Quinta Dona Maria

Quinta D. Maria Winery

Estremoz is a town in Alentejo famous for its white marble. The same geological conditions that fashioned its pristine stones created limestone soils perfect for wine production. So it’s no wonder that there are so many wineries around Estremoz.

The prettiest of them all is Quinta Dona Maria. The estate, which dates back to 1718, was purchased by King João V and offered to Dona Maria, a courtesan with whom he fell in love. In the 19th century, the estate was bought by the Reynolds, a family of British merchants who came to Portugal to produce cork and wine. The current owner, Julio Bastos, inherited the estate from an aunt who married into the Reynolds family.

Bastos got his passion for wine from his father. Every year, father and son came to the harvest so that young Julio could be initiated into the mysteries of wine making. Bastos is particularly fond of Alicante Bouchet, a varietal brought to Alentejo by his family in the 19th century.

Eager to produce extraordinary wines, Bastos entered into a partnership with Lafite Rothschild. But when the Rothschild team started uprooting his old family vines to plant French varietals, Basto decided to go his own way.

He nurtured the old vines and used 17th century marble tanks to tread the grapes. The result are wines with a unique personality: rich and earthy with elegant aromas and a smooth finish.

Production volumes are low, so these wines are hard to find. If you’re traveling in Alentejo, stop by Quinta Dona Maria and take home these exquisite wines made in soils nourished by the love of the land and blessed by the richness of marble.

Click here for the website of Quinta Dona Maria.


Imagining new worlds at the Sagres pousada

Pousada de Sagres

Every Portuguese kid learns that Sagres is the place “where land ends and the sea begins.” It was here that Henry the Navigator launched the voyages that led to the discovery of new worlds.

The Sagres pousada has a spectacular location on a cliff that overlooks the fort built by Henry the Navigator in the 15th century. In 1587, the fort was captured by the British pirate Francis Drake who used it as a base of operation for two turbulent months. Rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake, the fort stands as a tribute to the golden age of discovery.

There’s a lot to do and see near the pousada: alluring beaches, small fish restaurants, quaint villages, and expansive seascapes. But it is also great to relax in the veranda of our room and contemplate the sea that enticed the Portuguese to leave the safety of their homeland to venture into the unknown.

Here’s a link to the pousadas’ website. You can find a large collection of photos of the pousadas at www.mariarebelophotography.com.




A noble crab soup

Sapateira - IMG_0402

Almost three decades ago, a friend took us to a new restaurant called Nobre in the Ajuda neighborhood. The name, which means noble, came from the surname of the chef, Justa Nobre. We recall with fondness the meals we enjoyed there. After a successful run, Nobre closed so that the chef could pursue other projects,

Last week, the same friend invited us for lunch. We were delighted to discover that we were going to a new restaurant that marks Justa Nobre’s return to Ajuda. It is called “À Justa,” an expression based on the chef’s first name that means “just right.”

The menu offers a cuisine without foreign accents that has the satisfying taste of authenticity. The recipes are grounded in the cooking of Justa’s grandmothers. But they are not a copy of the past. They reflect years of refinements shaped by the personality and creativity of this self-taught chef.

The restaurant was full. The Portuguese like to flirt with contemporary food trends but they always come back to their one true love, which is the traditional cooking of Portugal.

We had a great meal that included bright green fava beans, chickpeas with codfish, codfish “pataniscas,” and fried cuttlefish. These delights were preceded by a classic of Justa Nobre’s repertoire: the spider crab soup. Its aristocratic taste makes all other seafood soups in Lisbon look common by comparison.

Many chefs keep their secrets, but Justa generously shared some of her recipes in a book titled Passion for Cooking. We translate her recipe for spider crab soup below. But you must try the original at À Justa where they make it just right.


Justa Nobre’s spider crab soup

Ingredients: 2 large spider crabs weighing about 1 kg. each, 3 liters of water, 3 tablespoons of sea salt, 150 grams of margarine, a large onion, 2 cloves of garlic, a parsley bunch, a sliced fennel head, 4 tablespoons of tomato paste, half liter of cream, 0.1 liter of dry white port, one teaspoon of powdered ginger, one teaspoon of saffron, 2 tablespoons of potato starch.

Preparation: Boil the crabs in the salted water for 8 minutes. Remove them, let then cool off and extract all the meat. Return the shells to the pan. Add some shrimp shells and let them boil for 10 minutes. In a large pot, melt the margarine and add the sliced onion, fennel and garlic. Let these ingredients cook briefly and then add the white port, the cream, the tomato paste, the spices, and two liters of the crab broth. Mix the potato starch with some cold water and add it to the soup. Check the seasoning and strain the soup. Add the crab meat and serve the soup it in the shell of the spider crab.

À Justa is located at Calçada Ajuda 107, in Lisbon. The restaurant seats only 36 people, so reservations are a must. Call 21 363 0993 or email reservas@ajusta.pt. Click here for Justa Nobre’s web site.


An hotel in the land of silence

Composit Colmeal

As we drove on the narrow road from Figueira do Castelo Rodrigo to Colmeal, we felt we were leaving the modern world behind. All we saw ahead of us were granite hills and fertile valleys under a sapphire blue sky. Even as we got close to the hotel, the building remained invisible. Its honeycomb shape dissolves into the landscape leaving us with a pristine view of the Marofa mountain. The same view that the Neolithic people saw when they made their paintings nearby, 3,000 years ago. The same panorama that welcomed the pilgrims who followed the ancient spring that goes by the village of Colmeal, on their way to Santiago de Compostela. This water, crystalline and pure, was a blessing to the travelers. And so was the food and hospitality offered by the population of this village that dates back to the 12th century.

The new Colmeal Countryside Hotel seeks to revive this tradition of hospitality.  In the evening we enjoyed a simple meal of watercress soup, local cheese and fruit. When we asked our waiter why the soup tasted so great, he told us that one of the secrets is the local spring water. “Anything cooked with this water is transformed,” he said.

The hotel, designed by architect Pedro Brígida, is warm and welcoming. It integrates perfectly with its the surroundings, which include a manor house and a church that once belonged to the family of Pedro Álvares Cabral, the navigator who discovered Brazil.

The environment is so peaceful that we found ourselves whispering to avoid staining the immaculate silence. We sat on the terrace on a warm Summer night bathing in star light, happy to have left the modern word behind.

Click here for the hotel’s website.

Celebrating the passage of time at Ramos Pinto

Composit Ramos Pinto

Port wine used to be sold in austere black bottles with somber labels. Adriano Ramos Pinto, a maverick entrepreneur who entered the port wine trade in 1880, changed all that. He wrapped port wine with sensuous images, elegant packaging, and clever marketing.

One of Ramos Pinto’s publicity coups took place in 1922. Two pilots, Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral, planned to make the first aerial crossing of the South Atlantic, flying from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro. Ramos Pinto convinced them to take a bottle of his port wine on board to celebrate their landing in Rio de Janeiro. On the first two attempts, the airplane sunk near the coast of Brazil. But both the pilots and the bottle were saved. The third attempt was successful and the bottle was finally opened to great acclaim. This and other exploits made Adriano Ramos Pinto so famous in Brazil that a glass of port was often called an Adriano.

Tasting port wines at the cellars of Ramos Pinto in Vila Nova de Gaia is a sumptuous experience. You can try splendid tawnies, made by man with the help of God, and divine vintages, made by God with the help of man.

Tawnies are aged in 600-liter wood barrels where they acquire a golden color and the taste of dry fruits, almonds and nuts. As time goes by, some of the wine evaporates and the barrels have to be topped off. This evaporation has a whimsical name: the “angel’s share.”

A bottle of tawny is a blend of wine from different harvests. A 30-year-old tawny is made with wines that average 30 years of age, so it often contains wine that is 60, 70, even 100 years old. The passage of time is a key factor in the production of great ports. There are 4 million liters of port stored in Ramos Pinto’s cellars.  Master blenders use these nectars produced by older generations and save some barrels from the current harvests to be blended by future generations.

Vintage ports are produced from a single harvest in exceptional years. They stage for only two years in wood barrels called balseiros. These barrels are very old and very large, holding 60,000 liters of wine. They are used to smooth the tannins without imparting the taste of wood to the wine. Vintage port is bottled and stored in the dark to preserve its rich red color and the taste of fresh fruit.

Ramos Pinto also produces alluring white ports. We tried a 7-year white blend that has enticing notes of honey and citrus. There are also wonderful late bottled vintage (LVB) ports. Produced more often than the rare vintages, LVBs are aged in balseiros for 4 years and then bottled without being filtered, so they can continue to improve in the bottle.

In 1990, Ramos Pinto was acquired by Roederer, the producer of the famed Cristal champagne. But the company is managed by a Portuguese enologist, João Nicolau de Almeida, son of the legendary Fernando Nicolau de Almeida, creator of the iconic Barca Velha. In addition to wonderful ports, João Nicolau d’Almeida makes two impressive table wines: Duas Quintas and Bons Ares.

It is traditional to buy a bottle of port from the year in which one’s child is born for them to make a toast when they come of age. Buying this birthday bottle for your children is a great excuse to visit the Ramos Pinto cellars and a beautiful way to celebrate the passage of time.

Click here for the Ramos Pinto web site. The cellars are located at Av. Ramos Pinto 400, Vila Nova de Gaia near Oporto.

A restaurant called Romando

Rest. Romando

Call us old fashioned, but we don’t like to outsource our choice of restaurants to trip advisor. So, we contacted a friend who’s a bon vivant to ask whether he could recommend a good place for lunch near Vila do Conde. “Make reservations at Romando,” he said without hesitating. “It’s been around forever, serving great traditional food.” We duly called the restaurant and drove to the address they gave us. We arrived at a brand-new building decorated with modern furniture. Could this be the right place?

As soon as the first course arrived–robalo (sea bass) with shrimp rice–we knew that we were indeed at the right place. The fish had been filleted and cooked in the oven seasoned only with salt and olive oil. It is a simple preparation, but the timing has to be precise in order for the freshness of the fish to sing. And sing it did, joined by a choir of shrimps wrapped in sea aromas and rice grains dressed in tomato robes.

Next, our waiter brought us codfish cooked with red pepper, onion, and diced prosciutto. It was deeply satisfying with all the great ingredients pulling together to make the overall taste much more than the sum of the individual flavors. Finally, we tried some tender, succulent grilled meats accompanied by crispy French fries and flavorful beans.

As far as dessert is concerned, it suffices to say that Romando’s puddings, tarts and cakes tempt the most virtuous souls to indulge in gluttony.

Rosa and Armando Pena opened the restaurant soon after they got married, more than a quarter of century ago. Rosa was in charge of the kitchen and Armando managed the dining room. They combined their names and called the place Romando.

The restaurant quickly gathered fame. But the secret of their success is that they never rested on their laurels. They kept evolving, searching for better ingredients, upgrading the quality of the service and, more recently, renovating the restaurant premises. At the same time, the cooking stayed grounded in the techniques of Portuguese cuisine and in the love and commitment that inspired Rosa and Armando to combine their names.

Romando is located at Rua da Fonte, nº221 in Árvore near Vila do Conde, tel. 252 641 075. Click here for the restaurant’s web site.

An 18th century oasis

Casa de Sezim composit

Where can we start to tell you what a privilege it is to stay at Casa de Sezim in Guimarães? This manor house is the perfect place to experience the glamour of aristocratic life.

The house is built around a tower that remounts to 1376. The magnificent salons and the expansive veranda were added in the 18th century. It was at this time the famous hand-crafted wall papers were ordered from Zuber in France.

These papers fill the walls with the adventures of Dom Quixote and glimpses of faraway lands: India and the United States. Zuber made two editions of the papers with American landscapes, one for Casa de Sezim and the other for the White House in Washington D.C.

We arrived with a long list of places to visit in the vicinity. But we fell under the spell of Casa de Sezim and decided to relax and spend some time in this 18th century oasis. Why go far in search of beauty when you have it near?

Casa de Sezim is located in Guimarães at Rua de Sezim. Click here for their web site.