An oyster feast

After his masterclass on olive oil, Edgardo Pacheco left behind some tasting glasses. When we asked him for the easiest way to return them, he answered with an invitation: “Do you want to join me for an oyster tasting?” How could we say no?

We met at JNcQuoi, an elegant restaurant in Lisbon’s Avenida da Liberdade. Edgardo introduced us to Rui Moreira, the president of the Portuguese aquaculture association, and two oyster producers, Hugo Castillo from Aquanostra and Pedro Ferreira from Exporsado. They are part of a small group of entrepreneurs who are passionate about oysters. Their mission is to take advantage of Portugal’s unique maritime terroir to produce exquisite oysters. Most of their production is exported to France, but their oysters are increasingly popular in Portuguese bars and restaurants.

We learned that Portugal has an oyster variety called Gryphoea Angulate that, by happenstance, became popular in France. In 1868, a French ship called the Morlaisien departed from Setúbal loaded with Portuguese oysters. The ship was caught in a storm and sought refuge in Gironde, a port in Bordeaux. By the time the storm cleared, the oysters had spoiled and were thrown overboard. Some of the oysters were still alive and propagated in French waters. When, in the 1920s, an epidemic decimated the oyster variety cultivated in France (Ostrea Edu­lis), local oyster farmers and merchants embraced the Portuguese oysters. Known as “les Portugaises,” they were both produced in France and imported from Portugal. Unfortunately, in the 1970s, an epidemic infection combined with environmental pressures increased the mortality rate of the Gryphoea Angulate. For this reason, most Portuguese producers currently grow an oyster variety from Japan called Crassostrea Giga.

The oysters consumed in restaurants around the world come from oyster farms. Wild oysters are generally scrawny and insipid. The French call them “rabbit ears” because of their large elongated shells. 

Oysters are raised in ocean water inside bags. They live on the microscopic algae in seawater, so no feeding is required. Still, oyster farming is a lot of work. Just like champagne bottles undergoing remuage, oyster bags need to be turned daily. This turning creates small fractures in the edges of the shells that result in rounder shells. It also produces better-tasting oysters, perhaps because the mollusk gets fatter when it does not grow a large shell. 

A waiter interrupted our conversation by announcing the arrival of two large trays of oysters seemingly floating on crushed ice. “We will first taste the oysters with water,” instructed Edgardo, “and then pair them with a couple of wines.” 

We picked up one of the shells and held it for a moment to admire its sculptural beauty. Then, we tasted the delicate mollusk. It has the exhilarating taste of the sea! But, unlike sea water, oysters sate our appetite leaving us deeply satisfied.

There were oysters from seven producers and four regions: Aveiro (António Sá and Ilha dos Puxadoiros), Sado (Aquanostra and Exporsado), Alvor (Alvostral and Ostraselect), and Ria Formosa (Francisco Frazão).

These oysters vary in fatness, texture, iodine content, sweetness, and saltiness. Larger oysters are sweeter because they have a bigger muscle, which is the sweetest part of the mollusk.  Some oysters have more iodine than others because of differences in the terroir where they are raised.

Jonathan Swift famously wrote that “It was a brave man who first ate an oyster.” It was also a desperate man. Oysters are notoriously difficult to open. Hugo Castillo gave us small knives that made us feel like pirates and taught us how to open an oyster without using a power drill. It does get easier with practice. 

Once our oyster was open, Hugo told us to clean it, discarding the water that is mixed with debris. Then, we cut the nerve and flip the mollusk to improve its appearance on the shell. A couple of minutes later, the oyster magically replenishes the shell with water. It can do this trick up to seven times, which is one of the reasons why oysters survive for about ten days in a cold environment outside the ocean. 

José de Brito, a Portuguese oyster merchant, discussed the best way to eat oysters in his 1957 book “Oysters, Culinary and Health” (As Ostras na Saúde e na Cozinha). His advice is as relevant today as when it was written: “Oysters are best eaten raw so that their nutrients and delicate seafood taste remains intact. A little lemon juice, a dash of pepper, and, for those who like it, a little butter and we have a delicious dish. Accompanied by a cold, dry white wine, it is a culinary treat that can satisfy even the most refined palates.” 

But which white wine should we choose? Luckily, Diogo Yebra was there to help us. Diogo is the sommelier at JNcQUOI, as well as the producer of some interesting garage wines called Vinhos à Parte. Diogo explained that, with their salty, strong umami taste, oysters overpower most wines. It is difficult to find a harmonious marriage where neither the wine nor the oysters are dominant in the palate. Champagne and chardonnay are standard choices. 

Instead of a chardonnay, Diogo served Druida, a white wine made in the Dão region with a local varietal called encruzado. Produced with grapes grown in granite soils, it has a minerality and acidity that complement the flavors of the oysters. It was an inspired choice. 

Next, we tried Sílica, a sparkling blanc de noir from Bairrada made with baga, a red varietal.  It is full of freshness, with citrus aromas that accentuate the taste of the oysters and cleanse the palate. Another terrific choice. 

We learned many lessons from this oyster tasting orchestrated by Edgardo. But, the most important takeaway is that Portugal is a paradise for oyster lovers. The quality of the oysters is exceptional and the price is modest. Pair them with a suitable white Portuguese wine and you have a ready-made culinary feast!

Edgardo Pacheco wrote some great articles about oysters in the August 28, 2021 edition of Fugas, a magazine about food, wine, and travel published as part of Público, a daily newspaper. If you read Portuguese, click here to access the articles.  

The joys of a thin slice of Serra cheese

One of our grandfathers often wished there were more days in the year so he would have more opportunities to eat cheese.  His favorite was a Serra da Estrela cheese doused with paprika and olive oil and aged for three months. The paprika gives the cheese a bright orange color on the outside and a golden hue on the inside. During the three-month-long cure, the cheese hardens and its flavor intensifies.  

When our grandfather was young and money was tight, he asked a local tavern to cure a cheese for him so that he could come by every day and buy a small slice. He justified this humble luxury by explaining that “Serra cheese is inexpensive. All you need to delight your palate is a thin slice. Thick slices are a waste. I like the slices to be so thin you can see the moon through them.” 

We follow his wise advice, using our sharpest knife to cut the thinnest slices of Serra cheese. They are little pieces of heaven!

Tasting medronho spirits in Porto Côvo

There are cognacs, armagnacs, grappas, and brandies. And then there is a wild, exuberant spirit called “aguardente de medronho.” Aguardente means fire water and medronho is the fruit of the “medronheiro,” a small shrub know in English as the strawberry tree. 

Pliny the Elder was not fond of medronhos. In his Natural History he writes that “The fruit is held in no esteem, the reason for its name being that a person will eat only one!” The shrub’s botanical name, “arbutus unedo,” is inspired by the Latin version of the phrase “eat only one” (unum tantum edo).

What Pliny did not seem to know is that, when the fruit is stored for one or two months, it ferments and can then be distilled to produce a clear, aromatic spirit.  

Medronho distillers use the same copper stills favored by alchemists. The stills are heated slowly to separate the water from the alcohol. The resulting liquid comes in three parts. The first part (the head), is high in ethyl acetate and for this reason it is discarded. The last part (the tail) is low in alcohol. Only the middle part (the heart) is bottled. 

Medronheiros grow all over Portugal. They are abundant in the Algarve where their spirit has been popular for more than a century. Medronhos ripen slowly, turning from green and yellow to red. They are harvested in the fall by workers who search hills and valleys for the ripe fruits. 

Medronho spirit can be used in cocktails or drank straight as a digestif. At Lamelas, Ana Moura’s splendid restaurant in Porto Côvo, we tried a bewitching “Medroni,” a version of the famous negroni cocktail where the gin is replaced with medronho spirit. We also tasted some wonderful Medronho 42 and sampled three types of medronho spirit produced in Cova da Zorra: plain, with honey, and with lemon. They are all delicious, we only wish Pliny the Elder was around to try them!

Tasting olive oils with Edgardo Pacheco

Edgardo’s name came up during a lunch with wine maker Abílio Tavares da Silva at the wonderful Toca da Raposa in Ervedosa do Douro. Abílio opened a bottle of the olive oil he produces at Foz Torto, drizzled the golden liquid on a plate and urged us to taste it.  “Wow, what makes this olive oil so good?,” we asked. “You have to meet Edgardo Pacheco,” responded Abílio, “he can tell you everything you need to know about olive oil.”

Edgardo is a famous food writer who has deep knowledge of a wide array of culinary topics. He has an engaging colloquial style, an ability to describe a person’s character in just a few words, and a great ear for amusing anecdotes or telling details.

Years went by and our interest in olive oil continued to grow. The Buddhists say that when the student is ready, the teacher arrives. And so, by happenstance, Edgardo came over to our house for dinner. When we started asking him questions about olive oil, he offered to organize a tasting. 

A few days later, Edgardo returned armed with olive oil bottles and a box of purple glasses. These glasses, used in professional tastings, hide the color of the oil so that we focus on taste and aroma. 

“Olive oil is just olive juice,” says Edgardo. “To produce great oil, the olives have to be in excellent sanitary condition, freshly picked, without mold or rot. As soon as the oil is pressed, it starts deteriorating, so the younger the olive oil the better. Ideally, we should only consume olive oil from the most recent crop.” “In Portugal, there are three types of olive oil,” continues Edgardo. “Extra virgin oil has no defects. It should be used raw to season salads or give food a finishing touch. Virgin oil can have some slight blemishes. It is suitable for cooking but it should not be used raw. Plain olive oil is refined to remove impurities and then blended with some virgin oil to improve the overall color and aroma. It is generally used for frying in commercial food preparation. Good olive oils cannot be cheap. Making a liter of olive oil requires between 8 and 13 kg. of olives. In contrast, it takes only about 1.5 kg. of grapes to make one liter of wine.”

In the last two decades, the quality of Portuguese olive oils grew by leaps and bounds. Every year, domestic producers return from international competitions with their bags full of prizes. This success was achieved by replacing traditional production methods with modern techniques. But many Portuguese still nurture a certain nostalgia for the traditional ways of making olive oil.

“People often think that that their cousin from the countryside makes better olive oil than modern producers, but those traditional oils are almost always defective. Olives are often harvested too late and they are not pressed right after the harvest. In addition, the oil is usually extracted by adding hot water to the olive paste, destroying the delicate flavors and aromas of the fruit,” explains Edgardo.

Another myth that Edgardo likes to dispel is the idea that the lower the acidity the better the oil. Refined oils, which are of lower quality, are often engineered to have very low acidity.

We tasted three oils. The first was a Rosmaninho made in Trás-os-Montes with cobrançosa olives. It has an intense, spicy taste and aromas of apple and green banana. The second was an Ethos made in Beira Alta with galega olives. It smells like fresh cut grass and it has a slightly bitter taste that reminds us of apples or almonds. The third was an olive oil made by a traditional producer. Compared to the other oils, it has a musty smell and a turbid taste.

Throughout dinner, we kept on discussing the fascinating differences between the three oils. When a chocolate mousse arrived for dessert, Edgardo suggested we season it with a few drops of the Rosmaninho olive oil. Surprisingly, the olive oil perfumed the mousse, accentuating its flavor.

“What else are you interested in?” asked Edgardo as he was leaving. “We would like to know more about Portuguese oysters,” we replied. “I will be in touch,” Edgardo said as he walked into the warm summer night.

Edgardo Pacheco is the author of “Portugal’s 100 Best Olive Oils,” published in 2016. If you read Portuguese and are interested in olive oil, this book is indispensable.

Silver honey

There’s a village in the middle of Ribatejo called Maçussa that was destined to be forgotten. Its population dwindled because people left to seek better opportunities elsewhere. But one man stayed. His name is Adolfo Henriques. He is a farmer, a cook and a philosopher. And he makes a magical goat cheese that placed Maçussa on Portugal’s culinary map.

The mark of a great philosopher is the quality of his disciples, those who learn from the master and preserve and improve that knowledge to pass it on to future generations. Plato was the teacher of Aristotle and Aristotle taught Alexander the Great who went on to conquer the world.

When we heard that a young man who apprenticed with Adolfo was starting to produce his own goat cheese, we got on the road to Maçussa to meet him.  João Prata received us in the house he shares with his wife Ana, his parents Maria and José, and his boisterous dog, Collie. 

João started producing honey in 2014, placing his beehives in the valley of the Montejunto mountain so that the bees could feast on a variety of wild plants. But this production was a side occupation. He had a good, steady job working as a maintenance technician for a large corporation. A meeting with Adolfo changed his life. João started to come by Adolfo’s cheese workshop more and more frequently until one day he quit his day job to go work with the master. For one year, João did every chore there is to do in the cheese workshop. Inspired by this experience, he joined forces with his wife Ana and the two started producing their own goat cheese. Their company is called Prata de Mel (silver honey).

We sat at a large pine table to try their cheese and honey. João tells us that the winter and summer honeys are completely different. In the winter, the bees live off eucalyptus, arbutus and heather. In the summer, they feed on oregano, thistle and brambles. Ana and João do not pasteurize the honey to preserve its texture and taste. The result is extraordinary. Instead of being syrupy, the honey has a delicate granular texture. And instead of having a sugary taste, the honey is vibrant and flavorful.

Next, João opened a jar of pollen. The grains come in a rainbow of colors produced by the different plants that the bees feed on. In order to preserve the freshness of the taste, the pollen is not dried. The result is an ambrosia that enchants the palate.

João brings out some cheese for us to try. It is made with milk from goats that live on the rugged hills of the Montejunto mountain.  We couldn’t help thinking that the qualities of the cheese mirror the personalities of their producers. João is intense; Ana exudes serenity. These cheeses combine an intense flavor with a certain quietness that comes from their velvety texture. We did notice a major flaw in the cheese we tried: once we started eating it, it was impossible to stop. 

“You have to sample the wine we are about to bottle,” says João. He fills glasses with a bright red wine that is naturally fermented and treated with a minimum amount of sulfites. It is a pleasurable wine with a bold tantalizing taste that reflects both the summer heat and freshness lent by the proximity to the ocean. 

Our visit ends with a tour of the chicken coup. João’s new project is to produce high-quality eggs from chicken of the pedrês breed. The birds are small and wear an elegant grey and white plumage. We see them happily roaming around the large yard eating all sorts of fresh vegetables. 

We have great admiration for what Ana and João are doing. And now that Adolfo Henriques has disciples, we’re certain that Maçussa will continue to thrive.

You can contact Prata de Mel via email (pratademel@gmail.com), phone (914 976 148) or through their Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/pratademel

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.