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.

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.