The art of growing old

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A friend brought a precious gift to a recent dinner party:  a bottle of Madeira from 1853! The wine was produced at a time when the future of Madeira looked bleak. Robert White and James Johnson in the 2nd edition of their book “Madeira its Climate and Scenery,” published in 1856, offered the following prognosis:

“The wine of Madeira, which has acquired worldwide celebrity, will soon be no more than a thing of history. In the Spring of 1852, a disease suddenly showed itself which, in process of time, destroyed the grape and ruined the prospects of the hardly-tasked cultivators. […] it is calculated that in two or at most three tears not a pipe of wine will be left in the island.”

The disease was caused by a fungus called odium tuckeri. According to White and Johnson, production dwindled from roughly 8,000 pipes in 1851 to roughly 2,000 pipes in 1854. Luckily, the discovery that oidium could be controlled by dusting the vines with sulphur saved Madeira’s vineyards from oblivion.

It was with great expectation that we broke the 165-year-old crimson seal to persuade the steadfast cork to retire from the job of guarding the priceless nectar. The wine left the bottle full of vigor, with a crystalline amber color and an enchanting aroma. No wonder Madeira was once used as a perfume in the court of Russia!

Less sweet than more recent vintages, the taste has an elegant “vinagrinho,” the name for the volatile acidity produced by the passage of time. It is a wine that has much to teach us about the art of growing old.

 

The queen’s cake

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In 1875, the owner of Confeitaria Nacional, a pastry store in downtown Lisbon, brought from France the recipe for “gateaux des rois,” the king’s cake. Decorated with crystallized fruit, the cake quickly became a staple of Portugal’s holiday season.

In recent years, an alternative to the king’s cake has gained prominence. Aptly called the queen’s cake (“bolo rainha”), it replaces the garish crystalized fruits with walnuts, hazelnuts, and almonds. The dough is the same as that of the king’s cake, its lightness born from the alchemy produced by yeast combined with flour, eggs, sugar, and port wine.

We don’t want to press you to take sides. But still, we’re curious: which royal sweet is more likely to seduce your taste buds, the king or the queen’s ’s cake?

 

Stone soup at Quinta do Arneiro

Quinta do Arneiro Composit (cropped)

Once upon a time, there was a poor friar was too shy to ask for food. Famished, he knocked on the door of a farm house and solicited a pot and some water to cook a stone soup. The farmer and his wife were intrigued by this request. The friar took a stone from his bag, placed it in the pot and put the pot on the fireplace.

“How is the soup?” the farmer asked. “Delicious,” answered the friar “and when you put some lard, it tastes even better.” The farmer gave the friar a piece of lard. The friar tasted the boiling broth and said “this stone makes an excellent soup, especially when it is seasoned with a little salt.” The farmer’s wife promptly offered the friar some salt. The farmer commented that it was starting to smell good. “If I added some leftover beans, cabbage, and potatoes, the aroma would be divine.” Curious, the farmer gave the friar the vegetables he mentioned. “Is it ready?” the farmer ’s wife asked. “Almost done, if we added some slices of sausage, even the angels would eat it.” The farmer’s wife gave the friar a sausage. He sliced it into the broth and a few minutes later declared the soup ready. He shared it with his hosts who agreed that the stone had produced a remarkable  soup.

Every year on December 8, Quinta do Arneiro, a biological farm near Lisbon, uses its pristine vegetables and sausages to cook a monumental stone soup. The meal starts with hot country bread baked in a wood-fired oven accompanied by plates of freshly made hummus, olive oil and garlic. Then, the hearty soup is served with mulled wine. A delicious dessert composed of oranges, pomegranate, pumpkin jam, and roasted sweet potatoes brings the meal to a satisfying end.

Luisa Almeida, the owner of Quinta do Arneiro inherited the farm from her father. When Luisa was a teenager, she wanted nothing to do with agriculture, But, Luisa went to live on the farm after she married and it was there that her children were born and raised. In 2007, worried about the detrimental health effects of the chemicals used in conventional agriculture, Luisa ventured into organic farming. “It is very hard work but every day we treat nature with the respect it deserves,” she says proudly. The quinta delivers regular baskets of organic produce to lucky subscribers and opens its restaurant  for lunch from Wednesday to Sunday. A meal at the restaurant is a unique opportunity to eat nutritious, delicious seasonal products, freshly picked and cooked with love.

We greatly enjoyed our meal outdoors warmed by the bright sun that joined the feast. And the soup?  Even the angels would eat it!

Quinta do Arneiro is located in Azueira, Mafra. Click here for the farm’s website. To have lunch at the restaurant, email restaurantedaquinta@quintadoarneiro.com  or call 918740906 for reservations.

The Yeatman hotel

Composit Yeatman

There’s no better place to appreciate the beauty of Oporto than sitting in great comfort at the Yeatman hotel, sipping a glass of chilled Taylor’s Chip Dry white port before dinner.

The hotel was built by the descendants of the Yeatmans, a British family that started trading port wine in 1838. Draped around a hill in Vila Nova de Gaia, near the cellars where priceless vintage ports are stored, the hotel offers exuberant views of the river Douro and the city of Oporto.

A stay at the Yeatman is an initiation into the secrets of Portuguese wine. Each room is decorated by a different wine producer. The public spaces are adorned with artisanal artifacts and objects that highlight the connections between wine making and the history of Portugal.

The Yeatman’s main restaurant has two Michelin stars. Here, the exquisite food prepared by chef Ricardo Costa harmonizes with extraordinary wines curated by enologist Beatriz Machado, a graduate of the University of California at Davis.

The hotel organizes wine tastings, wine masterclasses, and weekly vinic dinners hosted by wine producers. These activities combine with the perfect location to make the Yeatman the perfect pairing for wine lovers visiting Oporto.

The Yeatman is located at Rua do Choupelo, (Santa Marinha), in Vila Nova de Gaia. Click here for the hotel’s website. 

Three lessons at Quinta de Vargellas

Quinta de Vagellas

It is easy to arrive at Quinta de Vargellas because this heavenly wine estate in the Douro valley has its own train station. The old carriages stop there with a screech, huffing exhausted from racing with the river waters. It is then up to the guests to walk up the granite steps that lead to the manor house.

We sat in the porch, mesmerized by the schist terraces built by generations of workers to create the perfect environment for the exuberant vines. It was here that we learned our first lesson: that the greatest beauty is created by man in harmony with nature.

Our second lesson, was about the importance of generosity. David Guimaraens, the head winemaker of Taylor’s Fladgate, Fonseca and Croft has a very busy schedule. But he takes time to share the magic of Vargellas with his guests. He explained to us the uniqueness of the terroir and described the vines as if they were his children. We drank his words and saw the brilliance of the vineyards through his eyes, green like the Douro river.

The grapes from the quinta are used to make the famed Quinta de Vargellas Vintage and form the base of the great Taylor Vintage Ports. We walked down to the cellar to sample the port made in 2018, which is still full of vigor but promises to age gracefully.

David discussed some of the intricacies of port-wine making and told us about the new vines he is planting so that his children can continue to produce great ports.  It takes 10 years for new vines to produce usable grapes. Between ages 10 and 20, the vines are adolescents, they have some good years but are moody and inconsistent. From ages 20 to 40, they mature and acquire consistency. From ages 40 to 60, the yields are low but the quality is great. Beyond 60 years, production dwindles but the few grapes that grow are drenched with wisdom.

A lifetime is too short to plant the vines and gather the knowledge required to produce great port. And so, we learned our third lesson: life is a relay race. We have to learn  from our ancestors and add to that learning to sow the seeds of the future.

It was hard to leave Quinta de Vargellas. But the memories of our visit stay with us. And from now on, every sip of the quinta’s holly wines will take us back to this paradise in the Douro valley.

Click here to see the Quinta de Vargellas web page.

Repentina

repentina Composit

Several people recommended that we try Repentina, a humble tasca in Poiares famous for its baby goat roasted in a wood-fired oven. Its name is a twist on the word “repente” which means in a flash. We first visited the restaurant last year. When the waiter brought the menu, we said we didn’t need it, we wanted to try their famous roasted goat. Incredulous, the waiter explained that “If you want to eat baby goat, you have to call us a day ahead and reserve the order. We only roast enough meat for the people who reserved it.” Well, no wonder the locals like say that nothing is easy in the Douro valley. Disappointed, we ordered a large beef cutlet that arrived perfectly grilled accompanied by salad and a delicious tomato rice.

This year, we made sure to call ahead to secure our roasted goat servings. We were told that the best time to show up is at 1:00 pm, just as the roast comes out of the wood ovens.

We arrived at the appointed hour and sat in the dining room overlooking the Douro valley. The air was filled with enticing aromas that heralded the arrival of the roast to the table. The taste is indeed exceptional, which explains why this place in the middle of nowhere attracts so many customers.

The restaurant is run by the Cunha family. Fernando who is 82, still operates the ovens. His wife Soledade runs the kitchen together with her daughter Ana Paula. Their son Fernando junior runs the restaurant.

I asked Fernando Cunha what is the alchemy that produces such satisfying flavors. He told us that “You have to get the best ingredients, the goats have to be small and tender, the wood for the fire has to produce the right temperature, the seasoning has to be harmonious and fresh. All the details are important. Our name may be Repentina but we do not cook in a flash. We do everything slowly so we get it right.”

Hotel Convento do Salvador

Convento do Salvador Composit-2

One of the best-kept secrets in Lisbon is a hotel called Convento do Salvador. It is run by a non-profit association that charges modest prices for 43 very comfortable rooms. The location is fantastic, right in the middle of Alfama, the neighborhood around St. Jorge’s castle.

The hotel occupies the site of one of the oldest convents in Lisbon, Convento do Salvador, built in 1392. We know a lot about the convent thanks to a book published by one of its abbesses, Maria Batista, in 1618.

Maria describes the convent as a place where you can “flee from the dangers and labyrinths of the world,” and live a simple life. She tells us with pride that it was here that a princess came to find peace. In 1460, princess Dona Catarina, the daughter of queen Dona Leonor, came to live in the convent after the prince to whom she was engaged died prematurely.

Much has changed about this place, but it is still offers peace and simplicity. The hotel is decorated with minimalist furniture and contemporary art. The spacious patio offers a great place to relax when the weather is warm. Most rooms overlook the patio but some offer the only luxury that the nuns enjoyed: a view of the orange rooftops framing the blue waters of the Tagus river.

Hotel Convento do Salvador is located at Rua do Salvador, 2B in Lisbon, tel. 218 872 565, email hotel@conventosalvador.pt. Click here for the hotel’s website.