Visiting Aveiro – the ‘Female Guiles’ of Salt:
After saying goodbye to Coimbra we headed over to visit the town of Aveiro for our last day. Built on top of a lagoon, canals of water stretch throughout the area making travel by brightly painted boat as easy as walking on foot. Here even the smallest fishing cottages were completely covered in decorated tiles. These preserved the houses from the salty local breeze but also instantly marked out their construction dates, from older, hand-painted examples of the thirties and forties to the almost garishly patterned sixties and seventies models. Closer to the centre of town the houses began to get even more elaborate. Whilst often still using tiles the architecture was in the grandest Art Nouveau style with larger buildings, faded but covered in elaborate ornamentation.
At first we wandered round the centre, visiting some of the fashionable vintage shops that have sprung up selling vinyl, clothes and furniture to the younger generation. One of my favourite moments was visiting the seafood market. Whilst it was after the busiest morning hours you could still see the trays of freshly caught fish, huge tuna and slippery octopus, even big plastic buckets of live eels wriggling energetically over one another.
We had lunch in a relatively new restaurant on the main square called O Bairro. Painted a cool, light blue and feeling impeccably modern and fresh it seemed to contrast with the rest of the slightly old-fashioned town. The food continued this impression as whilst, like everything I had eaten in Portugal, the references to culinary tradition were there, there was also a strong sense of invention and playful novelty.
We started off with a rich golden soup made from local fish and vegetables. Whilst normally this dish would have been served as one thick stew here the bowl was lined with little bites of light white fish and then topped off with frothy carroty puree. We then had an intensely delicious dish of lamb, which seemed to come apart in your mouth, served with delicate garden vegetables and potato croquettes. Finally dessert, one of my favourite dishes of the whole trip. The whole thing was presented to look like a large pale egg. There was a thin white chocolate shell which, when broken revealed an initial layer of creamy panna cotta covering a centre made out of that ubiquitous Portuguese egg yolk custard. Whilst this, on its own, would have been unbearably sweet it was topped off with a scoop of sour orange ice cream, which served as a perfect accompaniment.
After a restful lunch in Aveiro we headed out to the salt flats that lay on the edge of the town. Driving on a narrow sandbank as far as the eye could see on either side stretched out the shallow beds of seawater drying in the hot afternoon sun. We got out at a shack selling little bags of salt, from the finest “fleur de sel” to the rougher bath salts. Huge piles of glittering white crystals, which dwarfed the stall itself lay out on tarpaulins. I was shocked when I was told that this had been a bad year and that those piles should be three times the size!
After picking our way gingerly along the slim walkways down into the flats themselves we spoke to Juan, a twinkly old man in a bright pink t-shirt raking the salt into a small pile which covered his bare feet. I looked to the right and saw 15 or so similar piles at the foot of other flats marking out his morning’s work. Juan chatted eagerly to us, describing the intricacies of harvesting salt. We learned that the top layer of thin crystal that forms, covering the shallow water, is the best quality “fleur de sel” which must be raked in separately from the coarser salt below the water line. This has more humidity and a stronger taste (I went away with a small bag to try for myself) and is shipped from these flats to restaurants across the world. Juan affirmed that this year had been a bad one for salt, too much rain and not enough heat to evaporate the sea water, yet he remained firmly optimistic since salt, as he said with a broad smile, is “like a woman, you treat her right and she will reward you”. After our chat we headed back up the winding path and into the car to drive away, watching mountains of salt crystal sparkle through the window.
Disclaimer: I travelled as a guest of Centro de Portugal
- TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932, www.flytap.com) flies from London Gatwick to Porto from £126 return including all taxes and charges
- For more information on Centro de Portugal visit: www.visitcentro.com/en/
- For more information on Portugal visit: www.visitportugal.com