Vitor Claro’s handcrafted wines

Sometimes, we dream of having lunch at chef Vitor Claro’s restaurant in Paço de Arcos, near Lisbon. It is a place with a generous view of the ocean where the chef cooks with a lightness that surprises and delights. The menu offers codfish brandade with fresh tomatoes, partridge soup with foie gras, cauliflower with parmesan, sole in chickpea broth, shrimp ravioli with mushrooms, fried dough with chickpea puree, and much more.

Then, we wake up and remember that the restaurant is closed. A feeling of disappointment is followed by the joyful realization that Vitor Claro is now a wine maker and we have some of his bottles in our cellar!

Vitor was not a wine aficionado before meeting Dirk Niepoort, the legendary producer from the Douro Valley. The first time Vitor went for dinner at Dirk’s house, he found a glass of 1986 Chateaux Margaux waiting for him. This glass of wine opened the door to a new life. 

In 2010, while working in Alentejo, Victor fell in love with the wines from Portalegre. He managed to rent an old vineyard in this region to make wine with a friend who is an enologist. But one month before the harvest, his friend abandoned the project. Vitor called Dirk Niepoort to ask for help. Dirk told him “this is the best that could have happened to you.” Then, like a Zen master, Dirk said: “let the grapes do the work.” Vitor harvested the grapes, put them in barrels, crushed them gently and waited. 

Two years later, he bottled the wine under the label Dominó. It was such a success that Vitor decided to close the restaurant to devote himself full time to wine making. He convinced his wife Rita to leave her architecture practice to work with him. The couple embraced a simple life style, sharing the toil and joy of winemaking. They do all the work themselves with the help of some seasonal workers. 

Today, Vitor’s wines are handcrafted using grapes from old vines rented in different parts of Portugal from Beira Interior to Carcavelos. Total production is only 20,000 bottles per year. When the wine does not appeal to Vitor’s refined senses, he does not bottle it. 

The lightness that Victor pursued in his cooking became the hallmark of his wines. They have bright flavors that interest the palate but never over power it. Instead, they surprise and delight.

Quinta de Ventozelo

There is a new jewel in the Douro valley called Quinta de Ventozelo. The setting is not new, the estate has produced wine since the beginning of the 16th century. But there are 29 new gems–luxurious rooms with magnificent vistas located in various houses throughout the quinta. Some houses have old roofs built with the same schist used to brace the terraces that hold the vines. Others are built out of giant balloons that once stored 80,000 liters of port wine. 

The sprawling estate is the perfect place to create wonderful memories. Of the rolling hills descending towards the river to bade in its green waters. Of the breeze caressing the silvery leaves of the olive trees. Of the restful silence punctuated only by the sounds of nature. Of the joy of sitting outdoors at sunset savoring a glass of wine in the company of friends. 

You can drive to the quinta, but it is much more spectacular to take the boat from Pinhão and arrive at the dock by the river. Arriving is the easy part. Leaving is hard to do. 

Quinta de Ventozelo is located in Ervedosa do Douro, S. João da Pesqueira. Click here for the quinta’s website.

Lisbon’s palatial surroundings

One curious fact about Lisbon is that there are few palaces in the center and many in the outskirts of the city. Before 1755, Lisbon was an overcrowded place where pestilence could quickly spread. So, the royal family and the aristocrats liked to build palaces away from the crowds, in places where the air was pure. 

King John I built the Sintra town palace in 1415, which became a perennial favorite of the royal family. King John V used the riches from Brazil to finance the construction of an imposing palace in Mafra in 1717.  Dom Pedro de Bragança, a prince who married his niece, Queen Dona Maria I, erected an exquisite palace in Queluz in 1747. 

We are lucky that all these palaces were built away from the capital. In November 1, 1755 a massive earthquake destroyed much of Lisbon, including the royal palace at Terreiro do Paco and many other architectural jewels. From the rubles of the earthquake, the Marquis of Pombal, King Dom José’s powerful prime minister, created a new city where large avenues replaced the meandering medieval streets. The old ornate palaces gave way to the simpler but sturdier buildings that we still see in the downtown district.

If you visit Lisbon, make some time to travel to its surroundings to experience the palatial riches of a time gone by.

The Douro historical train

Our journey begins with the clatter of a steam engine pulling five rickety wooden carriages into the Régua train station. Trains like this one have trod on the steel tracks that connect Régua to Pinhão since 1879. In 1883, the line was extended all the way to Foz do Tua.

Once all passengers get on board, the chimney blows a cloud of black smoke and we see Régua recede in the distance. The train moves slowly and yet there is not enough time to take in all that there is to admire, from the myriad colors of the river to the wondrous vine terraces sculpted into the mountain sides. 

A group of folk musicians walks through the carriages singing traditional tunes accompanied by accordion, triangle, “cavaquinho” (a small stringed instrument), and a drum made out of goat skin and wood. The musicians’ faces are weathered by a lifetime of work in the fields. But they sing with joy the tunes that lift the spirits of the laborers during the harvest. 

We arrive at the Tua station and the train stops for a well-deserved rest. As our journey resumes, we marvel at the feat of 19th-century engineering that allows the train to go back without turning around. The locomotive’s engine simply goes into reverse, pushing the carriages towards Régua. We travel on the same tracks as before, but the landscape looks different. The light has changed and the blues and greens are now mixed with yellows and oranges. 

The train crew serves us a glass of port wine and some traditional candy. We stop at the picturesque Pinhão train station to admire the 1937 tile panels that depict in blue hues the inimitable colors of the Douro landscape. Then, it is time to return to Régua. The locomotive screeches and puffs as it reaches the place where our journey ends.

It is a privilege to travel in this relic of the industrial revolution that saw the world change and the beauty of the Douro endure. 

Click here for more information about the Douro Historical Train. You can buy tickets online. The best seats are on the right side of the train since you can see the Douro valley from your window both on the way to Tua and on the return.

The incomparable wines from Colares

One of the coolest places you can find during the Portuguese Summer is the cellar of the wine cooperative of Colares, a bucolic town near Sintra. It is a place where large barrels fashioned out of exotic woods from Brazil rest, protected by thick walls that keep the temperature cool.  

The wines these barrels store are cool in attitude. They come from a unique “terroir” near the ocean where two varietals, Malvasia and Ramisco, grow on sandy soils. The roots of the vines have to stretch deep into the sand to find the moisture necessary to stay alive. 

All this toil paid off in the 19th century when phylloxera decimated European vines. Protected by sand, the vines of Colares escaped the bug’s voracity. 

These hard-working vines produce wines with exuberant tannins that need to be tamed. The reds age in barrels for almost a decade before bottling. Once bottled, both reds and whites continue to age beautifully, enjoying remarkable longevity.

Francisco Fezas, the resident enologist, told us that Adega Regional de Colares is the oldest wine cooperative in Portugal. The local wine makers got together in 1931 to buy the 19th-century cellar owned by a famous wine merchant, José Maria da Fonseca. In 1938, the government gave the cooperative the monopoly of production in order to guarantee the quality of the wine produced in Colares. The cooperative sold the wine to different distributors who bottled it under brands like Chitas, Adega Beira Mar and Viúva Gomes

In the 1960s, Colares had more than one million hectares of vines that produced more than one million liters of wine. Then, the vines were attacked by a foe more formidable than the phylloxera: urban sprawl. Many farmers succumbed to the temptation of selling their land to property developers who wanted to build houses near the ocean. As a result, the cultivation area dwindled to a paltry 23 hectares which produces a mere 18 thousand bottles, making Colares one of the world’s rarest historical wines. 

Francisco’s first harvest in Colares was in 1999, at a time when the cooperative was struggling financially and the future looked dim. Since then, there has been a remarkable renewal that preserves the future of the incomparable wines from Colares.

Adega Regional de Colares is located at Alameda Coronel Linhares de Lima, nº 32 in Colares, tel. 219 291 210, email geral@arcolares.com.. Click here for the adega’s website.

Making pasteis de nata

Do not try this recipe at home unless you’re desperate! Which is how we feel. Far from a purveyor of “pasteis de nata,” how else can we satiate our craving for these divine custard tarts?

We opened with trepidation “Cozinha Tradicional Portuguesa” (Portuguese Traditional Cooking), the imposing tome of vernacular recipes compiled by the legendary Maria de Lurdes Modesto. The old pages creaked, surprised to be turned with such urgency.

Modesto’s instructions assume we know what we’re doing. They’re more like jazz lead sheets than classical music scores. She tells us the key elements of the recipe and expects us to improvise the rest.

The ingredients are humble:  flour, butter, cream, eggs, sugar, water, and lemon. We started by making a version of rough puff pastry, folding the dough to create delicate layers of butter and flour.  After a few hours of work, we were rewarded with two dozen delicious pasteis de nata. 

All the effort that went into making these pastries made us appreciate Portugal even more. It is a place where it is ordinary to find the extraordinary: heavenly pasteis de nata sold for a modest price in every street corner. 

Here’s the recipe.

Ingredients for the puff pastry: 500 grams of flour, 500 grams of butter, 2 to 3 deciliters of water, and salt. 

Ingredients for the filling: 5 deciliters of cream, 8 egg yolks, 3 tablespoons of flour, 200 grams of sugar, and one lemon peel.

Melt the salt in warm water and divide the butter into three equal portions. Place the flour on a stone table and make a hole in the middle of the flour to pour the water. Kneed the mixture until it becomes homogeneous and let it rest for 20 minutes.

Next, stretch the dough into a square form.  Knead some of the butter until it has the same consistency as the dough. Spread one third of the butter over the dough, leaving a strip of one inch at the edges of the square. Fold the dough from bottom to top and from left to right, making sure that the fold fits perfectly at edges and on the sides. Stretch the dough again forming a square. Repeat the operation twice, first using the second third and then the last third of the butter.

Stretch the dough as thinly as possible. Cut it in stripes and fold into long rolls. Cut the rolls into pieces of 2 to 3 centimeters. Place the dough at the center of a small mold. Moist your thumb in water and spread the dough to the edges of the mold. 

To prepare the filling, mix all the ingredients and bring them to a boil. Remove from the heat and wait until the mixture cools down. Fill the molds with the cream. Place the molds in a very hot oven (250 to 300 degrees centigrade). Once the custards come out of the oven and cool, you can sprinkle them with icing sugar and cinnamon.

Was Christopher Columbus born in Cuba, Alentejo?

Adega Monte Pedral

Last Summer, we visited Cuba, a small town in Alentejo. We were attracted by the legend that this hamlet of white-washed houses is the true birth place of Christopher Columbus. The navigator called Cuba the large Caribbean island he discovered in 1492. Why did he choose such an unusual name? Was it to honor his hometown?

We asked a local where to go for lunch. He smiled and pointed to a building on the other side of the road. A large sign read “Adega da Casa de Monte Pedral.”

As soon as we entered the restaurant, we heard voices singing in harmony. A group of locals was sharing a glass of amphora wine and singing traditional Alentejo songs called “cante.”

We sat at a corner table in the spacious dining room full of old wine amphoras. Our waiter asked whether we would like to try the wine that the singers were drinking. Of course we did! It came with a bowl of terrific olives and a plate of splendid prosciutto made from black pigs raised in Alentejo on a diet of acorns. The white wine was deliciously refreshing and devoid of affectation.

Our meal started with a soup made from beans, sausages, black pork, and “tengarrinhas,” a wild thistle abundant in the region. The flavors blended perfectly, to create a deeply satisfying taste and aroma. Our main course was culinary perfection: grilled black pork with a lettuce and mint salad and olive “migas,” a bread-based accompaniment.

José Soudo, the restaurant owner, said farewell to the singers and started making the rounds. He stopped at every table to talk to the diners, using a small glass to try the wine they were drinking. José told us that the building used to be the home of a wealthy family. He bought it four decades ago and turned it into a restaurant that quickly became part of the community. It is a place where the locals stop before lunch and dinner to drink a glass of wine and sing a few songs. His son is the cook. “You have to come back to try his other specialties, tomato soup, purslane soup, lamb stew, and much more,” said José.

The house came with six large amphoras which José used to make 3,500 liters of wine to drink with his friends. Over time, he accumulated 28 amphoras, so now he has enough amphora wine to serve in the restaurant.

We left confident that Cuba is not Christopher Columbus’ hometown. After all, if he was born in a place with such enticing wine, satisfying food and harmonious singing why would he ever leave?

Adega da Casa de Monte Pedral is located at Rua da Fonte dos Leões, Cuba, tel. 936 520 036, email geral@casamontepedral.pt. Click here for the restaurant’s website.

Fragrances from the Azores

Aqua dos Açores

In 1957, there were large volcano eruptions off the coast of Faial, an island in the Azores archipelago. These eruptions, which lasted for more than a year, destroyed the village of Capelinhos, leaving its houses in ruins and its fields buried in volcanic ash.

Fifty years after the eruptions, a Florentine couple, Cinzia Caiazzo and Gianni Mancassola, visited Capelinhos and fell in love with its lunar landscape. On a whim, they bought a vacation home in the small village. Eventually, they retired from their jobs and moved to Capelinhos.

Cinzia and Gianni relish the earth and sea aromas that make the islands so alluring. So, they decided to create perfumes using essential oils made with plants from the Azores.  They call their collection Aqua dos Açores.

Flores, the Portuguese word for flowers, is a perfume that fills the air with the scent of exotic blooms and wet grass blended with the maritime breeze. Azul, the Portuguese word for blue, is a fragrance that enfolds us with the exuberance of the ocean.

Their home fragrances, Branco and Tinto, are inspired by their other passion: producing wine in the Azores. These fragrances capture the delicate, evanescent aromas of freshly-picked grapes.

There is a powerful connection between scents and memory. If you wear these fragrances when you visit the Azores, they will forever be linked to the lush, rugged landscape of these beautiful islands.  And from then on, a whiff of these perfumes will take you instantly back to the Azores.

Click here for the Aqua dos Açores web site.

 

Armchair travel

Sunset Areia Branca

In the 1920s, the writer Raul Proença started editing a collection of Guides to Portugal. Published between 1924 and 1970, eight thick volumes compile texts from some of our country’s most eloquent writers. These erudite travel guides describe in detail the landscape, architecture, history, and culture of Portugal.

One of the essays by Raul Proença included in the first volume is about the Portuguese sky. Proença writes that “There are days with a splendorous light in which under a very clear sky all is golden: the earth, the trees, the waters, even the smiles of people and things are golden. It is a prodigious dazzle that cannot be described.  We are all but surprised at how a sapphire blue dome emanates such golden light.”

Most of the guides were published when traveling was arduous and expensive. So one of their purposes was to serve as a substitute for travel. If you could not visit the cities and villages these books describe, the evocative prose of Raul Proença and his collaborators would take you there.

In these days we’re spending at home, we can seat in an armchair, open the pages of these tattered tomes and travel to Portugal.

Café Majestic

Magestic Café

Nothing fuels creativity like coffee. Voltaire made sure his inspiration never faltered by sipping 40 cups of coffee a day. Balzac conceived plots for his novels by staying up all night drinking coffee.

One of our favorite places for a stimulating cup of brew is the Majestic Cafe in Oporto. Inaugurated in 1921, it has elegant proportions and exquisite Art Nouveau interiors. The café charges premium prices so it attracts few locals. Drinking a good espresso will set you back 5 euros. It is a price well worth paying for all the creative ideas that a visit to the glamour of the Belle Époque can spark.

Café Majestic is located at Rua Santa Catarina 112, Porto. Click here for the café’s website.