Portugal. Some holiday-makers may think of it as Spain’s less popular little sibling, but those of us who have been know that it is perfectly capable of holding its own – just ask the Algarve.

The cities of Porto, in the north, and Lisbon are much loved by locals and visitors alike, while the Douro Valley is name often spoken in vinophile circles in regards to its famous port. So what about the Algarve region?

You’ve probably heard about its beaches and seen the spectacular photos of windswept orange-hued cliffs hanging over the ocean; indeed, the main reason you would consider coming here is to bask under blue skies and bright sunshine on golden sands. But, while Portugal has much in common with its Mediterranean neighbours, it is also distinct in many ways, from its notoriously difficult to learn language – something even the Spanish are left lost in translation over – to its now internationally exported chicken piri piri!

The best way to get to know any destination is to taste it, and if you were to describe the Algarve in culinary terms, you probably describe it as fresh, rich and always ready for a splash of wine! As a vegetarian, I admit I was worried about missing out when plates laden with fresh sea food arrived at dinner tables – the region is very proud of is shellfish, particularly clams (more about these later!) – but with dining so embedded in the region’s culture, there is plenty for everyone to discover.

Algarve Delights

The traditional dish you will most likely be coerced into trying is Cataplana, which is actually the name of the large, clam-like metal pan that the food is cooked and served from. It makes for a spectacular reveal when the waiter presents the treasure within, releasing the mouth-watering aroma and sounds of sizzling sauces before artfully spooning it onto your plate. It is typically prepared from sea food such as prawns, mussels, crabs and – you guessed it – clams, with lashing of tomato, garlic and olive oil, though my vegetarian version, composed of artichoke, asparagus, beetroot and tenderstem broccoli, topped with poached egg, was one of my favourite dishes of my stay in Portugal. It’s authentic, yet deliciously moreish, and unquestionably nutritious!

You are also likely to be offered almonds, figs and carob treats wherever you go. These regional delights regularly make an appearance in many desserts, while the divine Portuguese olive oil is brazenly poured into dishes with a sprinkling of sea salt to be soaked up by freshly baked bread before every meal – another ritual the nation is quite rightly very proud of. For me, though, it is the wine that makes me crave another week in the Algarve. Since 1996, the vineyards of the region have worked hard to introduce new grape varieties to the area, and the result is a vibrant variety of white, rose and red wines to add to their selection that really impresses.

Heavenly Wines

If you are serious about getting a good taste of Portugal’s finest wines, you must dine at Emo restaurant at Anantara Vilamoura. A truly genius dining experience, each plate on your six-course tasting menu comes with its own, perfectly paired wine to accompany it, expertly introduced by the resident wine guru, Antonio. Having felt slightly excluded from past meal time excitement with my no-meat-no-fish diet, I was elated to find a personally tailored selection of diverse vegetarian dishes – not a mushroom risotto in sight! It may seem like a minor issue, but attention to such things really demonstrates how a five-star hotel really goes above and beyond.

You can also soak up the chilled out vibes in the lobby as the sun sets with Anantara Vilamoura’s nightly fado performances. Beautifully atmospheric, you can relax on the sofa as the emotive sounds of this traditional song ring out the end of the day, as you toast to another evening.

Authentic Algarve

For an authentic look into the culinary culture of the Algarve, clams are the secret. It may sound less than glamorous, but a trip clam picking offers a surprisingly fascinating – and enjoyable! – insight into a beloved traditional pastime. Organised by Pine Cliffs Hotel, we drove out to Ria Formosa Natural Park near Faro, where we boarded a traditional Portuguese fishing boat to sail off the shore to a sandy little outcrop to dig out clams buried into the sand. While health and safety protocol won’t allow you to bring your findings back to the hotel kitchen to cook and eat – unlike Portuguese families who simply soak them in water for a couple of hours before serving them up – you can request a cooking class to see how they are prepared.

On our boat journey, we also passed by one of the Algarve’s oyster farms. It is a well cited fact in the area that the oysters are the same quality as France’s; in fact, oysters are taken from the shores of France and grown in the nurturing Portuguese waters before being shipped off, meaning you can savour their fine taste without the high price tag. Plucked straight from the waters, I sat back in silent horror as my colleagues swallowed these little sea creatures whole with a drizzle of fresh lemon, declaring them as delicious – I beg to differ, though I did enjoy the sparkling wine served alongside them!

The Shack Bar and Restaurant at Quinta do Lago in the Algarve
The Shack Bar and Restaurant at Quinta do Lago

From here, after enjoying the taste of the ocean, we took a bike ride along the stunning protected coastline to Quinta Do Lago. Cycling along the sandy coastline of Praia da Quinta do Lago, this beautiful stretch of shore is home to a number of marine birds, and we were told colourful flamingos can often be seen preening along the way – unfortunately, they decided not to make an appearance for us! Along the way, the salty coastal grass, known in our shops as ‘samphire’, can be spotted along the path. Having failed in my oyster-tasting challenge, I thought I’d give it a go – a distinctive flavour, yet not at all unpleasant!

Upon reaching our final destination, we headed to The Shack, a cheerful beach house-style bar and casual restaurant. Overlooking the lake and a sandy little beach, this is a cool spot from which to enjoy the sun set over a jug of their best sangria, with live music played two nights a week in the open-air for a laid-back relaxed vibe – it also serves amazing guacamole and tortilla chips.

 

Five-Star Favourites

You will find excellent Michelin-starred dining options in the Algarve, too. Vila Joya, often cited as a ‘restaurant with rooms’ before a hotel, is an essential stop for anyone who enjoys the silver service ceremony. Beautifully positioned on the cliff-edge, the quirky and eccentric boutique interiors make for an achingly pleasing ambience – nothing rounds it off quite like leaving your terrace doors open so you can drift away to the sound of the ocean gently rolling in the distance.

If you like a generous choice of food to excite your palette, VILA VITA Parc should be your top place to stay, where you will have no fewer than ten restaurants and six bars including the two Michelin-starred Ocean Restaurant with arresting Atlantic views. This sprawling, village-like resort is one of the most treasured holiday spots in the entire Algarve, with evenings being one of the most magical times – walking the flowery footpaths gently illuminated by terracotta lamps makes for a most enchanting end to the evening. Again, if you are looking for an authentic experience, try Adega Restaurant for regional specialties, and enjoy the show of flaming chorizo and cherry liquer poured into chocolate cups to for a true taste of the Algarve.

Feeling inspired?

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