A master bladesmith

Have you ever met a bladesmith? We hadn’t until we visited Paulo Tuna’s atelier in Caldas da Rainha. We knocked on a large blue door and Paulo came out. He looks like a revolutionary–someone who can bend the world to his will.

Paulo trained as an artist at the local art school. For many years, he built large sculptures that questioned our notions of weight, scale, and balance. But he was always interested in knives. His grandfather gave him a pocket knife for his 7th birthday. Later, he took him to a blacksmith so that Paulo could make his first knife. 

Knife drawings inspired by old art books fill the walls of the atelier. “Drawing is easy. Forging is hard,” says Paulo. He switched from sculpture to knife making after a friend placed an order for two knives. Paulo enjoyed the production process and started learning all he could about bladesmithing, even working in cutlery factories for a while. In 2012, he began making knives full time. An order of 50 knives from René Redzepi, Noma’s famous chef, confirmed that he was on the right track.

“Do you want me to make a knife?” Paulo asked. He takes a steel blade and places it inside a red-hot oven, heated to almost 1,000 degrees Celsius. The steel seems to resist at first, but, little by little, it becomes as red as planet Mars. Then the alchemy starts. Paulo brushes the anvil with a steel brush, takes the blade from the oven, and hammers it to thin the metal. Sparks fly. When the steel becomes crimson, he puts it back into the oven until it regains a fiery-red color. Paulo repeats the process, using different hammers to bend the steel to his designs. Then, he places the blade in a bed of ashes to cool it off. The next step is to sand the knife. He leaves some of the hammer marks as a record of the forging process. 

Paulo likes to rescue holly or olive wood pieces destined to the fireplace and turn them into elegant knife handles. He also uses Bakelite from old domino sets. Currently, his favorite handles come from the wood of a 300-year-old tree from the Bussaco forest. 

He urged us to try his knives. They are well balanced, perfectly proportioned, surprisingly light, and frighteningly sharp. Paulo Tuna makes knives that are works of art.

Click here for Paul Tuna’s website.

The thrill of Loco

Dining at Loco is like attending a jazz concert–there’s a feeling of excitement in the air. The restaurant lighting is soft, but the tables are lit like a stage, ready for chef Alexandre Silva’s performance. 

We sat down and studied the interesting wine list curated by Mário Marques, an old acquaintance from Ceia and Cura.

The performance started with a series of delicious food riffs presented on a wide variety of backgrounds: stones, coal, shells, and much more. The tempo was fast, like John Coltrane playing Giant Steps. We recognized culinary motifs inspired by the classics of Portuguese cuisine. For example, there were disks of crispy chicken skin that tasted like the traditional roasted chicken with piri-piri sauce. 

Then, the rhythm slowed down to a ballad tempo, like Thelonious Monk playing ‘Round about Midnight. A basket of artisan bread came with rich butters and a bowl with sauce from the traditional clams Bulhão Pato. There was also delicately cooked, perfectly seasoned black pork, pumpkin dumplings, and pristine fish dressed with colorful sauces. 

The desserts were playful, pomegranate granita and supple ice cream topped with hibiscus crystals. Finally, there were some encores–miniature sweets that please the eye and charm the palate. It is a thrill to dine at Loco!

Loco is located at Rua dos Navegantes nº53-B, Lisbon, tel. 21 395 1861. Click here for the restaurant’s website.

The poetic sea

“Sea, half of my soul is made from sea breeze,” says Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen in her poem Atlantic. In The Beginning of a Prayer, Filipa Leal writes, “Lord, fill my room with the high seas.”  These poets express with eloquence what all Portuguese feel–that the sea is vital to our life. 

We hope that the New Year is healthy and bright and that you can travel with ease to come experience the poetic radiance of the Portuguese sea.

Mister grape

When João Rodrigues invited us for dinner in Lisbon, we wondered where he would take us. João knows how to orchestrate memorable dining experiences like the jubilant dinners at Ceia or the soul-nourishing rustic lunches at Casa no Tempo in Alentejo.

He drove us to the Estrela neighborhood and parked the car on a vertigo-inducing hill. Then, we crossed the street to Senhor Uva (mister grape). Stephanie Audet and Marc Davidson, a Canadian couple, opened this vegetarian restaurant three years ago. Stephanie is the head chef and Marc curates the wine list, focused on European natural wines.

The restaurant is small and cozy, with large windows that offer low-angle views of the cobblestone street. We sat at the counter that overlooks the tiny kitchen. João asked our congenial server whether she could choose the food for us and pair it with wine. Soon, we were holding stylish wine glasses made in Austria by renowned wine critic René Gabriel, filled with a delightful white wine called António. Casal Figueira makes this wine near Lisbon in the windy hills of the Montejunto mountain. 

We were clinking our glasses when a plate arrived with black rice balls cooked with shitake mushrooms, leeks, eggplant, and a fermented Japanese fruit called umeboshi. The umami flavors of the rice made the wine feel richer and more intense.

The three cooks on duty that night joined efforts to make a stunning ceviche from green jackfruit. It arrived with another enviable white wine, Thyro, made in the Douro valley. Who could guess that a vegetable ceviche could rival a fish ceviche?

Next, we tried a delicious cauliflower cooked in a black beer sauce with black garlic and radishes. João noticed that all dishes have a perfect balance of fat, acidity, and crunchiness. Our next entrée vindicated this observation. It contained grapes marinated in rice vinegar, Jerusalem artichokes, beets, and new potatoes served with a delicious mole sauce. Vacariça, a lovely wine made in Bairrada from the local baga varietal, accentuated the chocolate flavors of the mole sauce.

The savory part of our meal ended with delicate shitake mushrooms cooked in the oven with corn “xerem,” miso, hazelnuts, and pecorino Romano cheese. 

Then came the sweet part. First, a perfumed pineapple from the Azores cooked in three ways, accompanied by labneh, ginger, coconut, and yogurt sand. Second, a luscious roasted quince served with buckwheat, pear and hazelnut puree, and a Madeira wine reduction. 

Just as we were leaving, a reggae version of the famous Blood, Sweat, and Tears tune “You make me so very happy” poured out of the sound system. It is an apt hymn for a restaurant taking vegetarian cooking to joyful heights.

Senhor Uva is located at Rua de Santo Amaro 66A in Lisbon, tel. 21-396-0917. Click here for the restaurant’s website.

An Altar wine

Vinha do Altar is a poem without words. Its authors, Jorge Serôdio Borges and Sandra Tavares da Silva, are two enologists known for masterpieces like the unforgettable white Guru and the iconic red Pintas. 

Their new wine is elegant and fresh, delightful to drink now, and sure to improve with age. Its grapes come from vines planted in a north-facing plateau that overlooks the Douro valley. Jorge’s great grand uncle purchased the land in 1939, and it became part of Casa Quintães, an estate where Jorge spent stretches of his youth. The land produced wine until the 1990s, but then the vineyard was abandoned. 

Jorge’s uncle dreamed of replanting the vineyard, but he died, and the land remained fallow. A few years ago, his widow, Márcia, asked Jorge and Sandra whether they could make the dream come true. The couple meticulously prepared the land and planted a new vineyard, called Altar, with a virtuoso trio of white grapes: Arinto, Gouveio, and Viosinho. 

The first harvest was in 2019, and now we can drink this wine that speaks without words about ties of family, memories of youth, and the magic of winemaking. 

Click here to visit Wine & Soul’s website.

A convent in Alentejo

It is hard to believe that there’s a monastery larger than Lisbon’s Rossio plaza in the middle of Alentejo. Driving on the winding roads of the d’Ossa mountain, we almost lost faith. But we were climbing, and that is always a good omen. Convents often occupy mountain tops so that monks can be closer to heaven.

The first glimpse of the building is easy to miss. The sprawling monastery hides behind 600 hectares of olive trees, pines, oaks, ashes, and oleanders. After a few more twists and turns, we arrived at the Convent of São Paulo.

Marília Nanitas came out to greet us. She works for the foundation that manages the hotel. “Can you tell us the story of this place?” we asked with curiosity.  “I can tell you a good lie, which is better than a half-truth,” she replied teasingly. Then, she lent us a book about the history of the convent. 

What we learned from this tome is that it took centuries to build this monastery. The first edifice was a hermitage erected in the year 315. In 446, an earthquake partially destroyed the structure. When in 715 the Arabs invaded the region, the hermits abandoned the sanctuary.

The second king of Portugal, Sancho I, decided in 1182 to rebuild the hermitage as a monastery. In 1372, Dona Brites, the daughter of King Dom Pedro I and Inês de Castro, donated her lands near the convent to the monks. The royal family provided steady support, financing the glorious collection of cobalt blue tiles installed between 1710 and 1725. 

After the state abolished religious orders in 1834, the convent was disputed for 37 years by two municipalities, Estremoz and Redondo. Before leaving the monastery, the monks protected the tiles with plaster walls. It is thanks to their ingenuity that more than 50,000 tiles have survived to this day.

When the government auctioned the convent and the surrounding lands, Henriqueta Leotte Tavares purchased it with her dowery. It was a dream to own a place like this. But also a burden, a responsibility to history. Over the next two centuries, Henriquetta’s family used their income from agriculture to restore the convent. The first generation built a factory that made tiles to repair the roof. The second generation hired carpenters to rebuild the doors and windows. 

Henrique Lotte Tavares, a chemical engineer, belongs to the third generation. He has no descendants, so he decided to turn the convent into a hotel to preserve it for posterity. Between 1989 and 2009, Henrique oversaw countless renovations.  In 1993, he created a foundation to manage the hotel and continue the restoration work.

How was life in the monastery? The Latin word “silentio” inscribed in the tiles reminded the monks of their vow of silence. There are many fountains, perhaps because the sound of flowing water makes silences feel less awkward. The monks could talk only on their way to lunch or dinner. To make the most out of these convivial moments, the friars walked slowly through the corridor that leads to the dining room, which became known as “passos perdidos” (lost steps).

We too walked slowly on the long corridors of the convent to savor the moments spent in this beautiful place so far from the hurries of modern life, so close to the tranquility of heaven.

The Convento de São Paulo is located at Aldeia da Serra d’Ossa in Redondo, Évora. Click here for the hotel’s website.

Zun Zum

It is so much fun to eat at Zun Zum! The restaurant, headed by chef Marlene Vieira, has a great location, with the Tagus river on one side and the Pantheon on the other. The food is as wonderful as the location.

We sat for lunch in the esplanade under a large red umbrella on one of those perfect sunny days that Lisbon residents take for granted. The simpatico waiter suggested a rosé made from bastardo at Quinta de Arcossó in Tràs os Montes. It has nice acidity and flavors of cherry and tropical fruit. “Do you want to choose from the menu or be surprised by the chef?” the waiter asked. Surprised, we chose without hesitation.

The “couvert,” a set of delightful little bites that start the meal included codfish tempura (“pataniscas de bacalhau”) and a sourdough brioche. 

The first appetizer was a luscious ceviche made with unusual ingredients: popcorn, red onion, and passion fruit. It was followed by tasty mini pizzas topped with trout eggs, a spider crab called sapateira, and avocado. The pizzas were coated with a traditional spider-crab filling.

Then came “filhoses de berbigão.” They are a feast, the cockles large and juicy floating on a star-shaped bed made from fried dough filled with a cream of cockle broth, coriander, and lemon. 

The fish entrée was a bowl of creamy, savory rice made with clams, cockles, razor clams, and mussels. The rice, a carolino variety from Bom Sucesso, has large grains that soak the appetizing sauce made by the seafood. 

The meat entrée was a slice of delicious black pork accompanied by fried corn and pickles made from cauliflower and celery.

Our first dessert was a yogurt parfait on a bed of strawberry jam. The fatness of the yogurt and the sweetness of the jam are a perfect yin and yang. The second dessert was “toucinho do céu” (bacon from heaven) a pudding made with egg yolks and bacon. It is so tasty that it could, indeed, be served in heaven.

We left Zun Zum deeply satisfied and certain that if Robinson Crusoe could eat Marlene Vieira’s food on his desert island, he would never want to leave.

Zun Zum is located ar Av. Infante D. Henrique, Doca Jardim do Tabaco in Lisbon, email hello@zunzum.pt, tel. 915 507 870. Click here for the restaurant’s website.

Tasting old white wines with Manuel Malfeito

“White grapes come from a rare mutation of red grapes that probably occurred in Egypt in the 3rd millennium BC. Because of their rarity and the intense aromas of varietals like Muscat and Malvasia, white wines quickly gained the preference of rulers and aristocrats. In ancient times, old white wines were particularly prized. If a white wine survived the passage of time and was still drinkable, it was a great wine,” said Manuel Malfeito, a professor of enology, as a way of introduction. 

Manuel insists on always tasting blind. “Tasting wine is tricky because our brain is an analogy machine, it starts asking: where did I try a wine like this one? And that is when we get in trouble. It is best to taste blind so we have no preconceptions.”

After dispensing these instructions, Manuel retreated to fill our glasses in the kitchen, so we had no chance of getting a glimpse of the bottles that guarded the precious nectars about to be served. He brought the glasses to the table and our sensorial work began. 

The first wine had a pale-yellow color and a seductive citrus flavor. “Is it a high-altitude wine from the Douro region?” one of the friends asked. Manuel revealed nothing. Later, we learned that this wine was relatively young: it was a 2018 Serenada produced by Jacinta Sobral in Alentejo. It has a mature taste because it staged in the bottle for 9 months, 15 meters deep in the ocean near Sines. After the identity of the wine was revealed, we tasted it again and detected salty notes. Our brain is easily influenced by the information we feed it!

The second wine had a bright, luminous yellow color. Its aroma was discreet, almost imperceptible. But its taste was sumptuous, reminding us that wines are made to be drunk, not to be described. Yes, we can talk about the wine’s minerality and flint stone aroma. But words pale in comparison with the liquid radiance of this wine. It turned out to be everybody’s favorite. Later, we learned that this crowd-pleaser was a 2008 Quinta de Chocapalha magnum made by Sandra Tavares da Silva in her family estate near Lisbon. 

The third wine was an elegant mineral wine that has great acidity and persistence in the mouth. This joyous nectar turned out to be the 2015 D. Graça produced by Manuel Malfeito and Virgilio Loureiro in the Douro valley. 

The fourth wine tasted like an old sherry or Madeira; it was dry and evolved. It turned out to be a wine produced by Mário Sérgio at Quinta das Bageiras in 1989!  

The fifth wine was a vivacious old wine with aromas of dried fruit and beeswax. It was dried and had a pleasant acidity. Where was it made? We would never guess. It was a 1996 Tapada dos Coelheiros, a famous estate in Alentejo, a warm region that is not expected to produce this type of wine.

The tasting ended with another outstanding wine: a 1995 Poço dos Lobos made from Arinto, a grape that is famous for producing wines that age well. This wine was no exception. It has a long, seductive finish and a bright freshness with notes of orange peel.

What did we learn from another master class with Manuel Malfeito? That we should taste wines without preconceptions in order to better discover and appreciate their qualities. And that the occasion makes the wine. The best wines are always those we share with friends! 

The silence of the wind

The Japanese call it “ma,” the silence between notes that lends musical phrases more meaning. We can hear these same silences on the seashore. 

Most of the time the wind blows on the coast, flowing from where the air is cold to where it is warm.  But there are instances in which sea and land have the same temperature, so the wind can rest. In these perfect moments, everything is in balance and at peace.

DeCastro Gaia

“You have to try my restaurant in Gaia at Espaço Porto Cruz. Stop by the terrace first and then come down to DeCastro Gaia to eat,” advised chef Miguel Castro e Silva.

A few days later, we stepped out of the elevator on the top floor at Espaço Porto Cruz and wow, what a view!  The waters of the Douro river flowed quietly below, saying farewell to the city on their way to the sea. Porto, dressed in bright light, was trying to sway the river to linger a little longer. The river margins were decorated with “rabelo” boats, the traditional vessels that, in times gone by, brought barrels of precious ports to be stored in the Gaia cellars.

It was hard to leave the gorgeous view, but we were curious about the gastronomical experience created by Miguel at DeCastro Gaia. So we went down one floor and sat at a table overlooking Porto.

Before the meal started, our waiter brought us a seductive white Dalva port that put us in a festive mood. Then, a velvety vegetable soup prompted us to say the first of many “oh, so good!” 

The waiter filled our glasses with Contacto Alvarinho, a lively green wine made by Anselmo Mendes. It paired perfectly with our next dish, a lush artichoke and goat cheese salad. More delights followed. The turnovers made from phyllo dough, spinach, and alheira were wonderful. At first bite, they resemble a Greek spanakopita, but then the allure of the alheira surprises the palate.  The codfish fried in batter (“patanisca”) melted in the mouth. Finally, the rooster fish with clams was fresh and oh, so good! 

The menu offers old classics of Portuguese cuisine and new classics created by chef Castro Silva. What the menu does not reveal is the freshness of the ingredients and the precision of the confection. The Portuguese have an expression “tudo no ponto” that describes food that is perfectly cooked, seasoned, and sauced.  That is what DeCastro Gaia offers. What more do we need?

DeCastro Gaia is located in Espaço Porto Cruz at Largo Miguel Bombarda 23, Vila Nova de Gaia. Click here for the restaurant’s website.