The train to Pinhão

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There is a splendid train that travels from Oporto to Pinhão. Its creaky carriages are quite modest but they have windows that offer sumptuous views of the Douro valley.

The train leaves the station at a lazy pace but then it speeds up, hoping to impress the Douro river with the power of its engines. The river ignores these antics and continues to flow with confidence and poise.

At times, it looks like the train is going to dive into the river, such is the seductive power of the blue-green waters. At other times, the train tries to keep its distance, only to fall again under the spell of the Douro and travel back to its margins. It is as witnesses of the courtship between the steel train and the molten river that we arrive at Pinhão in the heart of the Douro valley.

 

 

The magic of a dinner at the Yeatman

Yeatman restaurant

At the end of our dinner at the Yeatman last November, chef Ricardo Costa gave us an envelope sealed with wax stamped with the hotel’s Y symbol. We brought the envelope home where it’s been sitting on our desk. A couple of days ago, we woke up to the sight of grey skies and the sound of howling winds. We reached for the envelope and broke the seal, hoping to summon some of the magic of our Fall evening at the Yeatman. Inside, we found the dinner’s menu.

We recalled that our meal started softly, with a cup of tea made from kombu, an Asian algae. Then, there were oysters with foie gras and an apple gel that accentuated their  briny taste. They harmonized with a glass of bright, sparking wine from Murganheira. The meal continued merrily with a miniature piece, three inventive combinations of algae and tuna.

This preamble was followed by a chicken oyster–a small oval cut with intense flavor. It was delightfully roasted, seasoned with dehydrated chili pepper, served with a mushroom broth and topped with a cheese sauce.

Beautiful slices of lírio, a fish from the Azores, arrived on top of a cylinder bathing is sea foam and decorated with pearls.  The pearls, cylinder and foam were all made of cucumber. The delicate flavors paired perfectly with a glass of Quinta de Baixo Vinhas Velhas, a great white wine made by Dirk Niepoort from old vines in Bairrada.

The white wine refreshed our palate so that we could fully appreciate the next course: a succulent lobster with cauliflower puré and a whimsical bloody Mary made from lobster jus. Then, more of our favorite flavors gathered on the plate: xarem, a polenta-like preparation popular in Algarve, topped with a corn cream, a cockle called berbigão, black-pork prosciutto, egg, and a coriander broth.

A refined bouillabaisse arrived at the table, meticulously prepared with imperador fish accompanied by small, flavorful shrimps from the Portuguese coast and dehydrated algae. What would Marcel Pagnol think if he saw Marseille’s rustic bouillabaisse  prepared with the artistry of a Cartier jeweler?

A glass of a great red from the Dão region produced by Quinta do Perdigão heralded the arrival of the luxurious meat dishes. First, succulent veal with spring onions, Jerusalem artichokes. Then, crispy roasted piglet with spices and tropical fruits.

The meal ended with a delightful persimmon filled with pistachio sorbet topped with a cream of vanilla and saffron. But this was a deceptive ending  because soon another pleasing dessert arrived: blueberries with mascarpone ice-cream and kafir limes. And just when we thought it was time to leave, our waiter arrived with a serving cart full of irresistible chocolates, caramels and nuts. It was an epic dinner!

We finished reading the menu and looked up. The wind had waned and the sky was blue.

The Yeatman is located at Rua do Choupelo, (Santa Marinha), in Vila Nova de Gaia. Click here for the hotel’s website. 

 

The resplendent tranquility of the Mafra library

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Standing at the entrance of the library of the Mafra palace, it is easy to believe that the world is orderly. In the pristine silence of this space designed by architect Manuel Caetano de Sousa, we have everything we need to understand the world of the 18th century. There are science and mathematics books in the shelves near the entrance, so we can learn the laws of the physical world. Further ahead, there are bookshelves with travel diaries that tell us about lands near and far. Dictionaries and grammars teach us the rhythms and intonations of foreign languages. If we use them to master Greek and Latin, we can enjoy the classics of antiquity, tales of love and war, stories about gods and humans. Walking the 88 meters of marble floors that take us to the end of the library, we reach the shelfs devoted to the mysteries of the soul.

The palace of Mafra and its library were built with the riches from Brazil. But the money ran out and the gold decorations that had been planned for the library were never executed. It is just as well, because the white Nordic-pine shelves give this library an elegant simplicity that looks modern.

It was here that José Saramago, a Nobel laureate, found inspiration for his famous novel about the construction of the Mafra Palace as seen through the eyes of two young lovers, Baltasar and Blimunda.

If you’re traveling in Portugal, don’t miss the chance to experience the resplendent tranquility of the Mafra library. And don’t forget to take a notebook, in case the muses that inspired Saramago whisper in your ear.

Drinking amphora wine in Amareleja

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Manuel Malfeito, a professor of enology at the famed Instituto Superior de Agronomia, invited us to go to Amareleja to try some wines made in amphoras. The drive from Lisbon to this small town in Alentejo takes about three hours, time fruitfully used by Manuel to lecture us about what we are about to experience.

He tells us that that we’re taking a journey back in time, to the way wines were made 8000 years ago in the Caucasus. These techniques, brought to Portugal by the Romans 2000 years ago, worked particularly well in the dry, warm climate of Alentejo where they say “while there’s amphora wine, we drink nothing else.”

Right after the harvest, the grapes are crushed, destemmed and placed in huge amphoras that hold 1,000 liters. One or two days later, the fermentation starts. The wine is stirred everyday for two weeks to make sure it doesn’t spoil. Then, the amphoras are sealed with cloth and the wine is left alone. By November, the seeds and skins have dropped to the base, forming a natural filtration system. The wine is extracted through straws inserted into an opening at the bottom of the amphoras. It comes out very slowly, first muddy and then crystal clear.

Amphora wines are now so trendy that some producers ferment the wine in stainless steel tanks and then age them in amphoras, so they can call them amphora wines. At Amareleja, amphora wines are the real deal. The locals continued to make amphora wines even when no one outside of Alentejo cared for them, so knowledge of the myriad production details has been preserved.

The arrival at Amareleja marks the end of our theory lesson. It is time to put our knowledge into practice. “We’ll try several wines, so the secret is to take small sips,” advises Manuel.

Our host, Zé Piteira, is waiting for us at his eponymous restaurant, Adega Piteira. He is tall, affable, and full of confidence. Zé introduces us to his wife Paula who heads the kitchen. The restaurant occupies a narrow building with a straw roof and a tower in the middle. It was constructed in 1938 to house Amareleja’s open-air cinema. Greta Garbo and Humphrey Bogart have been here on the silver screen.

On our table there are sausages, cheese, olives, and the best “torresmos” (pork rind) we ever tried. “Wine is all about context,” explains Manuel. “We’re going to try a white amphora wine from 2015 that is still too young but pairs well with the strong flavors of these appetizers.” The symbiosis of wine and food is indeed perfect. Our glasses have the aroma of a recently struck match that is the hallmark of great Chardonnays. The wine is made with a varietal called Roupeiro combined with a table grape called Diagalves, sometimes known as “pendura,” the Portuguese word for hanging, because it used to be hung up to dry to serve during Christmas.

Soup plates with scrambled eggs, potatoes, spinach, and goat cheese arrive. Paula brings a large pot brimming with codfish broth to spoon on our plates. This rustic, flavorful soup is a great match for the bold personality of the wine.

Zé pours from a jar of 2018 white wine taken directly from an amphora.  The contrast between the 2015 and the 2018 wines is fascinating. The 2018 is more astringent and the yeast aromas that come from the fermentation process are still present.

The varietal used to make red amphora wines in Alentejo is called Moreto. “Land good for grain is bad for wine,” says an old proverb. That is why Moreto flourishes in the poor soils of the left margin of the Guadiana river. The 2018 Piteira Moreto is very interesting and full of freshness. It is a great pairing for our next course: pork ribs seasoned with “massa de pimentão,” a magical paste made with red pepper.

For comparison, we try the 2016 Moreto. It is more refined and has a complex aroma. “Primary aromas—fruit, flowers, herbs–are pleasant during fermentation but worsen with time. That is why we say if the wine smells good, it tastes bad,” explains Manuel. “Secondary aromas—yeast, nuts and spices–come from the fermentation process. This wine has tertiary aromas—hazelnut, dried tobacco—that are acquired through aging.”

Zé comes back from the cellar with a bottle of Nativo, an amphora white wine bottled in 1999! It was made by the man who used to own the open-air movie theater, Zé’s godfather. This white wine has aged amazingly well, it is crisp and dry and has a beautiful amber color.

Dessert is a Moreto festival: Moreto ice cream accompanied by a pear cooked in Moreto wine and “encharcada” a medieval convent sweet made with eggs, cinnamon, lemon and sugar. Zé fills our glasses with a dessert wine. “In Roman times, the dry wines spoiled quickly, so aristocrats preferred this style of dessert wine. These were also the wines that  Roman gods were thought to like,” says Manuel. The wine fills our palate with the taste of spices and caramel. The Roman gods had impeccable taste!

We spent the afternoon hiking on the new wine estate that Zé Piteira has purchased, a place with panoramic views of the plains of Alentejo. Later, on the way back to Lisbon, Manuel quizzed us about everything we saw and tasted. We hope to have passed the exam, so we can take another course with him!

Adega Piteira is located at Rua da Fabrica 2, Amareleja, Moura, tel. 965 787 024.

Santa Clara 1728

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When João Rodrigues opened the doors of Santa Clara to greet us, the sun rushed in, eager to revisit this 1728 building that laid in ruins until two years ago.

João lives a double life. He manages Silent Living, an expanding group of exquisite hotels, while flying around the world as an airline pilot. We expected a short conversation, but instead we spent a leisurely afternoon getting to know him and his project.

This act of making time for his guests tells you why João’s hotels are so unique. “When people stay with us, we receive them as friends. If I could afford it, I wouldn’t charge for the rooms,” João explains in his soft voice. “We ask guests to pay in advance, so we do not have to collect money during their stay. That is also why everything is included, our breakfast, the drinks in the mini bar, all the amenities. Prices are constant throughout the year because our goal is not to generate high returns but to find a sustainable way of offering an extraordinary experience.” João pauses and then he reveals that “We like to surprise guests by picking them up from the airport in a vintage Rolls Royce. It is a gesture that sets the tone for their stay at Santa Clara, a way to tell them they will be cared for.”

We ask João how he finds time to do everything, renovate an historical building, create a team to run the hotel and operate Ceia, a high-end restaurant. He shrugs his shoulders and smiles with the equanimity of someone who often sees the world from above the clouds.

The hotel was designed by architect Aires Mateus, who is João’s habitual collaborator. The interiors are decorated with wood and stone, the same materials used to erect the nearby Pantheon. The colors used in the rooms seem to come from old black and white photographs. These monochromatic hues provide the ideal framing for the glorious views—the contrast of the blue river with the orange roofs punctuated by the white marble of the Pantheon.

A stay at Santa Clara offers the rarest of gifts: ease, simplicity and serenity. It took someone who constantly travels to create a place that is so hard to leave.

Santa Clara 1728 is located at Campo de Santa Clara, 128 in Lisbon, tel. 964 362 816, email booking@silentliving.pt. Click here for the hotel website.

 

Dona Antónia’s great grandson

Composite Quinta S. José

João Brito e Cunha is the great grandson of the legendary Dona Antónia Ferreira, the woman who shaped the future of wine production in the Douro valley.  Born in 1811 to a family of rich wine makers, Dona Antónia seemed destined to enjoy a life of leisure. Instead, she had to contend with two plagues that decimated European vineyards, the oidium in 1850 and the phylloxera in 1870. Dona Antónia rose to the occasion, making shrewd choices and taking calculated risks. She made great wine and amassed a large fortune. When she died in 1896, she owned 24 wine estates and huge wine cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia.

João’s grandfather was a taster for the renowned Real Company Velha. His father managed the famous Quinta do Vesuvio, which in Dona Antónia’s time produced some of the most expensive wines in the Douro valley.

We tell you this family history so that you know that João Brito e Cunha had no choice, the love of wine runs in his blood. He studied enology, first in Vila Real’s UTAD and then in Australia. He interned in Champagne and in many other wine regions. When he felt ready, he bought Quinta Dom José from his father and moved to the estate with his wife Sofia and their kids.

We arrived at Quinta Dom José late in the afternoon, just as the sun was getting tired of making the brilliant light that shines on the Douro valley. João is very intense and his energy is contagious. He wanted to show us everything, the vines, the cellars, the different viewpoints. As soon as we got into his jeep, he accelerated up the steep, treacherous road leaving being a colorful dust cloud.

We stopped on a hill top with breathtaking views of the Douro river. João wants us to understand that in a region where beauty abounds, this quinta is like no other. He shows us with pride the schist soil that preserves humidity during the scorching Summers and the vine roots that dig deep in search of water.

João drove us up to the tasting room to try his wines. The Flor de São José white Reserva is an aristocratic wine that enchants the palate with its refined elegance. The Touriga Nacional Reserva is an indulgent red, with a full body and an understated intensity. The Grande Reserva is a profound wine, full of wisdom, finesse and subtlety. The 3,400 bottles produced last year quickly sold out.

We stayed in the terrace outside the tasting room talking to João for hours. It was a warm night with a sky full of stars.  A choir of crickets sang in the background. João told us about his vines, his wines and his dreams.

Dona Antónia regretted every moment she spent away from the Douro. João feels the same way–he inherited his great grandmother’s passion for the Douro valley. And like her, João is destined to make great wine.

Quinta de São José is located on Ervedosa do Douro, tel. 93 4041413. Click here for their website. 

The sea tavern

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A dinner at A Taberna do Mar (the sea tavern) is a culinary plunge into the waters of Sesimbra, Trafaria and Costa da Caparica. These are the beaches near Lisbon where chef Filipe Rodrigues sources his fish.

Filipe was born in the Algarve. His grandparents were cannery workers who taught him some of the secrets of the sea. He discovered other secrets on his own, through years of hard work. After creating the menu for several popular restaurants, Filipe decided to open his own place. It is a cozy tavern with ancient stone walls and a quaint tile floor.

You can order a la carte or choose a menu prepared by the chef. Feeling adventurous, we went for the menu. The feast began with a warm tortilla decorated with cuttlefish ink topped with a cream of lupini beans, mint, and sea fennel, a plant that grows on sandy dunes. Then, we enjoyed a carob bun stuffed with dried horse mackerel accompanied by a miso mayonnaise. It came with a dumpling stuffed with tender veal tongue, seaweed and mushrooms. It was moist and delicious. We went back to the sea with a plate of sarrejão sashimi. Sarrejão is a fish from the bonito family that shines brightly when it is very fresh.

We were still savoring this delight when Filipe brought us his version of muxama. This prosciutto of the sea, made by salting and drying the best parts of the tuna, has been produced in the Algarve since Roman times. Filipe marinated the tuna in a mixture of soy and moscatel wine before he dried it. The muxama came with an exuberant combination of pumpkin pickle, sushi rice and a large shrimp from Algarve called “carabineiro.”

An appetizing bread seasoned with sardine sauce and a tasty mackerel soup came next. They were followed by xerem, an Algarve version of polenta, with berbigão and seaweed. Then the air filled with the aroma of grilled sardines that came from a tray where the sardine nigiri was being prepared. Our taste buds jumped for joy while the sardine melted in our mouth.

Filipe asked us whether we would like to repeat any of the items from the menu. We answered in unison:  yes, we would love some more sardine nigiri!

The meal ended with three desserts: a carob mousse served with tangerine sorbet, a bread pudding and a crème brulée where the milk was replaced with a berry puree.

A Taberna do Mar is a place where East meets West, where Japanese cooking techniques are used to recreate Portuguese flavors with delicious results.

Taberna do Mar is located at Calçada da Graça 20 B, in Lisbon, tel. 21 093 9360.