Europe’s most western vineyards

DCIM103GOPRO Baron Bodo Von Bruemmer, born in Tsarist Russia in 11/11/1911, made a fortune working as a banker in Switzerland. Then, at age 51, he was diagnosed with a terminal disease and told he had two years to live. He decided to look for a place where, after his passing, his wife could live without worrying about money.

Von Bruemmer came to Portugal and fell in love with the country. He bought Casal de Santa Maria, a farm in Colares near Sintra. There, he spent his days breeding Arabian horses and planting roses. The airs of Colares nursed the baron back to health and today, at 104 years of age, he continues to thrive.

In 2007, shortly after his 96th birthday, Von Bruemmer felt the urge to plant a vineyard. He knew nothing about wine making, but was eager to learn. Since then, he has become a legend. With the help of a talented team of enologists, he planted Europe’s most western vineyard. Close to the sea, cooled by the Atlantic winds, its unique terroir produces amazing wines, salty, aromatic, and with great minerality.

The baron continues to plant new vines and supervise new projects. He makes his decisions using a small brass pendulum. If the pendulum rotates clockwise the answer is yes. Otherwise, it is no.

Every day, Von Bruemmer drinks a glass of champagne. But soon, he will drink instead the sparkling wine that, with the help of the pendulum, he decided to produce.

Casal de Santa Maria is a magical place, where vineyards surrounded by roses produce some the world’s most interesting wines.

Casal de Santa Maria is located on Rua Principal Casas Novas, n. 18/20, Colares, tel 219-292-117, email geral@casalstamaria.pt.

Codfish poetry

Pastéis de BacalhauJune 10 is a holiday dedicated to the great 15th century poet Luis de Camões, whose epic poem Lusíadas helped forge the identity of Portugal as a nation.

One of Portugal’s most revered contemporary writers, António Lobo Antunes, said that “To know how to make codfish cakes is as important as to have read the Lusíadas.”

Lobo Antunes meant his words as a compliment to the genius of Camões. Try codfish cakes accompanied with tomato rice and a great glass of red wine and you’ll see that they are pure poetry!

Tasting Portuguese cheese

Queijaria Composit- ©mariarebelophotography.comPresident Charles de Gaulle asked how could people expect him to run a country with 246 kinds of cheese. Judged by this metric, Portugal is easier to govern than France. We have fewer cheese varieties. But there are still many regions, types of milk, producers, and styles.

Many interesting Portuguese cheeses are hard to find. They are made in small quantities by artisanal producers and sold in local markets. Queijaria, a new store in Lisbon, makes it easy to sample these local specialties.

The store is run by people who are passionate about cheese and wine, so they are uniquely qualified to serve as your guide. They prepare a degustacion of different cheeses, perfectly sequenced and paired with great wines. In one sitting, your palate can travel from North to South, to the island of Azores and back to continental Portugal. It’s a gastronomical journey you will not forget!

Queijaria is at Rua das Flores, 64, Lisbon. Click here for their web site.

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.