“Sir, a glass of port?” The words from a waiter wake me up from my day dream and moments later I have a cold glass of port in my hand. The Portuguese always drink their port cold, I appreciate that now. Outside, signs of the city are fading away, making space for the outliers of the Duoro Valley. My search for extraordinary meals has put me on a train with 40 other passengers that’s just departed from platform 6 at Porto’s São Bento station.
As I’m sipping my drink, my stomach reminds me with a loud, growling noise of its acute hunger. “No worries” a familiar voice says, “there will be food soon. And lots of it.” Miguel is standing in the door of our train compartment, smiling. As my long-term trusted partner-in-food-discovery the bearded journalist has, over the course of the last few days, taken me on an unforgettable culinary tour through his home turf in Lisbon. Thanks to countless egg custard pastries and seafood feasts (followed by the obligatory steak sandwich), my fascination with Portuguese food is at an all-time high.
“Thanks to countless egg custard pastries and seafood feasts (followed by the obligatory steak sandwich), my fascination with Portuguese food is at an all-time high”
Our journey deep into the Duoro Valley is the culmination of our trip and taken aboard The Presidential – a magnificent 18th century beast of the railway and modern-day gourmet dining experience that’s slowly making its way to the the porto winery. The destination isn’t important though, this trip is more about the journey. Just as I’m imagining who might have sat in my seat before me, two waiters bring in a couple of snacks. “When you have finished these, please make your way down to the restaurant carriage”, they say.
The snacks – a lovely garlic prawn taco, and brilliant hog-head cheese with razor clams – set the tone for what’s to come. “Let’s go!” Miguel says and he leads the way our of what used to be the Journalist’s Carriage. I try to keep up with him through slim hallways and tiny door frames but its not a trivial task on an ancient train that’s moving fast. The train was built in 1890 and initially served as the royal train to the Portuguese court of King D. Luis I before it was put into service by the Portuguese government as an official means of transportation for the head of state, Miguel tells me. In the 1970s it was finally retired at the National Railway Museum in Entroncamento. Walking through The Presidential is a journey through time – smells, textures and the way the light falls through the window reveal glimpses of countless stories from an altogether different era. I hear about famous passengers such as Queen Elizabeth II and Pope Paul VI, and wonder what it must have been like to run into the pope on his way to the bathroom. Every carriage we enter has its own distinct design feel, some feature dark teak panelling, others light turquoise walls.
““Why don’t you put it back in service and turn it into a restaurant?””
On our way to the Minister’s Carriage, we run into the mastermind behind the The Presidential, Gonçalo Castel-Branco, an impeccably well-groomed man in his early 40s with a voice that thrones above other passengers. He was responsible for awakening the train out of its deep beauty sleep in 2015 after discovering it by chance. “I was visiting the National Railway Museum with my family and looking at this incredible vehicle thinking what a shame it was that it was stuck in this museum”, he tells us. During discussions, his 10-year-old daughter suddenly asked him: “Why don’t you put it back in service and turn it into a restaurant?”. It quickly dawned on Gonçalo she’d hit the proverbial nail on the head and he dived into research which revealed the train was in a terrible condition with several carriages on the brink of collapse. He was determined to show his daughter that the impossible could, indeed, be done though, and with a lot effort and dedication he successfully spearheaded a restoration project. The lengthy process concluded in 2010 and included an extension of the old kitchen carriage, now fitted with state-of-the-art equipment.
Gonçalo runs two journeys on the train per year, one in the spring and one in autumn. On each journey six teams of chefs board for two days and cook for lucky passengers. Throughout the years they’ve had a number of restaurant stars join including chefs from Oslo’s Maaemo. “Today our main focus is on Portuguese chefs and highlighting Portuguese cuisine though”, he explains. “For you guys the culinary entertainers will be Antonio and Bruno – two of Portugal’s most celebrated young chefs.”
Gonçalo goes on on to talk to the next passenger and we enter the dining carriage to sit at tables set with white tablecloths and silver cutlery. “Not your ordinary train restaurant, right?” Miguel smiles at me. As the waiter pours us a glass of wine, Miguel tells me about Antonio Galapito from Prado in Lisbon and Bruno Caseiro from Cavalerica in Comporta. Both chefs worked with Portugal’s very own Nuno Mendes in London before returning to their home country to add personal touches to their national cuisine.
“The main focus of today’s meal is on Portuguese chefs and highlighting Portuguese cuisine”
A Sopa fria de Ervilhas (cold pea soup) starts us off, then Corvina, Arroz e Berbigao (croaker fish with rice and cockles) and Alcatra de Arouquesa (Arouquesa beef rump). The food is entertaining and conveys classic Portuguese cuisine through a fresh pair of eyes. A couple of days earlier we’d eaten at Prado – truly some of the loveliest food I’d eaten for weeks. Outstanding produce, cooked to perfection and served with zero fuss in a magnificent location. As the train wraps around Douro Valley – sometimes on the same level as the river, sometimes hundreds of meters above it – I’m taken back to that meal, thinking about how vastly underrated Portuguese ingredients are. Everything from the exceptional seafood to its ancient pork and beef breeds has been world class, and the Portuguese are not eben famos for that.
Suddenly, the train comes to a halt. “Time to get off, we’re taking a walk” Gonçalo urges us as he leads all the passengers down the hill to an old estate on the river bank. We’re at the Quinta do Vesuvio winery, a place where the Symington family have been making stunning ports since the 1600’s. We explore the vast house before settling in the estate’s orange tree-lined orchard, sipping on white port and tonic.
“When The Presidential surfaced around the corner, like an old friend, we know we’re on the way back to Porto”
When The Presidential surfaced around the corner, like an old friend, we know we’re on the way back to Porto. Our four hour journey is spent in the magnificent piano bar locked in a port-fuelled discussion with the chefs about Portuguese food and how, exactly, you cook for forty people on a moving train. Any signs of hunger are kept at a safe distance thanks to extraordinary charcuterie and cheeses, served alongside Portugal’s infamous tinned fish.
As the sun sets we roll into São Bento station and disembark one final time. We say our goodbyes and disperse into Porto’s dark alleys, filled with memories of a journey that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.