The shark’s beach

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Roger Sobreiro, an American wine merchant of Portuguese descent, recommended a small restaurant called A Praia do Tubarão (the shark’s beach) that is his safe harbor when he visits Portugal. We drove to the picturesque town of Costa Nova to try it out.

The restaurant’s facade is painted with the traditional red and white stripes used to decorate fishermen houses. The same red and white palette dominates the cosy interior where Adriano Ferreira, the owner, was waiting for us. He has worked in Costa Nova for 50 years, first as a waiter and then, in the last three decades, together with his wife at A Praia do Tubarão.

“I hunt and fish and all hunters and fishermen are liars,” he said as a way of introduction. Despite this forewarning, we asked Adriano to choose our lunch menu.  “Most of our food is served in the pots where it is cooked: caldeiradas (boulliabaisses) , “ensopados,” and seafood rices. We follow two simple rules: everything is fresh and everything is cooked to order,” he explained.

Adriano went into the kitchen and returned with a plate of petinga (small sardines) and tiny fried balls of berbigão rice. Then, he poured two generous glasses of the wonderful Duas Quintas white from Ramos Pinto. The petinga was crisp, hot, luxuriously fresh and perfectly fried. The rice balls were flavorful and deeply satisfying.

We ate an “ensopado,” a plate made with fish, potatoes, onions, garlic, and olive oil. It is seasoned with “sal d’unto,” a salt and lard combination. It comes with a sauce called “alhada,” made from garlic, lemon and piri piri. The flavors blend to create a unique taste and aroma. The quality of the ingredients and the cooking is superb.

Dessert was a small bowl of the traditional “ovos moles,” a convent sweet made with egg yolks and sugar. The meal ended with a vibrant espresso made with Delta’s famous diamond blend.

We said goodbye to Adriano and promised to be back soon to this welcoming place that serves delicious traditional food.

A Praia do Tubarão is located at Rua José Estevão, 136, Costa Nova Prado, Ilhavo, tel. 234 369 602.

Pristine fish at Taberna do Valentim

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We met Valentim, the chef and owner of Taberna Valentim in Viana do Castelo, as soon as we entered the restaurant. He was working hard at the grill but took time to show us the superb mullets that had just been delivered. “The seas are often rough during Winter so at times we have to close the restaurant because we can’t find fresh fish of the quality we seek. These mullets came from Póvoa do Varzim. The sea was rough yet the fishermen still went out. Their fish is gorgeous but the they take too much risk to catch it.”

Taberna do Valentim has offered the same small menu for 40 years: pristine seasonal fish perfectly grilled, fish rice, “ensopado de peixe,” a fish stew prepared with white pepper and served on bread toasts, and caldeirada (bouillabaisse). The quality is high and prices are modest so the place is always packed.

After a very satisfying lunch, we resumed our conversation with Valentim.  “I started working when I was 8, serving glasses of wine and codfish cakes in my mother’s tavern,” he told us. “Then, I began to cook, so I’ve been cooking for a long time. But time is not what’s important. Passion is. Unless you have passion for what you do you’ll never be great at it.” This passion is evident in everything that comes to the table at Taberna Valentim.

Taberna Valentim is located at Avenida Campo do Castelo nº45 in Viana do Castelo, tel. 258-827-505.

Quorum

Quorum Composit

Just when we thought we knew every great restaurant in Lisbon, we found Quorum in Chiado. We went in without knowing what to expect. An amiable waiter greeted us with a glass of refreshing apple and pineapple cider made at the restaurant. It tasted like a Summer ale and set the evening of to an auspicious start.

As soon as the appetizers arrived, we knew that the dinner would be memorable. The trio, composed of sausage bread, “pataniscas” (codfish fried in batter), and dried, grilled octopus, was deliciously appealing. Sommelier Bruna Esteves filled our glasses with an interesting white wine made from Malvasia at Adega Cooperativa de Torres Vedras.

The following course was a delectable ravioli made with rose shrimp from Algarve and served in a sauce prepared with prosciutto and sausages from the Barroso mountain. It was accompanied by a delightful red from the Douro valley called Oboé. Next, came another savory treat: clams, potatoes and beetroots.

Soon after, a plate with pork belly cooked at 65 degrees for 28 hours and then cured arrived at the table. It had a rich, satisfying taste that was perfectly complemented by Quinta do Arcossó, a bold red wine made in Trás os Montes with the bastardo varietal.

Dessert was a gorgeous combination of sour oranges from Alentejo, olive oil, honey, and poejo (pennyroyal). It was paired with a “licoroso” (dessert wine) made with Fernão Pires at Quinta da Alorna. It was a fabulous end to a fabulous meal.

Quorum’s chef, Tiago Santos, trained as a geographer before going to culinary school. He likes to wander throughout Portugal in search of unique products and producers. He prepares his culinary finds with meticulous techniques and an exuberant imagination that make his dining room one of the most exciting in Lisbon.

Quorum is located at Rua do Alecrim 30 B Lisboa, tel. 21 604 0375.

The generosity of cork oaks

Cork Trees Ravasqueira

Cork oaks are generous trees. They provide homes to the birds that nest on their branches and nourishment to the black pigs that feed on their acorns. The bark of the oak tree is manually stripped to produce cork, a natural material known since ancient times for its versatility. Pliny the Elder writes in his Natural History that the bark can be used to make anchors, drag-ropes, and shoe soles. The bows and keels of the ships used by Portuguese navigators were made of cork.

After each stripping, the oak bark grows back. The first stripping generally occurs when the tree is 25-year old. Subsequent strippings follow a nine-year cycle. Trees are marked with a number that indicates the time of the last stripping. It takes 43 years for the bark to be thick enough to produce wine corks. So, most wine corks come from oaks that are much older than the wine they protect.

Cork oaks live for roughly two centuries. Their roots make them resilient to winds and droughts so they can grace the landscape of Portugal with their generosity and beauty.

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.