Or they can be forensically specific, like this: I had pork cheeks that magically tasted like the finest braised beef at the Dom Sebestaio restaurant in Lagos in the Algarve last night.
But I’ve got a bad feeling that the ‘Portugal is great’ tactic will bring me more hits on a page like this, while a blog identifying the best restaurant in one small holiday town may linger unloved on the fringes of cyberspace forever.
So, is general travel writing better than specific reporting? In today’s travel writing world ‘Ten great things to do in Portugal’ is certainly seen more often than a lengthy waffle about one little evening at one little place.
Well, let’s see how I get on with this: Portugal IS great. I’ve been there many times enjoying friendly locals, gentle countryside and welcoming towns. It’s like a greener, more maritime Spain with none of its neighbour’s barrel-chested strutting or ridiculous sleeping/eating timetable.
When I think of Portugal my head fills with favourable memories and images: that funny night at the Port Institute in Lisbon, walking in the remote mountains near the Spanish border, or exploring Sintra’s palaces with a pretty but long lost girlfriend. Or drinking brandy at the top of the wrought iron lift tower in Lisbon with my wife or taking my daughter on a tram ride through Alfama.
Right now I’m on the flight back from another great visit. This time it was a press trip, courtesy of the admirable Headwater Holidays company (http://www.headwater.com), writing for the Mail on Sunday and tweeting about it for my own @sheptinstall account.
I could make general comments about my adventurous few days walking and cycling in the extreme southwest corner of Europe. Instead, however, I’ve decided to blog a microscopically specific report about last night’s dinner.
Antonio Gomes’ Dom Sebastiao restaurant stands in a pedestrian section of the old walled town of Lagos in Portugal’s western Algarve. The pavement tables are shaded by awnings between bars, cafes and gift shops selling glossy blue & white tiles, handmade belts and decorative sardine tins.
I was taken there by Ana Vargues, an Algarve tourist officer. She made a good choice.
We shuffled into a long narrow room, over-crowded with tables. Ours was by the window, between walls laden with old farm implements and decorative plates. The décor is well suited to San Sebastiao’s food, which sticks conservatively to the traditional Algarve cookbook.
When I chatted to the amiable owner and chef Antonio later he repeatedly talked of using cooking methods his mother had shown him.
It all began with an array of classic Algarve pre-starters. The garlic olives, sardines with coriander and crunchy bread might be expected but, unless you’re familiar with eating in the rural wilds away from the coastal strip, you may not be ready for the powerfully garlicked carrot slices or spectacular chorizo flambée bowls on every table.
Add in some rugged pate, sardine paste and a sumptuous creamy mixed cow/goat cheese, and these petites bouches are interesting and fulfilling enough to serve as a sort of Algarve meze on their own.
The true starter, however, was a massive double slice of melon draped with sheets of Iberian ham as thin and silky as Parma. It would probably work well on a balmy summer evening. On a drizzly chill spring night it felt less inspiring.
Local wines flowed and waiters in white shirts, black waistcoats and bow-ties delivered an impressive main course of local pork cheeks. These were braised so long and slowly in old red wine that they were astonishingly beef-like in rich flavour and flaky edibility. I’m a Wiltshire resident, the home of British pig meat, but I’ve never eaten pork like it.
Between the four hefty chunks was a veritable plat of smooth creamed sweet potato, piped and braided across the width of the large oval plate.
The meal was concluded with an apparently humble chocolate mousse with ice cream. But the mousse arrived in a strangely angled bowl and was a surprising ochre hue, running with veins of darker chocolate. “It has to be stirred by hand to get it like that,” Antonio told me later, wiping his hands on his stained white apron and once more adding: “That’s how my mama taught me to do it.”
We left after a tour and tasting of Antonio’s impressive basement wine and port cellar. The real treasures are kept at his house. He sparkled as he described trying old wines every Sunday with his wife. Recently an 1840 vintage was “so-so”, while a 1970 bottle was “full of so many flavours.”
So this was a detailed description of one specialist restaurant in one location. But surely there are things we can draw from it. For a start this is the probably best restaurant in Lagos, perhaps along a whole 20-mile stretch of western Algarve coastline.
It suggests more general points, like the enduring qualities of southern Portuguese cooking traditions and of why it’s worth bothering to hunt out the best among the scores of tourist restaurants on the Algarve or indeed anywhere. And it reminds me that a great meal is not just a list of dishes but part of an event, an occasion. It is as much about place as plates, as much about company as culinary.
Perhaps I was writing about generalities after all…
Rua 25 de Abril 20-22
8600-763 Lagos – Portugal
Tel: +351 282 780 480