With over 200km of coastline, it’s not surprising that the fish and seafood are a staple part of the diet for people in the Algarve. With daily fishing trips bringing in huge amounts of fresh sardines, tuna, bream, cod, monkfish and many other types of fish; plentiful supplies of clams, oysters, prawns, not to mention octopus and squid, it’s easy to understand why.
The traditional Portuguese restaurants normally offer a large selection of fish dishes, one of which is almost certain to be grilled sardines, served with boiled potatoes and vegetables or salad. Also commonly on the menu are a range of omelettes, salads and some meat dishes, like thin pork slices served with a creamy mushroom sauce or chicken piri-piri.The prices are very reasonable, the food is good and the portions are generous. House wine, which is normally a local Portuguese wine, is also very good value and very drinkable! On average a 2-course meal for 2, including house wine, can cost less than €25. (Soup of the day €1.50, main course €7.00 and a bottle of house wine €8). Obviously prices can vary enormously depending on location.
As well as restaurants serving traditional Portuguese food, the Algarve has a huge choice of restaurants serving food from across the world, Chinese, Indian, Italian and English being particularly popular. You will also find Tapas, Mexican, Thai, International Cuisine and Vegetarian (occasionally). All of the popular tourist resorts have a good variety of restaurants, but the more traditional towns and villages will often just have a local Portuguese restaurant, or café-bar serving food.
Restaurants have got a lot better in offering vegetarian dishes on the menu (although don’t expect to see more than one or two in most places) and vegans unfortunately are still poorly catered for.
Starters – “Entradas”
“Couvert” is the traditional start to a meal and normally consists of fresh bread, olives, sardine paté, cheese and carrots that have been lightly cooked and marinated in garlic, olive oil and spices. Most waiters will ask before serving the couvert, but if it is brought to the table and you don’t want it, simply ask the waiter to take it back. Couvert often costs as little as 1.50€ a person, but do check as it can be rather more.
In traditional Portuguese restaurants, the choice of starters will often include soups and seafood dishes. The Portuguese are excellent at making fresh, wholesome soups. Algarve restaurants generally have a choice of vegetable soup (“sopa de legumes” or “caldo verde”), cold “gazpacho” soup made from peppers, cucumber and tomatoes, and fish soups. Generally soups tend to be served tepid, so if you like your soup very hot, then ask the waiter for it to be “Bem quente” (pronounced ‘bem kent’). “Conquilhas” (small clams) are often served as a starter, as are various prawn dishes.
Main Courses – “Pratos”
A lot of the main dishes in Algarve restaurants are based around fish and seafood. The fish is normally simply prepared and served with salad and boiled potatoes or chips. You will find lots of types of fish to choose from, such as swordfish (“espadarte”), tuna (“atum”), stone bass (“cherne”) sea bass (“robalo”) and red mullet (“salmonete”). Sometimes the price is for the dish, but a lot of fish is sold by weight (euros/kg) so it is worth checking before ordering.
“Bacalhau” (pronounced “bakel-yow”) is probably one of the most traditional dishes that you’ll find in the Algarve. It is dried salt-cod, preserved in the same way as it was in the days of the first sea voyages in the time of the Portuguese Discoveries. The cod had to be preserved with salt to provide the sailors with a substantial food source while they were on a voyage. Since then, Bacalhau has become a staple part of the Portuguese diet and the Portuguese have come up with so many different ways off eating it that you will find a different Bacalhau dish to try each time; reportedly there are 365 different ways of cooking it!
Chicken (“frango”) dishes are also popular in Algarve restaurants and you will frequently see chicken piri-piri (“frango piri-piri”) on a menu. This dish uses the tiny bright red piri-piri chilli pepper, which is used to spice up many other Portuguese dishes too and is even used as table condiment. Barbecued chicken (“frango no churrasco”) is also a favourite for the Portuguese and not surprisingly since the great all-year-round weather has created a tradition of out-door cooking.
Other Algarve specialities include “Feijoada”, a thick bean stew with pork, bacon and sausage which originally came from Brazil and “Cataplana”, a dish of Moorish influence which uses a clam shaped copper pan to cook clams, or a mix of fish and seafood, with spicy sausage, tomatoes, wine, garlic and herbs. Another popular Portuguese dish is “Bife à Portuguesa”, which is beef sirloin topped with smoked ham, cooked in a clay dish served on a bed of French fries. Wild boar, pheasant and hare are also popular during the hunting season, but tend to be found on the menu more in inland areas.
Desserts – “Sobremesas”
The Portuguese make the most wonderful desserts and pastries and a visit to the Algarve wouldn’t be complete without sampling one or two of them! The best-loved desserts are “Pudim Flan” (crème caramel), “pasties de nata” ( a creamy, custard tart) and “tarte de amêndoa” (almond tart) and are highly recommended! Figs, almonds and locally produced honey in various combinations also feature highly on dessert menus along with fresh fruit.
Dining with children
Children are always welcome, day or night, and although there may not be a special children’s menu, they are always catered for…either ask for “meia dose” (pronounced ‘maya dose’) which is a half portion, or a meal to be shared.