No trip to Portugal is complete without visiting Sintra and no visit to Sintra is complete without eating a travesseiro at Piriquita. Travesseiro means large pillow, and that is what these pastries look like. But, instead of cloth and feathers, these pillows have layers of puff pastry filled with an egg and almond cream.
Despite many attempts, no one has been able to copy these travesseiros since Piriquita first opened its doors to the public in 1952. Some say that fairies sprinkle them with star dust. Others claim to hear sirens singing while they prepare the pastry. All we know is that for us, mere mortals, these heavenly travesseiros are one more reason to go to Sintra.
Piriquita-Antiga Fábrica de Queijadas, Rua Padarias 1/7, Sintra, tel. 219 230 626. Lines can be long in the Summer but, if you go up the street, you’ll find a second Piriquita café with much shorter lines (please don’t tell anyone!).
Lello, a bookstore in Oporto founded in 1906, is famous for its exuberant neogothic architecture. In the early 1990s an English teacher called Joanne Rowling spent many hours here, in the small coffee shop on the second floor, working on a book about wizards. The book’s hero, a boy called Harry Potter, goes to Hogwarths, a school of witchcraft and wizardry whose revolving staircase and gothic motifs are likely to have been inspired by Lello’s interior.
If you visit Oporto, don’t miss the chance to visit Lello. And, if you do, please buy a book. In a world where bookstores are becoming extinct, we need to preserve places where we can still find magic.
But some pigs are more equal than others. There is a clear hierarchy among Portuguese pigs. The black pig is at the top of the heap. This aristocratic swine feasts on acorns and is often exported to Spain to be turned into Iberian ham. Restaurants use fanciful names to describe cuts from this animal: secretos (secrets), presas (prey), and plumas (feathers).
Next on the social scale, we have the “leitão,” the famous suckling pig that is roasted to perfection in the Bairrada region and served with sparkling wine.
The rank below is occupied by the “porco bísaro,” a pig with big ears that is a cousin of the wild boar. Its tasty meat has made it all the rage in the north of the country.
The normal pig is at the bottom of the snout ladder. But the meat from this humble animal is essential to sublime preparations, such as pork with clams and presunto (Portugal’s version of prosciutto) with melon. It just goes to show that we should ignore social conventions and treat all pigs as equal.
It took two architects to create this incredible hotel on the margins of the Douro river. The first, the Italian Nicolau Nasoni, designed the Freixo Palace in the 18th century for the family of a rich cleric, Jerónimo de Távora. The second, the Portuguese Fernando de Távora, a relative of the original owner, transformed it into a luxury hotel.
Built in 1750, Freixo became the most elegant palace in Oporto. It was here that king Luis I stayed when he visited the city in 1872. But the century that followed the royal visit was one of decline and decay. A soap factory was built on the grounds. Later, this factory was converted into a distillery. Later still, the palace became the headquarters of the Harmonia flour factory. A flour mill was built on the palace gardens and many of the palace rooms were used for storage. When the city of Oporto bought the palace in 1986, it was little more than a romantic ruin.
In 1995 the restoration project led by Fernando Távora and his son brought the palace to its original glory. The elegant rooms were restored to create a spacious dining area and beautiful meeting spaces. The old flour mill was reconfigured to accommodate comfortable guest rooms that have stunning views of the Douro river. Freixo is, once again, the most elegant palace in Oporto.
Palacio do Freixo, Estrada Nacional 108, Porto, tel. 225-311-000, email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here for the hotel’s website.
There is a Portuguese saying, “muita parra, pouca uva,” (leafs are many but grapes are few) that applies to Touriga nacional. This varietal has very small grapes. But they burst with flavor through a thick skin that gives the wine an intense red color. Touriga has been planted for centuries in the Dão region but has little name recognition outside of Portugal.
If you are a wine lover, it is worthwhile to learn how to say Touriga nacional (toereega nacional), because this grape is destined for stardom. So, when the Touriga frenzy takes over the world, you’ll be able to say: I drank those fantastic Touriga wines when they were great buys because almost no one outside Portugal knew about them.
Sintra is a village near Lisbon where Portuguese monarchs used to seek respite from the Summer heat. It is a place like no other, with its lush vegetation and fairy-tale palaces. The National Palace (shown above) is the oldest and most historically significant. It was remodeled so many times that it looks like a visual dictionary of Gothic, Manueline and Moorish styles. The Pena Palace is the newest and most romantic. Built in the 19th century, it sits on top of a hill where, in ancient times, the Romans worshiped the moon.
On the way to Pena you can visit a 9th century Moorish castle with wonderful views to the surrounding region. From here you can get a glimpse of other palaces, Monserrate, Seteais (an 18th century palace converted into a luxury hotel), and Quinta da Regaleira. They are all worth visiting.
Staying in Sintra is a privilege. In the morning, you can see Pena while the fog hides the modern world and brings back the 19th century. And at night, you can walk to Seteais to see the moon paint the hill with silver light, waiting to be worshiped.
Quince jam (marmelada) is very popular in Portugal. Some people like it freshly made, when it is soft and yellow, while others prefer it aged, when it is hard and dark red. But both factions agree that a slice of buttered bread with marmelada is one of the world’s most simple and satisfying pleasures.
Marmelada is often paired with a slice of queijo da ilha, a cheese from the Azores islands. This combination is so perfect that it is known as “Romeo and Juliet.” Be sure to try it when you visit Portugal!
Below you’ll find a marmelada recipe from a 16th century Portuguese cookbook attributed to Infanta D. Maria. If you find quinces in your local market, bring them home and make some marmelada. There is something very special about cooking from a recipe that is four centuries old.
MARMELADA D. JOANA
Use two kilograms of quince and 1.5 kilograms of sugar. Cook the quince in a covered pot of water. Peel the quince, cut it in pieces and strain the pulp through a fine sieve. Combine sugar and water in a pot and make a syrup. Add a little orange-flower water to the syrup. Remove the pot from the heat and combine the strained quince pulp with the syrup. Heat this mixture and stir the marmalade until it no longer sticks to the bottom.