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.
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.
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 email@example.com, tel. 915 507 870. Click here for the restaurant’s website.
“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 Sérgioat 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 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.
“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.
After his masterclass on olive oil, Edgardo Pacheco left behind some tasting glasses. When we asked him for the easiest way to return them, he answered with an invitation: “Do you want to join me for an oyster tasting?” How could we say no?
We met at JNcQuoi, an elegant restaurant in Lisbon’s Avenida da Liberdade. Edgardo introduced us to Rui Moreira, the president of the Portuguese aquaculture association, and two oyster producers, Hugo Castillo from Aquanostra and Pedro Ferreira from Exporsado. They are part of a small group of entrepreneurs who are passionate about oysters. Their mission is to take advantage of Portugal’s unique maritime terroir to produce exquisite oysters. Most of their production is exported to France, but their oysters are increasingly popular in Portuguese bars and restaurants.
We learned that Portugal has an oyster variety called Gryphoea Angulate that, by happenstance, became popular in France. In 1868, a French ship called the Morlaisien departed from Setúbal loaded with Portuguese oysters. The ship was caught in a storm and sought refuge in Gironde, a port in Bordeaux. By the time the storm cleared, the oysters had spoiled and were thrown overboard. Some of the oysters were still alive and propagated in French waters. When, in the 1920s, an epidemic decimated the oyster variety cultivated in France (Ostrea Edulis), local oyster farmers and merchants embraced the Portuguese oysters. Known as “les Portugaises,” they were both produced in France and imported from Portugal. Unfortunately, in the 1970s, an epidemic infection combined with environmental pressures increased the mortality rate of the Gryphoea Angulate. For this reason, most Portuguese producers currently grow an oyster variety from Japan called Crassostrea Giga.
The oysters consumed in restaurants around the world come from oyster farms. Wild oysters are generally scrawny and insipid. The French call them “rabbit ears” because of their large elongated shells.
Oysters are raised in ocean water inside bags. They live on the microscopic algae in seawater, so no feeding is required. Still, oyster farming is a lot of work. Just like champagne bottles undergoing remuage, oyster bags need to be turned daily. This turning creates small fractures in the edges of the shells that result in rounder shells. It also produces better-tasting oysters, perhaps because the mollusk gets fatter when it does not grow a large shell.
A waiter interrupted our conversation by announcing the arrival of two large trays of oysters seemingly floating on crushed ice. “We will first taste the oysters with water,” instructed Edgardo, “and then pair them with a couple of wines.”
We picked up one of the shells and held it for a moment to admire its sculptural beauty. Then, we tasted the delicate mollusk. It has the exhilarating taste of the sea! But, unlike sea water, oysters sate our appetite leaving us deeply satisfied.
There were oysters from seven producers and four regions: Aveiro (António Sá and Ilha dos Puxadoiros), Sado (Aquanostra and Exporsado), Alvor (Alvostral and Ostraselect), and Ria Formosa (Francisco Frazão).
These oysters vary in fatness, texture, iodine content, sweetness, and saltiness. Larger oysters are sweeter because they have a bigger muscle, which is the sweetest part of the mollusk. Some oysters have more iodine than others because of differences in the terroir where they are raised.
Jonathan Swift famously wrote that “It was a brave man who first ate an oyster.” It was also a desperate man. Oysters are notoriously difficult to open. Hugo Castillo gave us small knives that made us feel like pirates and taught us how to open an oyster without using a power drill. It does get easier with practice.
Once our oyster was open, Hugo told us to clean it, discarding the water that is mixed with debris. Then, we cut the nerve and flip the mollusk to improve its appearance on the shell. A couple of minutes later, the oyster magically replenishes the shell with water. It can do this trick up to seven times, which is one of the reasons why oysters survive for about ten days in a cold environment outside the ocean.
José de Brito, a Portuguese oyster merchant, discussed the best way to eat oysters in his 1957 book “Oysters, Culinary and Health” (As Ostras na Saúde e na Cozinha). His advice is as relevant today as when it was written: “Oysters are best eaten raw so that their nutrients and delicate seafood taste remains intact. A little lemon juice, a dash of pepper, and, for those who like it, a little butter and we have a delicious dish. Accompanied by a cold, dry white wine, it is a culinary treat that can satisfy even the most refined palates.”
But which white wine should we choose? Luckily, Diogo Yebra was there to help us. Diogo is the sommelier at JNcQUOI, as well as the producer of some interesting garage wines called Vinhos à Parte. Diogo explained that, with their salty, strong umami taste, oysters overpower most wines. It is difficult to find a harmonious marriage where neither the wine nor the oysters are dominant in the palate. Champagne and chardonnay are standard choices.
Instead of a chardonnay, Diogo served Druida, a white wine made in the Dão region with a local varietal called encruzado. Produced with grapes grown in granite soils, it has a minerality and acidity that complement the flavors of the oysters. It was an inspired choice.
Next, we tried Sílica, a sparkling blanc de noir from Bairrada made with baga, a red varietal. It is full of freshness, with citrus aromas that accentuate the taste of the oysters and cleanse the palate. Another terrific choice.
We learned many lessons from this oyster tasting orchestrated by Edgardo. But, the most important takeaway is that Portugal is a paradise for oyster lovers. The quality of the oysters is exceptional and the price is modest. Pair them with a suitable white Portuguese wine and you have a ready-made culinary feast!
Edgardo Pacheco wrote some great articles about oysters in the August 28, 2021 edition of Fugas, a magazine about food, wine, and travel published as part of Público, a daily newspaper. If you read Portuguese, click here to access the articles.
João Rodrigues spends most of his time flying as a pilot. Perhaps it’s in the sky that the muses inspire him. When he is on the ground, João runs Silent Living, a company that is reinventing the art of hospitality.
On a warm summer day, we got on the road to Casa no Tempo, a Silent Living guest house in Alentejo. It is a secluded place where only the wind brings news of the outside world.
At first sight, the house looks ordinary. It has a rectangular geometry with thick stone walls and a roof covered with weathered orange tiles. Then, we notice that the proportions are perfect. The sinuous swimming pool confirms that this is no ordinary place. Filled with emerald water, it looks as if it is made of salt.
The house is spacious, with large windows that frame the landscape. A light breeze flows through the rooms as if it owns the place. Walls, doors, and windows are painted with white hues that soften the sunlight. The floor is paved with cubes of orange tile that convey warmth and comfort. It all adds up to a wonderful sense of ease and tranquility.
A vaulted arch shades a courtyard with a large wooden table and some benches. While we went for a quick swim, two cooks set up the table for lunch with plates of local cheese, plump olives, and a basket of country bread. Glasses of refreshing white wine accompanied a gazpacho made from sweet tomatoes. The main course was lamb roasted with potatoes, a rustic dish that is deeply satisfying. The dessert was an appetizing fruit tart that came with cups of strong coffee.
After this delightful lunch, we sat in the courtyard watching the sun paint the landscape with layers of golden light. The sound of bells heralded the arrival of a herd of goats that strolled by the house without a care in the world. Then, a peaceful silence returned to this place where everything is simple and everything is perfect.
“I am taking you to a restaurant that used to be a shack. The place was recently renovated, but I hope Virgulina’s cooking hasn’t changed,” said Manuel Malfeito, a professor of enology who can always find extraordinary places in the middle of nowhere. This time we were lost in Ribatejo, an agricultural region that has resisted the winds of change, preserving its character and traditions.
After many twists and turns, we saw a sign that reads “Constantino das Enguias.” Enguias means eels and Constantino is the name of Virgulina’s husband. In 1975, the couple set up a hut with a dust floor, a roof made out of eucalyptus branches and some wooden tables and benches. Virgulina served food prepared with vegetables from her garden and eels from a local river, the Ribeira de Muge. The delicious results attracted a loyal clientele that kept the restaurant full throughout the years. Last year, José Valério, Virgulina’s son, convinced her to renovate and expand the restaurant.
We ordered eels cooked in two ways, fried and stewed (ensopado de enguias). The fried eels are crunchy, with an umami taste that delights the palate. The stewed eels are succulent, cooked in as appetizing broth made with country bread, mint, onions, green pepper, garlic, bay leaves, white wine, and peeled tomatoes. Virgulina’s food is as great as always!
Manuel chose a bottle of white Casa do Cadaval Reserva 2018 made with Arinto and Viognier. It is an elegant, balanced wine that managed to keep pace with the exuberant taste of the eels. The wine is produced nearby by Teresa Schönborn, a German countess. Why does a German countess produce wine in the middle of Ribatejo? That, as Scheherazade would say, is a story for another day.
Constantino das Enguias is located at Rua Direita, 265, Foros de Benfica do Ribatejo, tel. 243 589 156.
One of our grandfathers often wished there were more days in the year so he would have more opportunities to eat cheese. His favorite was a Serra da Estrela cheese doused with paprika and olive oil and aged for three months. The paprika gives the cheese a bright orange color on the outside and a golden hue on the inside. During the three-month-long cure, the cheese hardens and its flavor intensifies.
When our grandfather was young and money was tight, he asked a local tavern to cure a cheese for him so that he could come by every day and buy a small slice. He justified this humble luxury by explaining that “Serra cheese is inexpensive. All you need to delight your palate is a thin slice. Thick slices are a waste. I like the slices to be so thin you can see the moon through them.”
We follow his wise advice, using our sharpest knife to cut the thinnest slices of Serra cheese. They are little pieces of heaven!