The light on one of Porto’s copious sunny days bounces off the Douro River straight into the face of the city with its tall, pastel and tiled buildings clinging colourfully to the city’s contoured landscape. How a human settlement ever fitted so comfortably into a giant crag in a hill, just before the river empties into the Atlantic, is a feat of some design and determination. It’s a special place, renowned worldwide for its most famous export of Port Wine and the photogenic, double-decker Dom Luis I Bridge. Yet, Portugal is nothing if not modest and one thing it keeps for itself is a deep-seated, everyday tradition of truly great baking.
Pastel de Nata aside, Portugal hasn’t gifted many of its secrets of pastry, bread and cake to the world. It’s a place more of self-assurance, far less of bravado. The streets of Porto are lined with confectioners, cafes and bakeries that are kept busy serving functional and fancy bakes from very early in the morning until late into the afternoon, at least. From some of the oldest, in tourist-friendly cafes like Café Majestic or Confetaria do Bolhão (both incidentally resurrected after being shuttered for a number of years) to the newest and most innovative, such as Epoca, it’s a city as comfortable with innovation as it is its illustrious tradition.
Breakfast is quick, service is brisk, the coffee is sensibly strong and the undulating hills of Portugal’s second largest city means that everyone disposes of the calories fairly quickly.
Breakfast is quick, service is brisk, the coffee is sensibly strong and the undulating hills of Portugal’s second largest city means that everyone disposes of the calories fairly quickly. It’s a comforting theory anyway. In restaurants and casual lunchtime spots a bread basket will usually come with a dense, malty slice of Broa de Avintes as well as delicate, crusty wheat and corn breads.
A healthy student population means there’s often a youthful clientele queuing for their morning ‘cimbalino’ (Porto for ‘espresso’), yet for at least eight, clement months of the year it’s just as likely one of thousands of visitors from around the world will be shouting for their ‘jesuita’ from the head of the queue. Yes, Porto gets really busy with camera-wavers.
A few days in Porto is enough to feel a sense of its distinct character, riding its famous, old trams, taking a boat trip and drinking glasses of the legendary fortified wine. When it comes to sitting down with a slice of something sweet and good coffee, here’s what Dough Culture found on Porto’s sloped streets.
Confetaria do Bolhão – home of the Tigelinha
The beating heart of Porto has been Mercado do Bolhão for well over a century, sandwiched between the insanely busy shopping strip of Rua de Santa Catarina and the ornate Avenida dos Aliados. It’s where producers met their buyers, transforming into a ‘must-visit’ tourist destination as time passed, alongside faithful local customers who still shop there (although the ornate, original building is under renovation until 2020). Over the road is Confetaria do Bolhão, first opened in 1896 to satisfy the sweet cravings of the wealthy merchants pricing up and collecting goods from the market. Fashions change and, in 1985, Confetaria do Bolhão shut its doors and they didn’t reopen again for ten years. Rescued by the current management, Porto’s distinguished elder stateswoman of café culture has remained healthy for a further quarter of a century. It’s the home, amongst many other things, of the Tigelinha do Bolhão, 1 Euro worth of pastry and almond frangipane to accompany a coffee. Translated as a ‘little bowl’, it perhaps sums up the essence of Portuguese baking, in that a fairly plain, simple yet satisfying nugget of pastry power could be so keenly celebrated. Parisian pâtissières would find it a child that’s difficult to love, while these Portuguese bakers cherish it like their first born. Confetaria do Bolhão’s service is brusque without being rude, with staff moving along a constant flow of customers at the counter, while table staff operate with little patience for dithering in the mirrored dining room. There’s always someone else vying for their attention, so be ready.
R. Formosa 339, 4000-252 Porto
Confetaria São Domingos – a Bolo de arroz breakfast
Walking up or down Porto’s streets – there are few that are strictly horizontal – the door into another bakery will open sooner rather than later. Confetaria São Domingos is one of those, hidden in plain sight near the former Mercado Ferreira Borges (now a music venue and club) and the Palácio das Artes. It attracts a local crowd, whizzing in and out for takeaway coffees and breads, while a waiting staff of one somehow juggles the orders in the small, seated café area. It can be cramped, but the atmosphere is contemporary and good hearted. Established in 1941 things have certainly moved on décor-wise, but it is pure tradition that comes out of the oven. Bolo de arroz, rice cakes, peep from greaseproof paper straightjackets in most bakery windows, a staple of northern Portuguese baking, and are completely appropriate cakes for breakfast. At Confetaria São Domingos they spill over the wrappers, the tops crusted with sugar and the insides airy and moist, gently fragranced with lemon. Croissants come less ‘croissanty’ and more cakey as is expected on the Iberian Peninsula, criss-crossed with chocolate icing and certainly fun for children or grown-ups who should know better. As with most places in a city refusing to deal with bad coffee, the brew at Confetaria São Domingos need pass without comment. The standard is reliably high.
Largo São Domingos 37, 4050-292 Porto
Tavi, Confeitaria da Foz – morning pastries with a knockout view
What often goes unsaid of Porto is the stretch of beaches that are reachable by tram or bus from the middle of town within twenty minutes. Foz do Douro, facing out to sea with its back to Porto, is a small seaside town dragged into being part of the metropolis, yet retaining a character of its own as well as a much-photographed pier, lighthouse and fort. Overlooking the golden sands of Praia do Carneiro is Tavi, a café bakery with its shop front on the old high street of Rua Senhora da Luz. In fact, it has two visible fronts, facing each other, with one the ‘padaria’ chiefly concerning itself with bread for counter customers. The ‘confeitaria’ over the road is a must-visit in good weather, with an indoor/outdoor seating area looking out on a panoramic view of the Atlantic. A menu that evolves through the day – from yoghurt and muesli in the morning to hearty stews at lunchtime – is brought to the table by attentive staff. From the bakery counter, the ‘jesuita’ fulfils its role as Portugal’s true answer to the French croissant, the Danish pastry or a Sicilian cannoli, in as much as it’s a handy rocket fuel for busy ‘grab and go’ customers. A crisp, fat layer of puff pastry is the base for a caramelised, thin and crispy meringue crust, providing yet another apt partner for a cup of robust coffee. Tavi’s Pastel del Nata are perhaps the most ‘bravely’ baked from those seen in and around Porto, with blackened edges and scorched custard in the middle, looking like bruised boxers behind the glass cabinet in harsh contrast to the dainty biscuits and petit fours alongside.
Rua Sra. da Luz, 363 – Porto
7groaster – not strictly a bakery (and not strictly in Porto)
Porto lies on one side of the Douro and Vila Nova de Gaia sits on the other. Vila Nova de Gaia has all of the Port Wine warehouses and could be assessed as the burly, uglier sister to Porto’s pretty Cinderella. Yet ‘Gaia’ hides surprises in its labyrinth of riverside streets, from the converted Mercado Municipal, now home to small food businesses, to the speciality coffee hangout and roastery – 7groaster. It’s not a bakery, clearly, but it is a great place to find calm in an area of the city that’s often overrun with coach parties and guided tours. Extremely modern, nestled in a newly built apartment complex, 7groaster is a place serious about coffee, but can’t slouch when it comes to the cakes and pastries in its chiller cabinet. An apple pie isn’t any apple pie here, but an apple pie smothered in caramel sauce, the vegan chocolate cake is a hefty cocoa hit and, like anywhere else hoping to remain in business in Portugal, the Pastel del Nata is on top form. The pastry shell falls apart without quite exploding into clothing-covering shards, cradling custard that is barely set- exactly as it should be. 7groaster is another spot with indoor/outdoor courtyard seating for lighter and warmer days, with the interior setting communal seating alongside the roasting equipment and bag upon bag of raw coffee beans for anyone wanting to hide, get some work done or just find comfort with friends.
Rua França 52, 4400-174 – Vila Nova de Gaia