There’s no better place for a relaxing meal – alfresco style – than along the sun-baked shores of the Algarve in the south of Portugal.
Back in the 1970s, in the early days of mass tourism, the variety and scope of Algarvian cuisine was often limited to a standard menu of vegetable soup, grilled fish or chicken with a slice of home-made tart thrown in for good measure.
Today’s visitors are presented with a much more appetising choice for all three courses as restaurants right across the region adopt an increasingly creative and enterprising approach to the business of catering for the growing number of people flocking to the Algarve each year.
Few places in Europe can offer such an abundance of fish and seafood with fisherman right along the Algarve coast providing a regular supply of ocean-fresh produce throughout the whole year, including winter.
You only have to visit the local markets, most notably those of Olhão (indicated on the Google map below), Quarteira, Lagos and Portimão – although there are many, many more – to witness first-hand the enormous scope of the daily catch made available to restaurants, hotels and local households alike.
Needless to say, fish is a mainstay in the Algarve and there are many ways of serving it, most commonly on charcoal with garlic, olive oil, lemon and herbs sprinkled with rock salt. Peixe espada (scabbard fish) and espadarte (swordfish) are firm favourites and regularly feature on the region’s menus.
Traditional Algarve recipes include cataplana – a mixed seafood dish of shellfish cooked with ham, sausage, onions, olive oil, potatoes and other vegetables in a clam-shaped copper pot – and lulas recheadas, which is a tasty dish of braised squid stuffed with eggs, onion and spiced sausage.
Meat-eaters are also very well catered for in Europe’s south-westernmost tourist region, with pork fillets (febras) and chicken (frango) always a good choice, plus the quality of the Algarve’s steaks has improved immeasurably in recent years.
And amongst the rolling hills and peaceful pastures of the Algarve’s fertile hinterland you’ll find every conceivable type of fruit and vegetable according to the season, including broad beans, beetroot, pumpkin, aubergine, sweet pepper, strawberries, peaches, melons, figs and grapes, etc.
The Algarve is equally famous for its delicious desserts, such as almond tart, crème caramel and molotof (a sweet mousse of egg whites and caramel), which are usually prepared and cooked from scratch on the premises and consumed by as many eager local residents as tourists.
The Algarve wine industry has also been enjoying a resurgence in recent years, particularly in the areas around Lagoa and other parts of the eastern Algarve where clusters of wine-makers operate and cater for visitors looking to drop by and sample/buy their wines.
And the final word must go to the ubiquitous medronho, a kind of schnapps made privately in basements and garages all over the region. Distilled from the fruit of the arbutus or strawberry tree, a drop of this locally-made firewater is the perfect way to round off a meal in the sunny Algarve.