Dining with the minister at Campo Maior

Taberna O Ministro

We strolled around in Campo Maior, a small town in Alentejo close to the border with Spain, looking for a place for lunch. We noticed a tavern called O Ministro (the minister) which was full of locals. There was a bottle of Caiado–the wonderful entry wine from Adega Mayor—on every table. Encouraged by these favorable omens, we decided to enter.

Traditional music played in the background, mostly fado tunes about the travails of love and the fickleness of life. Every now and then, a folk song from Alentejo came on and the locals raised their voices to sing along.

A plate with codfish cakes, slices of sausage, and green olives arrived at the table. We ordered “migas” made with bread and turnips and fried cação, a small shark that somehow manages to swim from the coast to the menus of Alentejo. We also ordered “carne do alguidar,” marinated pork loin. We were astonished by the quality of everything that came to the table. It was delicious and deeply satisfying food, with a perfect sense of time and place.

João Paulo Borrega, the chef and owner of this magical restaurant came out of the kitchen, and stoped by each table to ask whether people liked his food. “The food is fantastic,” we told him. “Can we make reservations for dinner and arrive a little early to talk to you?” Sure, he said with a bemused smile.

Late in the afternoon, he sat down to talk with us. Like most Alentejo cooks, he learned cooking from his mother and grandmother. His restaurant opened in 1989 and has changed location over the years. It is named after João Paulo’s father, a man whose role in the revolutionary days after April 1974 earned him the nickname “the minister.”

João Paulo tells us that the current restaurant location is ideal. “I want to cook by myself, and this space has the maximum number of tables I can comfortably handle.” He talks enthusiastically about his favorite recipes: fried rabbit, toasted chicken, chickpea soup, and ensopado de borrego (lamb stew).

“Why does your food taste so good?,” we asked. “I am going to show you my secret,” he said, inviting us into the small kitchen. He pointed to an old, tiny refrigerator. “Everything I use I buy fresh every day. That is why I have no freezer, just this small refrigerator. At the end of the day I give away any leftovers to my friends. The next day I start everything from scratch. Meats, fish, vegetables, herbs, sauces, everything has to be fresh.”

All his products are local and seasonal, produced by people he knows. He rattled off the names of the friends who supply him: the olive-oil maker, the farmer who plants the potatoes and onions, the person who chooses ripe melons for his table; the list goes on. The quality of his sourcing would make many three-star chefs envious.

João Paulo talks with great knowledge about the details of the different recipes and the properties of various herbs and spices. “People often use too much laurel. That is a mistake,” he says. “Laurel is very powerful and can overwhelm other ingredients.” “The cuisine of Alentejo does not require much fussing around,” he explains. “But the ingredients need to be first rate and the last flourishes before the dish is brought to the table have to be perfect. Some dishes are finished with white wine, others with vinegar, herbs play a key role.”

We sat down for a wonderful dinner. It started with toasted chicken perfumed with vinegar and prepared with olive oil, garlic and parsley. Then came a steaming chickpea soup with Alentejo sausages, Savoy cabbage, carrots, and mint. Next, we tried the fried rabbit. The meat had been  marinated with rosemary, thyme, pepper, white and red wine. Then it was stewed to perfection in a large iron-cast pan with olive oil, garlic, and some more wine. Delicious slices of ripe melon brought this memorable meal to a sweet finale.

No matter how much you travel, it is hard to find food that is as simply satisfying as the one served in this little tavern in Alentejo. If you have a chance, come to Campo Maior to dine with the minister.

Taberna O Ministro is located at Travessa dos Combatentes da Grande Guerra
Campo Maior, Portalegre, tel. 351-965-421-326.

Provesende, a fairy tale village

ProvesendeIn the first half of the 18th century the production of port wine was in dire straits. Inferior wines were often mixed with sugar, spices and elderberry juice to be sold off as port wine. In 1756, the Marquis of Pombal, the autocratic prime minister of King Dom José, created the Royal Company to regulate the production of port wine in order to protect its authenticity.

Pombal sent officials to define the boundaries of the Douro region and classify all its vineyards, creating one of the world’s oldest demarcated wine regions. Vineyards classified as “vinho de ramo” could only produce wine for domestic consumption. Vineyards classified as “vinho de feitoria” could export their wine. These classifications had an enormous impact on property values.

The officials charged with classifying the vineyards and regulating the port-wine trade settled in a small village called Provesende. Over the following decades, the village experienced a construction boom. Large land owners built imposing manor houses so they could spend time in Provesende and rub shoulders with government officials.

The memories of the parties hosted in these mansions have faded in time. What we have left is a charming village that belongs in a fairy tale.

Leopoldo Calhau’s tavern in Mouraria

Taberna do Calhau

Leopoldo Calhau, a gourmet architect who became a chef, opened a restaurant in Mouraria, an old Lisbon neighborhood.  The courtyard outside the restaurant offers a classic view of Lisbon: the walls of St. Jorge’s caste against a cerulean blue sky. But once you step inside the restaurant, you are in Alentejo. All the furniture and decor came from an old tavern in Beja. The menu offers a creative interpretation of the rustic food of Alentejo that is deliciously fun.

Our dinner started with an unusual combination of flavors that worked well together: eggs and peppers served in a bouillabaisse sauce. We then had a bowl of shrimp with minced lupini beans and garlic dressed with olive oil. This preparation is inspired by an old saying that lupini beans are the seafood of those who are broke. Another inventive dish followed: grilled vegetables and codfish confit served with a magical combination of coriander, olive oil and garlic traditionally used to cook clams Bulhão Pato style. Next, we had pork cheeks with an amazing sauce. Leopoldo would not reveal its ingredients other than saying that it is an Alentejo version of the sauce used in the francesinha, a popular sandwich in Oporto. Dessert was simply delicious: pears roasted in olive oil and sugar served in a wine made from pears poached in wine.

The tavern serves small plates meant for sharing that cost between 5 and 10 euros and offers interesting wines and olive oils from Alentejo. At Taberna do Calhau every meal is a party.

Taberna do Calhau is located on Largo das Olarias 23, tel. 21 585 1937.

Drinking amphora wine in Amareleja

Amareleja Composite

Manuel Malfeito, a professor of enology at the famed Instituto Superior de Agronomia, invited us to go to Amareleja to try some wines made in amphoras. The drive from Lisbon to this small town in Alentejo takes about three hours, time fruitfully used by Manuel to lecture us about what we are about to experience.

He tells us that that we’re taking a journey back in time, to the way wines were made 8000 years ago in the Caucasus. These techniques, brought to Portugal by the Romans 2000 years ago, worked particularly well in the dry, warm climate of Alentejo where they say “while there’s amphora wine, we drink nothing else.”

Right after the harvest, the grapes are crushed, destemmed and placed in huge amphoras that hold 1,000 liters. One or two days later, the fermentation starts. The wine is stirred everyday for two weeks to make sure it doesn’t spoil. Then, the amphoras are sealed with cloth and the wine is left alone. By November, the seeds and skins have dropped to the base, forming a natural filtration system. The wine is extracted through straws inserted into an opening at the bottom of the amphoras. It comes out very slowly, first muddy and then crystal clear.

Amphora wines are now so trendy that some producers ferment the wine in stainless steel tanks and then age them in amphoras, so they can call them amphora wines. At Amareleja, amphora wines are the real deal. The locals continued to make amphora wines even when no one outside of Alentejo cared for them, so knowledge of the myriad production details has been preserved.

The arrival at Amareleja marks the end of our theory lesson. It is time to put our knowledge into practice. “We’ll try several wines, so the secret is to take small sips,” advises Manuel.

Our host, Zé Piteira, is waiting for us at his eponymous restaurant, Adega Piteira. He is tall, affable, and full of confidence. Zé introduces us to his wife Paula who heads the kitchen. The restaurant occupies a narrow building with a straw roof and a tower in the middle. It was constructed in 1938 to house Amareleja’s open-air cinema. Greta Garbo and Humphrey Bogart have been here on the silver screen.

On our table there are sausages, cheese, olives, and the best “torresmos” (pork rind) we ever tried. “Wine is all about context,” explains Manuel. “We’re going to try a white amphora wine from 2015 that is still too young but pairs well with the strong flavors of these appetizers.” The symbiosis of wine and food is indeed perfect. Our glasses have the aroma of a recently struck match that is the hallmark of great Chardonnays. The wine is made with a varietal called Roupeiro combined with a table grape called Diagalves, sometimes known as “pendura,” the Portuguese word for hanging, because it used to be hung up to dry to serve during Christmas.

Soup plates with scrambled eggs, potatoes, spinach, and goat cheese arrive. Paula brings a large pot brimming with codfish broth to spoon on our plates. This rustic, flavorful soup is a great match for the bold personality of the wine.

Zé pours from a jar of 2018 white wine taken directly from an amphora.  The contrast between the 2015 and the 2018 wines is fascinating. The 2018 is more astringent and the yeast aromas that come from the fermentation process are still present.

The varietal used to make red amphora wines in Alentejo is called Moreto. “Land good for grain is bad for wine,” says an old proverb. That is why Moreto flourishes in the poor soils of the left margin of the Guadiana river. The 2018 Piteira Moreto is very interesting and full of freshness. It is a great pairing for our next course: pork ribs seasoned with “massa de pimentão,” a magical paste made with red pepper.

For comparison, we try the 2016 Moreto. It is more refined and has a complex aroma. “Primary aromas—fruit, flowers, herbs–are pleasant during fermentation but worsen with time. That is why we say if the wine smells good, it tastes bad,” explains Manuel. “Secondary aromas—yeast, nuts and spices–come from the fermentation process. This wine has tertiary aromas—hazelnut, dried tobacco—that are acquired through aging.”

Zé comes back from the cellar with a bottle of Nativo, an amphora white wine bottled in 1999! It was made by the man who used to own the open-air movie theater, Zé’s godfather. This white wine has aged amazingly well, it is crisp and dry and has a beautiful amber color.

Dessert is a Moreto festival: Moreto ice cream accompanied by a pear cooked in Moreto wine and “encharcada” a medieval convent sweet made with eggs, cinnamon, lemon and sugar. Zé fills our glasses with a dessert wine. “In Roman times, the dry wines spoiled quickly, so aristocrats preferred this style of dessert wine. These were also the wines that  Roman gods were thought to like,” says Manuel. The wine fills our palate with the taste of spices and caramel. The Roman gods had impeccable taste!

We spent the afternoon hiking on the new wine estate that Zé Piteira has purchased, a place with panoramic views of the plains of Alentejo. Later, on the way back to Lisbon, Manuel quizzed us about everything we saw and tasted. We hope to have passed the exam, so we can take another course with him!

Adega Piteira is located at Rua da Fabrica 2, Amareleja, Moura, tel. 965 787 024.

Dona Antónia’s great grandson

Composite Quinta S. José

João Brito e Cunha is the great grandson of the legendary Dona Antónia Ferreira, the woman who shaped the future of wine production in the Douro valley.  Born in 1811 to a family of rich wine makers, Dona Antónia seemed destined to enjoy a life of leisure. Instead, she had to contend with two plagues that decimated European vineyards, the oidium in 1850 and the phylloxera in 1870. Dona Antónia rose to the occasion, making shrewd choices and taking calculated risks. She made great wine and amassed a large fortune. When she died in 1896, she owned 24 wine estates and huge wine cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia.

João’s grandfather was a taster for the renowned Real Company Velha. His father managed the famous Quinta do Vesuvio, which in Dona Antónia’s time produced some of the most expensive wines in the Douro valley.

We tell you this family history so that you know that João Brito e Cunha had no choice, the love of wine runs in his blood. He studied enology, first in Vila Real’s UTAD and then in Australia. He interned in Champagne and in many other wine regions. When he felt ready, he bought Quinta Dom José from his father and moved to the estate with his wife Sofia and their kids.

We arrived at Quinta Dom José late in the afternoon, just as the sun was getting tired of making the brilliant light that shines on the Douro valley. João is very intense and his energy is contagious. He wanted to show us everything, the vines, the cellars, the different viewpoints. As soon as we got into his jeep, he accelerated up the steep, treacherous road leaving being a colorful dust cloud.

We stopped on a hill top with breathtaking views of the Douro river. João wants us to understand that in a region where beauty abounds, this quinta is like no other. He shows us with pride the schist soil that preserves humidity during the scorching Summers and the vine roots that dig deep in search of water.

João drove us up to the tasting room to try his wines. The Flor de São José white Reserva is an aristocratic wine that enchants the palate with its refined elegance. The Touriga Nacional Reserva is an indulgent red, with a full body and an understated intensity. The Grande Reserva is a profound wine, full of wisdom, finesse and subtlety. The 3,400 bottles produced last year quickly sold out.

We stayed in the terrace outside the tasting room talking to João for hours. It was a warm night with a sky full of stars.  A choir of crickets sang in the background. João told us about his vines, his wines and his dreams.

Dona Antónia regretted every moment she spent away from the Douro. João feels the same way–he inherited his great grandmother’s passion for the Douro valley. And like her, João is destined to make great wine.

Quinta de São José is located on Ervedosa do Douro, tel. 93 4041413. Click here for their website. 

Caldo verde

Caldo Verde

Caldo verde (green broth) is the most Portuguese of soups. It comes in different versions but Maria de Lurdes Modesto, the doyenne of traditional Portuguese cooking, recommends a simple preparation used in the village of Marco de Canaveses.  Here’s the recipe.

Gently boil 500 grams of potatoes, 3 garlic cloves, one sliced chouriço (meat sausage) and some olive oil.  Crush the potatoes with a masher. Add the shredded Galician cabbage for just a couple of minutes (avoid overcooking the cabbage). Dress the soup with olive oil. Serve, preferably in a clay bowl, and accompany with broa, a Portuguese corn bread.

The soup has the colors of the Portuguese flag: green from the cabbage, red from the sausage, and yellow from the olive oil. You find caldo verde everywhere: in homes and restaurants, in places where fado singers gather, and in festivals and fairs. The soup is so popular that vendors in farmers’ markets have a special shredder to make the distinctive strips of Galician cabbage that are the hallmark of caldo verde.

As with many traditional recipes, the origin of this soup is lost in time. There’s no recipe for caldo verde in the cookbooks written by Domingos Rodrigues in 1680 or by Lucas Rigaud in 1780. But these chefs worked for the royal family, so they probably shunned peasant cooking. The soup is mentioned in several 19th century literary works and it is the first recipe in Culinária, an influential cookbook published in 1928 by António Maria de Oliveira Bello.

Caldo verde is often served at midnight on New Year’s eve. Its comforting taste helps everyone feel warm and optimistic about the New Year!

 

The art of growing old

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.