Ease and tranquility in Alentejo

João Rodrigues spends most of his time flying as a pilot. Perhaps it’s in the sky that the muses inspire him. When he is on the ground, João runs Silent Living, a company that is reinventing the art of hospitality.

On a warm summer day, we got on the road to Casa no Tempo, a Silent Living guest house in Alentejo. It is a secluded place where only the wind brings news of the outside world.  

At first sight, the house looks ordinary. It has a rectangular geometry with thick stone walls and a roof covered with weathered orange tiles. Then, we notice that the proportions are perfect. The sinuous swimming pool confirms that this is no ordinary place. Filled with emerald water, it looks as if it is made of salt.  

The house is spacious, with large windows that frame the landscape. A light breeze flows through the rooms as if it owns the place. Walls, doors, and windows are painted with white hues that soften the sunlight. The floor is paved with cubes of orange tile that convey warmth and comfort. It all adds up to a wonderful sense of ease and tranquility.

A vaulted arch shades a courtyard with a large wooden table and some benches. While we went for a quick swim, two cooks set up the table for lunch with plates of local cheese, plump olives, and a basket of country bread. Glasses of refreshing white wine accompanied a gazpacho made from sweet tomatoes. The main course was lamb roasted with potatoes, a rustic dish that is deeply satisfying. The dessert was an appetizing fruit tart that came with cups of strong coffee. 

After this delightful lunch, we sat in the courtyard watching the sun paint the landscape with layers of golden light. The sound of bells heralded the arrival of a herd of goats that strolled by the house without a care in the world. Then, a peaceful silence returned to this place where everything is simple and everything is perfect. 

Click here for the Silent Living website.

Eating eels in the middle of Ribatejo

“I am taking you to a restaurant that used to be a shack. The place was recently renovated, but I hope Virgulina’s cooking hasn’t changed,” said Manuel Malfeito, a professor of enology who can always find extraordinary places in the middle of nowhere. This time we were lost in Ribatejo, an agricultural region that has resisted the winds of change, preserving its character and traditions.

After many twists and turns, we saw a sign that reads “Constantino das Enguias.” Enguias means eels and Constantino is the name of Virgulina’s husband. In 1975, the couple set up a hut with a dust floor, a roof made out of eucalyptus branches and some wooden tables and benches. Virgulina served food prepared with vegetables from her garden and eels from a local river, the Ribeira de Muge. The delicious results attracted a loyal clientele that kept the restaurant full throughout the years. Last year, José Valério, Virgulina’s son, convinced her to renovate and expand the restaurant. 

We ordered eels cooked in two ways, fried and stewed (ensopado de enguias). The fried eels are crunchy, with an umami taste that delights the palate. The stewed eels are succulent, cooked in as appetizing broth made with country bread, mint, onions, green pepper, garlic, bay leaves, white wine, and peeled tomatoes. Virgulina’s food is as great as always!

Manuel chose a bottle of white Casa do Cadaval Reserva 2018 made with Arinto and Viognier. It is an elegant, balanced wine that managed to keep pace with the exuberant taste of the eels. The wine is produced nearby by Teresa Schönborn, a German countess. Why does a German countess produce wine in the middle of Ribatejo?  That, as Scheherazade would say, is a story for another day.

Constantino das Enguias is located at Rua Direita, 265, Foros de Benfica do Ribatejo, tel. 243 589 156.

The joys of a thin slice of Serra cheese

One of our grandfathers often wished there were more days in the year so he would have more opportunities to eat cheese.  His favorite was a Serra da Estrela cheese doused with paprika and olive oil and aged for three months. The paprika gives the cheese a bright orange color on the outside and a golden hue on the inside. During the three-month-long cure, the cheese hardens and its flavor intensifies.  

When our grandfather was young and money was tight, he asked a local tavern to cure a cheese for him so that he could come by every day and buy a small slice. He justified this humble luxury by explaining that “Serra cheese is inexpensive. All you need to delight your palate is a thin slice. Thick slices are a waste. I like the slices to be so thin you can see the moon through them.” 

We follow his wise advice, using our sharpest knife to cut the thinnest slices of Serra cheese. They are little pieces of heaven!

The Boa Nova tea house

We drove from Porto to Leça da Palmeira on a warm, sunny day to have lunch at the Boa Nova tea house. Our expectations were high. The building, classified as a national monument, was designed by Álvaro Siza Vieira, an architect who won the Pritzker prize. It houses since 2014 a restaurant headed by chef Rui Paula that has earned two Michelin stars.

The house, ensconced inside a cliff, is a gentle mark on the landscape. As we walked up the stairs that lead to the front door, we were greeted by the wind carrying aromas of salt and seaweed to stimulate our appetite. We stopped for a few moments to look at the spectacular seascape. Then, the door opened and we stepped inside. The sea is even more alluring framed by afizélia, an African red wood that covers the interior walls and ceilings. Inaugurated in 1962, the tea house is one of Siza’s early works. The influence of Frank Lloyd Wright is clearly visible. But instead of echoing the flatness of the American prairie, the house reflects the rugged landscape of the Portuguese coast. 

We sat at the table admiring the expansive view. The sommelier came over and we talked leisurely about what to drink with the meal. We settled on a sparkling wine made with Arinto at Quinta da Romeira in Bucelas that kept us pleasant company during our gastronomic journey.

The meal started with a rustic touch: a warm toast buttered with lard that was a staple of the chef’s childhood breakfasts.  It was followed by a splash of sophistication: a translucent taco with avocado and fish eggs. A spoon with clams Bulhão Pato arrived next. We ate it in a single bite. It filled our palate with the taste of many clams. 

Then dessert arrived in the form of an elegant eclair. “Time goes by fast at the Boa Nova tea house,” commented our waitress smiling. “It feels like you just started the meal and you are already having dessert.” It was a false ending. The eclair is a savory treat stuffed with a delicate mussel filling.

A number of delights from the sea arrived in quick succession. A slice of robalo (sea bass) bathing in a green algae sauce, topped with perfectly crisp skin and percebes (gooseneck barnacles). Scallops embraced by tapioca, adorned with two sauces, one made with lemon and the other with chouriço (sausage). A large red shrimp called carabineiro with carrots of different textures and a delicious bisque. Salmonete (mullet) with cassava and cashew nuts, a preparation inspired by Brazilian cuisine. And, finally, cherne (grouper) wrapped in paper and accompanied by sweet potatoes. 

This whirlwind tour of sea treasures was followed by a plate called dejá vue. It is a surprise, so perhaps it is best if we don’t describe it.

The dessert was called “late harvest.” It is fresh and crunchy, a combination of honey, nuts and dried fruit that evokes the flavors of a late harvest wine.

At the touch of a button, our waiter made the windows vanish. Suddenly, the sound of the sea filled the room and a gentle breeze refreshed our senses. 

Our waitress brought us another dessert: olive cake served with olives and olive ice cream decorated with tuilles shaped like olive leaves. Then, a cart carrying small wooden boats offered us a choice of apetizing petit fours. 

Our high expectations were greatly exceeded. We left the tea house in a state of enchantment, delighted by the beauty of the place, the deliciousness of the food, the elegance of the plating, the graciousness of the service, and the magic of it all.

The Boa Nova tea house is located at Avenida da Liberdade nº 1681, Leça da Palmeira, tel. 229 940 066. Click here for the restaurant’s website.

Tasting medronho spirits in Porto Côvo

There are cognacs, armagnacs, grappas, and brandies. And then there is a wild, exuberant spirit called “aguardente de medronho.” Aguardente means fire water and medronho is the fruit of the “medronheiro,” a small shrub know in English as the strawberry tree. 

Pliny the Elder was not fond of medronhos. In his Natural History he writes that “The fruit is held in no esteem, the reason for its name being that a person will eat only one!” The shrub’s botanical name, “arbutus unedo,” is inspired by the Latin version of the phrase “eat only one” (unum tantum edo).

What Pliny did not seem to know is that, when the fruit is stored for one or two months, it ferments and can then be distilled to produce a clear, aromatic spirit.  

Medronho distillers use the same copper stills favored by alchemists. The stills are heated slowly to separate the water from the alcohol. The resulting liquid comes in three parts. The first part (the head), is high in ethyl acetate and for this reason it is discarded. The last part (the tail) is low in alcohol. Only the middle part (the heart) is bottled. 

Medronheiros grow all over Portugal. They are abundant in the Algarve where their spirit has been popular for more than a century. Medronhos ripen slowly, turning from green and yellow to red. They are harvested in the fall by workers who search hills and valleys for the ripe fruits. 

Medronho spirit can be used in cocktails or drank straight as a digestif. At Lamelas, Ana Moura’s splendid restaurant in Porto Côvo, we tried a bewitching “Medroni,” a version of the famous negroni cocktail where the gin is replaced with medronho spirit. We also tasted some wonderful Medronho 42 and sampled three types of medronho spirit produced in Cova da Zorra: plain, with honey, and with lemon. They are all delicious, we only wish Pliny the Elder was around to try them!

Amália’s beach house

Portugal would be different without the fado singer Amália Rodrigues. Her voice could speak for us all, expressing feelings that words cannot describe. Born poor, she went on to sing fado all over the world. The foreign audiences did not understand her words. But it did not matter, her voice said it all. 

In the 1960s, Amália and her husband César started to look for a place to build a house that could serve as a retreat. They bought a cliff overlooking the ocean in a sleepy Alentejo village called Brejão and hired Francisco da Conceição Silva, an architect popular with high society, to design a house. The property has access to a shell-shaped beach covered with fine sand. Everybody calls it Amália’s beach.  

Whenever we came to the beach, we tried to get a glimpse of the house. But the architect made sure that the singer had the privacy she craved–the home is invisible to outsiders.

Amália had no children, so she left the house to a foundation that funds a retirement home for artists and other causes. In 2016, the foundation started renting the house to guests. It is a singular pleasure to spend time in such a unique place.

There are two bedrooms and a large sitting and dining area. The floors are paved with terracotta tiles. The ceilings, covered with exotic wood, slope down to frame the spectacular views. The furniture is sparse perhaps to make room for the sea which fills the house with its presence. Outside, a swimming pool reflects the Alentejo sky.

During our stay, the sun was, like Amália, moody and prone to stage fright. One hour it hid behind clouds, another it filled the house with its radiant warmth. But the sunset was always spectacular. 

Ana Monteiro and Rui Maurício, a charming young couple, care for the property. They are helped by Eugénia Afonso, who worked for the singer for 25 years. Eugénia told us that Amália had simple tastes. She liked to sleep late and then go to the beach. She loved flowers and preferred simple foods: vegetable soups, grilled sardines, snails, and fried codfish. 

The house has no Amália memorabilia except for a few well-chosen photographs. Still, it is difficult not to feel the strength of the singer’s personality and the void that she left.

Just as we were leaving, an adorable little girl came running towards the house. She is Ana and Rui’s daughter. “What’s her name?” we asked. “She is called Amália,” said Rui, smiling.

You can book Herdade Amália through this link.

Tasting olive oils with Edgardo Pacheco

Edgardo’s name came up during a lunch with wine maker Abílio Tavares da Silva at the wonderful Toca da Raposa in Ervedosa do Douro. Abílio opened a bottle of the olive oil he produces at Foz Torto, drizzled the golden liquid on a plate and urged us to taste it.  “Wow, what makes this olive oil so good?,” we asked. “You have to meet Edgardo Pacheco,” responded Abílio, “he can tell you everything you need to know about olive oil.”

Edgardo is a famous food writer who has deep knowledge of a wide array of culinary topics. He has an engaging colloquial style, an ability to describe a person’s character in just a few words, and a great ear for amusing anecdotes or telling details.

Years went by and our interest in olive oil continued to grow. The Buddhists say that when the student is ready, the teacher arrives. And so, by happenstance, Edgardo came over to our house for dinner. When we started asking him questions about olive oil, he offered to organize a tasting. 

A few days later, Edgardo returned armed with olive oil bottles and a box of purple glasses. These glasses, used in professional tastings, hide the color of the oil so that we focus on taste and aroma. 

“Olive oil is just olive juice,” says Edgardo. “To produce great oil, the olives have to be in excellent sanitary condition, freshly picked, without mold or rot. As soon as the oil is pressed, it starts deteriorating, so the younger the olive oil the better. Ideally, we should only consume olive oil from the most recent crop.” “In Portugal, there are three types of olive oil,” continues Edgardo. “Extra virgin oil has no defects. It should be used raw to season salads or give food a finishing touch. Virgin oil can have some slight blemishes. It is suitable for cooking but it should not be used raw. Plain olive oil is refined to remove impurities and then blended with some virgin oil to improve the overall color and aroma. It is generally used for frying in commercial food preparation. Good olive oils cannot be cheap. Making a liter of olive oil requires between 8 and 13 kg. of olives. In contrast, it takes only about 1.5 kg. of grapes to make one liter of wine.”

In the last two decades, the quality of Portuguese olive oils grew by leaps and bounds. Every year, domestic producers return from international competitions with their bags full of prizes. This success was achieved by replacing traditional production methods with modern techniques. But many Portuguese still nurture a certain nostalgia for the traditional ways of making olive oil.

“People often think that that their cousin from the countryside makes better olive oil than modern producers, but those traditional oils are almost always defective. Olives are often harvested too late and they are not pressed right after the harvest. In addition, the oil is usually extracted by adding hot water to the olive paste, destroying the delicate flavors and aromas of the fruit,” explains Edgardo.

Another myth that Edgardo likes to dispel is the idea that the lower the acidity the better the oil. Refined oils, which are of lower quality, are often engineered to have very low acidity.

We tasted three oils. The first was a Rosmaninho made in Trás-os-Montes with cobrançosa olives. It has an intense, spicy taste and aromas of apple and green banana. The second was an Ethos made in Beira Alta with galega olives. It smells like fresh cut grass and it has a slightly bitter taste that reminds us of apples or almonds. The third was an olive oil made by a traditional producer. Compared to the other oils, it has a musty smell and a turbid taste.

Throughout dinner, we kept on discussing the fascinating differences between the three oils. When a chocolate mousse arrived for dessert, Edgardo suggested we season it with a few drops of the Rosmaninho olive oil. Surprisingly, the olive oil perfumed the mousse, accentuating its flavor.

“What else are you interested in?” asked Edgardo as he was leaving. “We would like to know more about Portuguese oysters,” we replied. “I will be in touch,” Edgardo said as he walked into the warm summer night.

Edgardo Pacheco is the author of “Portugal’s 100 Best Olive Oils,” published in 2016. If you read Portuguese and are interested in olive oil, this book is indispensable.

Silver honey

There’s a village in the middle of Ribatejo called Maçussa that was destined to be forgotten. Its population dwindled because people left to seek better opportunities elsewhere. But one man stayed. His name is Adolfo Henriques. He is a farmer, a cook and a philosopher. And he makes a magical goat cheese that placed Maçussa on Portugal’s culinary map.

The mark of a great philosopher is the quality of his disciples, those who learn from the master and preserve and improve that knowledge to pass it on to future generations. Plato was the teacher of Aristotle and Aristotle taught Alexander the Great who went on to conquer the world.

When we heard that a young man who apprenticed with Adolfo was starting to produce his own goat cheese, we got on the road to Maçussa to meet him.  João Prata received us in the house he shares with his wife Ana, his parents Maria and José, and his boisterous dog, Collie. 

João started producing honey in 2014, placing his beehives in the valley of the Montejunto mountain so that the bees could feast on a variety of wild plants. But this production was a side occupation. He had a good, steady job working as a maintenance technician for a large corporation. A meeting with Adolfo changed his life. João started to come by Adolfo’s cheese workshop more and more frequently until one day he quit his day job to go work with the master. For one year, João did every chore there is to do in the cheese workshop. Inspired by this experience, he joined forces with his wife Ana and the two started producing their own goat cheese. Their company is called Prata de Mel (silver honey).

We sat at a large pine table to try their cheese and honey. João tells us that the winter and summer honeys are completely different. In the winter, the bees live off eucalyptus, arbutus and heather. In the summer, they feed on oregano, thistle and brambles. Ana and João do not pasteurize the honey to preserve its texture and taste. The result is extraordinary. Instead of being syrupy, the honey has a delicate granular texture. And instead of having a sugary taste, the honey is vibrant and flavorful.

Next, João opened a jar of pollen. The grains come in a rainbow of colors produced by the different plants that the bees feed on. In order to preserve the freshness of the taste, the pollen is not dried. The result is an ambrosia that enchants the palate.

João brings out some cheese for us to try. It is made with milk from goats that live on the rugged hills of the Montejunto mountain.  We couldn’t help thinking that the qualities of the cheese mirror the personalities of their producers. João is intense; Ana exudes serenity. These cheeses combine an intense flavor with a certain quietness that comes from their velvety texture. We did notice a major flaw in the cheese we tried: once we started eating it, it was impossible to stop. 

“You have to sample the wine we are about to bottle,” says João. He fills glasses with a bright red wine that is naturally fermented and treated with a minimum amount of sulfites. It is a pleasurable wine with a bold tantalizing taste that reflects both the summer heat and freshness lent by the proximity to the ocean. 

Our visit ends with a tour of the chicken coup. João’s new project is to produce high-quality eggs from chicken of the pedrês breed. The birds are small and wear an elegant grey and white plumage. We see them happily roaming around the large yard eating all sorts of fresh vegetables. 

We have great admiration for what Ana and João are doing. And now that Adolfo Henriques has disciples, we’re certain that Maçussa will continue to thrive.

You can contact Prata de Mel via email (pratademel@gmail.com), phone (914 976 148) or through their Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/pratademel

The grandfather’s flour

We called Miguel Nobre to see if we could come by his windmill, Moinho de Avis, to buy some flour. Miguel mills a wonderful ancient wheat called barbela that he grows on the hills of the Montejunto mountain. 

“I have something new to show you,” Miguel said, his voice crackling with excitement. “I reproduced the flour mix that my grandfather used; it makes wonderful bread!” “Didn’t your grandfather make bread from barbela wheat?” we asked, confused. “Barbela is highly nutritious, but its germ and bran are heavy, resulting in flat, dense breads,” explained Miguel. “For this reason, barbela was often mixed with a wheat called preto amarelo (black and yellow). I have been using this misture for a while, but something was still missing. One day, I remembered that my grandfather used to go in an ox cart to the train station to get rye. The first time I mixed rye with the other wheats, I noticed a very special aroma coming out of the oven. It is the aroma of the bread my grandfather used to make!”

Miguel’s new flour mix has 40 percent barbela, 40 percent preto amarelo, and 20 percent rye. He calls it, appropriately, the grandfather’s flour.  

We drove up the long and winding road to Montejunto to meet with Miguel. He was waiting for us on the ground floor of the windmill. We sat there, on an old wooden bench, listening to him without noticing the passage of time. His poetic words and his encyclopedic knowledge of agricultural traditions are enthralling. 

As soon as we got back home, we combined the grandfather’s flour, water and the sourdough starter and let the mixture rest for a few hours. We then added more flour, water and salt and let it rest again. Next, we kneaded, stretched and folded the mixture until the bread took shape. Finally, we placed it in the oven. Our feeling of anticipation grew as we noticed a savory aroma perfuming the air. We tried the bread while it was still warm. It is deeply satisfying, with a soft texture, a crispy crust, and an intense flavor. 

Thanks to master Miguel Nobre, we have at our table a bread from the past that deserves to be preserved for the future.

The natural wines of Herdade do Cebolal

Seven years ago, we booked a table at Boi-Cavalo in Lisbon and chef Hugo Brito told us that dinner included a pairing with wines from a great family winery in Alentejo called Herdade do Cebolal. The wonderful food and wine turned the dinner into a party in which everybody talked to each other as if we were longtime friends.

We experienced the same festive feeling during a memorable lunch at the Lamelas restaurant in Porto Côvo. The spectacular food prepared by chef Ana Moura was accompanied by wines from Herdade do Cebolal. What is it about these wines that hang out with chefs who know how to turn meals into celebrations?  

Ana told us that Herdade de Cebolal is a stone’s throw from the restaurant, so we called the winery to see whether we could go by for a visit. We were received by enologist Luis Mota Capitão. The winery has been in his family since 1880. His great-grandfather made wines and vinegars to sell to doctors for medicinal use. 

Luís also wants his wines to be good for us. He avoids as much as possible using chemicals in wine production. And he is passionate about creating an ecosystem that is healthy and sustainable. The 20 hectares of vineyards are surrounded by 65 hectares of forest planted with cork and holm oaks, carob and lime trees, and many other species. He uses algae, including sargassum harvested in Porto Côvo, to fertilize the land because he believes it produces superior grapes. Luís encourages animals to roam the farm. There many bees, as well as chicken, hares, and sheep. Even foxes, lynxes, wild boars, and saca-rabos (Egyptian mongese), which are often considered a nuisance in other farms, are welcome at Herdade de Cebolal. “They all have a role to play and this land belongs to them too,” says Luís. Later, as we were leaving the herdade, we saw a large wild boar crossing the road. 

Luís’ grandfather used to age the wines he served at Christmas time inside a water well. Inspired by this experience, Luís started aging wine in bottles immersed in sea water. The wines age faster and something magical happens, perhaps because of higher pressure, cooler temperatures, and less oxygen. 

The herdade has many different types of soils and sun exposures. Luís says that the best way to illustrate this diversity is to go to the cellar and try some wines from the barrels. We first sampled a white from a vineyard planted in sal gema (rock salt) soil. It has great persistence and acidity. Then, we tried a complex white from “vinha do Rossio,” a vineyard planted by Luis’ great-grandfather 82 years ago. His grandfather added to the vineyard resulting in a mixture of 13 varietals, include some rare species like Tamarez and Tália. Next, we tasted an elegant blend of Arintos that is bright and fresh.

We moved from the cellar to a terrace overlooking the vineyards to try two fascinating reds: a clarete (claret) and a palhete. The clarete is made from Castelão, a grape popular in the Setúbal region. The palhete is made from a mixture of white (Antão Vaz) and red (Aragonês) grapes. These are highly enjoyable wines that can quench the thirst on a hot summer day. In old times, when drinking water was unsafe because of possible contamination with pathogenic bacteria, these were the wines preferred by farmers. Their alcohol content is relatively low (12.5 for clarete and 10.5 for palhete) but high enough to kill any pathogens.

Luís brought us some food to pair with the next two wines: a plate with wonderful sausages made in Alentejo from black pork, small cups of stewed chicken gizzards, an assortment of cheeses, and a delicious honey made from esteva (rock rose) and tojo (gorse). 

A 2017 white made from Fernão Pires and Arinto paired perfectly with the cheeses. Then came the grand finale: a red called Caios, which was the name of Luis’ great-great-grandfather. It is produced only in exceptional years and it includes grapes from vines planted by different generations: Alicante Bouchet planted by Luís, Petit Verdot planted by his father and grandfather, and old vines brought from Saint-Émilion by his great-grandfather.

The sun had long retired and the Alentejo stars shined brightly on the vineyards. Luis kept talking with revolutionary zeal about the legacy he wants to leave to future generations: a way of producing wine that is good for us and good for the earth.

Herdade de Cebolal is located at Vale das Éguas. Click here for their website (in Portuguese).