Enchantment at Ceia

Standing in the shadow of Lisbon’s old pantheon, we knock on an inconspicuous door that opens into a courtyard erected in 1728. On our right is the entrance to one of Lisbon’s most hallowed dining rooms: a restaurant called Ceia. Those who’ve been here before experienced much more than superb food, exquisite wines, and courteous service. We had an enchanted evening.  

João Rodrigues, Ceia’s owner, is an alchemist who knows how to transform a meal that nourishes the body into a celebration that nurtures the soul. He gathered a star team, headed by chef Diogo Caetano and sous-chef Tiago Silva, and trusted them with precious ingredients: pristine organic produce freshly picked at Herdade do Tempo in Alentejo.

Ivo Custódio, the sommelier, greets us with an old acquaintance: a white wine made by Luís Mota Capitão, the iconoclast winemaker of Herdade do Cebolal. We enjoy the wine and the conversation with the other guests. Then, Ivo invites us into the dining room. We gather around a long wooden table to hear him explain that the meal is a journey through Portugal’s culinary and enological landscapes.

The voyage starts at the bottom of the ocean with tuna tartare on crunchy seaweed crackers, seaweed sponge cake, and gooseneck barnacles. An Atlantis rosé made with Negra Mole on the Madeira Island enhances the sea flavors.

We rise to the ocean’s surface with the taste of briny oysters paired with tart apples from Alcobaça and seaweed ice cream. The oysters come with a magnificent 2014 white wine from Colares, a small region near the sea where the vines, planted in the sand, survived the phylloxera scourge that decimated Europe in the 19th century. Made by Chitas (the nickname of an old producer called Paulo da Silva) it is a complex wine that fascinates and delights.

We arrive at the beach with a delicately cooked turbot seasoned with smoky olive oil powder and served in a Bulhão Pato sauce. It is so delicious we barely resist the urge to ask for seconds. 

But we find new joys in the lowlands where a sourdough bread fermented for three days and a cornbread baked with dried fruits await us. They come with Amor é Cego, a piquant oil made from Galega olives. There are also plates of luscious butter from Pico, an island in the Azores archipelago.

Ivo serves an elegant 2012 red from Quinta de Lemos in the Dão region. It is made with Jaen–a grape varietal brought to Portugal by pilgrims who traveled to Santiago de Compostela. Like the wine, the conversation flows freely around the table.

In the plains, there is rabbit served with an ice cream made from escabeche, a traditional sauce prepared with vinegar and olive oil. Kompassus, a sparkling wine made from Baga, a red grape from Bairrada, refreshes our palate. 

We climb up the mountain with a roasted purple cabbage dressed with a pennyroyal and champagne sauce. It comes with Sousão, a vibrant red wine from Vale da Raposa in the Douro valley. 

At the top of the mountain, we taste pigeon and potatoes from Trás-os-Montes served with a fermented garlic sauce. There’s also a mystery box with a delightful croquette and a scrumptious Philo-dough cup filled with sorrel leaves. 

Ivo serves a celebratory Breijinho da Costa, a fortified wine made in Setúbal with purple muscatel grapes. The meal ends with sweet fireworks: a noisette pave, petals of roasted peach, thyme ice cream, and lemon curd. And there are mignardises: a traditional Abade de Prisco pudding, coconut biscuits, cinnamon and strawberry truffles.  

Everybody lingers around the table feeling a sense of camaraderie. Then, we say our thanks and goodbyes and walk into the warm night in a state of enchantment. 

Ceia is located at Campo de Santa Clara, 128. Lisbon. Click here for the restaurant’s website.

The leader of the Barbela tribe

Barbela is a nutritious wheat that, until the 1930s, accounted for the bulk of Portuguese wheat consumption. It came from the fertile crescent and thrived in Portugal because it is hardy and can grow anywhere. Its long roots allow it to survive droughts and flourish in poor soils.

Hybrid wheats arrived in Portugal in the 1930s. They are low in nutrition but have high production yields boosted by chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Gradually, barbela lost ground to these flashy newcomers until only one barbela field remained. It is located on the foot of the Montejunto mountain and belongs to João Vieira. We drove to this place, far from the commotion of urban life, to meet with him.  

At 83 years of age, João speaks with the passion of youth and the wisdom earned over the course of a life well lived. Everything he says comes from a well of deep reflection. 

João worked in France during his youth, but when manufacturing jobs started to disappear, he returned to the land of his ancestors. He realized that barbela, once ubiquitous on the sandy soils of Montejunto, was vanishing. The seed stock was dwindling, and so was the cultivation knowledge. João started planting barbela seeds that came from his father and grandfather. He loved seeing this tall wheat sway again with the wind, making waves like the sea. 

What started as a one-person campaign against oblivion mobilizes today a small army. João calls it the barbela tribe. It is a loose network of farmers who plant barbela and share their experiences. João inducts new members by giving them seeds on the condition that they later provide other people with seeds and bring them into the tribe. 

Barbela is a soft wheat that produces flour suitable for breads, tarts, and cakes. Every day, João makes bread with his barbela flour. After harvesting, threshing, and milling, the sieve has the last word, choosing what makes it into the flour. João likes his bread with a coarse texture, so he occasionally overrules the sieve and lets a few larger grains into the mix. 

He went into the kitchen and returned with a basket of bread to share with us. We sat with him for quite a while, trying this exquisite bread and listening to his precious words. It was a very fine use of time. 

A codfish restaurant

If you’re yearning for codfish, we know a restaurant that will satisfy your lust. Called Sal na Adega, it is part of Adega Mãe, a winery in Torres Vedras that belongs to Ribeiralves, a company famous for its salted cod. 

Sal na Adega has a spacious dining room that overlooks serene vineyards. A large round window gives us a glimpse of the kitchen’s hustle and bustle. 

You can accompany the meal with any wine from the winery’s shop by paying a modest cork fee. The menu lists many meat and fresh fish preparations, but the star offering is salted cod. Codfish usually pairs with red wine, but if you’re feeling adventurous, we suggest a white wine made from Vital. There are only a few wineries making wine with this grape varietal. The results are exciting, and the wine is a great companion for the fish.

Our meal started with codfish cakes, a litmus test passed with flying colors–the cakes were crispy, rich, and flavorful. Then we tried a trio of cod preparations. First, a codfish loin topped with crunchy prosciutto and onion in a vinegar sauce called escabeche. Second, grilled codfish neck, the most succulent part of the fish because of its abundance of collagen. It is an epic preparation, up there in the pantheon of best codfish we have ever tried. Third, a delicious codfish in coriander rice.

The dessert menu includes many temptations and one irresistible choice: the famous bean pastries from Serra da Vila in Torres Vedras. 

The meal ends with a pleasant surprise: a 10 percent discount on the wines purchased at the wine shop. We went to Sal na Adega for the codfish, and came back with some great wine.

Sal na Adega is located at Estrada Municipal 554, Torres Vedras, tel. 261-950-105.

Susana Esteban’s thrilling wines

Susana Esteban agreed to present her wines at the Arraiolos Pousada in September. It was an act of generosity because the harvest was in full motion, and she’s a perfectionist. Like the photographer Cartier-Bresson, she’s always looking for the decisive moment. The moment when the grapes are perfectly ripe to be gently harvested by hand, when the fermentation has run its course and worked its magic, when the oak barrels have refined the wine without changing its temperament.

As soon as Susana started talking, the sun set as if sensing that another star had arrived. Her Portuguese is seasoned with a charming accent–she was born in a Spanish region called Galicia. After graduating in enology, she decided to do an internship in the Douro valley, a place that was then remote and isolated. She stayed and worked in the Douro during her formative years. Then, like the swallows, she went south in search of something new– vineyards where she could develop her style and make wines that can age and evolve for many decades.

She made her first wine in 2011. It is called Procura, the Portuguese word for search. Susana found what she was searching for in the hills of São Mamede in Portalegre–centenarian vines full of character. They needed a lot of care, but Susana nursed them back to health with patience and affection.

Susana is cloning the old vineyards to preserve their genetic material and pass it onto the new vineyards that she is planting. None of her vineyards, new or old, are irrigated. The thirsty vines produce low quantity but high quality. 

We first tried a rosé made from Aragonês and purple muscatel that is pleasantly aromatic and light in alcohol–a perfect summer drink. 

Then, we tasted an exquisite white wine made in amphoras called Tira o Véu (removing the veil). The first time Susana made it, in 2019, she witnessed a rare phenomenon: a veil formed on top of the amphora. It is a film created by yeast highly prized in the production of sherries. No one knows what makes it occur, but every year the veil returns to make this wine more seductive and mysterious.

Next, we drank an alluring red wine made with Touriga Nacional and Aragonês. For Susana producing wine is an adventure, so she calls it Aventura. We’re lucky to be part of this thrilling experience that results in a wine full of freshness and minerality.

Finally, we tried the wonderfully harmonious 2016 red Procura. It combines a field blend with Alicante Bouschet from ancient vines aged in oak to round the tannins. It is a “vinho de guarda,” a wine with great longevity that will improve and surprise with the passage of time. We’re so lucky that Susana found the vineyards she was looking for!

Dona Octávia’s culinary wealth

We loved the sausages served during our epic lunch at Páteo Real. Chef Filipe Ramalho offered to call Dona Octávia, the sausage maker, to see if we could meet her. She agreed, so we drove through the golden plains of Alentejo to a small village called Cano. Blinded by the exuberant sunlight, we knocked on a green door marked Salsicharia Canense. Dona Octávia welcomed us inside, greetings us with glasses of cold water that quenched our thirst. 

She’s been making sausages for 40 years. Her parents had eight children, so there were many mouths to feed. Everybody had to work to help out. The only education available to Dona Octávia was learning how to make sausages with her grandmother. 

She opened Salsicharia Canense with her husband in 1997. People quickly noticed that her sausages were finer than the rest. “I enjoy my work and try to make everything I do special,” Dona Octávia confided. She has always used local ingredients–pigs raised in Alentejo and herbs from her garden or the nearby Portalegre mountain. She uses no preservatives or foreign spices, and all her sausage casings are natural and hand-sewn.

Dona Octávia says she was born poor but now feels rich because her son João returned to Cano to work with her and preserve her culinary knowledge. It’s the kind of wealth that trickles down to us all.

Salsicharia Canense is located at Rua de São José, Cano. You can order their products by calling 962 938 107.

Funchal’s farmers market

If you’re visiting Funchal, the capital of the Madeira archipelago, make sure you stop by Mercado dos Lavradores, the farmer’s market. It is a place full of color—exuberant fruits fight for attention with fragrant spices and strings of hot red and yellow peppers. 

The fish stalls overflow with large tuna, red and black bodião, and slender scabbardfish. The latter lived inconspicuously, deep in the ocean, until fishermen discovered them in the 17th century. Despite their scary look, scabbardfish became a mainstay of Madeira cuisine. Often served fried accompanied by fried bananas, it is delicious!

Howard’s Folly

It is great fun to visit Howard’s Folly in Estremoz. The restaurant, winery, and art gallery are a joint venture between Howard Bilton, a British financier, and David Baverstock, a legendary winemaker. 

After studying enology in his home country, Australia, David worked in France and Germany. Before returning home, he vacationed in Portugal and met his future wife, Maria Antonieta. He returned to Australia to work in the Barossa Valley, where Maria joined him. But Maria was homesick, and in 1982 the couple came back to Portugal. David worked in the Douro valley until 1992, when he became chief winemaker at Herdade do Esporão in Alentejo. He felt at home in the endless plains that reminded him of Australia. His thirty harvests at Esporão helped establish Alentejo as an important wine region.  

Howard’s Folly is an exuberant place. It occupies a large building that was once a “grémio da lavoura,” an agriculture association. There is art everywhere. Sewing machines turned into miniature tractors bought in the local market, pig sculptures, and much more.

David shows us the winery with its colorful walls painted by a graffiti artist. Freshly picked grapes are arriving to be sorted, crushed, and cooled with dry ice. 

We head to the restaurant. The food, prepared by chef Hugo Bernardo, is Portuguese with a whimsical British twist. The butter has a strong umami taste because it is mixed with Marmite, a salty yeast extract popular in Britain. 

David opens a delightful white wine called Sonhador (dreamer), made from old vines planted in the hills of São Mamede in Portalegre. It is an excellent companion for the codfish and chips that soon arrived at the table. Then we try the Winemaker’s Choice, a velvety red that pairs beautifully with a delicious shitake mushroom salad.

Lunch ends with a glass of 1991 Carcavelos. The wine, produced at Quinta dos Pesos by the Manuel Bulhosa family, was stored in barrels and almost forgotten. David and Howard convinced the family to sell them some barrels so that David could make a blend. The result is spectacular.  

David retired from Esporão and was planning to take it easy. But Ravasqueira convinced him to join them as chief winemaker. And that is lucky for us. We’ll be able to enjoy many more of David’s harvests to come!

Howard’s Folly is located at Rua General Norton de Matos in Estremoz, tel. 268 332 151.

A sublime pumpkin tart

Edgardo Pacheco is a Portuguese journalist who writes with eloquence and grace about gastronomy. He knows so many people in the food world that he managed to surprise us on our home turf. He arrived at our house with an irresistible sweet tart. When we asked him about the provenance of this delight, he revealed it came from the town nearby!

The tart was created in 2018 for the local pumpkin festival by a young chef called Sílvia Batista. It has a flour, butter, and sugar base, a pumpkin-pulp filling, and a topping made with pumpkin seeds, sugar, and butter. The combination is sublime.

Silvia makes the tart with her mother, Diná, and sells it in Lourinhã, where it is quickly gathering fame. The chef didn’t name the tart after herself. She called it “Dona Isabel” in honor of Isabel Mateus, who, with her husband, discovered a nest of dinosaur eggs in a local beach. 

Creating a brand-new recipe requires skill. But the naming of the tart reveals another important ingredient: generosity. Sílvia has both talent and generosity in abundance. We can’t wait to taste what else she’ll make!

Click here for Sílvia Batista’s web site. You can buy or order her tart at O Casco, Rua Dr. Francisco de Sá Carneiro, Lt 22 R/Ch Dto. Lourinhã, tel. 910 121 280.

How do we tell the king?

We used to buy jams endorsed by the British monarchs, figuring that centuries of sampling jams at tea time gave them the practice required to select the cream of the jam crop.

We quite liked the British jams until one fateful lunch at Toca da Raposa in Ervedosa do Douro. A sampling of jams arrived without fanfare at dessert time. When we tried them, we experienced a whole new level of deliciousness!  

What makes these jams so sublime? Their fruit comes from the Douro valley, a place where the scorching summer heat and a wealth of soil micronutrients create unique conditions that intensify aromas and flavors. And each batch is handcrafted by Dona Graça, a legendary cook, and her talented daughter, Rosário. The two leave nothing to chance, shunning the use of preservatives and making adjustments small and large to ensure that the results are perfect. 

There is an orange jam chockfull of strips of orange rind that delight the palate and an orange and hot pepper jam with the ideal combination of sugar and spice. There are jars of jam brimming with perfectly ripe whole figs; a surprisingly delicious zucchini jam; amazing jams made with must from grapes used to produce port wine; jams made from a rare peach variety that grows amidst the vines, and much more.

The jams favored by his royal majesty pale by comparison with the wondrous jams from Toca da Raposa! The question is: how do we tell the king?

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

Alentejo’s star wine grape

In the middle of the 19th century, Henri Bouschet crossed Petit Bouschet, a combination of Aramon and Teinturier de Cher conceived by his father, with Grenache. The new varietal, Alicante Bouschet, produces wines with a beautiful dark-red color. 

Over time, the French lost interest in Alicante Bouschet. But the grape found its home in Alentejo, where it flourished and transformed, becoming one the region’s most emblematic varietals. 

Alicante Bouschet was first planted in Alentejo at the end of the 19th century by the Reynolds, a British family that purchased Herdade de Mouchão. It is the star of the wines made by Julio Bastos, an heir to the Reynolds family, at Quinta Dona Maria

The photo shows some beautiful Petit Verdot (on the right) and Alicante Bouschet (on the left) grapes picked at Monte da Ravasqueira. Like Petit Verdot, most red grapes have white pulp. That is why we can make white wine from red grapes (“blanc de noirs”). If we extract the red-grape juice and avoid contact with the skins, the result is a white wine. If we allow for some skin contact, we get a rosé.  

Both the skin and pulp of Alicante Bouschet grapes are red. This type of grape is called tintoreira (dyeing) because it gives color to the wine. But it has much more to offer: enticing aromas, structure, concentration, and aging ability. Open up a bottle of Alentejo wine, and you’ll see!