The extraordinary salt of Castro Marim

Castro Marin Composit

The Romans loved salt. They used it to cook, to preserve food, and as a form of currency (the practice of paying soldiers in salt is the origin of the word salary). So, it is not surprising that the Romans settled in Castro Marim. This small town on the marshes of the Guadiana river produced great salt.

During the 20th century, this production became industrialized. The salt was harvested with heavy machinery that leaves plenty of chemical residues. It was then washed and processed to turn its grey color into white, striping the salt of magnesium, potassium, and other important minerals.

Artisanal producers abandoned their salt ponds and so did the fish and birds that used them as habitats. Centuries of knowledge about producing great salt was on the verge of being lost.

But then, the tide turned. In the late 1990s, a cooperative called Terras de Sal revived the artisanal salt trade. It invited a French certification body to establish the strictest certification norms to ensure the highest standard of quality. It created the conditions to attract a new generation of producers who left their city jobs and came to Castro Marim to produce the best salt in the world.

These producers harvest the salt manually with wooden tools, a slow process that is essential to avoid chemical contamination. They do not wash the salt, to ensure that it retains all its important minerals. Since rain muddies the water, they only harvest when the weather is dry, between May and September.

One of the cooperative’s producers is called Água Mãe. Their salt is amazingly white and flavorful. Their “fleur de sel,” made of fine crystals created by temperature differentials between water and air, is exquisite. Água Mãe also bottles liquid salt, which is low in sodium and high in magnesium. When we spray it on our salads it gives them layers of delicate flavor.

The Romans were prescient in their love of salt. An amazing fact about our bodies is that, because life began in the sea, the composition of our tissue fluid resembles that of natural sea salt.

The ordinary act of seasoning our food becomes extraordinary when we use salt from Castro Marim. It is a privilege to nourish our body with the same pristine salt prized by the Romans 2000 years ago.

You can find the Água Mãe salt store on Travessa dos 3 Marcos, n.º 11, Castro Marim, Algarve, tel. 961380503, email  aguamae@aguamae.pt . Click here for the Terras de Sal web site. To buy the wondrous salt of Castro Marim in the U.S., click here.

A royal inheritance

St. André HorsesThe excitement of driving a Ferrari or a Maserati doesn’t come close to the thrill of riding a Lusitano horse. You can, for modest fees, master the art of riding these elegant animals at the St. André Lusitanos school, on the outskirts of Lisbon.

The school has a long tradition of teaching excellence. When you take one-on-one lessons with the St. André instructors, you become an heir to knowledge that goes back to King Dom Duarte’s famous 1435 equestrian treatise “The art of ridding on every saddle.” If you always yearned for a royal inheritance, this is your chance.

Click here for the St. André Lusitanos website.

A taste of the future

Composit Apicius

It’s great to eat in three-star Michelin restaurants. But the heavy bill and all the fuss unrelated to the meal takes away some of the enjoyment. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to dine in the restaurants where the now-famous chefs cooked before they reached stardom? We would eat great food at a reasonable price and witness the excitement of creation without having to deal with overbearing waiters.

This week we had dinner in just such a place. The restaurant, named after the Roman writer who authored the first cookbook, is called Apicius. It is run by two chefs who are partners in business and in life: Francisco Magalhães and Joana Xardoné.

The delicious coriander butter that arrived with the bread got the meal off to a good start. But it didn’t prepare us for the festival of tastes, textures, and aromas that followed: venison tartare, cauliflower salad, copita with eggs, duck with carrot puree, potatoes, edible soil and Alentejo black pork, turbot in a roasted vegetable broth, and apple sorbet

Every bite was interesting. Every item perfectly cooked and artfully presented. We liked our dinner at Apicius so much that we returned the following day for lunch.

There are many places in Lisbon where we can enjoy the great recipes of the past. At Apicius, we tasted Lisbon’s culinary future. It is deliciously bright!

Apicius is on Rua da Cruz dos Poiais, tel. 21-390-0652. Click here to make reservations on the web.

Old and new

Terras D'Alter composit @

We happened to be the first to arrive at a friend’s dinner party. He suggested it would be fun to decant the bottle of wine we had brought to do a blind tasting.

When the other guests arrived, our host asked everybody to guess the provenance of this very special wine. Glasses were filled and moments of silence ensued while everybody focused on taste and smell. Many highly appreciative comments followed. Some guests thought that the wine was from the old world, probably from France, perhaps from Côtes du Rhône. Others thought it was a wine from the new world, possibly from Australia. The wine was Terras d’Alter, Outeiro, 2008.

Terras d’Alter has impeccable old-world credentials. The grapes come from old quintas in Alentejo.  But the wine is made by an Australian enologist, Peter Bright, who eschews traditional wine-making methods in favor of new-world technology. The result is the best of the old and new worlds.

When we drink Terras d’Alter, we feel transported to a sun-drenched day in Alentejo, our body soaking in the warmth, our mind relaxed by the endless vistas. How can other wines compete with this feeling?

Click here to see the web site of Terras d’Alter.

 

The Seteais palace

The Seteais Palace, Rui Barreiros Duarte, ink on paper, 2014.

Seteais means seven sighs, a name inspired, according to legend, by the romance between a Portuguese noble and a Moorish princess.

The Seteais palace was built in Sintra in 1787 by the Dutch consul and later sold to the wealthy Marquis of Marialva.

In 1954, the palace was converted into a luxury hotel. Booking a room at Seteais guarantees you’ll have a memorable experience. If you don’t stay at the hotel, you can still experience its unique atmosphere by visiting the elegant bar for a glass of white port before dinner.

In 1802, the Marquis of Marialva invited the Prince Regent, John IV and his wife for a visit. To celebrate the occasion, the Marquis built an archway decorated with busts of the royals. A Latin inscription praises the prince for his wisdom and prudence. No one could guess that five years later the Portuguese royal family would flee to Brazil to escape Napoleon’s troops.

The echoes of these twists and turns of Portuguese history have long faded. What remains, is one of the most romantic places in the world.

 Click here to see the Seteais Palace website.

Becoming famous

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The Portuguese love codfish so much that the easiest way to become famous in Portugal is to create a popular codfish recipe.  Writers might see their books go out of print, painters might see their works gather dust. But no one forgets Brás, Zé do Pipo, and Gomes de Sá because their recipes are part of our daily life.

In a recent visit to Tasca da Esquina, chef Victor Sobral prepared us a surprise menu. One of the items was a very refined version of codfish Brás style, the best we have ever tried. Imagine how Brás would feel, seeing his century-old recipe come alive in the hands of a great contemporary chef!

We wish we could write a longer post but we have to go, we bought some codfish to try a few ideas.