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.

 

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.

August Braga

Braga Composit

Walking in Braga, a beautiful city in the north of Portugal, is like taking a journey from ancient times to the present. The city flourished during the Roman era when emperor Augustus honored it with the name Bracara Augusta. But, with the demise of the Roman empire, Braga fell on hard times. The city emerged again in the 11th century, when the king of Castile and Léon offered it as a wedding present to his daughter Teresa. Her son, Dom Afonso Henriques, became the first king of Portugal.

In the early years of Portugal as a nation, the archbishop of Braga, Pedro Julião, became pope John XXI. Perhaps that is why the city has as many reflections of spiritual power (convents and churches) as temporal power (defensive towers, palaces, and manor houses).

In his book “The Design of Cities,” published in 1967, Edmund Bacon writes that: “Throughout history, architects have lavished much of their tenderest care on the part of the building which meets the sky.” Braga provides many wonderful examples of what Bacon has in mind. Its monuments are made of heavy granite but they rise towards the heavens.

First impressions of Lisbon

Composit LisboaFirst impressions are important, so we recommend for your first stop in Lisbon the top of the Rua Augusta arch. More than a century in the making (from 1759 to 1875), the arch is a symbol of the reconstruction of the city after the devastating 1755 earthquake.

The three statues on top of the arch (glory, valor, and genius) remind us of what Portugal at its best can do. The two statues on the sides, which personify the Douro and Tagus rivers, are symbols of the country’s natural beauty. The remaining four statues represent important historical figures: Viriato, a military leader who resisted the Roman invasion, Nuno Alvares Pereira, the hero of a key medieval battle against Castile, Vasco da Gama, the famous navigator, and the Marquis of Pombal, who oversaw the efforts to rebuild Lisbon after the earthquake.

You can reach the top of the arch by elevator. The views are breathtaking. On the North side, you see St. Jorge’s castle, the ancient cathedral, and the spacious, orderly downtown district that replaced, after the earthquake, the narrow, irregular medieval streets. On the South side, you see Terreiro do Paço, the entry hall of the city, adorned by the Tagus river. And so you’ll meet Lisbon, a city that is rich and poor, extroverted and mysterious, an aristocratic old lady full of youthful charm.

On top of the world in Marvão

Marvão composit @

Some people climb the Kilimanjaro, others struggle to conquer the Himalayas. But you can feel on top of the world without hiring sherpas or buying oxygen masks. Simply drive to Marvão, a village on the São Mamede mountain, 834 km above sea level.

We spent the morning exploring the ancient castle and walking the beautiful narrow streets. After working up an healthy appetite, we walked to the Pousada for lunch. The view from the dining room is absolutely stunning.

The Pousada has some wonderful signature dishes, including codfish Santa Maria, partridge with 14 (partridge cooked with 14 ingredients), and shrimp Alentejo style. We asked chef Conceição Lourenço why codfish Santa Maria tastes so wonderfully unique. Her eyes smiled brightly for this is one of the culinary secrets she has guarded in her three decades as a chef. She confided that: “the codfish is cooked with flour made from a local mushroom; but that’s all I can say.”

We stayed for quite a while at the table mesmerized by the view. Seen from Marvão, the world below looks harmonious and the skies above divine.

 

Click here for the Pousadas’ website and here for more photos of Marvão.

The allure of Monsaraz

RBD_Monsaraz_2b
Monsaraz, ink on paper, Rui Barreiros Duarte, 2014.

Monsaraz is a medieval village perched on a hill in Alentejo. Squint at the landscape and you see an abstract painting of white and pink shapes. Open your eyes and you see a world of peace and tranquility. Faint are the echoes of the battle in which Geraldo Sem Pavor (Gerald the fearless) first conquered the town from the moors in the 12th century. Gone are the busy years, early in the 14th century, when king D. Dinis built a castle to ensure that this strategic hill would forever remain Portuguese. The soldiers who kept watch from the castle towers were replaced by photographers who shoot with their cameras the majestic view.

Vinicius de Moraes, the Brazilian poet who wrote the lyrics of Girl from Ipanema, recorded his feelings about this Alentejo village: “Thank you, Monsaraz, but I do not want to see you ever again because, if I do, I will stay forever inside your white walls amidst your men and women with eyes full of honesty.”