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A culinary guide to the eastern Algarve, Portugal

There’s a culinary revival underway in the eastern corner of this Portuguese region, as locals return to their roots to celebrate a rich bounty of produce, from land, salt marsh and sea.

Published 3 May 2021, 08:00 BST, Updated 15 Jun 2021, 14:16 BST
Clams (amêijoas) à Bulhão Pato, served at Chá Chá Chá in the town of Olhão. The sweet, ...

Clams (amêijoas) à Bulhão Pato, served at Chá Chá Chá in the town of Olhão. The sweet, tender bivalves are a staple of Algarvian cuisine, and the dish is a classic across Portugal.

Photograph by Theo Gould

A fiery hue from the setting sun is bouncing off the water as Jorge Raiado takes a long hoe across the surface, looking for prized flor de sal crystals. He works with time, tide, moon and sun, playing a patient game in gathering his salt, now recognised as one of the best culinary products in Portugal. 

“I work against the sun so I can see the shapes,” he says, pushing his long-poled ‘harvester’ across the shallows of the tidal salt pan, “and scoop up the flecks on the top.”

At, Salmarim, a project headed up by Jorge, we wander barefoot amid the pans, located at the very reaches of the eastern Algarve, just before the Guadiana river marks the border with Spain. He tells me that the pans fill with water after a full moon and a new moon, when the tides are highest. 

He also works with the weather, to harness the perfect conditions for the evaporation needed to make salt. If it’s cloudy, there’s no salt. “The sweetest part of the water evaporates and the heaviest part of the water sinks,” explains Jorge. “The water changes chemically and physically and ‘blossom’ forms on the surface. I’m looking for the purest of them. And the best sounds; different salts have different sounds.”

In the old barn that acts as both a tasting house and shop, Jorge cuts slices of big, fat Algarvian rosa tomatoes and sprinkles them with regular salt, then with flor de sal, so I can taste the difference. “Feel for the crunch,” he instructs. “Then find the soft melt that awakens the flavour of the tomato. Feel how your tongue is, then marvel at the aromas enlivened by the salt.”

Jorge, an art historian, became entranced by the possibility of creating a gourmet salt when he returned with his wife Sandra to her family’s salt pans, which had produced industrial salt for the curing of fish in the heyday of the region’s canning industry. Now, the family’s salt is used in many of the best restaurants in the country. 

Read more: Where to stay in Faro, capital of the Algarve

Chef Adérito de Almeida at work at his restaurant, À Terra. Located at the Vila Monte Farm House hotel, the restaurant leans heavily on local seafood as well as the produce grown in the hotel's gardens.

Photograph by Vila Monte Farm House PR

Like Jorge, Eglantina ‘Tina’ Monteiro trained in another discipline — art anthropology — but she too has returned to her husband’s family’s land to build Companhia das Culturas, a hotel and restaurant with nature and agriculture at its core. “Everything we do here revolves around the surroundings. We call this land the ‘dry ocean’: it was first cultivated by the Arabs and has been developed to allow olives, figs, carob, almonds, cork and pine to grow with very little water. It’s why the Algarve is so green despite being such an arid place.”

Breakfast at Companhia das Culturas is beautiful: there’s a plate of figs, guava and pitanga (also known as Suriname or Brazilian cherry); another of sweet potato and muxama (dried tuna belly); some sheep’s and goat’s cheese, together with lemon and fig jam, carrot cake, guava juice and yoghurt. Everything sings of the landscape: the serra (mountains), the barrocal (the land between the sea and the mountains) and the ocean. 

Tina drives me up into the serra to meet Ruí Geronimo, a former banker who’s also changed careers and now makes presunto — a sweet, dry-cured ham from acorn-fed black pigs — as well as chouriço sausage and other pork delicacies. We enter his drying cavern at Feito no Zambujal, where legs of ham hang from the rafters. In a kitchen/dining room, he carves sweet, fatty slices from a leg, then serves a lunch of slow-roasted pork, vegetables from his garden and a carob cake made by his mum. “Pork has traditionally been a very important source of protein for a large family,” he says. “The only way to preserve it is with Atlantic salt, so in the winter, people salt various parts of the pig, including the legs, to make presunto. Funnily enough, the end product isn’t at all salty.”

Pork may be a prized possession, but the Algarvian diet is largely Mediterranean in style, with Atlantic fish and shellfish at its heart. The labyrinthine old town of Olhão still has a fishing fleet — it’s the Algarve’s largest fishing port — and its market is one of the best in the country. Two red-brick buildings, topped with verdigris domes, house one market for fruit, vegetables and meat, and another for fish. On Saturdays, the place buzzes as farming families set up stalls along the waterfront, selling citrus fruits, pomegranates, almonds, tomatoes, figs, piri piri peppers and the other glories of the Algarve’s fields. 

Here, at 7am, I meet the British journalist-turned-restaurateur Kevin Gould. After falling in love with Olhão, he decided to settle here and opened a restaurant, Chá Chá Chá, as well as a gluten-free bakery, Santa Maria Madalena, with his friend, the baker Deborah Goodman. Kevin moves so quickly through the market, I struggle to keep up. He’s joking in Portuguese, buying fresh flowers for his tables and all the free-range eggs he can find. But it’s in the fish hall where his passion really comes alive.

Read more: Photo story: surf culture and local traditions along Portugal's Vicentine Coast

Albufeira sits at the heart of the Algarve and is one of a number of coastal towns in the region that draws on a longstanding, proud heritage of fishing.

Photograph by Alamy

“Monkfish, gilthead bream, super-sweet clams, weird sea snails, wiggly razor clams — it’s all amazing and the prices are great too,” he says. I spot one of my favourite things in the world, gambas da costa (prawns from the Algarve coast), which I later boil briefly in salty water and serve with a sprinkling of Jorge’s flor de sal. Kevin returns to his restaurant, just one minute from the market, to work with his all-female team of cooks on the menu, which changes daily depending on what he’s brought back that morning. “I can’t imagine anything more wonderful than being able to buy all this on my doorstep, then cooking it and sharing it with our customers,” he says. 

After stocking up on fresh fruit and vegetables at the market, I head to the little ferry terminal to catch a boat to the Ilha de Armona, one of five barrier islands in the Ria Formosa that protect the mainland from the full force of the Atlantic. We pass salt marshes and sandbanks where stooped men are raking for amêijoas (sweet clams); it’s clearly hard, back-breaking work gathering the bounty of the seafood-rich estuary, digging up the bivalves that are used for amêijoas à Bulhão Pato: a dish of clams cooked in garlic, olive oil and coriander that’s treasured in Portugal.

The ferry arrives at a little pier, which has a group of restaurants clustered around it. The air is filled with the scent of cumin at Armona 4, where chef Zé Pardo is cooking pork and clams. The meat is frying in lard, with garlic and a few bay leaves, and he’ll serve it all with his fabulous, hand-cut, big, fat, yellow chips. Upstairs on the rooftop dining area, views reach back to Olhão and out across the water to the neighbouring, equally beautiful, island of Culatra. 

Ilha de Armona is traffic-free, with no cash points and just three shops selling essentials and alcohol — but it’s blessed with some truly spectacular beaches. There are five restaurants open during the summer, including the stunningly located Lanacosta, which sits at the edge of golden sand dunes. 

But today, at least, I answer the siren calls of gambas da costa and chargrilled sardines and head back to my villa to light the barbecue and cook with some of the flor de sal Jorge has given me. I shuck local oysters and steam butterfly-shaped conquilhas (bean clams), picked straight from the nearby beach at low tide, with garlic, coriander and olive oil. Utterly fresh, beautifully salty and sweet, it’s one of those meals that lingers long in the memory once it’s gone. 

Flor de sal is one of the region's most prized culinary treasures. One of the local salt farmers, Jorge Raiado, works with time, tide, moon and sun to harvest flakes at salt farm, Salmarim.

Photograph by Alamy

Three unmissable restaurants in the Eastern Algarve
 

1. Estaminé

Simplicity is the very essence of the Vargas family’s restaurant, built on stilts overlooking the dunes on the island of Deserta. Seafood is cooked with very little fuss: oysters from nearby Praia de Faro are served with a sharp verjus of green grapes, and a house speciality is the ‘beach prawns’ coated in spicy breadcrumbs. Three-course lunch without wine from £26.50 per person. 

2. À Terra

Produce from the gardens of the Vila Monte Farm House hotel comes together with local seafood in the kitchen of chef Adérito de Almeida. Fresh fish and lamb are roasted in the oven, oysters are served gratinated or unadulterated and small sardines are baked with mace and alioli. A cataplana (a stew made in a pot of the same name) showcases seafood, sweet potatoes, peppers and coriander. Three-course dinner without wine from £40 per person. 

3. Noélia e Jerónimo

The seafood rice dishes at chef Noélia Jerónimo’s restaurant in the seaside resort of Cabanas de Tavira are some of the best you’ll taste in Portugal: try the arroz de limão com corvina e amêijoas, in which juices from corvina fish meld with those of the clams, enhanced with just a touch of lemon. Three-course dinner without wine from £31 per person. 

Five food finds to check out
 

1. Amêijoas

These clams are dug fresh from the Ria Formosa and usually end up in the classic Portuguese dish, amêijoas à Bulhão Pato.

2. Folar de Olhão

Much like an oversized cinnamon roll, this cake is sticky with caramelised sugar and laden with fennel seeds and cinnamon.

3. Flor de sal

A shimmering product of the sea, these prized salt crystals are skimmed from the surface of saltwater pans.

4. Almonds

Some of the best almonds in the world grow in the Algarve. They can be found in markets, but also appear in every possible kind of cake and pastry.

5. Figs

Introduced to the Algarve by the Moors, figs grow wild in the region. They’re exceptionally sweet in season, which is usually around late summer. 

How to do it

Jet2 flies from Stansted to Faro from £110 return. Companhia das Culturas has doubles from £80 a night. Vila Monte Farm House has doubles from £179 a night. 
More info: visitalgarve.pt

Love food and travel? Taste the world at the National Geographic Traveller Food Festival, our immersive culinary event taking place on 16-17 July 2022 at London’s Business Design Centre. Find out more and book your tickets.

Published in the May 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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