You want to know where to get the best piri piri chicken in Portugal. Note, it’s not a question. It’s a gift, from me to you – one of the best budget lunches you’ll ever have, with a story of travel and adventure thrown in for good measure. And some deep-beat dub with Dr. Alimantado – you’ll see why.
So come and sit down at the Churrasqueira Valdemar, a simple grill-house in the old Moorish hilltown of Silves, a few kilometres inland from the Algarve coast. If you walk along the river from the old white Roman bridge – wading birds perching among the thick rushes, storks circling high overhead on the currents – you can’t miss it. (Mind you, if you get as far as Lidl, you have missed it – it’s behind you!). It’s absolutely nothing special to look at, but you’ll know by now that we don’t care about that. There’s a simple sign, a couple of rows of tightly packed outdoor tables under the eaves of the market, and a huge, stand-up charcoal grill on the pavement, with a battered steel flue that sends sparks and smoke high over the jumbled white houses and sandstone castle walls.
If you stand enquiringly by the entrance, someone will show you to a table – you might well be standing in line anyway, if you get there much after 12.30pm. You probably don’t speak Portuguese, and they don’t speak a lot of English, but it barely matters because there’s no menu. Here’s what’s going to happen.
Someone might mutter ‘frango’? Say ‘sim’ or yes, smile and nod. You’ve just ordered the chicken. If nobody says anything, don’t worry. They’ll just assume you’re here for the chicken.
The first thing that will arrive on the table is a basket of bread, some olives, and maybe some hard Portuguese cheese and a small tub of sardine paste. If you don’t want it shake your head or say no thank you. If you eat it, you’ve only added a euro or two to the bill each. Everything after this point is included in the price.
Salad’s up next, an oval metal platter of sliced tomatoes, shredded lettuce and thinly shaved onions, all from the market next door and grown in a warm Portuguese sun and not a Dutch polytunnel. A bottle of wine will probably appear too – I know, you didn’t ask for it, but there it is, you might as well pour a glass or two and settle in.
What happens next depends on how busy they are. There could be a wait, as food is delivered around you, tables cleared and more people seated. Some hand-cut, home-cooked chips could arrive and, if they do, I’d eat them because you can always get more when the chicken comes (‘mais batatas fritas, se faz favor’ are the words you want). Or everything might arrive together the minute you sit down. Who knows – this is Portugal we’re talking about. I’ve been going for over thirty years and I’ve still never fully figured out how the dining system works.
Rust-red, char-black – the best-dressed chicken in town
At some point though, someone will materialise by your table with another platter, the one you’ve been waiting for. A small, flattened, highly spiced chicken cut across the bone into pieces, flecked and sticky from the grill, with vibrant rust-red and char-black tones. You’ll get a portion for one or two people (or more) without having to ask, but if – halfway through – you realise that more chicken is exactly what’s required, then just flag someone down and ask for another ‘frango’. You will not be judged.
The piri piri marinade that has produced this marvel sits in a bucket next to the grill chef – I say chef, I mean a sweating man in a stained T-shirt and a bandana working all kinds of magic over a blistering range. He applies the marinade in time-honoured fashion with a paintbrush – chillis, garlic, lemon, salt, olive oil, plus whatever other alchemic ingredients the Valdemar has alighted upon over its forty years of existence. I’m thinking smoked paprika and white wine, possibly a dash of white wine vinegar too. Cumin? Maybe. No one’s about to tell me, that’s for sure.
If the marinade is a mystery, then so, as it happens, is the whole notion of piri piri Portugal in the first place. The Portuguese do not really go for spicy foods, and there’s not a vast range of herbs and spices used, beyond the ubiquitous garlic and fresh coriander. It’s a simple, straightforward cuisine – hearty and heavy you might say, fairly unadventurous, with solid peasant roots in the fields, hills and shoreline of a tough, Atlantic-facing nation. (The Portuguese wouldn’t say any of this you understand. They think it’s the finest, most sophisticated cuisine in the world. I disagree, and not only because I have a Portuguese cookbook, one of whose recipes starts with the completely mad phrase – “Take 60 egg yolks”.)
Piri piri – taste of an empire
Piri piri is not just the name of a sauce but also of the insanely hot African bird’s eye chilli, and the reason it has ended up slathered over a chicken on the Algarve is a tale of empire and adventure. It’s hard to believe now, or easy to forget, but from the 15th to the 18th century Portugal ruled half the known world. Her sons set sail with Vasco da Gama and opened up trade routes that took new spices from India and South America to Africa and back to Europe. African soil and sun were perfect for growing chillis originally from Brazil, and in the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique a rather more distinctive cuisine developed, which made its way back – eventually – to Portugal.
And not just Portugal of course. Piri piri. Peri peri. Pil pil. It’s all the same, and if you’ve ever had a Nando’s, you’ve eaten piri piri chicken from South Africa, by way of Mozambique, courtesy of Portuguese adventurers from sun-bleached villages who first set sail fully expecting to fall off the edge of a flat world.
Have they cleared the plates away yet?
If so, now you’re going to get a small slab of carob and cream cake, and maybe an orange cut into wedges. That’s dessert taken care of. They’ll ask you if you want coffee, and a tiny, fierce shot of espresso is a good idea at this point, depending on how much of the wine you’ve drunk. Then all you need to do is make the international writing-in-the-air sign to get the bill, which – wait for it – will be a ludicrous 10 euros a head, though probably a few euros more if you had the bread and starters and coffee.
And now it’s decision time. Best in Portugal? I’d say so, and I’ve eaten a lot of spicy grilled chicken up and down the length of the country. Either way, it’s a cheap price to pay for a shaded pavement table, a plate of piri piri and a window onto the Portuguese past.
Eat: Churrasqueria Valdemar, Mercado Municipal de Silves – they’re on Facebook, and also open in the evenings. They also serve other dishes, but really.
Sleep: Hotel Colina dos Mouros – a great little three-star hotel across the river, with an outdoor pool and castle views. I always stay here, and it’s a 5-minute walk to the Valdemar.
Drink: Café Inglês (https://cafeingles.com) – a tree-shaded terrace for drinks and hillside views, with live music and food too.
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Image: Silves, Portugal, by muffinn, Flickr, CC BY 2.0