The wedding season is in full swing, each occasion uniquely special and uplifting as it reflects the true personalities of the families involved.
It would be churlish to choose one of all these brilliant ahead of the rest but I have to admit I was particularly looking to the marriage in Portugal of my great friend Edward Ward and Larlie Symington, a member of one the great port-producing dynasties.
I would never be so vulgar or loose-lipped to document the details of a private wedding but needless to say I had a splendid time in the picturesque Douro valley – port was guzzled by the gallon and smiles were never far from faces!
I was travelling to Portugal with that loose-moraled journalist (or is that tautology?!) James Emmett. He is a man designed for Portugal – he arrived smacking his lips in lust for his first glass of port. Water would not suffice at Stansted airport where he drained his 9AM beer.
It would be rude to let a sailor drink alone; so with great reluctance I joined him.
Porto, like port, is not promoted enough. Perhaps both enjoy being hidden gems or bastions of the old world? Port has always been a favourite of mine but for the most part I have drunk it at special occasions like Christmas or formal dinners.
I discovered in my three days in Portugal that it is a complex, rich and versatile drink that deserves a prominent place in the order of drinks than its current position as an occasional tipple.
As for the city, it has never carried any personal resonance for me and, but for the nuptials, I would probably not have made an effort to visit. The only thing most people know about it is that it produces port and Jose Mourinho.
Our first relationship with the city came at lunchtime in a small restaurant located just off a beautiful cobbled square. The patrons appeared keen to have a pair of pink-shorted chaps in for lunch. Now Portugal is not known for the delicacy of its cuisine but we did well enough.
Emmitt opted to for beer as a starter and grilled fish as a main. I followed suit but had the Portuguese classic ‘Francesinha’; a sandwich full of grilled and smoked meats, topped with a fried egg, and then grilled cheese.The Francesinha is finished with a special sauce that my palette discerned as containing beer, chicken stock, and tomatoes. Marvellous stuff, especially with an afternoons Port tasting ahead of us.
We were finally prised away from the restaurant by the realisation that we had to cross the River Douro to reach the location for our tasting of Graham’s port.
After passing through a series of small windy cobbled roads, we found ourselves by the magnificent busy riverside. The sun shimmering off the river was complemented by a cooling breeze from the Atlantic.
Teenagers stood on the ostentatious bridges and entertained the tourists by puffing out their waxed chests (feeling like Ronaldo but looking more Nani!) and hurling themselves into the river with a display of braggadocio.
They earned little more than a cursory glance from Emmett who was opposed to anything that might delay his date with a sniffer of port!
The tour was fascinating and the tasting – we had four to compare – was even more so! I had not realised that port is 20 percent brandy (this is used to stop the fortifying process) – Emmett revelled in the tasting the sweet red liquid.
We learned too that the hangover that many associate with port only comes when one drinks the cheap, super-saccharine ruby version. You are much less likely to have the dreaded headache if you consume a subtle vintage or an elegant tawny – perhaps one drinks these more slowly too so we can appreciate their complexity and subtlety.
After a long day sloping between the port bars of Porto we had a supper of excellent dorado by the river and talked about cricket. The next day we took the train to the Douro valley – a train journey not only recommend by the inimitable Bradshaw’s guide but the excellently bright pantaloon-wearing Michael Portillo. With a lunch of wine and nuts we gazed in awe at the untapped beauty of the river as it wended its way through beautiful valleys.
Sleepy Pinhao is a small functioning town in this glorious wine region but on the day of the wedding it was over-run by a couple of hundred English.
Emmett and I found a charming bar run by a chap called Pedro, who enthusiastically served up cold local lagers and tarta de nata. The evening was spent at another port lodge with all the wedding guests, where I discovered the joys of white port and tonic; a lovely twist on a g and t! Unsurprisingly Emmett was enjoying the port on tap with gusto and we ended the evening at a riverfront bar at 4am with him swinging from the lightbulb!
A slow morning of more cold beers and a, quite frankly woeful, black linguini with tuna was followed by a stunning wedding at the height of the valley. A peculiar sight of morning suited men in rural Portugal was deliciously unfurling before me. I eschewed conformity and unleashed my inner man from Del Monte in a crisp linen suit, enjoying its cooling nature – however elegant the tails were, they appeared to deliver a heat beyond tolerance.
A beautiful Catholic service was followed by the reception and wedding breakfast – which understandably included fine wines, marvellous victuals, and splendid company.
I awoke in my crumpled suit, thankfully in my own bed, in a non-hungover befuddled state that only sustained drinking can result in. Emmitt appeared to have been hit by a metaphorical truck and half soaked in water – he mumbled something about a lonely sobering midnight swim in the river. I thought it better not to refresh my memory. The hotel’s proprietor, a Portuguese Basil Fawlty, had espoused panoramic views as an alternative to television. He was not wrong I thought as I sat in the late morning dapples of sun.
I felt it strange that the land of such sporting show offs is also a land of understated milk and honey. Lush green hills and gorgeous rivers that Cezanne would have spent months admiring – but yet the populous doesn’t shout about them. Perhaps the reason we flock to the Algarve or Lisbon is that the canny people of Porto let us slip the net and leave it pleasingly unspoilt.
So let me leave you some advice. If you are looking for a short break in Europe, don’t look further than Porto or the Douro Valley. And next time you are tempted to buy a bottle of port, invest a little more money than you would usually do – your taste buds and your head will surely thank you.