St. George’s castle

If you’re up for a climb in Lisbon, we recommend visiting St. George’s castle. You can start at the bottom of the hill and go up the old meandering streets of Alfama, the only neighborhood that survived the 1755 earthquake.

At almost every corner, someone sells glasses of ginginha, a delightful liquor made from sour cherries. But it is unbecoming to drink ginginha from plastic glasses. We prefer to get it at “A Ginginha” in Largo São Domingos, where they’ve served it in proper glasses since 1840.  

It’s worthwhile to buy the ticket to enter the castle. However, keep your expectations low–a first sight, there isn’t much to see. A bronze statue of Dom Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal, who conquered the castle from the Moors in 1147. A marble statue of Dom Manuel, the monarch who oversaw the golden age of discoveries by Portuguese navigators. Fountains whose water has run dry, broken marble columns, and cannons that are no longer battle-ready lie around the castle, all in medieval disarray. There are pines and olive trees, their branches sought by vain peacocks searching for a thrill.

The castle was built and rebuilt over centuries, first with cement and stone and then with brick and mortar. The layers of the imposing walls read like a diary of all those who lived here: Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Moors, and Portuguese. 

What the castle offers are magnificent views of Lisbon. The city lies at our feet, making us feel like royalty—scratch your skin, and surely blue blood will trickle out. A map made out of tiles shows us the lay of the land. Nearby there are benches inscribed with the words of Sophia de Mello Breyner. What a beautiful idea to carve in stone the words of a poet!

We stroll around the castle until the sun sets down. Only then do we go downhill. Be careful because the cobblestones are slippery. And there’s no need to rush. There’s plenty of time to get to Largo de São Domingos and enjoy a glass of ginginha.

You can get tickets online at the castle’s website, here.

A port wine toast

In much of the world, old vines are thorn out and replaced with new ones. But not in the Douro valley. There, old vines are nurtured and treasured. Their grapes are few in number and small in size, but they make sublime wines.

We raise this glass to wish you all health and longevity. And to remind us of what we can learn from the old vineyards that make this port. We can produce a lot when we’re young, but we need to age before we can make something precious. Cheers!

The Correio-mor palace

We visited the Correio-mor palace in Loures on a sunny winter morning. The building was the country house of the family that, for two centuries, had a monopoly on mail distribution in the Portuguese empire. When the 1755 earthquake destroyed their Lisbon home, the family relocated to Loures and made this palace their permanent residence.

The ornate gates opened with ease as if they were expecting us. We stepped into a spacious courtyard that overlooks the Baroque building. Our first stop was the kitchen. White and blue tiles reflect the bright light that pours through the windows. The tiles depict the delicacies served at the palace: fish, game, vegetables, and fruits. A lonely marble table sits in the middle of the room, longing for the days when armies of cooks crowded around it to prepare sumptuous banquets. Across from the kitchen, we see vast wine cellars that once stored the fruits of many harvests.

An elegant staircase takes us to the noble floor. The limestone steps show the gentle wear that only shoes made of silk and soft leather can produce. At the top of the stairs, a hallway overlooks the expansive garden. We admire the ancient pine trees that have seen all the parties and heard all the gossip. Impassive, they sway in the wind, revealing nothing.

It is easy to get lost inside the palace. There are many elegant rooms with lavishly decorated ceilings and walls covered with tiles depicting naval scenes, hunting expeditions, and garden parties. 

At the Correio-mor palace we do not feel the stress of the modern world, only the gilded ease of aristocratic life. 

You can rent the Correio-mor palace for movies, weddings, and other special events. Click here for the palace’s website.

Marlene Vieira’s Codfish Recipe

The Portuguese culinary tradition does not come from palace kitchens. It comes from the cooking of humble people who, in every season, took the best ingredients that nature offered and prepared them using recipes perfected over centuries. The food presentation is often rustic, but the taste is delicious because everything is harmonious and natural.

Many chefs are reinventing the cuisine of Portugal. But the truth is that there’s no need for reinvention. What we need is an evolution, the creation of new recipes that, like clams Bulhão Pato and Caldo Verde, bring joy to the dining tables of Portugal. Easy to say, but who can do it? 

We know one chef who can: Marlene Vieira. Her Zun Zum and Time Out restaurants are indispensable stops in any culinary tour of Lisbon. Her food is creative, not because she wants to surprise or shock. Marlene’s originality stems from her ability to intuit new, delicious ways of preparing Portugal’s great food products. 

Marlene started cooking at age 12. Her father, who owned a butcher shop, took her on a delivery to an Oporto restaurant that served French-inspired food. The chef invited Marlene to sample what they were preparing, and she was hooked. She loved the taste, the refinement, and elegance. Marlene spent holidays and school vacations helping out at the restaurant. She relishes the organized chaos of a professional kitchen, and cooking proved to be an ideal outlet for her bountiful energy. 

At age 16, Marlene went to culinary school. She graduated as the best student and stayed as a teaching assistant, while working as a pastry chef at a boutique hotel. Up to this point, all her cooking had revolved around French techniques. 

At age 20, a friend invited her to work at a Portuguese restaurant in New York. For the first time, Marlene had to cook traditional Portuguese food. She remembered fondly the food that her mother and grandmother prepared, but she did not know how to cook it. More than three thousand miles away from home, this young chef started to study the cuisine of Portugal. And for the first time, she realized that she had a role to play: embrace Portuguese cuisine and make it her own.

Marlene returned to Portugal inspired to learn more about traditional cooking. She continued to work in fine dining, but her cooking became more and more Portuguese. A breakthrough moment came when Time Out magazine chose her dish featuring a large shrimp called “carabineiro” served with an almond brulée as the year’s best recipe. This dish has the hallmark of Marlene’s cooking: it draws on combinations of ingredients and techniques that are hard to envision but feel utterly natural once you try them. 

We asked Marlene whether she could share a recipe with our readers. She generously gave us a codfish recipe. 

Portugal has many codfish recipes, but only a few have stood the test of time, like those of Brás, Zé do Pipo, and Gomes de Sá. Perhaps one day, this recipe will be known as Codfish Marlene. Enjoy!

Codfish Confit with Sweet Potatoes Gnocchi, Low-temperature Egg, and Pea Emulsion

Ingredients for four people

600 grams of codfish filets

2 garlic cloves

1 laurel leaf

400 grams of sweet potatoes

5 eggs

100 grams of flour

70 grams of onion

70 grams of leaks

300 grams of peas

Microgreens for garnish

3 deciliters of olive oil

200 milliliters of whole milk

Sea salt

Preparation

Pre-heat the oven at 150 ºC.

Clean the codfish fillets, removing the bones. Divide into 12 portions. Smash the garlic, leaving the skin. Place the garlic, the codfish, the laurel leaf, and 2 dl of olive oil on a tray. Set aside.

Place 4 eggs in a pot with water. Heat the pot until the temperature reaches 63.5 ºC. Use a thermometer to control the temperature and keep it steady for 45 minutes. Once the time is up, place the eggs in an ice bowl to lower the temperature.

Cook the sweet potatoes with the skin on. Let them cool, peel them, and make a purée. Mix in a bowl the flour, the purée, and one egg. Blend until the mixture is homogeneous. Make small cylinders and cut them into gnocchi. Bring water and salt to a boil. Once it is boiling, add the gnocchi, cooking for 3 minutes. Remove them with a slotted spoon and drain the remaining water by placing the gnocchi on paper towels.    

Slice the onions and leek. Put olive oil, the onion, and leek in a pot and let the vegetables sweat for 10 minutes in low heat. Add the peas, season with salt, cover with milk and cook for another 15 minutes. Blend the mixture with a hand blender and strain.

Place the codfish in the oven for 10 minutes. Heat a frying pan with a bit of olive oil. Once the oil is warm, add the gnocchi and let them cook—season with salt and pepper. 

Heat up the eggs in tepid water for 10 minutes. Remove the eggshell.

Warm the pea emulsion and blend with a hand blender until it makes foam. 

Serve on a deep plate, placing the gnocchi at the bottom, then the codfish and the egg. Finalize using the pea emulsion and some microgreens. 

Click here for Marlene Vieira’s website.

The sublime wines of the Madeira island

Novice wine drinkers like slightly sweet wines, while wine connoisseurs favor wines with acidity. Madeira wines have the best of both worlds, a pleasant sweetness and a refined acidity. 

These wines are named after their terroir—a volcanic archipelago of captivating beauty. When Portuguese navigators discovered it in 1419, it had lush woods, so they called it Madeira, the Portuguese word for wood.

Like Ports, Madeiras are fortified wines. The process by which yeast turns fructose into alcohol is interrupted by adding neutral, vinic alcohol. As a result, some fructose remains, giving the wine its sweetness.

Producers begin the aging process by gently heating the wine. Winemakers developed this technique after discovering that wines improved significantly when subject to tropical temperatures during sea voyages. 

Entry-level wines are heated in large tanks for at least three months, a process called “estufagem.” More noble wines are stored in hot, humid attics for at least two years, a process known as “canteiro.” Heat ruins most wines. But not Madeiras—their acidity gives them the fortitude to survive the heat and age beautifully.

There are five main grape varietals used in Madeira production. Sercial makes dry wines, Verdelho medium-dry, Bual semi-sweet, and Malmsey sweet. Tinta Negra is perhaps the most versatile of all the Madeira varietals, capable of producing a range of styles, from nutty dry to luscious rich.

The drier wines are generally served as aperitifs and the sweeter wines as dessert wines. But Madeiras are very versatile. For example, Sercial is an excellent pairing for oysters and sashimi. 

We had the privilege of tasting Madeiras with Chris Blandy, the CEO of Blandy’s, a company that has produced Madeira wine since 1811. We compared wines made from Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malmsey with “raw” versions of these wines. The raw wines have just been fortified but have not been heated or aged. This tasting showed us the enormous impact of heating and aging on wine quality. Water evaporates, concentrating and refining flavors. In some 20-year-old Madeiras, only 8 percent of the original wine remains, but what is left is sublime. 

Chris refilled our tasting glasses. “These wines are moreish,” he says, using a quaint British expression that refers to food or drink that make us ask for more. No wonder that in Shakespeare’s play Henry IV, Sir John Falstaff sells his soul to the devil for a glass of Madeira. We’re so lucky to drink these extraordinary wines without losing our souls!

Click here for the Blandy’s website.

The Saint Hubert tavern

We were in Alentejo with Manuel Malfeito, a professor of enology,  when he suggested that we visit one of his former students, Joaquim Saragga Leal. Joaquim used to run Taberna Sal Grosso in Lisbon but moved to Évora to be closer to his roots. 

We arrived late because we got lost. Evora is a labyrinthine Roman city with narrow streets that hide its secrets from global positioning systems. But, eventually, we found the Taberna de Santo Humberto. Joaquim tells us that it was once a tavern called O Berto that served wine and simple food. Then, some well-to-do women took it over, serving elegant food that became one of Évora’s culinary references. They turned O Berto into Hubert. For good luck they canonized him, so the place became the Saint Hubert Restaurant. Joaquim kept the saint but brought back the tavern, both in name and attitude.

He studied mechanical engineering in London and worked as an engineer but, on the side, he always cooked for friends. One day, he returned to Alentejo to help his grandmother run a famous wine estate, Herdade dos Coelheiros. He joined a wine program in Bordeaux and then went to culinary school. When he finished, he enrolled in a master of gastronomic sciences program, taking classes with professor Malfeito. 

Joaquim tells us that he wants to cook more rustic, more affectionate food, recover old, forgotten recipes, cook what his grandmother used to make, and what Alentejo taverns used to serve. “A meal at my restaurant consists of many small plates meant to be shared because the art of sharing is close to the art of conversation,” he says. 

After this long introduction, he asked: “what would you like to eat?” Manuel answered without hesitation: “the choice is up to you.” Joaquim grimaced and replied, “this sounds like another exam.” “Indeed!” agreed Manuel.  

We ran out of culinary adjectives during the meal. Cornish hens in escabeche sauce were mouthwatering, the liver duck was amazing, the bacon and garlic marvelous, the codfish tongs outstanding, and the frog legs Bulhão Pato style fantastic. 

After a brief interlude, Joaquim brought two delicious salads, one with watercress and orange and the other with tomato, figs, and hydrated prosciutto. Then, there were incredible croquettes made from beef tongue and Osso Bucco, crispy codfish cakes, and exquisite stewed bone marrow.

The dessert was a cake made from cheese, the traditional Abade de Priscos pudding, a local cake called padinha, and a chocolate mousse seasoned with salt.

After this culinary marathon, Joaquim arrived holding a tray with coffee cups and glasses of pennyroyal liqueur. Then he asked, “What grade did I get?” “A+!” we shouted.

Taberna de Santo Humberto is located at Rua da Moeda, 39, Évora, tel. 913 198 215.

A master bladesmith

Have you ever met a bladesmith? We hadn’t until we visited Paulo Tuna’s atelier in Caldas da Rainha. We knocked on a large blue door and Paulo came out. He looks like a revolutionary–someone who can bend the world to his will.

Paulo trained as an artist at the local art school. For many years, he built large sculptures that questioned our notions of weight, scale, and balance. But he was always interested in knives. His grandfather gave him a pocket knife for his 7th birthday. Later, he took him to a blacksmith so that Paulo could make his first knife. 

Knife drawings inspired by old art books fill the walls of the atelier. “Drawing is easy. Forging is hard,” says Paulo. He switched from sculpture to knife making after a friend placed an order for two knives. Paulo enjoyed the production process and started learning all he could about bladesmithing, even working in cutlery factories for a while. In 2012, he began making knives full time. An order of 50 knives from René Redzepi, Noma’s famous chef, confirmed that he was on the right track.

“Do you want me to make a knife?” Paulo asked. He takes a steel blade and places it inside a red-hot oven, heated to almost 1,000 degrees Celsius. The steel seems to resist at first, but, little by little, it becomes as red as planet Mars. Then the alchemy starts. Paulo brushes the anvil with a steel brush, takes the blade from the oven, and hammers it to thin the metal. Sparks fly. When the steel becomes crimson, he puts it back into the oven until it regains a fiery-red color. Paulo repeats the process, using different hammers to bend the steel to his designs. Then, he places the blade in a bed of ashes to cool it off. The next step is to sand the knife. He leaves some of the hammer marks as a record of the forging process. 

Paulo likes to rescue holly or olive wood pieces destined to the fireplace and turn them into elegant knife handles. He also uses Bakelite from old domino sets. Currently, his favorite handles come from the wood of a 300-year-old tree from the Bussaco forest. 

He urged us to try his knives. They are well balanced, perfectly proportioned, surprisingly light, and frighteningly sharp. Paulo Tuna makes knives that are works of art.

Click here for Paul Tuna’s website.

The thrill of Loco

Dining at Loco is like attending a jazz concert–there’s a feeling of excitement in the air. The restaurant lighting is soft, but the tables are lit like a stage, ready for chef Alexandre Silva’s performance. 

We sat down and studied the interesting wine list curated by Mário Marques, an old acquaintance from Ceia and Cura.

The performance started with a series of delicious food riffs presented on a wide variety of backgrounds: stones, coal, shells, and much more. The tempo was fast, like John Coltrane playing Giant Steps. We recognized culinary motifs inspired by the classics of Portuguese cuisine. For example, there were disks of crispy chicken skin that tasted like the traditional roasted chicken with piri-piri sauce. 

Then, the rhythm slowed down to a ballad tempo, like Thelonious Monk playing ‘Round about Midnight. A basket of artisan bread came with rich butters and a bowl with sauce from the traditional clams Bulhão Pato. There was also delicately cooked, perfectly seasoned black pork, pumpkin dumplings, and pristine fish dressed with colorful sauces. 

The desserts were playful, pomegranate granita and supple ice cream topped with hibiscus crystals. Finally, there were some encores–miniature sweets that please the eye and charm the palate. It is a thrill to dine at Loco!

Loco is located at Rua dos Navegantes nº53-B, Lisbon, tel. 21 395 1861. Click here for the restaurant’s website.

The poetic sea

“Sea, half of my soul is made from sea breeze,” says Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen in her poem Atlantic. In The Beginning of a Prayer, Filipa Leal writes, “Lord, fill my room with the high seas.”  These poets express with eloquence what all Portuguese feel–that the sea is vital to our life. 

We hope that the New Year is healthy and bright and that you can travel with ease to come experience the poetic radiance of the Portuguese sea.

Mister grape

When João Rodrigues invited us for dinner in Lisbon, we wondered where he would take us. João knows how to orchestrate memorable dining experiences like the jubilant dinners at Ceia or the soul-nourishing rustic lunches at Casa no Tempo in Alentejo.

He drove us to the Estrela neighborhood and parked the car on a vertigo-inducing hill. Then, we crossed the street to Senhor Uva (mister grape). Stephanie Audet and Marc Davidson, a Canadian couple, opened this vegetarian restaurant three years ago. Stephanie is the head chef and Marc curates the wine list, focused on European natural wines.

The restaurant is small and cozy, with large windows that offer low-angle views of the cobblestone street. We sat at the counter that overlooks the tiny kitchen. João asked our congenial server whether she could choose the food for us and pair it with wine. Soon, we were holding stylish wine glasses made in Austria by renowned wine critic René Gabriel, filled with a delightful white wine called António. Casal Figueira makes this wine near Lisbon in the windy hills of the Montejunto mountain. 

We were clinking our glasses when a plate arrived with black rice balls cooked with shitake mushrooms, leeks, eggplant, and a fermented Japanese fruit called umeboshi. The umami flavors of the rice made the wine feel richer and more intense.

The three cooks on duty that night joined efforts to make a stunning ceviche from green jackfruit. It arrived with another enviable white wine, Thyro, made in the Douro valley. Who could guess that a vegetable ceviche could rival a fish ceviche?

Next, we tried a delicious cauliflower cooked in a black beer sauce with black garlic and radishes. João noticed that all dishes have a perfect balance of fat, acidity, and crunchiness. Our next entrée vindicated this observation. It contained grapes marinated in rice vinegar, Jerusalem artichokes, beets, and new potatoes served with a delicious mole sauce. Vacariça, a lovely wine made in Bairrada from the local baga varietal, accentuated the chocolate flavors of the mole sauce.

The savory part of our meal ended with delicate shitake mushrooms cooked in the oven with corn “xerem,” miso, hazelnuts, and pecorino Romano cheese. 

Then came the sweet part. First, a perfumed pineapple from the Azores cooked in three ways, accompanied by labneh, ginger, coconut, and yogurt sand. Second, a luscious roasted quince served with buckwheat, pear and hazelnut puree, and a Madeira wine reduction. 

Just as we were leaving, a reggae version of the famous Blood, Sweat, and Tears tune “You make me so very happy” poured out of the sound system. It is an apt hymn for a restaurant taking vegetarian cooking to joyful heights.

Senhor Uva is located at Rua de Santo Amaro 66A in Lisbon, tel. 21-396-0917. Click here for the restaurant’s website.