Barbela is a nutritious wheat that, until the 1930s, accounted for the bulk of Portuguese wheat consumption. It came from the fertile crescent and thrived in Portugal because it is hardy and can grow anywhere. Its long roots allow it to survive droughts and flourish in poor soils.
Hybrid wheats arrived in Portugal in the 1930s. They are low in nutrition but have high production yields boosted by chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Gradually, barbela lost ground to these flashy newcomers until only one barbela field remained. It is located on the foot of the Montejunto mountain and belongs to João Vieira. We drove to this place, far from the commotion of urban life, to meet with him.
At 83 years of age, João speaks with the passion of youth and the wisdom earned over the course of a life well lived. Everything he says comes from a well of deep reflection.
João worked in France during his youth, but when manufacturing jobs started to disappear, he returned to the land of his ancestors. He realized that barbela, once ubiquitous on the sandy soils of Montejunto, was vanishing. The seed stock was dwindling, and so was the cultivation knowledge. João started planting barbela seeds that came from his father and grandfather. He loved seeing this tall wheat sway again with the wind, making waves like the sea.
What started as a one-person campaign against oblivion mobilizes today a small army. João calls it the barbela tribe. It is a loose network of farmers who plant barbela and share their experiences. João inducts new members by giving them seeds on the condition that they later provide other people with seeds and bring them into the tribe.
Barbela is a soft wheat that produces flour suitable for breads, tarts, and cakes. Every day, João makes bread with his barbela flour. After harvesting, threshing, and milling, the sieve has the last word, choosing what makes it into the flour. João likes his bread with a coarse texture, so he occasionally overrules the sieve and lets a few larger grains into the mix.
He went into the kitchen and returned with a basket of bread to share with us. We sat with him for quite a while, trying this exquisite bread and listening to his precious words. It was a very fine use of time.
We loved the sausages served during our epic lunch at Páteo Real. Chef Filipe Ramalho offered to call Dona Octávia, the sausage maker, to see if we could meet her. She agreed, so we drove through the golden plains of Alentejo to a small village called Cano. Blinded by the exuberant sunlight, we knocked on a green door marked Salsicharia Canense. Dona Octávia welcomed us inside, greetings us with glasses of cold water that quenched our thirst.
She’s been making sausages for 40 years. Her parents had eight children, so there were many mouths to feed. Everybody had to work to help out. The only education available to Dona Octávia was learning how to make sausages with her grandmother.
She opened Salsicharia Canense with her husband in 1997. People quickly noticed that her sausages were finer than the rest. “I enjoy my work and try to make everything I do special,” Dona Octávia confided. She has always used local ingredients–pigs raised in Alentejo and herbs from her garden or the nearby Portalegre mountain. She uses no preservatives or foreign spices, and all her sausage casings are natural and hand-sewn.
Dona Octávia says she was born poor but now feels rich because her son João returned to Cano to work with her and preserve her culinary knowledge. It’s the kind of wealth that trickles down to us all.
Salsicharia Canense is located at Rua de São José, Cano. You can order their products by calling 962 938 107.
Edgardo Pacheco is a Portuguese journalist who writes with eloquence and grace about gastronomy. He knows so many people in the food world that he managed to surprise us on our home turf. He arrived at our house with an irresistible sweet tart. When we asked him about the provenance of this delight, he revealed it came from the town nearby!
The tart was created in 2018 for the local pumpkin festival by a young chef called Sílvia Batista. It has a flour, butter, and sugar base, a pumpkin-pulp filling, and a topping made with pumpkin seeds, sugar, and butter. The combination is sublime.
Silvia makes the tart with her mother, Diná, and sells it in Lourinhã, where it is quickly gathering fame. The chef didn’t name the tart after herself. She called it “Dona Isabel” in honor of Isabel Mateus, who, with her husband, discovered a nest of dinosaur eggs in a local beach.
Creating a brand-new recipe requires skill. But the naming of the tart reveals another important ingredient: generosity. Sílvia has both talent and generosity in abundance. We can’t wait to taste what else she’ll make!
Click here for Sílvia Batista’s web site. You can buy or order her tart at O Casco, Rua Dr. Francisco de Sá Carneiro, Lt 22 R/Ch Dto. Lourinhã, tel. 910 121 280.
We used to buy jams endorsed by the British monarchs, figuring that centuries of sampling jams at tea time gave them the practice required to select the cream of the jam crop.
We quite liked the British jams until one fateful lunch at Toca da Raposa in Ervedosa do Douro. A sampling of jams arrived without fanfare at dessert time. When we tried them, we experienced a whole new level of deliciousness!
What makes these jams so sublime? Their fruit comes from the Douro valley, a place where the scorching summer heat and a wealth of soil micronutrients create unique conditions that intensify aromas and flavors. And each batch is handcrafted by Dona Graça, a legendary cook, and her talented daughter, Rosário. The two leave nothing to chance, shunning the use of preservatives and making adjustments small and large to ensure that the results are perfect.
There is an orange jam chockfull of strips of orange rind that delight the palate and an orange and hot pepper jam with the ideal combination of sugar and spice. There are jars of jam brimming with perfectly ripe whole figs; a surprisingly delicious zucchini jam; amazing jams made with must from grapes used to produce port wine; jams made from a rare peach variety that grows amidst the vines, and much more.
The jams favored by his royal majesty pale by comparison with the wondrous jams from Toca da Raposa! The question is: how do we tell the king?
Toca da Raposa is located at Rua da Praça in Ervedosa do Douro, tel. 254 423 466.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.