The most famous fish monger in Lisbon

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Until the middle of the 20th century, street fish sellers called “varinas” were a common sight in Lisbon. They carried a basket of fresh fish on their heads and attracted customers with their catchy slogans and charismatic personalities.

Varinas are a relic of the past, but some of the best fish in Lisbon is still sold by a charismatic woman. Many restaurants in the capital city order their fish from Açucena Veloso.

Visiting Açucena at Mercado 31 de Janeiro is a fascinating experience. It was in a stall in this market that she started selling fish at nine years of age. Today, she owns 23 stalls.

The quality and variety of Açucena’s fish would astonish the patrons of Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market.  But it is not easy to gather these marine treasures. Açucena wakes up every weekday at 2:00 am to make sure she buys the best fish the sea has to offer. Despite her long work hours, she’s always in a good mood. “Look at these ocean jewels” she says with pride pointing to fish that go by quaint names like rascasso, cantaril, and emperador.

When Albert Einstein visited Lisbon in 1925, he wrote in his diary about a fascinating varina with a proud, mischievous look. We think he would have loved meeting Açucena Veloso.

Açucena Veloso’s fish stalls are at Mercado 31 de Janeiro, Rua Engenheiro Vieira da Silva, 31, tel. 91 721 8169

 

Missing Portugal

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When we’re away from Portugal, we miss the taste of the fruits of our land and sea.

We miss the golden light that guilds castles and palaces, valleys and hills.

We miss the touch of the breeze, the perfume of the ocean, the sound of the waves rehearsing their steps on the seashore.

Our solace is a glass of port wine shared with friends. Every sip is a reminder of the sweetness of Portugal.

Mystical jesuits

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We have a major weakness for a Portuguese pastry called “jesuita.” Its shape and color resemble the habits of Jesuit monks, hence the name.

The “jesuita” was invented more than a century ago by a Spanish pastry chef who worked in Santo Tirso, a town in the north of Portugal. It combines puff pastry with two egg-based creams. The whites and the yolks are separated. The yolks are used to make a cream that is layered inside the puff pastry. The whites are used for the frosting.

The quality of “jesuitas” varies from satisfying to divine, depending on the excellence of the ingredients and the exactness of the execution. One of the best “jesuitas” we ever tried came from a wonderful pastry store near Chiado called Tartine. We bit into this delight, and the yolks and whites reunited into a mystical explosion of flavor!

Tartine is located on Rua Serpa Pinto, 15-A, tel 21-342-9108. Click here for their web site.

The gift of friendship

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We have a friend who’s always there for us when we need wise advice, a word of encouragement or someone to intercede for us. As if these prodigious gifts were not enough, every time he visits us, he brings wonderful wines. His latest present was a bottle of Syrah 24.

The wine is produced by José Bento dos Santos in a magical 17th century farm near Lisbon called Quinta do Monte d’Oiro (golden hill farm). The wine is a result of the friendship between Bento dos Santos and famed Rhone Valley producer Michel Chapoutier.

Chapoutier offered Bento dos Santos an extraordinary gift: a large collection of cuttings from Chapoutier’s old Syrah vines in Hermitage. These precious vines were planted in parcel 24 at Quinta do Monte d’Oiro.

In an estate that produces noble wines with meticulous care, the Syrah made with the fruit from parcel 24 is treated like royalty. And it shows. Syrah 24 is a graceful, elegant wine, perfect to celebrate the gift friendship.

Click here for the Quinta do Monte d’Oiro website.

A fish club

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Casa Janeiro is an unusual restaurant. Located in the small village of Brejos de Azeitão, 30 km south of Lisbon, it functions as a club for the appreciation of fine grilled fish. To be considered as a member, you need to be patient and love eating fish. Patience is a must because the restaurant does not take reservations and there’s always a long line

Most customers are regulars. Some are locals, others are hard-core fans that drive to Brejos de Azeitão just to eat at Casa Janeiro. Over the years, the customers get to know each other, so the restaurant feels like a club.

While we waited in line, a group of regulars came to chat with us, eager to talk about their favorite restaurant: “You’re going to love it!” “We no longer grill fish at home, this quality is impossible to replicate,” “No one grills fish like Mr. António.”  “And the prices, unbeatable!”

Ana Cristina overseas the dining room and her husband, António Janeiro is in charge of the colossal grill.  António was working as a car mechanic when he became fascinated by the art of grilling fish. He started hanging out with fishermen and cooks so he could learn their secrets. When his repair shop closed, he took the plunge and, together with his wife, opened Casa Janeiro.

His day starts with a trip to the fish market in the port of Setúbal. He comes back to the restaurant to make the “brasas,” the layers of red-hot charcoal that produce intense heat. He compresses these layers, reducing the airflow to make the charcoal last longer. Then, he covers the charcoal with ash to reduce the heat. “I stir the charcoal when I want more heat and apply more ash when I want less,” he explained to us.

We watched Janeiro prepare the fish with speed and precision and then pause for a brief moment, perhaps to give thanks for the bounty of the sea. Janeiro salted the fish and placed it on the grill. He didn’t take his eyes of the grill, constantly adjusting the coals to make sure the fish was perfectly cooked.

“Which fish do you recommend?”  we asked Ana Cristina. “Chicharro,” she answered without hesitation. We expressed surprise. After all, this is an unglamorous fish, the cheapest on the modestly priced menu. “But it is the best fish on the menu,” she insisted. “This month the chicharro is fat and delicious. If you don’t like it, you don’t need to pay.”  “Ok,” we said accepting the bargain.

As soon as we sat at the table, we regretted our decision—we saw amazing sea bass and grouper go by our table. But, when our chicharro arrived, succulent and delicious, we realized we had made the right choice. “What else should we try?” we asked Ana Cristina. She recommended the squid, which was the best we have ever had, tender and full of flavor.

When we returned the next day for more grilled chicharro and squid, Ana Cristina gave us a big smile. And that’s when we knew that we had been accepted as members of the club.

 

Casa Janeiro is located on Rua da Serração 57, Brejos de Azeitão, tel. 21 218 8124. If you don’t like to wait, you need to arrive at around 11:30 am for lunch and 6:30 pm for dinner. At lunch, the restaurant serves grilled fish. At dinner, it serves light seafood such as clams, crab and shrimp. 

 

Dom Rodrigo

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The most revered noble in the kingdom of Algarve does not own land or royal charters. Dom Rodrigo is a dessert that has been produced since the 18th century. It looks like a gift, wrapped in colored foil and tied with a ribbon.

Alchemists all over the world tried to turn lead into gold. In Algarve, cooks tried to turn eggs, sugar, cinnamon and almonds into joy. And they succeeded!

In vino veritas

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In Roman times, wine making was a simple affair. The grapes were crushed and stored in large clay amphoras where the fermentation occurred naturally. The skins, seeds, and stems were stirred. Then, the pomace fell to the bottom of the amphora, acting as a filter so that the wine, extracted through a spigot, ran clear.

Wine makers in Alentejo are using old amphoras, too large to be made in modern ovens, to revive these ancient ways of making wine.

We’ve been looking forward to trying these wines. After our recent visit to Esporão, we finally got our chance—we brought home a bottle of their amphora-made Moreto wine.

Drinking it was a grand occasion. After all, this was the kind of wine with which Caesar celebrated the conquest of Gaul, the wines with which Mark Anthony wooed Cleopatra. We closed our eyes and sipped the precious liquid. It tasted pure and clean. Suddenly, the Romans adage ‘in vino veritas,’ in wine truth, had a new meaning.