The Hidden Café: A Story

As we walk towards the restaurant, a couple sat outside on wooden terrace chairs grin at us – a plethora of food laid out in front of them on the tiny table.  I sense there is a hidden message somehow and I feel a sense of kinship with them; they seem to be urging us to take a chance on this tiny, hidden ‘Petiscos’ café tucked down a backstreet in Porto.  Despite this feeling of somehow being invited in, they are the only ones at the restaurant, and I am unsure. As we approach the front door, I tug on Tom’s sleeve and say quietly, “Should we go somewhere else?” I glance inside nervously – small, square tables line the wall, with folding chairs surrounding them, and what looks like a cheese counter is nestled away at the back of the small, dimly lit café.

I have a fear of empty restaurants – all eyes on you, a bored waitress blurring the line between attentive and intrusive.  But Tom pushes me in, and suddenly we are inside.  Immediately a man greets us, warmly.  He is tall and walks with a slight stoop; clearly not quite comfortable with his height.  He has a floppy fringe, which he brushes away from his eyes, extending an arm towards a table – “Come in, come in!”  From behind the fringe, he smiles shyly, and ushers us towards a table. As we sit, he explains that the restaurant is as much a deli and a gourmet foods shop as it a place to eat, and that the menu is centred around the foods you can buy from the shop.  The walls are lined with stacked wooden crates; full of breads, preserves, wines, olives – all manner of different foods and drinks, all displayed beautifully in vintage boxes that towered up towards the ceiling.

>> img credit: {the café by day}

He hands us both menus – the choice was limited to platters of meats and cheeses, or some sandwiches. We were eager to recreate the spread the couple had on the table outside, so we ordered a cured meats platter, a cheese platter and a bread basket, with a glass of white wine for me, and a red wine for Tom.  The waiter noted down our choices carefully in pencil on his pad, stooped over our table with a reflective expression and furrowed brow; as if he was considering every one of our choices; mulling them over in his head.

He walked away, then, as if remembering something, he turned back.  Nervously he stammered – “If you don’t mind…. I hope it’s okay, but I wondered, if you would like to try a glass of the Port wine first? The white Port wine will cleanse your palate and make the cheeses taste even better.”  He tilted his head inquisitively, but took a step back, as if to relieve any pressure we might feel to agree to his suggestion.  “Of course,” I said.  “That sounds great.”

Moments later, he carefully placed two glasses of Port wine in front of us.  Because of the alcohol content of Port, it creates ‘tears of wine’ – a ring of clear liquid which droplets form from.  I sipped it slowly, watching the wine collect at the top of the glass as I tip it towards me, and then roll back into the body of wine.  It is sweet, but strong – I expect to dislike it but it immediately warms and relaxes me.  The man returns, smiles, lights a candle with a match, and disappears out to the back of the shop. The smell of sulphur lingers a little.  “This was a good choice,” says Tom, thoughtfully.

At the back of the shop, I watch as a lady takes blocks of cheeses from the counter, and delicately slices them.  She is a small lady, with a maroon scarf woven around  her head, a long, gilded dress and a look of intense concentration.  As the man re-enters the restaurant, he places a protective hand on her shoulder as he brushes past her.  Nothing is said.

“I was thinking,” he begins, as he approaches our table.  “I was thinking that… I have a freshly baked chestnut loaf that would go wonderfully with your cheese…. if you would like it?” He rubs his hands together, waiting for an answer.  I imagine him in the kitchen at the back, kneading the dough, pushing fists into the soft, warm, floured mass, chopping chestnuts, sprinkling salt.  I wonder if he saves a slice for himself – slathered with jam, or perhaps served simply with a few slices of cheese. We answer yes, and he smiles gratefully and walks away.  In his smile I sense a touch of excitement, a spring in his step as he realises we will acquiesce to all of his suggestions, and that we are keen to try his lovingly made wares.

He returns with the cheese board.  Slices of cheese are laid out in rows, like toppled dominoes.  He places the board so softly and sensitively on the table that it doesn’t make a sound.  He pauses to take in the lay of the board, as an artist might step away from a canvas.  He re-centres it, and smiles at me, a little embarrassed at his labour of love.  He then lays another dish next to it – the chestnut bread. As he places it, I watch as the butter oozes from its lightly toasted crust, flecks of flour dusting the outer surfaces and creating patterns on the ceramic plate.  He passes us our wine and lays the white wine in the centre and the red wine to the side.  “The white wine… much better with cheese,” he explains.  “It will help the flavours come out.  Red wine is too…” he pauses, struggling for the word.  “My English is… not always so good… Overpowering! Red wine is too overpowering.”  He smiles at the victory of pulling this word from his memory.  “Your English is great,” I say, “Much better than my Portuguese!” He laughs at this. “Portuguese is very complicated though!” “Oh, one more thing – my wife will come and tell you what all of the different cheeses are and talk you through where they come from.” We glance at the lady at the counter and she smiles – a big, warm, friendly smile – and nods in affirmation.

Petiscos Bar Porto

It might not surprise you to know that the cheeses are utterly delectable.  They are served with a ginger and ale dipping sauce which is similarly heavenly, and we try each one in turn, groaning and nodding in appreciation.  The white wine is wonderful and complements the cheese perfectly.  Even without looking, I know he is hiding just out of view in the kitchen area, watching for our enjoyment.  “This was a good choice.” Tom says again, through a mouthful of warm chestnut bread.

>> A little story about our visit to Dama Pé De Cabra in Porto