Portuguese zen

Bola de Berlim

A “bola de Berlim” (Berlin ball) is deliciously simple: fried dough filled with pastry cream, coated with sugar. How can we enjoy this treat in an era of constant calorie counting?

Here’s the strategy. You know those times when we’re annoyed by the small predicaments of life? We’re waiting in an endless line, lock our keys inside the car, step on a puddle of oil, loose our umbrella as it starts to rain. Instead of getting frustrated, we smile and think: we earned a bola de Berlin!

We rush to a pastry store and ask without a trace of guilt: “uma bola de Berlim, por favor.” We then enjoy the bola for what it really is: a necessary moment of zen.

This Bola de Berlim is from Tartine, a wonderful new bakery in Chiado where you can enjoy breakfast, brunch and other light meals. Tartine is located on Rua Serpa Pinto, 15, Lisbon, tel. 213429108. Click here for their website.


The queen’s in the palace


Her grandfather, who worked in an antique shop, believed that it takes several generations to create a great artist. Maybe this belief was the point of departure for Joana Vasconcelos, who often draws inspiration from age-old artisan techniques. Some of her pieces have a colossal scale, shoes built with pots and pans, giant wrought-iron teapots, towers fashioned out of champagne bottles. But she also makes small, whimsical objects.

In 2012, the Palace of Versailles invited Vasconcelos to showcase her work. The artist filled the palace with glamorous objects made of humble materials: feathered helicopters, ceramic lobsters, giant fabric sculptures, outsize hearts built with plastic cutlery. She dedicated the exhibition to the Portuguese women who work in Paris as concierges.

From March 23 to August 25, Vasconcelos shows her work in a perfect setting: the Ajuda royal palace in Lisbon. Portugal abolished the monarchy in 1910. But, in the arts, Joana Vasconcelos is our reigning queen.

Click here to visit Joana Vasconcelos’ web site. You can see her exhibition at Ajuda from 10 am to 7 pm every day except on Wednesdays. On Saturday the exhibition stays open until 9 pm. Click here for more information.

Cherishing the mackerel

A cavala, Rui Barreiros Duarte, ink on paper, 2012.

Fernand Point’s famous cookbook, Ma Gastronomie, includes two mackerel recipes. But in Portugal this fish, known as “cavala,” has never been popular. When fish mongers find mackerel mixed with other fish, they often give it away.

We worry that our national indifference toward the mackerel might make it swim to France in search of recognition. Luckily, chef José Avillez decided to pay tribute to this wonderful fish at his restaurant, Belcanto.  His recipe starts with a traditional “salmoura”: the fish is soaked in water, salt and sugar. It is then sliced and marinated in an infusion of rice vinegar and green apples. Finally, the mackerel is seared and served with delicately pickled vegetables.

If you go to Belcanto, please order this delicious dish. Help us keep the mackerel on the Portuguese coast!

Cavala Belcanto

Belcanto is located at Largo de S. Carlos, 10 in Lisbon. Tel. 213-420-607.

A sweet inheritance


When we eat lunch at the Palace Hotel in Bussaco, we feel like a character in a 19th century novel. There is a serenity, an ability to enjoy the passage of time that is absent from modern life.

The items on the menu are variations on traditional recipes, prepared with care and served with elegance. When the dessert cart arrives, the waitress recommends without hesitation the “Morgadinho do Bussaco.” It is a perfect dessert, made with only nuts and honey. Morgadinho means young heir. We’re lucky that Bussaco inherited this old recipe and shared it with us.

Sacred woods


Bussaco is one of the most romantic places in Portugal. It was once a Carmelite monastery where only men were allowed. When, in the 17th century, Queen Catherine of Bragança announced a visit, the monks opened a special door for her. But the visit was canceled and the door was immured.

The monks called the lush woods around the monastery “boscum sacrum,” sacred woods. Some say this designation is the origin of the word Bussaco. It was in these woods that Portuguese and English troops led by the Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon’s army.

By the late 19th century, the Bussaco monastery was in ruins. King Dom Carlos transformed it into a pavilion where the royal family could stay while hunting for wild boars. Later, the pavilion was converted into a fairy-tale luxury hotel that became a favorite with the European aristocracy. Dom Manuel II, the last king of Portugal, came here on vacation, not knowing that he would soon be forced into exile.

The Carmelite monks used to produce wine in the monastery grounds. The Palace Hotel revived this tradition in the early 20th century, making unfiltered wines with grapes from two regions, Dão and Bairrada. You cannot buy these legendary wines anywhere, so you have to travel to Bussaco to try them. It is a trip you’ll not forget.

Click here, for the Bussaco Palace web site.