The grandfather’s flour

We called Miguel Nobre to see if we could come by his windmill, Moinho de Avis, to buy some flour. Miguel mills a wonderful ancient wheat called barbela that he grows on the hills of the Montejunto mountain. 

“I have something new to show you,” Miguel said, his voice crackling with excitement. “I reproduced the flour mix that my grandfather used; it makes wonderful bread!” “Didn’t your grandfather make bread from barbela wheat?” we asked, confused. “Barbela is highly nutritious, but its germ and bran are heavy, resulting in flat, dense breads,” explained Miguel. “For this reason, barbela was often mixed with a wheat called preto amarelo (black and yellow). I have been using this misture for a while, but something was still missing. One day, I remembered that my grandfather used to go in an ox cart to the train station to get rye. The first time I mixed rye with the other wheats, I noticed a very special aroma coming out of the oven. It is the aroma of the bread my grandfather used to make!”

Miguel’s new flour mix has 40 percent barbela, 40 percent preto amarelo, and 20 percent rye. He calls it, appropriately, the grandfather’s flour.  

We drove up the long and winding road to Montejunto to meet with Miguel. He was waiting for us on the ground floor of the windmill. We sat there, on an old wooden bench, listening to him without noticing the passage of time. His poetic words and his encyclopedic knowledge of agricultural traditions are enthralling. 

As soon as we got back home, we combined the grandfather’s flour, water and the sourdough starter and let the mixture rest for a few hours. We then added more flour, water and salt and let it rest again. Next, we kneaded, stretched and folded the mixture until the bread took shape. Finally, we placed it in the oven. Our feeling of anticipation grew as we noticed a savory aroma perfuming the air. We tried the bread while it was still warm. It is deeply satisfying, with a soft texture, a crispy crust, and an intense flavor. 

Thanks to master Miguel Nobre, we have at our table a bread from the past that deserves to be preserved for the future.

Finding a culinary treasure in Viseu

The heart of Viseu, our home town, is the “four corners,” the intersection of Rua Direita (straight street) and Rua Formosa (pretty street). One of these corners was once occupied by Pastelaria Santos, a legendary pastry store. Its service was impeccable. Attentive waiters dispensed a wide variety of pastries and beverages in plates and cups made from porcelain. Coffee and tea pots, forks, spoons and knives were all made of silver. 

The pastries were culinary gold. The queen of the savories was a chicken “empada,” a small pie shaped like a crown with a crisp dough and a luscious filling. The king of the sweets was the “pastel de feijão,” a traditional convent confection made with light puff pastry filled with a delicate mixture of white beans, eggs and sugar. 

Santos’ pastry chef was called Adelino. He selected the best ingredients and was meticulous about their preparation. When Adelino became too old for the kitchen grind, he taught a young chef called António all his secrets.  When times were busy, an industrious 16-year-old waiter called João volunteered in the kitchen. He had an eye for detail and, little by little, he too learned the secrets of chef Adelino.

In 1985, Pastelaria Santos was replaced by a lottery store and the city lost a culinary fortune. Luckily, António and João were hired by a new coffee shop. It offered quicker service and less variety, but the famous chicken pies and bean pastries continued to delight the city’s gourmands. After a few years, the coffee shop was sold. The new owner demanded faster production methods and cheaper ingredients. António and João tried to adapt but, eventually, they left, disenchanted. Other pastry stores offered chicken pies and bean pastries. But these were mere imitations. The culinary treasures of Pastelaria Santos seemed forever lost.

We recently heard that a small shop called Flor da Ponte was selling pastries made according to the original Santos recipes. The store is owned by João Mendes Marques, the waiter who started working at Pastelaria Santos when he was 16. We talked to him on the phone and he invited us to his kitchen. His directions resembled the instructions of a treasure map. “Find a house that looks like a castle and then take a narrow road that seems to lead nowhere. You’ll find me at the end of the road.”

He was indeed there waiting for us with two trays of chicken pies ready to be baked. João covered the pies with a generous egg wash and tucked them in the oven. He then returned to the granite table in the middle of the kitchen to show us how to make the crown. While his fingers worked the dough, he told us about the many details that contribute to the final product, from the quality and composition of the flour to the time it takes for the dough to rest. Even the chicken filling requires an elaborate process that involves an ice bath to cool the meat right after it is cooked.

Next, João showed us how he makes the bean pastries. The puff pastry is made by hand. The sugar point needs to be exact, the consistency of the eggs and beans mixture needs to be perfect. We tried some freshly-made pastries. They are heavenly; light and full of flavor.

João peaked into the oven and announced that the chicken pies were ready. He took the trays out and let them cool a bit. As soon as we tried them, their extraordinary taste took us back to our childhood.

We thanked João for preserving these wonderful recipes. He tells us he is planning for the future. His two sons work with him and they will carry on once he retires.

And this is how, in the last few days of spring, at the end of a road that seemed to lead nowhere, we found a culinary treasure. 

Flor da Ponte is located at Travessa do Forno 13, 3510-799 Viseu, tel. 964 186 043.

Blessed times

Blessed are the times when we argue about trivialities, because they are happy times. On Christmas day, there is often a heated debate about which is the best Christmas dessert. The holiday table is crowded with sweet candidates, recipes that wait all year in the pages of timeworn cookbooks for a few moments of fame. Sugar, cinnamon and a little port wine transform humble ingredients like bread, eggs, and pumpkin into culinary feasts. There are rabanadas, a Portuguese version of French toast, “filhóses de abóbora,” fried pumpkin cakes, “coscorões,” fried dough shaped like angel wings, “sonhos,” crispy, airy spheres, and many more. 

Why don’t we enjoy these desserts all year round? Because they only taste great when the table is full of friends and family members who gather to celebrate the holiday, enjoy each other’s company, and debate which is the best Christmas dessert.

Kasutera

Kasutera

One of the most popular desserts in Portugal is a golden sponge cake called Pão de Ló. Pão means bread and, according to culinary lore, Ló is the nickname of a cook famous for her version of this cake.

In the 16th century, the cake was known as Castile bread, after the name of the Spanish kingdom where the recipe originated. Castile bread keeps for a long time, so sailors used to carry it to enjoy during long sea voyages.

When the Portuguese navigators reached the port of Nagasaki in Japan, they took with them the recipe for Castile bread. It quickly became popular under the Japanese name Kasutera. The recipe was included in the first book about Japanese sweets, published in 1718 under the title “Secret Writings on Famous Japanese Confectionery New and Old.”

Over time, the recipe evolved to adapt to Japanese tastes. Wouldn’t it be interesting to compare the Portuguese and Japanese versions of this ancient cake?  Thanks to a small Lisbon store appropriately called Kasutera, we can make this comparison without traveling to Nagasaki.

Kasutera’s cakes are perfect rectangles that are beautifully wrapped. You can buy the original version as well as variants with chocolate, green tea and earl grey. They’re all delicious examples of a recipe that has traveled around the world, from Portugal to Japan and back.

Kasutera is located at Rua do Poço dos Negros, 51 in Lisbon, tel. 213-951-596, email info@uke-mochi.pt. Click here for Kasutera’s website.

 

 

 

The Joy of Codfish on Christmas Eve

Bacalhau 2019

The Vikings used to dry codfish to take on their sea voyages. The Basques improved upon this practice by salting the fish before drying it. But it was the Portuguese who recognized codfish’s culinary potential. Auguste Escoffier, the chef who helped codify French cuisine in the beginning of the 20th century, wrote that “We must recognize that the Portuguese were the first to introduce in our eating habits, this precious fish, universally known and appreciated.”

Today, on Christmas Eve, codfish is enjoyed all over Portugal. It is usually simply prepared. After being soaked for two or three days to remove most of the salt, the fish is boiled. It is accompanied by Portuguese cabbage and potatoes that are also boiled. Everything is generously dressed with olive oil and garlic that transform this simple meal into culinary joy.

The abbot’s pudding

Pudim Abade de Priscos-3

One of the most original Portuguese recipes is a pudding created in the 19th century by the priest of Priscos, a small parish near Braga. He was called Manuel Rebelo but became known as the Abade de Priscos (Prisco’s abbot). His fame as a cook and gourmet earned him the invitation to prepare banquets for the royal family and the title of Honorary Chaplain of the Royal House.

The pudding combines egg yolks, sugar, cinnamon, lemon, port wine, and fresh bacon (yes, bacon!). The abbot liked to say that the pudding is easy to make but hard to make perfectly and that when well prepared, it has a unique taste. Paired with a glass of port wine, a slice of this pudding is a culinary delight.

Born in 1834, the abbot lived almost 100 years, dying in 1930. Could the abbot’s pudding be the secret of his longevity? We order it every time we see it on the menu to try to find out!

The scrumptious Pudim Abade de Priscos in the photograph was prepared at the restaurant of the majestic Pousada of Viana do Castelo.

Our daily bread

Pão de Barbela

We came home from Moínho de Avis with a precious bag of barbela wheat flour milled by Miguel Nobre. This type of flour was widely used until the 1930s, when it was replaced by the bland white flours we all know.

Barbela wheat, brought to Portugal by the Arabs in the 7th century, almost vanished from our soils. It was saved from extinction by João Vieira, a farmer from Cadaval who spent 15 years multiplying the seeds so he could share them with other farmers.

The barbela flour from Moínho de Avis blended easily with our sourdough starter to form a mixture called the levain. We left it resting and then added salt, water and more flour. Then came the time for the ancient rituals of bread making: kneading, stretching and folding. The bread went into the oven and soon its aroma filled our kitchen.

One hour later, the loaf was ready. Its taste was intense–this bread shines on its own without any butter or cheese. We gave some slices to our favorite vegetables vendor in the farmer market. Her eyes filled with tears. “It tastes like my mother’s bread,” she explained. “It brings back memories of my childhood when all the neighbors baked bread at home with their own sourdough starter. Each starter had a different personality, so each family’s bread had a distinct taste.”

We kept making barbela bread throughout the Summer for it was hard to resist loafs that are so full of taste, nutrition and personality.

A master miller

Miguel Nobre

It’s not every day we meet a miller. It was once a common profession when every elevation had its windmill. Serra de Montejunto, a mountain that crosses the Cadaval and Alenquer counties, used to have the largest concentration of windmills in the Iberian peninsula. Today, only one working mill remains—Moínho de Avis. It was there that we met our miller, Miguel Nobre.

Miguel speaks with a cadence that makes everything he says sound like poetry. He has a lot of wisdom to share. “I am fascinated by the idea of bringing back the ancient grains, the old ways of making flour. It is my way of traveling back in time,” he told us.

His windmill dates back to 1810 but lingered in ruins for many years until he restored it in 2008. Miguel was a carpenter until he fell in love with windmills. He started restoring them, first as a hobby and later as a full-time occupation. He has restored windmills all over Portugal but takes special pride in Moínho de Avis. It is a beautiful windmill. Miguel shows us the ingenious gears that rotate the sails towards the wind. The small windows offer expansive views of the mountain and the sea.

With his son Luís, Miguel is bringing back the old wheats that are full of nutrition and flavor: barbela, nabão and preto amarelo. “These stones have never milled modern grains so they have no trace of pesticides. My wheats are certified as biological, not by the government but by nature, come see.” He places a handful of barbela grains at the entrance of the mill. Soon, an army of ants arrives to cart away this loot. “The ants avoid grains that have pesticides, but they love these ancient wheats,” Miguel says. “I am also starting to find more and more lady bugs on the wheat fields, they had vanished from this region but they are coming back to my fields.” Miguel likes to plant his wheat in southern-facing slopes protected from northern winds that are likely to be tainted with pesticides.

We stepped outside to hear the sound of the clay pots attached to the sails. Each is tuned to a note in the key of C major. “These pots are our weather report system,” says Miguel. “They sound different when the air is humid, so they warn us when it is going to rain. We also need to be aware of time. Millers do not use a watch to tell time. The sun is our clock. When it touches the horizon, it is time to stow away the sails.”

We bought a couple of bags of barbela wheat and promised to send Miguel some photos of the breads we were planning to make. We didn’t imagine that we would keep coming back throughout the summer, to get more flour and wisdom from Miguel Nobre, the master miller.

You can hear the sound of the windmill beautifully recorded by Pedro Rebelo. Pedro is a Portuguese composer, sound artist and performer, working primarily in chamber music, improvisation and installation with new technologies. To learn more about his wonderfully original work click here.

Ancient wheat, dancing in the wind

Adolfo Henriques

Another wondrous lunch with Adolfo Henriques at Maçussa. A taste of another recipe that almost got lost: “manja,” a combination of bread, potatoes, garlic and olive oil that goes great with grilled sardines.

The meal started with Adolfo’s legendary goat cheeses served with bread made from barbela wheat and a baked mixture of cornbread and olive oil called gaspiada. “I call this one cabrabert,” says Afonso, pointing to a round cheese, proud of his play on the Portuguese word for goat (cabra) and the word camembert. The cheese was followed by a variety of wonderful sausages, codfish liver, gravlax, and figs.

After lunch, Adolfo took us to a field planted with barbela wheat. Barbela is an ancient Egyptian variety abandoned after World War I in favor of wheats that offer larger yields in exchange for less taste and nutrition. “People often choose quantity over quality,” laments Adolfo.  It took him several years to harvest enough wheat to make bread. He grinds his crop in windmills that only process traditional grains, like Valentim da Silva’s Moinho do Boneco at Moita dos Ferreiros and Miguel Nobre’s Moinho de Avis in the Montejunto mountain. The result is the type of flour used a century ago. It that makes a rustic, delicious, nutritious bread.

Adolfo does not use fertilizers or pesticides. After each crop, he lets the field rest for a year so that the soil can recover. Standing in the middle of a field planted with his prized crop, Adolfo smiles and says: “Look at how the wheat dances in the wind.”

Adolfo Henriques’ company, Granja dos Moinhos, is located on Rua do Moinhos 3, Maçussa, Azambuja, tel 919 474 476, email granjadosmoinhos@sapo.pt. 

 

Vinum acer from Bairrada

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Most vinegar consumed around the world is made through industrial processes that work fast but generally produce insipid results. Luckily, there is an increasing number of producers making delicious artisanal vinegars.

“It is easy to make fine vinegar, all you need is good wine and patience,” says Mário Sérgio, the winemaker of Quinta das Bageiras in Bairrada. “Fill about two-thirds of an oak barrel with good-quality wine and forget about it for 10 years. Sure enough, the wine will turn into vinegar.” The Romans seem to have followed a similar recipe–the Latin word for vinegar, vinum acer, means sour wine.

We took a bottle of Mário Sérgio’s artisanal vinegar home and were amazed at the difference it made. Its tangy taste transforms salads from good to great. Cooking with this vinegar enhances the food we prepare in ways that are subtle but profound.