Was Christopher Columbus born in Cuba, Alentejo?

Adega Monte Pedral

Last Summer, we visited Cuba, a small town in Alentejo. We were attracted by the legend that this hamlet of white-washed houses is the true birth place of Christopher Columbus. The navigator called Cuba the large Caribbean island he discovered in 1492. Why did he choose such an unusual name? Was it to honor his hometown?

We asked a local where to go for lunch. He smiled and pointed to a building on the other side of the road. A large sign read “Adega da Casa de Monte Pedral.”

As soon as we entered the restaurant, we heard voices singing in harmony. A group of locals was sharing a glass of amphora wine and singing traditional Alentejo songs called “cante.”

We sat at a corner table in the spacious dining room full of old wine amphoras. Our waiter asked whether we would like to try the wine that the singers were drinking. Of course we did! It came with a bowl of terrific olives and a plate of splendid prosciutto made from black pigs raised in Alentejo on a diet of acorns. The white wine was deliciously refreshing and devoid of affectation.

Our meal started with a soup made from beans, sausages, black pork, and “tengarrinhas,” a wild thistle abundant in the region. The flavors blended perfectly, to create a deeply satisfying taste and aroma. Our main course was culinary perfection: grilled black pork with a lettuce and mint salad and olive “migas,” a bread-based accompaniment.

José Soudo, the restaurant owner, said farewell to the singers and started making the rounds. He stopped at every table to talk to the diners, using a small glass to try the wine they were drinking. José told us that the building used to be the home of a wealthy family. He bought it four decades ago and turned it into a restaurant that quickly became part of the community. It is a place where the locals stop before lunch and dinner to drink a glass of wine and sing a few songs. His son is the cook. “You have to come back to try his other specialties, tomato soup, purslane soup, lamb stew, and much more,” said José.

The house came with six large amphoras which José used to make 3,500 liters of wine to drink with his friends. Over time, he accumulated 28 amphoras, so now he has enough amphora wine to serve in the restaurant.

We left confident that Cuba is not Christopher Columbus’ hometown. After all, if he was born in a place with such enticing wine, satisfying food and harmonious singing why would he ever leave?

Adega da Casa de Monte Pedral is located at Rua da Fonte dos Leões, Cuba, tel. 936 520 036, email geral@casamontepedral.pt. Click here for the restaurant’s website.

Fragrances from the Azores

Aqua dos Açores

In 1957, there were large volcano eruptions off the coast of Faial, an island in the Azores archipelago. These eruptions, which lasted for more than a year, destroyed the village of Capelinhos, leaving its houses in ruins and its fields buried in volcanic ash.

Fifty years after the eruptions, a Florentine couple, Cinzia Caiazzo and Gianni Mancassola, visited Capelinhos and fell in love with its lunar landscape. On a whim, they bought a vacation home in the small village. Eventually, they retired from their jobs and moved to Capelinhos.

Cinzia and Gianni relish the earth and sea aromas that make the islands so alluring. So, they decided to create perfumes using essential oils made with plants from the Azores.  They call their collection Aqua dos Açores.

Flores, the Portuguese word for flowers, is a perfume that fills the air with the scent of exotic blooms and wet grass blended with the maritime breeze. Azul, the Portuguese word for blue, is a fragrance that enfolds us with the exuberance of the ocean.

Their home fragrances, Branco and Tinto, are inspired by their other passion: producing wine in the Azores. These fragrances capture the delicate, evanescent aromas of freshly-picked grapes.

There is a powerful connection between scents and memory. If you wear these fragrances when you visit the Azores, they will forever be linked to the lush, rugged landscape of these beautiful islands.  And from then on, a whiff of these perfumes will take you instantly back to the Azores.

Click here for the Aqua dos Açores web site.

 

Armchair travel

Sunset Areia Branca

In the 1920s, the writer Raul Proença started editing a collection of Guides to Portugal. Published between 1924 and 1970, eight thick volumes compile texts from some of our country’s most eloquent writers. These erudite travel guides describe in detail the landscape, architecture, history, and culture of Portugal.

One of the essays by Raul Proença included in the first volume is about the Portuguese sky. Proença writes that “There are days with a splendorous light in which under a very clear sky all is golden: the earth, the trees, the waters, even the smiles of people and things are golden. It is a prodigious dazzle that cannot be described.  We are all but surprised at how a sapphire blue dome emanates such golden light.”

Most of the guides were published when traveling was arduous and expensive. So one of their purposes was to serve as a substitute for travel. If you could not visit the cities and villages these books describe, the evocative prose of Raul Proença and his collaborators would take you there.

In these days we’re spending at home, we can seat in an armchair, open the pages of these tattered tomes and travel to Portugal.

Café Majestic

Magestic Café

Nothing fuels creativity like coffee. Voltaire made sure his inspiration never faltered by sipping 40 cups of coffee a day. Balzac conceived plots for his novels by staying up all night drinking coffee.

One of our favorite places for a stimulating cup of brew is the Majestic Cafe in Oporto. Inaugurated in 1921, it has elegant proportions and exquisite Art Nouveau interiors. The café charges premium prices so it attracts few locals. Drinking a good espresso will set you back 5 euros. It is a price well worth paying for all the creative ideas that a visit to the glamour of the Belle Époque can spark.

Café Majestic is located at Rua Santa Catarina 112, Porto. Click here for the café’s website.

Taberna Albricoque

Taberna Albricoque

Albricoque, a quaint word for apricot used in the Algarve, is a great name for a Lisbon restaurant that blends the old with the new. The space is old; it opened in 1905 as a tavern for travelers from the nearby Santa Apolónia train station. The food is rooted in the traditional culinary vocabulary of the Algarve, the birth place of Albricoque’s chef, Bertílio Gomes. But the approach to food and service is new. Every recipe has been refined to make it more appealing. The character of the restaurant, imparted by features such as the original floor paved with hydraulic tiles, was preserved. But modern amenities, unthinkable in 1905, have been added.

Everything on the menu is delicious. Our meal began with a plate of olives that tasted like sausage because of the way in which they were fermented. There was also a salad made with the purple carrots that were common in the Algarve in old times. Then, the feast continued: savory muxama (cured tuna), plump oysters from Ria Formosa, crispy rissois de berbigão (cockle turnovers), silky alhada de raia (manta ray with garlic), extraordinary marinated carapau (horse mackerel) combined with figs and toasted almonds and served on shinzo leafs.

Chef Bertílio likes to explore the methods for preserving food used in the Algarve before refrigerators became common. He salts a fish called abrótea then hangs it in the cold for a couple of days to drain its liquid. The result is an intense, satisfying taste reminiscent of that of salted codfish.

We didn’t order the fried moreia (moray), because it is usually greasy and chewy, but the chef brought a plate to the table for us to try. It was very thinly sliced and perfectly fried, a revelation of flavor, texture and aroma. The meal ended on a sweet note with almere, a dessert made with the liquid that is left from the making of requeijão, flavored with thyme and pine nuts.

If you’re near Santa Apolónia, stop by Taberna Albricoque to try its delicacies. If you’re far, come to Santa Apolónia for the privilege of dining at Taberna de Albricoque.

Taberna Albricoque is located at Rua Caminhos de Ferro nº98, Lisboa, tel. 21 886 1182, email reservas@albricoque.pt.

Four generations of Ramilo wines

Ramilo

After serving as a soldier in Africa, Manuel Ramilo returned to Portugal in 1895 severely ill. His godfather arranged for him to spend his final days in a tranquil village near Mafra called Alqueidão. Against all odds, Manuel recovered and married a wealthy woman he met in the village.

In 1937, Manuel started producing wine to sell to local taverns. His son, Manuel junior, and his grandson Belmiro expanded the business, buying grapes from local producers to make blends to sell to restaurants.

One day, Belmiro and his sons, Pedro and Nuno, had lunch with a friend who inquired  about the future of the family business. Belmiro replied that the future was uncertain because his kids were not interested in wine making. Shortly after this conversation, Nuno decided to study enology. Soon his passion for wine flourished to the point where he abandoned his job as a bridge engineer to work full time at Ramilo wines.

Nuno focused on the 10 hectares of vineyards owned by his family. Two hectares are planted in the sandy soils of Colares. Eight are planted in the clay, rocky soils surrounding Alqueidão, the place where it all started. It was there that we met with Nuno.

The day was foggy and humid, conditions that are normal in this region because of the proximity of the Sintra mountain and the Atlantic Ocean.  In the old days, everybody in Alqueidão made wine. The best vineyards are planted on steep slopes that face south and are sheltered from the ocean winds so grapes can reach the ideal level of maturation.

Enologists Virgílio Loureiro and Manuel Malfeito worked with Nuno to create wines that preserve the character of this unique terroir. The results are outstanding. We tried a wonderful white wine made from vital, a grape that was once overlooked because it is not very aromatic. It has a minerality that is deeply satisfying. Next, we sampled a wonderful red made from old Castelão vines that is full of salinity and vigor. Both wines come from vines planted in Alqueidão.

Nuno went to the cellar and brought back a bottle with a painted label. It was a 2017 white Malvasia from Colares. Few plants grow on sand because the soil does not retain enough moisture, explained Nuno. But farmers in Colares discovered that they could grow vines on the dunes near the ocean if they dug the sand until they found clay soil where they could plant the roots. Planting and caring for these vines is hard work. But hiding the roots three meters below the surface had a big payoff: when phylloxera devastated the European vineyards in the 19th century, the vines of Colares survived unscathed.

After breaking the wax capsule of the old-fashioned bottle, Nuno gently coaxed the cork out of the bottleneck. As soon as the yellow wine colored our glasses, we fell under the spell of its delicate aroma. The character and complexity of this Colares left us speechless. Since it was released, Nuno’s phone has not stopped ringing. He quickly sold most of the 1,200 bottles produced. Revista dos Vinhos, an influential Portuguese wine magazine, included it in its list of the top-ten Portuguese wines.

It was a privileged to try this rare nectar, the perfect wine to make a toast to the four generations of Ramilos who made it possible.

Ramilo wines is located in Alqueidão, tel. 219 611 453, email info@ramilowines.com. Click here for Ramilo’s web site.

A short guide to the cuisine of Portugal

Cozinha Portuguesa Book

In one of the letters collected in the volume Lettres Provinciales, published in 1657, the philosopher Blaise Pascal writes that “I have made this letter longer than usual because I did not have time to make it shorter.” Brevity is a virtue that requires time, skill and effort. This is the reason why we appreciate so much a small volume titled “Portuguese Cuisine: a Brief Look” recently published by the Portuguese Academy of Gastronomy.

Summarizing the astonishing diversity of ingredients and preparation methods of the Portuguese cuisine is a herculean task. But with 11 recipes carefully written and beautiful illustrated, this book succeeds in this difficult endeavor.

The collection opens with Portuguese meat pies with collard-greens rice. It is an inspired choice because this staple of home-cooked meals is a test of a cook’s skill. Different  people following the same recipe can produce results that vary from adequate to sublime.

The second recipe, Setúbal-style grilled red mullet, is a simple preparation that starts you off on a journey to master the fine art of grilling fish. The freshness of the fish, the amount of salt used to season it, the hotness of the coals, the distance from the coals to the fish, and the timing of the grilling all determine the final results.

Brás-style codfish is a brilliant recipe: an implausible combination of thin, fried potatos, eggs and codfish that surprises and delights. The preparation is quite forgiving, so even a novice can produce great results.

Making Algarve-style fish requires a cataplana, an oval pot that traps the steam to keep the fish moist. This device also collects the delicious juices and reduces them to enhance their flavor. The result is pure magic.

Marinated partridge uses a vinegar-based sauce called “escabeche.” The idea of marinating with acids is thought to come from Persia. It produces a wonderful dish that you can prepare in advance and serve at a dinner party.

Chicken with “cabidela” rice is a traditional recipe that uses the blood of the chicken to make the sauce for the rice. Combine it with a great red wine and you create a symphony of bold flavors that is deeply satisfying.

Roast kid goat is often served at family lunches on Easter Sunday. It is great comfort food that always creates harmony at the table.

Sweet angel hair pasta and honey cake are two easy-to-make, crowd-pleasing desserts.

Pudim Abade de Priscos is an unusual mixture of eggs, sugar, port wine, bacon, and spices invented by an abbot who was an exceptional cook.

The book ends with pasteis de nata (custard tarts). It is a time-consuming, difficult recipe. But if you take the time and effort to master it, you will earn the unending admiration of your dinner guests.

This precious little book can set you off on a culinary journey through the flavors of Portugal with recipes that you can enjoy right away and that you can perfect and refine every time you gather friends and family around the table.