A question of scale

The village square
The village square
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For a taste of the sea, head for the Algarve. Andrew Vine reports on some questionable fishy business in Portugal.

IT’S a record to be proud of, for sure.

The oldest restaurant in the village, in business since 1890, all brightly-painted blue-and-yellow wooden chairs and bench tables where one gets to know fellow diners. At dusk on an early autumn evening with the last few seagulls wheeling against the setting sun over the harbour, a sense of history hangs in the air as pungently as the smoke from the grills where they cook the fish at half a dozen eateries clustered around the waterfront.

That’s until a waiter with less charm than a week-old sea-bass shows us to our table and announces that Ze Morgadinho, the most historic restaurant in Alvor, has a special starter of small brown fish. They’re small and brown, alright. Anchovies. From a jar. This culinary triumph is followed by a salad with tuna. From a tin.

I’m not well-enough acquainted with the history of bottling and canning to know if delicacies like this were around in 1890, but they’re firmly established in 2012. The mildest questioning of whether a fish restaurant should be relying on store-cupboard staples from the cash-and-carry is brushed off with a shrug and a hard-eyed glare from the owner, a man who’s wedged a formidable gut behind a desk to count a wad of euros. Pesky tourists. Get them in, grab the money, and get them out again. Ah, well. It’s evening number one of 10 that we’re here. There won’t be any more of our euros to add to your stash.

Of course, there’s a market for this. I’ve long cherished an overheard conversation in a restaurant on this stretch of coastline in which a couple’s silent and plainly bewildered perusal of the fish menu culminated in her question to him: “Has it got bones in it?” Yes dear, actually it has. This is where she realised that fish comes from the sea, not a packet in the freezer, isn’t oblong-shaped and doesn’t have an orange coating of oven-ready crispy crumb.

The ungracious gentleman with his wad of euros would probably be perfectly happy if it did, but we aren’t, and nor are the other restaurants that contribute to the mouth-watering aroma that fills the air at sundown. There’s an art on display here, a ritual that goes way back beyond the bottled gas that these days fires the grills. It’s simple cooking, but immensely skilful. First, bathe the fish in sea salt, a good covering to crisp up the skin, hands slapping against the scales; let it rest awhile, wipe the excess off, set aside.

It goes on the grill in a pall of smoke as the skin catches; ease it away from the bars, lather it up with olive oil, leave it, wipe the eyes streaming from the smoke, turn it, lather it again, watch as the blue-grey scales start to brown, onto the plate at the optimum moment that the skin is ready to peel away from flesh shimmering, translucent, sweet and tender. Who needs tinned fish when this is on offer?

Fish defines Alvor. It’s everywhere, from the rough-hewn wooden sculpture of the fisherman that overlooks the little harbour packed with small boats endlessly in and out with old men bringing their catches ashore, to the huts where they mend nets and barbecue sardines for lunch.

It’s there in the wading birds that flock to the bank of sand-dunes that shelter the harbour from the Atlantic and in the anglers fishing off the breakwaters. Fishermen have set out from here since long before this ancient port was devastated by an earthquake in the 16th-century, sailing into a wide, sweeping bay to bring home sardines and sea bass, sea bream and dogfish.

Even those who don’t sail depend on the sea. At low tide, men with shovels traipse out across the dunes to dig for clams, collecting bucketfuls to sell to the restaurants. This deeply-felt and cherished connection to the sea binds Alvor close to its heritage, and holds creeping commercialisation at least a little at bay. It lies to the western end of the Algarve, a mile or two from the bustle of Lagos, a busy port. To its east, expanses of golf courses and man-made holiday destinations of lookalike apartment blocks and hotels march away along the coast and press inland.

Alvor, or at least its suburbs, has its share of those, yet the town itself retains a quaint homeliness. It still feels resolutely Portugese, not yet ready to entirely sell its soul to the tourist trade. There’s a tiny town square in the shadow of a church barely big enough for 50 of the faithful where old men gather as the afternoon turns to evening to pass the time and take a coffee. Step away from the main street and the cobbled, steeply winding narrow streets where elderly women sit outside shuttered terraced houses crocheting might be a world away from the crowds around the harbour.

Husbands wander back to them from the tiny market hall with fresh fish landed that morning. They’d be aghast at the idea of tinned tuna and bottled anchovies, and so are the restaurants mercifully free of a hard, money-grubbing mindset. Like the Taverna do Guedes, The Green Door as it’s known, a gem of a grotto up a side street with whitewashed walls and stone floor, a wood-panelled ceiling, well-worn benches and jugs of young Portugese wine, where the fish caught that morning is grilled over charcoal. The family that run it have the warmth of the afternoon sun and the bill at the end is less than 30 euros.

Or the Casa do Rio, perched above the harbour looking out over the sandbanks as the fishermen set out as night falls for the catch to be served the following day, where cataplanas – the lidded copper cooking vessels in which fish stew is cooked – are brought steaming to the table.

The sandbanks themselves, behind the couple of miles of beach where even on the busiest day there is room to spread out with none of the overcrowding of the Costas, make it worth visiting Alvor. They are designated as a nature reserve, and to wander across them watching the seabirds and waders swallows up hours. The last couple of years have seen boardwalks built, making them more accessible than previously, when a tramp across the dunes had to be taken with one eye on the tides that swirl in with unsettling rapidity.

This isn’t a place for the 18 to 30 crowd, and it’s all the better for it. All that is available at Albufeira, a way up to the coast to the east. Families come here in the school holidays, and outside them it’s couples, finding at least a measure of peace and quiet. Alvor remains, if not a hidden gem, an overlooked corner of one of the most popular coastlines in Europe. Just watch out for tinned tuna. Head up a side street; there’s better fish to be found in this place devoted to it.

Getting there

Getting to the Algarve from Leeds Bradford International Airport is easy. Ryanair (ryanair.com) and Jet2 (jet2.com) run scheduled flights to Faro all year round. Shop around for the best deals. Flying time is about 2hrs 50 minutes.

Transfers to Alvor take about 45 minutes. Expect to pay about 50 euros each way for a taxi.

Andrew Vine stayed at the Luna Alvor Village, a four-star apartment hotel about 10 minutes walk from the centre of town. www.lunaalvorvillage.com