The fish market in Porto took longer to find than anticipated, principally because it wasn’t where it was meant to be. At least, that is, according to our guide book. Pedalling around hilly Porto in the sweltering heat with empty tummies and lunchtime smells filling the air, we were close to throwing in the towel and opting for one of the many street-side cafés.
We finally found it, quite by chance – an unassuming stone block with one large, arched entrance per side. On the upper mezzanine level were the vegetables and fruits, ripe and juicy, and all round the lower level was the fish. The smell was an intoxicating mix of both fresh and grilled fish and we followed the waft down the stairs to investigate.
Our guide book had recommended a particular family run restaurant as serving some of the best, no-frills grilled fish in town. We could see one bustling restaurant from the mezzanine and wondered if that might be it. After a quick walk round the lower level it was confirmed as it was, in fact, the only restaurant in the market. As it was 1:30pm and all the tables looked full we were expecting a wait, but the friendly matriarch, sporting an overall like the kind my grandmother used to wear, pointed energetically to an empty table. Her gestures indicated that she would clear it down for us in a moment. Our table had the misfortune of not being under shade. As the central area of the market was uncovered the sun shone down strongly and I started to worry about my pale, Irish skin. The daughter, who, like her mother, was literally running around the tables serving and clearing, spotted my dilemma and opened a large umbrella just beside us. Now we had the perfect table.
Menus, dropped onto the table by one or other of the mother-daughter team as they ran by, consisted of pictures and prices only. No wasting time with fancy, elaborate descriptions here – the food did all the talking. After a quick flick through the picture book I chose the grilled sardines and Arūnas opted for the fried salt cod, both ubiquitous in Portugal. A school art project style poster advertised a ½ carafe of sangria for €3. I’m not great with alcohol in the middle of the day but decided, based on various experiences in Spain over the years, that it was probably mostly juicy and chopped fruit, with only a hint of wine, and so I decided to give it a go. I wasn’t sorry – in this midday heat it was the perfect tonic, even if it had a little more kick than anticipated. It was cold and zingy with plenty of chopped fruit – primarily apples and pears – and had a foot-long piece of cinnamon bark for a swizzle-stick. I sipped happily as we waited for our food.
How long we waited I’m not sure as I was totally fascinated by the two women and their packed restaurant. They never stopped running and shouting information back and forth to each other in typical fish-market fashion. It appeared that if they ran out of fish or bread the simply ran to the nearest or best market stall to replenish supplies. The daughter wore stylish tracksuit bottoms (if that’s not a contradiction in terms), a long-sleeve t-shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbow and had a pencil holding her long hair chaotically in place.
Arūnas’s food arrived some time before mine, dropped in place on a fly-by and leaving me drooling in anticipation. I stole a chip, but was anxious not to ruin my appetite. Arūnas wasn’t overly impressed with his fish, possibly because it had been dried and reconstituted, something we’re not used to in our cod. It certainly wasn’t as flaky as other fish and chips we’d had earlier in the trip.
Eventually my sardines arrived and I could tell immediately that they would be delicious. The skin was crisp and blackened with lines from the wood-fired grill. The smell was tantalising. The flesh flaked easily from the bones as I teased it back with my fork. The taste was exquisite – smoky, salty, fish – a perfect combination.
Arūnas asked for a taste and was immediately smitten, and despite having cleared his own plate, ordered a portion of sardines for himself. The daughter nodded, smiling knowingly as she ran off to place the order. She arrived a short time later with a single grilled sardine on a side plate with no garnish. I was initially mortified, thinking she’d understood I’d found my original portion to be on the small side and that I was topping up before I was even finished what was on my plate. However, Arūnas quickly dived into the single sardine and stole half of one of mine to boot, so I think she understood the additional fish was not for a greedy me.
We cleaned our plates, bar the bones, and asked for the bill. There were no individual, itemised bills in this establishment – just the original notebook in which the order had been scribbled, now with prices and a total added at the side. Our bill came to €15, including a coke for Arūnas. It was both a delicious lunch and a delightful hour’s entertainment, thanks to the mother-daughter duo.