A perfect blend in Alentejo

Composit Monte da Ravasqueira- 2Sometimes you have to look far to find what you have near. The enologist Pedro Pereira Gonçalves left his homeland in search of a new world, first in Australia and then in Chile. But he found his calling back in Portugal at Monte da Ravasqueira, in the heart of Alentejo.

The estate was purchased by José Manuel de Mello, a successful entrepreneur, in 1943. He turned the 3,000 hectares into a family retreat where he bred Lusitano horses and planted vines, cork and olive trees.

What attracted Pedro to the property, still owned by the Mello family, are its unique virtues. Twelve dams help create a micro climate with cooler temperatures.  And even though the Atlantic Ocean is 120 km away, it cools the nights because there are no mountains in its way. While most of Alentejo is flat, Ravasqueira has slopes with different sun exposures that produce diversity in sugar and acid levels.

Pedro uses high-resolution aerial photographs to study each individual vine so that grapes can be combined into ideal blends. The result is wines that are truly made in the vineyard.

We tried some great examples. An enticing 2015 dry premium rosé with delicate fruit flavors and rich minerality. A 2014 premium white, aged in contact with the lees, that combines freshness with complexity. An elegant 2014 red called Vinha das Romãs, made from vines planted where an ancient pomegranate orchard once grew. The pomegranate roots are still there, lending the wine unique flavors and aromas.

Our wine tasting was followed by an appetizing lunch during which the Ravasqueira wines proved their ability to pair perfectly with food. The feast started with a gazpacho and continued with two traditional main courses: codfish with cornbread and roasted goatling.  The finale was a “mille feuilles” layered with artisanal jams made on the property, accompanied by exuberant port-style fortified wines.

Monte da Ravasqueira is a perfect blend of passion and technique, of tradition and modernity. It is a place where the Atlantic breezes join forces with the Alentejo sun to create exquisite wines.

Monte da Ravasqueira is located near Arraiolos, tel. 266-490-200, email ravasqueira@ravasqueira.com. Click here for information about how to schedule a visit.

A room with a view to the Estrela mountain

Pousada da Serra da Estrela (75)

The Serra da Estrela Pousada stands 1,200 meters above sea level, at the door step of Portugal’s highest mountain. It was designed in the 1920s by architect Cottinelli Telmo for those who needed to recover from respiratory ailments. The pure air did wonders. And so did the view of the mountain adorned with a mantle of snow or dressed with the grey hues of the granite and the green colors of the pine trees.

In the second half of the 20th century, the edifice fell into disuse. It was rebuilt in 2014 under the guidance of Eduardo Souto Moura, a Portuguese architect who won the Pritzker prize.

Souto Moura found ways to incorporate modern comforts like air conditioning, saunas and swimming pools into the old building. But, at the same time, he endeavored to preserve Cottinelli Telmo’s unusual design. The building is long and narrow so that most of the rooms have a view.

Almost one century after its inauguration, the pousada is the perfect place to rest our eyes on a magnificent landscape that makes problems look small and life large with possibilities.

Here’s a link to the pousadas’ website. You can find a large collection of photos of the pousadas at www.mariarebelophotography.com.

Serra d’Ossa

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It was an act of bravery. We drove up the serpentine road to Serra d’Ossa to dine at a restaurant we couldn’t find on trip advisor!  But a trusted local source told us that this was the place to go if we wanted to taste the rustic food of Alentejo. And so we went.

We were welcomed by Paula Patinho who owns the restaurant with her husband Francisco. Her mother cooks and her father makes the house wine. We were surprised by the menu prices: they were half of what we would have paid in Évora or Estremoz.

Francisco suggested that we start with “sopa de cação” (dogfish soup), continued with a tomato and fried meat soup, and ended with “lagartos,” thin strips of black pork grilled to perfection. The flavors are bold but harmonious perhaps because all the ingredients were local, cultivated in the same lands by the same people.

The house wine is staged in stainless steel. It tastes pure and smooth and pairs perfectly with the food.

We asked Francisco what makes the food taste so great. “There is a deceiving complexity to the cuisine of Alentejo,” he explained. “The preparations look simple but pushing the flavors to a higher level takes time and requires many ingredients.”

Our audacity was greatly rewarded. We discovered an inexpensive restaurant that does justice to the rich culinary tradition of Alentejo.

Serra d’Ossa is located on Rua Principal, 77, Aldeia da Serra D’Ossa, Redondo, tel. 266-909-037.

Buxa

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Natália Maia, the manager of the Guimarães pousada, recommended Buxa, a small restaurant right in the center of the Guimarães historic district.

As soon as we arrived, we recognized all the traits of the restaurants we favor.  First, the place was completely full. Second, there were people without reservation trying to charm the waiters into giving them a table (can you believe their nerve?) Third, there was a rhythm to the service: waiters moved with agility and grace to the beat of the kitchen drums. Fourth, the menu is small, focused on a few perfect preparations. And fifth, the price is right.

We loved the codfish with broa, a symphony of traditional flavors of the Portuguese cuisine: codfish, olive oil, corn bread (broa) and potatoes. The black pork was grilled to perfection, salty and satisfying. The tripe cooked with beans had layers of wonderful flavors (if tripe is too adventurous for you it is worthwhile ordering it just to eat the amazing beans). The octopus was tender and delicious. And the “alheira,” a sausage from nearby Mirandela, was spectacular.

We confess that we arrived at Buxa without reservations and charmed the waiter into giving us a table. But we promptly made reservations for the next day. The food at Buxa is too good to leave to chance!

Buxa is located at Largo da Oliveira 23 in Guimarães, tel. 252 058 242. Reservations are a must.

Fairy tales

Composit Fairy Tales

In October 1956, the Duke of Edinburgh embarked on a long tour of the Southern Hemisphere without his wife, Queen Elizabeth II. There were rumors that the couple was going to separate.

When the Duke arrived in Portugal in February 1957, the Queen flew from England to meet him. For four days the royal couple did what so many other tourists do in Portugal. They ate canned sardines, sailed on the Tagus river, toured the Jeronimos monastery,  visited Mafra and the Nazaré beach. Then, they flew back to England and lived happily ever after.

Portugal is a place where fairy tales can come true.

A white palace in Estremoz

Composit Estremoz

Estremoz is a village in Alentejo built on a hill by king Dom Afonso III in 1258.  It was once an important citadel that guarded the Portuguese kingdom from potential aggressors.

In 1360, king Dom Dinis built a royal palace in Estremoz for his wife Isabel of Aragon. It was in this palace that king Dom Manuel appointed Vasco da Gama as the commander of the fleet that sailed to India, beginning a new chapter in world history.

The palace, converted into an historical hotel, is sumptuously decorated with antique paintings and furniture. Corridors and stairs are covered with the famous white marble excavated from local quarries.

The war trophies that hang in the dining room reminded us of the momentous decisions made in this palace. And they made us appreciate even more the tranquil days we spent with only one difficult decision to make: which of the 22 wineries in Estremoz to visit.

Here’s a link to the pousadas’ website. You can find a large collection of photos of the pousadas at www.mariarebelophotography.com.

The most famous fish monger in Lisbon

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Until the middle of the 20th century, street fish sellers called “varinas” were a common sight in Lisbon. They carried a basket of fresh fish on their heads and attracted customers with their catchy slogans and charismatic personalities.

Varinas are a relic of the past, but some of the best fish in Lisbon is still sold by a charismatic woman. Many restaurants in the capital city order their fish from Açucena Veloso.

Visiting Açucena at Mercado 31 de Janeiro is a fascinating experience. It was in a stall in this market that she started selling fish at nine years of age. Today, she owns 23 stalls.

The quality and variety of Açucena’s fish would astonish the patrons of Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market.  But it is not easy to gather these marine treasures. Açucena wakes up every weekday at 2:00 am to make sure she buys the best fish the sea has to offer. Despite her long work hours, she’s always in a good mood. “Look at these ocean jewels” she says with pride pointing to fish that go by quaint names like rascasso, cantaril, and emperador.

When Albert Einstein visited Lisbon in 1925, he wrote in his diary about a fascinating varina with a proud, mischievous look. We think he would have loved meeting Açucena Veloso.

Açucena Veloso’s fish stalls are at Mercado 31 de Janeiro, Rua Engenheiro Vieira da Silva, 31, tel. 91 721 8169