The sweet alchemy of Tecolameco

Tecolomeco

At the end of a wonderful meal at Flor de Rosa, a great historical hotel in Crato, Alentejo, the maître d’ brought us two slices of a dessert called Tecolameco. In our quest to eat fewer sweets, we decided to have only a small bite to be polite. But once we tasted this marvelous dessert, our will power vanished.

Tecolameco is made of sugar, eggs, almond, pork lard, butter, and cinnamon. There are many other Portuguese desserts made with these ingredients, but none tastes like Tecolameco.

It is said that an old chef found in the Crato castle an ancient book that revealed the meaning of life. All the pages were blank, except for the one with the recipe for Tecolameco.

Click here for the Pousadas’ website and here for more photos of Flor da Rosa.

Silent inspiration

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Carmelite nuns lived most of their days in silence and solitude. The local peasants offered them agricultural products, including numerous eggs. The nuns used the egg whites to starch their clothes and the egg yolks to make desserts.

One day, the nuns received a bag of the finest, whitest wheat flour they had ever seen. They decided to try to make something special with this gift. The flour was combined with water to create a “virgin dough” that was left to rest. The nuns then stretched the dough and let it rest again. To get the most out of the rare flour, they repeated this stretching-resting cycle until the dough was so thin they could read the bible through it.

The dough was cut into rectangles and used to wrap a delicate mixture of egg yolks and sugar. The nuns used a feather to spread some melted butter over the dough and baked the pastries in the oven. Finally, they dusted them with powdered sugar. The result was so extraordinary that a new tradition was born. Whenever the nuns received fine white flour, they made these unique pastries and offered them to the sick and the poor.

When the religious orders were abolished in Portugal in 1834, the Carmelite nuns shared the recipe for this exquisite pastry with the families that gave them shelter. Two Portuguese towns, Tentúgal and Vouzela have competing versions of the original Carmelite recipe. Each town claims their pastry is the best. They are both extraordinary expressions of the silent inspiration of Carmelite nuns.

The pastries produced in Tentúgal are sold in many coffee and pastry shops throughout Portugal. Vouzela pastries are harder to find, they are mostly sold in Viseu and other locations close to Vouzela. They are well worth a special trip.

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.

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.

 

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.