A rested pudding

One of our favorite destinations in the Douro valley is a charming village called Ervedosa do Douro. Its main attraction is Toca da Raposa, a restaurant that prepares the traditional food served in local aristocratic homes. 

The ingredients are immaculate and the cooking is sublime. The preparations look deceptively simple, but they require knowledge of all the small details that make the difference between good and exceptional.

Dona Graça, a cook who worked for Douro families before opening Toca da Raposa with her children, has a large repertoire of recipes from the time when food was prepared in wood-fired ovens and cast-iron pans. We’ve been trying to convince her to collect these recipes in a cookbook. But codifying all her experience is a huge task and she has no time–the restaurant is always full.

Recently, Dona Graça started writing down some recipes. She shared one of these recipes with us. It is called Pudim de Laranja Descansado (rested orange pudding) because it takes time to prepare. You should try it only when you’re not in a hurry. We hope this recipe is the first of many pages that preserve Dona Graças’s culinary artistry.

Rested Orange Pudding

Pudding ingredients

7 eggs

300 grams of sugar

250 ml of freshly squeezed orange juice

Port-wine caramel

150 grams of sugar

50 ml of port wine

Mix the pudding ingredients at night and let the mixture rest. Cook the pudding in the morning.

To prepare the mixture, combine the eggs and sugar in a mixer. Three seconds after you start the mixer at medium speed, slowly pour the orange juice into the mixture. Once all the juice has been added, keep the mixer on for an extra 30 seconds or so, until you see foam made from small bubbles. Stop the mixer and use a wooden spoon to the pudding ingredients with a movement from top to bottom until you no longer feel any sugar at the bottom of the bowl.

Once the mixture has rested, make the port-wine caramel and use it to coat the pudding mold. Pour the mixture into the mold and place the mold inside a pan filled with two fingers of water surrounding the pan. Cook on the stove on a small burner at medium heat for 40 minutes. Take it out of the mold and let it cool. Enjoy!

Toca da Raposa is located at Rua da Praça in Ervedosa do Douro, tel. 254 423 466.

The Vintage House

We can take the winding road that leads to the elegant bridge designed by Gustav Eiffel. Or ride the old train that stops at the local station, decorated with bright blue tiles. Our preference is to arrive by boat, carried gently by the river. But no matter how we get to Pinhão, a quaint town at the center of the Douro valley, we always feel like staying.

The perfect place to stay is a sprawling yellow edifice on the bank of the river. It was once a warehouse that stored the precious brandies used to produce port wine. In 1997, the building was converted into the Vintage House hotel. 

What makes the Vintage House unique are the generous views of the Douro. We can wake up, open the window and sense the mood of the river. Everyday is different. Sometimes, the Douro dresses in festive blues and greens. Other times, it chooses yellows and browns, to give the small tributary that named the town (the Pinhão river) a chance to shine.

The roads of the Douro valley are narrow, forcing us to drive slowly and admire the glorious landscape. There is so much to see that we crisscross the valley many times. At the end of the day, we are always tired. And we love falling asleep in the Vintage House, knowing that in the morning the river will be there to greet the start of another memorable day in the Douro valley.

The Vintage house is located at Rua António Manuel Saraiva, 5085-034, Pinhão, Douro, Portugal. Click here for the hotel’s website.

Gifts from the past

Oh, how wonderful it is to spend a lazy Saturday in Lisbon! We started late, when the sun was already shinning with conviction, and drove to Vicentinas, an old tea shop in Rua de São Bento. A gentle push on the rickety door and we were greeted by a sweet aroma that invited us to enter. 

We sat at a table, enjoying a cup of strong Earl Grey tea, while waiting with undisguised impatience for our scones to arrive. The minutes passed by slowly, but the wait was well worth it. The freshly baked scones were perfect; crispy on the outside and buttery inside. 

It took all our willpower to resist ordering more scones. Feeling virtuous, we walked down Rua de São Bento to visit the numerous antique stores located in this neighborhood. The store owners are always there, eager to show their collections of objects from times gone by. There is always something interesting. And occasionally there is something exquisite, like a pair of elegant lemon squeezers. 

In the old days, luxury restaurants in Lisbon, like Tavares and Aviz, had a small tray of lemon squeezers prepared with fresh lemon halves wrapped in cheese cloth tied with a yellow bow. The waiters used them to season dishes by table side, turning the simple act of squeezing a lemon into a magical moment.

We walked home with this precious gift from the past, content with another lazy Saturday spent in Lisbon.

Josefinas

“Pede dextro,” advised the Romans. In Ancient Rome, you could curry favor with the gods by entering a house or a temple with the right foot. 

The importance of putting the best foot forward was not lost on architect Filipa Júlio. In 2013, she created a luxury line of footwear called Josefinas inspired by the shoes worn by classical ballerinas. Each shoe is handcrafted with exquisite materials by talented Portuguese artisans. 

The company strives to make the experience of receiving and wearing their shoes unforgettable. Each pair arrives with a handwritten message by the team that produced it. A “chief officer of customer delight” dreams up festive packaging, customizations, and surprise deliveries.

In a world where elegance is often associated with uncomfortable high heels, Josefinas combine grace with comfort. As these flat shoes gained cult status among fashionistas, the company felt external pressure to adopt industrial production processes that would support fast growth. But Josefinas’ managers resisted. They reinforced their commitment to unhurried, meticulous manufacturing methods. They cultivated their brand ethos: shoes designed by women for women. And they used some of the fruits of the brand’s success to support women-rights causes. For all these reasons, we’re certain that Roman goddesses favor Josefinas. 

Click here for Josefina’s website and here for their Instagram page.

Guided by the stars

In the early 16th century, Lisbon was one of the world’s richest cities. A constant stream of caravels departed to far-away destinations like India and Brazil. Some of these ships perished tragically in the high seas. The ones that returned, brought their hulls crammed with gold, silver and spices. 

During the day, sailors relied on the sun to measure their latitude. At night, they were guided by the stars. Skilled pilots pointed sextants at the sky to estimate the ship’s position and evaluate its course. 

In the last night of the year, we too look at the stars for guidance of where we are and what lies ahead. We hope they can point us all to a blissful, healthy New Year that brings us back to Portugal. 

Blessed times

Blessed are the times when we argue about trivialities, because they are happy times. On Christmas day, there is often a heated debate about which is the best Christmas dessert. The holiday table is crowded with sweet candidates, recipes that wait all year in the pages of timeworn cookbooks for a few moments of fame. Sugar, cinnamon and a little port wine transform humble ingredients like bread, eggs, and pumpkin into culinary feasts. There are rabanadas, a Portuguese version of French toast, “filhóses de abóbora,” fried pumpkin cakes, “coscorões,” fried dough shaped like angel wings, “sonhos,” crispy, airy spheres, and many more. 

Why don’t we enjoy these desserts all year round? Because they only taste great when the table is full of friends and family members who gather to celebrate the holiday, enjoy each other’s company, and debate which is the best Christmas dessert.

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.