Fishing for my supper | Posted: 13 April 2016

I’d been looking forward to this for a long time – seven blissful, carefree days walking along the beautiful coast of Alentejo in southern Portugal, with the sun on my back, the wind in my hair, sand in my boots – and the promise of some wonderful seafood each evening.

I say ‘carefree’, but I was here to check Inntravel’s route notes for our walking holiday, Along the Costa Vicentina, so there was work to do – but what work! For the next week, the Atlantic Ocean was to be my constant companion, noisy and tempestuous at times, but gentle and calm at others. A reassuring presence on my left as I made my way from Odeceixe in the south to Porto Covo, 50 miles to the north.

After five very pleasant days I arrived in the small seaside town of Vila Nova de Milfontes, where my host Idalia at the wonderful Casa do Adro guesthouse had already alerted a local restaurant to my arrival. And so it was that as the sun began to sink slowly over the Atlantic, I heeded her recommendation and strolled along cobbled lanes and down well-worn steps that seemed to get narrower and steeper the closer I got to the small harbour. There on the quayside, I entered a rather unprepossessing building, but the promise of “the best grilled fish ever” allayed my fears and I soon found myself seated at a simply furnished table with a view over the darkening water.

Genial host Antonio and his wife Fatima have been running the Restaurante A Fateixa for over thirty years, and while he rules front of house, Fatima is most certainly in charge in the small open kitchen. Before I’d really had time to survey my surroundings or to peruse the menu, a huge bowl of steaming clams drenched in a garlic and white wine sauce was placed before me along with some crusty bread and a chilled bottle of vinho verde. “I think I’m going to enjoy this”, I thought, even though I didn’t think I was going to get much of a say in the night’s feasting. As I lapped up the last of the sauce, a grinning Antonio appeared bearing a large silver salver of whole fish in all shapes and sizes for me to select from. Still glistening and bright-eyed, they’d obviously been enjoying a quiet swim not too long ago!

I chose robalo (sea bass) which Fatima promptly grilled and served with a crisp salad. This is the sort of food I love – simple, honest and oh, so tasty. What makes it more enjoyable is the fact that this fish is locally caught – and I mean ‘local’. Not by a large trawler dragging its nets across the seabed way out at sea, but by individual fishermen who risk life and limb to earn a few euros from local restaurateurs, like Antonio.

I’d seen them earlier in the week – tiny figures that I suddenly realised were men huddled against the elements and perched precariously on rocky, wind-swept sea stacks with the pounding surf at their feet. Seemingly oblivious to the perceived danger, they were concentrating on casting baited lines into the sea in the hope of hooking a fish or two.

This is no Sunday afternoon angling by the Leeds-Liverpool canal with a flask of tea and some egg sandwiches. No, this is hard-core, ‘extreme’ fishing. Not for the faint-hearted and not without its risk. Indeed, it’s not unknown for men to be washed off their perches, or blown off balance by an unexpected gust of wind. Portugal’s Maritime Authority have long stressed the need for all cliff fishermen to wear life jackets to minimise the danger, but their calls go unheeded.

As you follow the coast along the aptly named Fisherman’s Trail, you’ll soon spot the tell-tale signs that there may be someone out there. Look out for a battered old motorbike or rickety push bike on the cliff edge – or, more alarmingly, a car with a rope tied to the bumper hanging over the cliff which the fisherman has used to aid his descent to some otherwise inaccessible rocky promontory below.

It’s obviously a risk worth taking and no doubt a rewarding experience, too. The waters off the Alentejo coast, where warmer currents from the Mediterranean meet the colder Atlantic, are rich in sea life. Over two hundred species of fish can be found, and while casting from the beach offers the chance to reel in bass, bream, mackerel, mullet and sole, fishing from the cliffs offers more immediate access to deeper waters where larger fish like grouper, jewfish, turbot, moray and conger eel feed.

And so, as I finished my meal, I reflected on where this particular fish had come from (‘food metres’, not food miles here!) and who was the brave soul who had risked his all for my tea? Obrigado, João – or whoever you are, and take care out there.

Related Holidays

Along the Costa Vicentina

Spot daring fishermen and cliff-nesting storks on a leisurely walk along the Rota Vicentina in Alentejo, southern Portugal, staying at welcoming guesthouses along the way, and savouring some truly exceptional – and locally caught – seafood.

More about our walking holidays in Portugal >

Tough work Peter! Not quite in the same league as the Alentejo fisherman's though?
13/04/2016 12:41:33

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