuguese style. He was enveloped in a shroud of smoke from the chicken fat burning on the coals.

It gave the whole thing a mystical dream-like quality, as though it wasn’t quite real.

At bbq int

I’d finally found it – the fabled place. The place I’d been looking for all evening. The place the locals said served the best Portuguese chicken in town.

This was no ordinary town. This town is renown throughout Portugal as producing the best chickens in the land. Like Bresse in France, Barcelos in North Portugal is world famous for its chickens.

So if this was the best Portuguese chicken joint in Barcelos, surely that would have to make it the best Portuguese chicken joint in the world…

I’m no aficionado of Portuguese chicken. But I was determined to find out.

The Furno Restaurante & Churrasaqueira is about 3 minutes walk from the main square in Barcelos, but you have to know where to look if you want to have any chance of finding it.

I walked inside and saw that there was a long line of people waiting anxiously for their take-out chicken. The guy at the barbeque by the window had about fifty chickens on the grill. And they were selling as fast as he could cook them.

closer on chickens

The Furno sells about 500-750 chickens a day. Double that on the weekend. That’s about 5000 – 6000 chickens a week.

It costs €5 for a full chicken to take away.

The birds are sourced from local producers. They only choose the best birds. Barcelos chickens are famed for their soft delicious flesh, and the Furno cooks them with cripsy skin and a secret tomato based sauce, full of spices.

The Colonel’s Kentucky Fried Chicken 11 Secret Herbs and Spices this ain’t. This is something sublime.

Cutting chicken wsCutting chicken

I watched the theatre of it play out – the line of restless customers, eager to get their chicken – the young lass at the till expertly cutting and slicing a chicken in seconds, and the guy at the barbeque shrouded in smoke, always smiling. As though he knew he was at the wheelhouse of something very special.

I then walked into the restaurant.

Int restaurant

The restaurant was a large nondescript room with paper tableclothes and a knife and fork wrapped in a napkin. It looked more like a corporate canteen. On each table there was a plastic container with toothpicks. And on a wall up one end of the room hung a tv. There was a football game in progress.

No one seemed to care. They were too busy eating.

I was handed a menu that was double dutch to me – or at least double Portuguese. No English or tourist version of the menu in the Furno. But no matter. I’d come for the chicken. Which on the menu is Frango.

menu

I could have the chicken two ways – Frango, and Frango Simples.

Frango came with the whole she-bang – fries and pickles. Frango Simples was just simply Frango.  No fries and pickles.

I ordered the Frango.

I wanted to order a full serving but the waiter wouldn’t let me. He said a half serving would be plenty. I argued, he insisted. Always with a smile. So I ordered a half serving of Frango.

The waiter shuffled off, writing up the order. He looked pleased that he’d convinced me.

I looked around the restaurant. It was a weekday night – 7pm and early for Portuguese diners. There were a few families, some couples, a table of elderly gentlemen. Everyone had come for the Frango.

I ordered a Portuguese beer – a half serving – and waited.

I’d had Portuguese Chicken before in Sydney – in Petersham, the Portuguese part of town. I liked that it was cooked flat and flame grilled. And invariably there was a sauce which was both exotic and delicious. But it always tasted like regular chicken with a fancy sauce slapped on top. I was hoping the Barcelos chicken would be different.

I’d also had chicken in Bresse, but that was a whole other ballgame. There the chickens are Appellation Controlle, like vintage wines. The chickens on sale in the markets are marked according to their producer, which region of Bresse they’re from, and their quality ranking. They have very fancy labels on them and are hugely expensive.

In a Bresse restaurant, order chicken and it’s a life changing experience. The meat is unlike any chicken you’ve ever tasted. The French have taken the cooking of Bresse chicken to a masterful artform.

In the Furno, it’s nothing like that. It’s wonderfully down and dirty.

My Frango came. It was buried in fries, but lying there underneath all those beautiful chips was the best damn chicken I’ve ever had, anywhere.

chicken on plate copy copy

Bresse aside, I’ve had chicken in various places around the world. Up in Harlem, in Sylvia’s. Southern fried chicken of the highest order. I’ve also had southern fried chicken at some of the dingiest dives in Louisiana, and in a vast hall in Madrid, and I’ve had chicken encrusted in a jacket of salt in Paris bistro. I’ve also had Beggar’s Chicken in a railway station somewhere outside of Canton, and in a local haunt in the nether reaches of Hong Kong Is.

The chicken I had that night in the Furno in Barcelos goes down as the best chicken I’ve had, ever.

What made it so good? It was the flesh of the bird, perfectly cooked, the skin crispy grilled. It just melted in my mouth. And the fries were perfect – crisp and hot and flavorsome.

What’s interesting about Portugal, and the Furno, is that they place no condiments on the table. No salt and pepper, or tomato sauce. You have to ask for salt and pepper. But this meal didn’t need it. The spices were enough.

The meal was €4.95. If I’d had the Frango Simples, a half portion serving without the fries and pickles, it would have cost me €2.75. That has to go down as the best value chicken you’ll find anywhere.

I paid the bill and walked out, feeling as though I’d had the best Portuguese Chicken in the world. I walked off down the street, then turned and looked back.

If you didn’t know it was there, you’d walk straight past…

Restaurant ext. 2