Journalist, broadcaster and regular visitor to Algarve, Audrey Gillan spent a surprise six months of the global pandemic living there, first in the old fishing town of Olhão and then on the small island of Armona. She reveals where to sample the finest Southern Portuguese cuisine, from the best markets for produce to where to enjoy stunningly fresh seafood and local vinho
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In the Eastern Algarve, at the Saturday morning market in the gnarly old fishing town of Olhão, stalls line the waterfront and are laid out with citrus fruits, scarlet tomatoes, fiery peppers, honey, almonds, figs, oregano and more. Behind this al fresco set-up is the red brick municipal market, which houses two halls, one for fruit, vegetables, meat and cheese and the other for fish and seafood – some of the very best in the whole of Portugal, including sweet, fat clams harvested from the sandbanks of the Ria Formosa just beyond the market: try them bulhão pato-style with garlic, coriander, salt and lemon.
Flor de sal, Castro Marim
Down by the Spanish border, beside the little town of Castro Marim, Jorge Raiado nurses gourmet salt. As the sun sets, he takes a long hoe and gently pulls it across the surface of the water in his ‘tanks’, looking for highly prized flor de sal crystals. In an old barn, Jorge cuts slices of fat Rosa tomatoes and sprinkles them with regular salt and flor de sal, teaching guests how to tell the difference – it begins with the crunch, then the sensation on the tongue, then the aroma of the tomato bursting with intensity.
Pata negra, Zambujal
In the mountains of Alcoutim, close to the Spanish border, former banker Rui Jerónimo has returned to the land and produces sweet dry-cured ham from acorn-fed black pigs, which he salts and hangs himself. There’s chouriço sausage and other cured cuts that Rui sells from the cute shop at Feito no Zambujal, but don’t drive all the way up into the arid serra without staying for lunch. In a rustic kitchen-dining room, try slices of sweet pata negra ham, carved by Rui, followed by a slow-roasted leg of pork, vegetables from the garden, a carob cake cooked by his mum and the family’s home-made medronho, a local firewater from their own still, made from the fruits of the strawberry tree.
Shimmering sardines are synonymous with Portugal, either chargrilled or packed into cans with olive oil. In the coastal town of Portimão, there’s an annual festival, usually in August, which culminates in a sardinha – a sardine festival, where you can buy the little fish sitting on top of a slice of bread to mop up the juices and sit down at one of the hundreds of tables lining the streets. Throughout the year, restaurants along the waterfront serve sardines with their skins bubbled and crusty with salt together with potatoes and an Algarve salad of tomatoes, garlic, onions, peppers, oregano, olive oil and lemon.
Wine tasting, Morgado do Quintão
Between Silves, Lagoa and Monchique, this vineyard was founded by the Count of Silves in 1810. The wine tradition in Algarve lost its way a little as land was turned over to tourist development, but here award-winning winemaker Joana Maçanita has worked with the family to produce creative, playful wines. You can stay in country cottages set amongst fig, olive and almond trees or simply visit for a day’s wine tasting or to have lunch at the ‘farmers table’ (opening image), sheltering under a 2,000-year-old tree that overlooks old Negra Mole vines.
Sweet potatoes, Aljezur
The town of Aljezur is famous for its batata doce – the root vegetable has flourished in the sandy soil of this southern region for centuries and in 2009 it was granted protected geographical indication (PGI) status. For three days in November, the purple or yellow-brown skinned sweet potato is venerated at a three-day festival, where you can taste craft beers made from the tuber, as well simple, oven-roasted potatoes, the famous feijoada de batata doce de Aljezur (sweet potato bean stew) and sweet potato ice cream. There are cooking demonstrations and competitions for the best sweet potato desserts and sweets.
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