Drinking amphora wine in Amareleja

Amareleja Composite

Manuel Malfeito, a professor of enology at the famed Instituto Superior de Agronomia, invited us to go to Amareleja to try some wines made in amphoras. The drive from Lisbon to this small town in Alentejo takes about three hours, time fruitfully used by Manuel to lecture us about what we are about to experience.

He tells us that that we’re taking a journey back in time, to the way wines were made 8000 years ago in the Caucasus. These techniques, brought to Portugal by the Romans 2000 years ago, worked particularly well in the dry, warm climate of Alentejo where they say “while there’s amphora wine, we drink nothing else.”

Right after the harvest, the grapes are crushed, destemmed and placed in huge amphoras that hold 1,000 liters. One or two days later, the fermentation starts. The wine is stirred everyday for two weeks to make sure it doesn’t spoil. Then, the amphoras are sealed with cloth and the wine is left alone. By November, the seeds and skins have dropped to the base, forming a natural filtration system. The wine is extracted through straws inserted into an opening at the bottom of the amphoras. It comes out very slowly, first muddy and then crystal clear.

Amphora wines are now so trendy that some producers ferment the wine in stainless steel tanks and then age them in amphoras, so they can call them amphora wines. At Amareleja, amphora wines are the real deal. The locals continued to make amphora wines even when no one outside of Alentejo cared for them, so knowledge of the myriad production details has been preserved.

The arrival at Amareleja marks the end of our theory lesson. It is time to put our knowledge into practice. “We’ll try several wines, so the secret is to take small sips,” advises Manuel.

Our host, Zé Piteira, is waiting for us at his eponymous restaurant, Adega Piteira. He is tall, affable, and full of confidence. Zé introduces us to his wife Paula who heads the kitchen. The restaurant occupies a narrow building with a straw roof and a tower in the middle. It was constructed in 1938 to house Amareleja’s open-air cinema. Greta Garbo and Humphrey Bogart have been here on the silver screen.

On our table there are sausages, cheese, olives, and the best “torresmos” (pork rind) we ever tried. “Wine is all about context,” explains Manuel. “We’re going to try a white amphora wine from 2015 that is still too young but pairs well with the strong flavors of these appetizers.” The symbiosis of wine and food is indeed perfect. Our glasses have the aroma of a recently struck match that is the hallmark of great Chardonnays. The wine is made with a varietal called Roupeiro combined with a table grape called Diagalves, sometimes known as “pendura,” the Portuguese word for hanging, because it used to be hung up to dry to serve during Christmas.

Soup plates with scrambled eggs, potatoes, spinach, and goat cheese arrive. Paula brings a large pot brimming with codfish broth to spoon on our plates. This rustic, flavorful soup is a great match for the bold personality of the wine.

Zé pours from a jar of 2018 white wine taken directly from an amphora.  The contrast between the 2015 and the 2018 wines is fascinating. The 2018 is more astringent and the yeast aromas that come from the fermentation process are still present.

The varietal used to make red amphora wines in Alentejo is called Moreto. “Land good for grain is bad for wine,” says an old proverb. That is why Moreto flourishes in the poor soils of the left margin of the Guadiana river. The 2018 Piteira Moreto is very interesting and full of freshness. It is a great pairing for our next course: pork ribs seasoned with “massa de pimentão,” a magical paste made with red pepper.

For comparison, we try the 2016 Moreto. It is more refined and has a complex aroma. “Primary aromas—fruit, flowers, herbs–are pleasant during fermentation but worsen with time. That is why we say if the wine smells good, it tastes bad,” explains Manuel. “Secondary aromas—yeast, nuts and spices–come from the fermentation process. This wine has tertiary aromas—hazelnut, dried tobacco—that are acquired through aging.”

Zé comes back from the cellar with a bottle of Nativo, an amphora white wine bottled in 1999! It was made by the man who used to own the open-air movie theater, Zé’s godfather. This white wine has aged amazingly well, it is crisp and dry and has a beautiful amber color.

Dessert is a Moreto festival: Moreto ice cream accompanied by a pear cooked in Moreto wine and “encharcada” a medieval convent sweet made with eggs, cinnamon, lemon and sugar. Zé fills our glasses with a dessert wine. “In Roman times, the dry wines spoiled quickly, so aristocrats preferred this style of dessert wine. These were also the wines that  Roman gods were thought to like,” says Manuel. The wine fills our palate with the taste of spices and caramel. The Roman gods had impeccable taste!

We spent the afternoon hiking on the new wine estate that Zé Piteira has purchased, a place with panoramic views of the plains of Alentejo. Later, on the way back to Lisbon, Manuel quizzed us about everything we saw and tasted. We hope to have passed the exam, so we can take another course with him!

Adega Piteira is located at Rua da Fabrica 2, Amareleja, Moura, tel. 965 787 024.

Santa Clara 1728

Silent Living Composite - 2

When João Rodrigues opened the doors of Santa Clara to greet us, the sun rushed in, eager to revisit this 1728 building that laid in ruins until two years ago.

João lives a double life. He manages Silent Living, an expanding group of exquisite hotels, while flying around the world as an airline pilot. We expected a short conversation, but instead we spent a leisurely afternoon getting to know him and his project.

This act of making time for his guests tells you why João’s hotels are so unique. “When people stay with us, we receive them as friends. If I could afford it, I wouldn’t charge for the rooms,” João explains in his soft voice. “We ask guests to pay in advance, so we do not have to collect money during their stay. That is also why everything is included, our breakfast, the drinks in the mini bar, all the amenities. Prices are constant throughout the year because our goal is not to generate high returns but to find a sustainable way of offering an extraordinary experience.” João pauses and then he reveals that “We like to surprise guests by picking them up from the airport in a vintage Rolls Royce. It is a gesture that sets the tone for their stay at Santa Clara, a way to tell them they will be cared for.”

We ask João how he finds time to do everything, renovate an historical building, create a team to run the hotel and operate Ceia, a high-end restaurant. He shrugs his shoulders and smiles with the equanimity of someone who often sees the world from above the clouds.

The hotel was designed by architect Aires Mateus, who is João’s habitual collaborator. The interiors are decorated with wood and stone, the same materials used to erect the nearby Pantheon. The colors used in the rooms seem to come from old black and white photographs. These monochromatic hues provide the ideal framing for the glorious views—the contrast of the blue river with the orange roofs punctuated by the white marble of the Pantheon.

A stay at Santa Clara offers the rarest of gifts: ease, simplicity and serenity. It took someone who constantly travels to create a place that is so hard to leave.

Santa Clara 1728 is located at Campo de Santa Clara, 128 in Lisbon, tel. 964 362 816, email booking@silentliving.pt. Click here for the hotel website.

 

Dona Antónia’s great grandson

Composite Quinta S. José

João Brito e Cunha is the great grandson of the legendary Dona Antónia Ferreira, the woman who shaped the future of wine production in the Douro valley.  Born in 1811 to a family of rich wine makers, Dona Antónia seemed destined to enjoy a life of leisure. Instead, she had to contend with two plagues that decimated European vineyards, the oidium in 1850 and the phylloxera in 1870. Dona Antónia rose to the occasion, making shrewd choices and taking calculated risks. She made great wine and amassed a large fortune. When she died in 1896, she owned 24 wine estates and huge wine cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia.

João’s grandfather was a taster for the renowned Real Company Velha. His father managed the famous Quinta do Vesuvio, which in Dona Antónia’s time produced some of the most expensive wines in the Douro valley.

We tell you this family history so that you know that João Brito e Cunha had no choice, the love of wine runs in his blood. He studied enology, first in Vila Real’s UTAD and then in Australia. He interned in Champagne and in many other wine regions. When he felt ready, he bought Quinta Dom José from his father and moved to the estate with his wife Sofia and their kids.

We arrived at Quinta Dom José late in the afternoon, just as the sun was getting tired of making the brilliant light that shines on the Douro valley. João is very intense and his energy is contagious. He wanted to show us everything, the vines, the cellars, the different viewpoints. As soon as we got into his jeep, he accelerated up the steep, treacherous road leaving being a colorful dust cloud.

We stopped on a hill top with breathtaking views of the Douro river. João wants us to understand that in a region where beauty abounds, this quinta is like no other. He shows us with pride the schist soil that preserves humidity during the scorching Summers and the vine roots that dig deep in search of water.

João drove us up to the tasting room to try his wines. The Flor de São José white Reserva is an aristocratic wine that enchants the palate with its refined elegance. The Touriga Nacional Reserva is an indulgent red, with a full body and an understated intensity. The Grande Reserva is a profound wine, full of wisdom, finesse and subtlety. The 3,400 bottles produced last year quickly sold out.

We stayed in the terrace outside the tasting room talking to João for hours. It was a warm night with a sky full of stars.  A choir of crickets sang in the background. João told us about his vines, his wines and his dreams.

Dona Antónia regretted every moment she spent away from the Douro. João feels the same way–he inherited his great grandmother’s passion for the Douro valley. And like her, João is destined to make great wine.

Quinta de São José is located on Ervedosa do Douro, tel. 93 4041413. Click here for their website. 

The sea tavern

Taberna do Mar Composit.jpg

A dinner at A Taberna do Mar (the sea tavern) is a culinary plunge into the waters of Sesimbra, Trafaria and Costa da Caparica. These are the beaches near Lisbon where chef Filipe Rodrigues sources his fish.

Filipe was born in the Algarve. His grandparents were cannery workers who taught him some of the secrets of the sea. He discovered other secrets on his own, through years of hard work. After creating the menu for several popular restaurants, Filipe decided to open his own place. It is a cozy tavern with ancient stone walls and a quaint tile floor.

You can order a la carte or choose a menu prepared by the chef. Feeling adventurous, we went for the menu. The feast began with a warm tortilla decorated with cuttlefish ink topped with a cream of lupini beans, mint, and sea fennel, a plant that grows on sandy dunes. Then, we enjoyed a carob bun stuffed with dried horse mackerel accompanied by a miso mayonnaise. It came with a dumpling stuffed with tender veal tongue, seaweed and mushrooms. It was moist and delicious. We went back to the sea with a plate of sarrejão sashimi. Sarrejão is a fish from the bonito family that shines brightly when it is very fresh.

We were still savoring this delight when Filipe brought us his version of muxama. This prosciutto of the sea, made by salting and drying the best parts of the tuna, has been produced in the Algarve since Roman times. Filipe marinated the tuna in a mixture of soy and moscatel wine before he dried it. The muxama came with an exuberant combination of pumpkin pickle, sushi rice and a large shrimp from Algarve called “carabineiro.”

An appetizing bread seasoned with sardine sauce and a tasty mackerel soup came next. They were followed by xerem, an Algarve version of polenta, with berbigão and seaweed. Then the air filled with the aroma of grilled sardines that came from a tray where the sardine nigiri was being prepared. Our taste buds jumped for joy while the sardine melted in our mouth.

Filipe asked us whether we would like to repeat any of the items from the menu. We answered in unison:  yes, we would love some more sardine nigiri!

The meal ended with three desserts: a carob mousse served with tangerine sorbet, a bread pudding and a crème brulée where the milk was replaced with a berry puree.

A Taberna do Mar is a place where East meets West, where Japanese cooking techniques are used to recreate Portuguese flavors with delicious results.

Taberna do Mar is located at Calçada da Graça 20 B, in Lisbon, tel. 21 093 9360.

 

100 years of great ports

C0mposite Poças Wines

Making great port requires exceptional grapes and a deep knowledge of the production process. But most of all, it requires time, lots of time. Time for the nectars to lose the brashness of youth and mellow with age. That is why we cannot produce port wine by ourselves. We need our children and grandchildren to help. And if our great grandchildren can also lend a hand, even better.

The British port-wine families guarantee their longevity by leaving the business to a single son or daughter and compensating their siblings with cash. In contrast, Portuguese families generally sell their estates to divide the proceeds among the heirs. There is why there are almost no major Portuguese port houses left. The one remarkable exception is Poças, a company that celebrated 100 years in August 2018.

In 1918, Manoel Poças Júnior started buying brandy to supply port-wine producers. He was at times paid with barrels of port, so gradually he also became a port-wine merchant. In 1932, one of Manoel’s brandy clients paid a large debt with a wine estate called Quinta das Quartas. Manuel loved the estate which has granite tanks dating back to 1873.  Every week, he made the arduous trip from Oporto to Quinta das Quartas to visit the vineyards.

This passion is shared by his great granddaughter, Maria Manuela Maia, the viticulturist in charge of Quinta das Quartas and of the other two estates acquired by the family, Quinta de Santa Bárbara and Quinta de Vale de Cavalos. Even though today it is much easier to drive from Oporto to the Douro, Maria moved to the Douro valley to be closer to the vineyards.

We met with Maria in Vila Nova de Gaia, at the cellars where barrels full of precious nectars produced by past generations are stored. She shared with us some superb ports: a Vintage from 1997, a Reserva from 2014, and a Vale dos Cavalos from 2015. Our tasting ended with fireworks provided by a remarkable 1967 Tawny, full of freshness and acidity. We filled our glasses with this liquid treasure and made two toasts: to Manoel Poças for the successes of the past and to Maria for the successes of the future.

Click here for the Poças web site. To visit the Poças cellars email visitors@pocas.pt or call 223 203 257.

 

 

 

The wonders of Maçussa

Composite Maçussa

Francisco Magalhães, one of our favorite chefs, recommended the lunches that Adolfo Henriques prepares in Maçussa, a small town lost in the middle of Ribatejo. We called Adolfo to see if he could accommodate us and we were told to come the following Saturday at 1:30 pm to Rua do Moinho, number three.

We arrived late because we got lost. Maçussa is ignored by most GPS maps, so we had to resort to the ancient art of asking for directions. We parked underneath an oak tree and walked to a small green door marked with the number there. Inside, next to an old grandfather’s clock, there was a table set with plates of mouthwatering artisanal chèvre, camembert, and prosciutto.

Adolfo came to greet us. He looks like Ernest Hemmingway and speaks in short, crisp sentences much like the characters in Hemmingway’s novels. We asked many questions and this flood of curiosity made him clearly uneasy. “My usual conversation pals are two mules. They’re the only ones who truly understand me,” he tells us.

A server arrives with glasses of orange wine, made by leaving the juice of white grapes in contact with the skins. It has a wonderful acidity and evanescent aromas of fruit, herbs and flowers. “This type of wine was common in the old days when there were 226 wineries in Maçussa,” says Adolfo.

He brings us a basket with two types of bread. “I make this bread with yeast inherited from my grandfather. We kept it alive all these years. One of our breads is made with barbela wheat, an ancient gluten-free variety that is almost extinct. I started with a small bag of seeds. It took years to produce enough wheat to bake bread,” he explains.

Next, Adolfo offers us a tray of “gaspiada,” yellow pieces of baked polenta soaked in fragrant olive oil. He makes cornbread in a clay bowl that is more than a century old, a wedding present received by his grandmother. Some dough leftovers stay attached to the recipient. He mixes them with olive oil, bakes them, and serves them in cabbage leaves. “The elders say it is a recipe left by the French troops who trampled on Ribatejo during the peninsular wars.” says Adolfo.

A server keeps bringing more delights: mushrooms stuffed with goat cheese, an amazing blood sausage, a plate of flavorful smoked codfish liver. We use up all the synonyms for delicious in our vocabulary.  Adolfo rewards these accolades by offering us slices of a small aged cheese. “I don’t understand magic, but sometimes it happens,” he tells us. The cheese thrills all the senses in our palates. “A few years ago a French food journalist and a cheese producer came to visit. I offered them a cheese similar to this one. They refused to believe that it was not French. I had to show them my artisanal workshop to convince them that the cheese was made in Maçussa.”

Adolfo went to Lisbon to study sociology but interrupted his studies because he was drafted. When his army stint finished, he decided to return to his father’s farm. But his father didn’t want him back. “You are from the first generation that can leave and find a better life. There’s nothing for you here. Go back to your studies.” Adolfo stayed. He attended a workshop about making goat cheese with two biologists who had apprenticed in France. Then, he bought some goats and started making chèvre and camembert. “I’ve been surrounded by goats ever since,” he says, smiling.

We sat at the table for lunch. The meal started with sumptuous pied de mouton mushrooms served with scrambled farm eggs and arugula. “I have a friend who has devoted his life to studying mushrooms. He has identified and analyzed 140 varieties. For many years, he lived in a tent because he could not afford a house. I started buying mushrooms from him several years ago.”

Next, Adolfo brings roasted baby goat with mushrooms, new potatoes and onions. We ask him what is the secret to the delectable flavors on our plates. He shrugs his shoulders in silence and we realize that we asked him to explain the unexplainable. Adolfo feels bad about letting the question hang in the air, so he offers a partial answer: “the meat is seasoned with white wine, thyme, marjoram, and wild cumin.”

Dessert is a luscious chocolate cake, “the best in Ribatejo,” says Adolfo, mocking the self-proclaimed world’s best chocolate cake.  There are also amazing coscorões, paper-thin slivers of fried orange-flavored dough that are crunchy and sweet. The grandfather’s clock strikes six; we apologize for staying so long. “You’re not the first,” Adolfo replies. “A couple of years ago, a group of international chefs came to spend two hours and stayed for two days. I had to find places for them to sleep.”

We bought bread and cheese and drove back home, regretting all the years we spent without knowing about the wonders produced by Adolfo Henriques in Maçussa. But now we know. And so do you.

Adolfo Henriques’ company, Granja dos Moinhos, is located on Rua do Moinhos 3, Maçussa, Azambuja, tel 243-719-620, email granjadosmoinhos@sapo.pt. 

 

The river of forgetfulness

Tapeçaria -106 - Pousada de Viana do Castelo, Monte de Santa Luzia - @mariarebelophotography

The bar of the Viana do Castelo Pousada has a beautiful tapestry designed by the great artist Almada Negreiros and produced by the Portalegre Tapestry Manufacture in 1957.

The tapestry depicts the arrival of roman armies, commanded by Decius Junos Brutus, to  the left bank of the Lima river in 135 BC. The beauty of the place convinced the romans that they had found Lethes, the mythical river of forgetfulness that erased all the memories of those who crossed it.

The army stood still, no soldier dared to cross the river. Holding the roman banner in his hand, Brutus crossed the river. Once he reached the right margin, he called each soldier by his name to prove that his memory was intact. Reassured, the rest of the army crossed the river.