THE latest in our series of exclusive stories from the pen of NICK HAMMOND sees our intrepid explorer plunging headfirst into the wonders of Portugal…
AH, what unalloyed joy.
To be in the sunshine in September; sipping coffee and nibbling a pastel de nata on the cobbled streets of Porto – while a humble Quai D’Orsay 54 smoulders gently at my elbow.
I’ve always somehow managed to miss Porto on my travels. What a schoolboy error that has turned out to be. It’s one of the loveliest places I’d had the good fortune to visit, and from a cigar perspective, a very happy place, too. The temperate Mediterranean climate means it’s benign and warm for an awful lot of the year – and yet this beautiful city where the North Atlantic Ocean meets the Douro river remains pretty green, despite recent searing temperatures. It has a most unusual annual level of soft refreshing rainfall.
Sitting outside a small café or bistro and enjoying a smoke is easy as pie, then. So, I took full advantage. People watching is fantastic, especially alongside the mighty old river. You have to meander far enough to beat the crowds; the old town itself down on the banks of the Douro is lovely – but crammed with tourists. My best advice is to put your comfy walking shoes on and go exploring.
Thanks to the bounteous vintage stocks at Sautter, I took along with me some interesting old Cubans with a view to pairing them with a series of Port wines, for this was a working trip to explore some of those grand old wine houses, whose evocative names sit high on the surrounding hillside on giant billboards. Instead of being tacky, they reinforce the message that the reason this prosperous old town city is here is thanks to Port.
Did I mention the seafood? Absolutely stunning, and the prices aren’t ridiculous if you avoid the tourist traps. One evening, after a simple yet beautifully put-together dish of simple sole meunière, I found a secluded spot and lit a Rafael Gonzalez Petit Corona from 1998. What will 25 years or so of age give a small cigar like this? An extraordinary smoothness, all hard corners rounded by the years and a delicious, subtle hint of caramel and ginger, that’s what. What a dessert cigar that turned out to be.
On another day, several tastings of ports behind me, I found myself on a terrace looking over mountains covered in vines as far as the eye can see. I’d travelled into the Douro region itself, where winemaking is what keeps the place ticking. And on that sun-splashed terrace with a 30-year-old Tawny Port from my hosts, Graham’s, I smoked a simply incredible Saint Luis Rey Series A from 2001.
The dry, nutty, slightly musty flavour throughout that incredible port was a great pairing for the cigar, which rollocked alongside it without ever threatening to take the reins. I half-wished for some Roquefort and maybe a walnut or three to complete the picture, but you can’t have everything, can you?
To be honest, I felt I was doing pretty well as it was. A degree of smugness is acceptable at such times, I think – if only to oneself. If you get the chance, head to Porto. Simply superb.