Because central Portugal has maintained its traditional small-scale agriculture, the quality of its produce is superb. Succulent lamb and baby goat are used in chanfana, a hearty stew that is seasoned with paprika, garlic, bay leaves and piri-piri, doused with red wine and slow-cooked in clay pots. Lafões veal is raised in a lush valley intersected by the Vouga and Douro rivers and comes from local cattle derived from the Iberian Mirandesa and Arouquesa breeds.
Central Portugal is also an interesting destination for cheese lovers. Serra da Estrela is a semisoft cheese made from the milk of Bordaleira and Churra Mondegueira sheep. Once the milk has been heated, salted and curdled using thistle extract, it is shaped by hand and aged in humid, chilly cellars to create a unique flavor that is both sweet and slightly sour. This cheese is a traditional Portuguese food with an international reputation. Other cheeses to sample include requeijão Serra da Estrela, a mild fresh cheese made with unpasteurized sheep’s milk. Used in local pastries, puddings and cakes, it is also eaten with a sprinkling of salt and pepper, or as a dessert garnished with honey and nuts or with abóbora de doce (sweet pumpkin jam).
Historically, central Portugal has a sweet tooth, and there is an ancient tradition of pastries and confections made in convents. Perhaps the most famous is pastéis de Tentúgal. These fragile rolls of flaky dough filled with egg custard were invented by Carmelite nuns during the 16th century in the town of Tentúgal, a few miles west of Coimbra. Try them at O Afonso in Tentúgal or at Pastelaria Briosa in Coimbra. Briosa, a charming pastry shop and tearoom, also specializes in pastel de Santa Clara, a pastry filled with almonds and sweetened egg yolks made at the Santa Clara convent in Coimbra.
Other foods to look for include the maçã bravo de Esmolfe, a variety of apple characterized by its intense fragrance. (It was once dried and used for potpourri.) Castanha dos Soutos da Lapa is a type of chestnut grown in the districts of Viseu and Guarda. Highly prized for their sweet flavor, these nuts were used as currency in the 13th century. Today, they’re made into jams and syrups but also come to the table as a garnish for roasted chicken or in chestnut mousse.
Finally, Dão wines are the region’s most famous, but lesser-known Bairrada wines, produced between the Dão region and the Atlantic, are excellent. The signature grape of this area is Baga, which can yield reds that are dense and aromatic with perceptible acidity and firm tannins.
Here are some of our favorite restaurants in the region:
Located on a wine-producing estate 9 miles outside of Viseu, this Michelin-starred restaurant occupies a striking low-slung modern building that blends into the countryside. Chef Diogo Rocha’s cooking is inventive and sophisticated but never disguises the natural flavors of the produce. Expect dishes like baby carrots baked in pastry with trout eggs, sardines in peppermint-seasoned olive oil with cardamom and allspice, and roasted loin of baby lamb with leeks.
Mesa de Lemos
Quinta de Lemos, Passos de Silgueiros, Viseu. Tel. (351) 961-158-503
This roadside restaurant has lovely views over the valley below, and the hearty rustic cooking is generously served and delicious. Start with soup or some of the local ham, and then try the baby lamb roasted with bay leaves accompanied by tiny potatoes. Finish up with some Serra da Estrela cheese and flan. Good wines are served by the glass or the pitcher.
Estrada Nacional 231, Avenida Pedro Vaz Leal 4, Loriga. Tel. (351) 238-953-127
This simple restaurant with a friendly young staff is deservedly popular for its Portuguese comfort food, including dishes such as codfish fritters, beef in mushroom sauce and tart filled with requeijão cheese. The $14 prix fixe menu, which includes a glass of wine, offers exceptional value for the money.
Rua da Capela 13, Rebordinho, Viseu. Tel. (351) 928-052-162
The town of Mealhada is famous across Portugal for its roast suckling pig. This restaurant, founded in 1941 by Álvaro Pedro, who had returned to Portugal after working as the head chef on a train in South America, began by selling roast suckling pig sandwiches to travelers on Portugal’s main north-south road. Eighty years later, the piglets are prepared the same way: marinated in salt, garlic, pepper and lard, before being cooked on a rotisserie and served with fried potatoes.
Restaurante Pedro dos Leitões
Rua Álvaro Pedro 1, Apartado 8, Mealhada. Tel. (351) 232-209-950
At this traditional restaurant in the old town of Coimbra, start with homemade vegetable soup or grilled chouriço sausage, and then choose from among the many different preparations of salt cod, maybe bacalhau à Lagareiro, which is grilled and served with potatoes and cabbage. The grilled veal steaks are excellent, and the best dessert is the requeijão cheese with pumpkin preserves.
Solar do Bacalhau
Rua da Sota 12, Coimbra. Tel. (351) 239-098-990
This rustic tavern at the center of Covilhã is furnished with dark wood furniture and fills quickly with locals at both lunch and dinner. Begin with mushrooms sautéed with garlic, and then try eggs scrambled with fried potatoes and ham, wild boar with mushroom rice, or cod with olives and red peppers.
Taberna A Laranjinha
Rua Primeiro de Dezembro 10, Covilhã. Tel. (351) 275-083-586
Located in a granite house in the small mountain town of Valhelhas, this restaurant, owned by Luís Castro and his wife, Fernanda, is unexpectedly elegant inside. Their cooking is alternately rustic and refined but consistently delicious. Representative dishes include stewed rooster with bacon and mushrooms, pork loin braised with wild herbs, and sautéed wild trout with side dishes of applesauce, greens and rice with raisins. Reservations are essential.
Praça Doutor José de Castro 1, Valhelhas. Tel. (351) 275-487-123