They tend to be lively, even raucous places to visit. The casa de pasto we found ourselves in was full of cacophonous potential: the vast majority of tables were long affairs for family groups of a dozen or two strong and if you were lunching as a couple then the chances were that you’d be perched on the end of a table otherwise full of someone else’s family. So it was with us. You get to have conversations that you wouldn’t otherwise have, with people you will never see again and you find yourself examining table space with a new sense of territory.

The missus and I both recall from time to time a most memorable casa de pasto lunch we had many years ago, while on an almond blossom visit near the Spanish border. Long lines of noisy locals packed trestle tables and a small pack of dogs wandered between the legs of both tables and diners looking for fallen morsels or begging for bones and other scraps. We were squeezed onto a long bench and everyone had to shuffle their bums to let us on. We ordered roast goat, only for the waiter to come back five minutes later and shout to us over the hubbub that the last of the goat had already been ordered. There was uproar around our table. ‘Who has taken the last of the goat from the mouths of these gente fine?’ The culprits were unearthed and they changed their order so we could eat our first choice. We were both scarlet with embarrassment but not, we soon discovered, embarrassed enough to refuse the order. The dogs circled us, knowing a good thing when they saw it. They waited patiently as we nibbled the meat off a few dozen rib bones.

Author: Fitch O'Connell ;

Sol e Sombra

There were no dogs (that we saw, at least) at Sol e Sombra in Moreira do Rei, near Fafe. However, there was lots of noise and jostlings and sharings and back-slapping and jocular ribaldry, all keeping pace with the passing of earthenware jugs of wine and unlabelled bottles of mysterious liquors. The first impression was chaos and we wondered how we might ever get served. Even the spaces between the tables were packed with people waiting because the place also did a roaring trade in takeaway food. But even within the apparent mayhem a glorious harmony resided and the men and women waiting the tables had everything under control, even if no one else knew or even cared what was happening. We nibbled on succulent strips of presunto and slices of pungent salpicão while waiting for the main course to arrive from the charcoal.

Author: Fitch O'Connell ;

Our table companions were a motley crew, mostly families out for Sunday lunch, with just the occasional couple like us. Families in public, of course, display a wonderful degree of confidence in themselves and in each other, and never more so than when small children are present. When I first arrived in Portugal many years ago, I had brought with me a common British snootiness about children in public spaces and I would rather they were seen and not heard - and preferably not seen either. A few decades in the country has cured me of that affliction and these days one of the best things about going out for lunch on Sundays is the almost certainty of small children running around the restaurant, playing. This was no exception, and we kept schtum when a small person bobbed against our legs under the table and then squeezed up to the bench, fingers against his lips and his eyes imploring us not to give him away to his mates.

We weren't far from our house as the crow flies – about 10 kms – and twice that by road. When we’ve been in this area before we have tried to find ways back home that might resemble the direction a dutiful crow would take but it has always been difficult to find the right road from which to start. None of the signposts pointing south seem to mention anywhere that we or our maps recognise. This time, we tried potluck, always a decent option, and ended up on roads we did know not where with the satnav solemnly telling us that we were driving over fields and through forests. We discovered tiny, mountainous valleys, crumbling hamlets, and an abandoned water mill beside an impossibly beautiful little river. There was even an elderly man wearing traditional Portuguese peasants’ clothes from a century ago, including the long tasselled fisherman's hat, even though the sea was a hundred kilometres away. He saluted us from the steps of his house as we gawped our way past him. Once again, we had discovered utter delights just on our doorstep and as soon as we got back I tried to work out which route we’d taken. I couldn't find it. Mr Google drew a blank. I wondered, in fact, if we had passed through one of those lands which only exist fleetingly from time to time. A kind of Portuguese Brigadoon, perhaps. I’d like to think so, anyway.


Fitch is a retired teacher trainer and academic writer who has lived in northern Portugal for over 30 years. Author of 'Rice & Chips', irreverent glimpses into Portugal, and other books.

Fitch O'Connell