A port wine toast

In much of the world, old vines are thorn out and replaced with new ones. But not in the Douro valley. There, old vines are nurtured and treasured. Their grapes are few in number and small in size, but they make sublime wines.

We raise this glass to wish you all health and longevity. And to remind us of what we can learn from the old vineyards that make this port. We can produce a lot when we’re young, but we need to age before we can make something precious. Cheers!

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.

10 years of Salt of Portugal!

Time flies by when we’re having fun. It’s hard to believe that we started Salt of Portugal one decade ago! 

It’s been a pleasure to travel from north to south in search of all that is glorious about Portugal. Thank you dear readers for sharing this journey with us. We hope your travels will bring you soon to this corner of the world. A place of castles and palaces, of mountains and valleys, of sand and sea. All bathed in warm light, all cooled by the breeze that carries the ocean’s salt, the salt of Portugal. 

Gifts from the past

Oh, how wonderful it is to spend a lazy Saturday in Lisbon! We started late, when the sun was already shinning with conviction, and drove to Vicentinas, an old tea shop in Rua de São Bento. A gentle push on the rickety door and we were greeted by a sweet aroma that invited us to enter. 

We sat at a table, enjoying a cup of strong Earl Grey tea, while waiting with undisguised impatience for our scones to arrive. The minutes passed by slowly, but the wait was well worth it. The freshly baked scones were perfect; crispy on the outside and buttery inside. 

It took all our willpower to resist ordering more scones. Feeling virtuous, we walked down Rua de São Bento to visit the numerous antique stores located in this neighborhood. The store owners are always there, eager to show their collections of objects from times gone by. There is always something interesting. And occasionally there is something exquisite, like a pair of elegant lemon squeezers. 

In the old days, luxury restaurants in Lisbon, like Tavares and Aviz, had a small tray of lemon squeezers prepared with fresh lemon halves wrapped in cheese cloth tied with a yellow bow. The waiters used them to season dishes by table side, turning the simple act of squeezing a lemon into a magical moment.

We walked home with this precious gift from the past, content with another lazy Saturday spent in Lisbon.

Guided by the stars

In the early 16th century, Lisbon was one of the world’s richest cities. A constant stream of caravels departed to far-away destinations like India and Brazil. Some of these ships perished tragically in the high seas. The ones that returned, brought their hulls crammed with gold, silver and spices. 

During the day, sailors relied on the sun to measure their latitude. At night, they were guided by the stars. Skilled pilots pointed sextants at the sky to estimate the ship’s position and evaluate its course. 

In the last night of the year, we too look at the stars for guidance of where we are and what lies ahead. We hope they can point us all to a blissful, healthy New Year that brings us back to Portugal. 

Lisbon’s palatial surroundings

One curious fact about Lisbon is that there are few palaces in the center and many in the outskirts of the city. Before 1755, Lisbon was an overcrowded place where pestilence could quickly spread. So, the royal family and the aristocrats liked to build palaces away from the crowds, in places where the air was pure. 

King John I built the Sintra town palace in 1415, which became a perennial favorite of the royal family. King John V used the riches from Brazil to finance the construction of an imposing palace in Mafra in 1717.  Dom Pedro de Bragança, a prince who married his niece, Queen Dona Maria I, erected an exquisite palace in Queluz in 1747. 

We are lucky that all these palaces were built away from the capital. In November 1, 1755 a massive earthquake destroyed much of Lisbon, including the royal palace at Terreiro do Paco and many other architectural jewels. From the rubles of the earthquake, the Marquis of Pombal, King Dom José’s powerful prime minister, created a new city where large avenues replaced the meandering medieval streets. The old ornate palaces gave way to the simpler but sturdier buildings that we still see in the downtown district.

If you visit Lisbon, make some time to travel to its surroundings to experience the palatial riches of a time gone by.

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.

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.