Portugal is renowned for its excellent gastronomy and the Algarve region is no exception. Bountiful fresh fish, excellent shellfish, cured and grilled meats and regional sweets are staples on menus in most of the Algarve’s myriad restaurants. With a cuisine hinged on the Mediterranean Diet and a distinct history of its own, the Algarve’s cuisine is natural, fresh and flavourful; seafood comes straight from the ocean, the fruit and vegetables are sun-ripened and even the most basic salads are served with lashings of top-quality nationally-produced olive oil and a sprinkling of oregano and sea salt.
From start to finish of meals, dining in the Algarve is a mouth-watering experience, right from the offset with the obligatory couvert of fresh bread, olives, cheeses and pâtés (but be warned – nowadays it’s not free but you only pay for what you eat, so send back what you don’t require), to the homemade desserts and regional liqueurs to round the meal off.
So, if you want to know what you should be looking to try when visiting the Algarve, and where, read on:
Portugal celebrates starters; they’re as an important part of the meal as any other course. Popular starters include Cenoura à Algarvia (Algarvian-style carrots); marinated carrots with lots of garlic, coriander and paprika; Chouriço Assado (flame-grilled chorizo sausage), and Amêijoas à Bulhão Pato, clams cooked in white wine, which are actually a specialty originating from Lisbon.
Any restaurant along the coast will usually serve fresh seafood, if only grilled fish, but most beach restaurants and riverside eateries will have shellfish for starters or even huge, heaped mixed shellfish platters for sharing as a main.
Two great places to sample the freshest seafood are the quaint fishing villages of Alvor (Portimão) and Ferragudo (Lagoa), where much of the produce is still caught by the locals. Mountain-town Monchique is the place to go for cured meats, like chouriço sausages, and also dry-cured ham served carved off the hock, presunto, which together with fresh rustic bread and regional cheese make for a very typical local starter or snack.
Conquilhas (a small clam) à Algarvia (fried with onion and chorizo) are another popular starter and a signature dish of the Algarve, as is freshly-made vegetable soup, which most restaurants, even little snack bars, will usually have.
It’s hard to know where to start with main dishes in the Algarve, but perhaps the most famous dish is chicken piri-piri. The unique piri-piri sauce is made from spicy chillies blended with vinegar, olive oil, garlic and bay leaf, among other ingredients, and used to both marinade the chicken before barbequing, and dressing it after. This sauce, while spicy, is rarely too hot to handle. The town of Guia, in Albufeira, claims to be the birthplace of piri-piri chicken (a hotly disputed title), with the restaurants Ramires and O Teodósio among the most famous and popular.
Simply-grilled meats such as entrecosto (ribs), entremeada (belly pork)and febras (pork escallops), served with chips, rice and salad are usually cheap and tasty not to mention filling options on menus, while BBQ-ed fresh fish can be sold either with a set price per dish or a price per kilo, so be sure to ask in advance.
Cataplana, a fish stew cooked in a traditional shell-shaped copper cataplana dish, meant for sharing, is another Algarve specialty. While the most common cataplana is a medley of seafood, or seafood and fish, the main ingredients in the purported original Algarvian Cataplana are clams, presunto ham and monk fish, slowly stewed in the cataplana dish with an onion and garlic sauce.
Grilled sardines are another must-try Algarve speciality and the place to eat them is the western Algarve city of Portimão, in the dedicated sardine restaurants along they city’s riverfront. Sardines are in fact so popular in this part of the world that Portimão has a summer festival dedicated to the pungent little fish, which is held along the riverfront every year at the start of August.
Meals tend to become heartier and heavier the further inland you go, so when out in the countryside don’t be surprised to see traditional dishes such as feijoada (bean and meat stew), and Cozido à Portuguesa, a traditional boiled stew featuring a rainbow of meats, offal and fresh vegetables that is by and large considered the country’s national dish, replacing the lighter grilled fish and chicken dishes found nearer the coast. Oven-roast kid, duck rice, hare, and wild boar recipes are other traditional meals when out in the rural Algarve.
A more localised Algarve speciality to try is oysters, which are farmed in the Ria Formosa protected lagoon. The parish of Cacela Velha, in the eastern Algarve, is famed for its fresh oysters, and a top place to try them is at the unassuming little whitewashed eatery, Casa Da Igreja (Rua de Cacela Velha 2, tel. 289 952 126).
And that brings us to what is often diners’ favourite part of the meal, dessert. There are a few staple desserts that will be found on most Algarve restaurant menus; chocolate mousse (best if homemade!), ice cream, and fresh fruit, while baba de camelo (a toffee-tasting condensed milk mousse which, maybe unappetisingly, translates as ‘camel drool’) and pudim flan (a sort of custard and caramel pudding) are other widely-found Portuguese classics.
But the real regional sweet specialities are without doubt the Algarve’s Doce Finos; small, marzipan shapes filled with sugary egg-yolk threads, handmade in a kaleidoscope of shapes and colours. Two other irresistible traditional Algarve sweets are the morgadinho, made from almond paste filled with sweet eggy threads, shaped like a dome and covered in white fondant with a silver sugar ball on the top; and the prized dom Rodrigo, an indulgent creation of sweet egg threads and sweet egg cream flavoured with cinnamon, wrapped in brightly-coloured foils. These will all more often be found in cafés and snack bars than restaurants, and also make a great gift to take home.