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.

The Joy of Codfish on Christmas Eve

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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

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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

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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.

 

Three foods to try in Terceira, Azores

Açores

In Terceira, an island in the Azores archipelago, we can’t resist climbing every hill and descending to every valley to admire the unspoiled beauty of the landscape from different perspectives. When meal times comes, we’re always ravenous. Luckily, Terceira offers plenty of fresh fish to satiate our apetite. It also has three unique specialty foods that are a must try.

The first is fresh cheese topped with a pepper sauce called “pimentinha” (little pepper). The silky texture of the cheese combines with the salty, hot sauce to get the meal off to a great start.

The second is called “cracas” (barnacles). It is a local crustacean that lives inside rocks shaped like small volcanos. Charles Darwin, who visited Azores in 1836, studies it in his book Living Cirripedia. But “cracas” are much more than a scientific curiosity. They are delicious seafood. Their meat has a delicate, sweet taste that combines perfectly with the briny liquor inside the shell.

The third is “lapas” (limpets), a type of seafood abundant in the coast of Portugal. But while in continental Portugal “lapas” tend to be small and chewy, in Azores they are large, tender and delicious.

These are only three of the many reasons to visit the Terceira island, an enchanting place that is the perfect vacation destination.

The wonders of Maçussa

Composite Maçussa

Francisco Magalhães, one of our favorite chefs, recommended the lunches that Adolfo Henriques prepares in Maçussa, a small town lost in the middle of Ribatejo. We called Adolfo to see if he could accommodate us and we were told to come the following Saturday at 1:30 pm to Rua do Moinho, number three.

We arrived late because we got lost. Maçussa is ignored by most GPS maps, so we had to resort to the ancient art of asking for directions. We parked underneath an oak tree and walked to a small green door marked with the number there. Inside, next to an old grandfather’s clock, there was a table set with plates of mouthwatering artisanal chèvre, camembert, and prosciutto.

Adolfo came to greet us. He looks like Ernest Hemmingway and speaks in short, crisp sentences much like the characters in Hemmingway’s novels. We asked many questions and this flood of curiosity made him clearly uneasy. “My usual conversation pals are two mules. They’re the only ones who truly understand me,” he tells us.

A server arrives with glasses of orange wine, made by leaving the juice of white grapes in contact with the skins. It has a wonderful acidity and evanescent aromas of fruit, herbs and flowers. “This type of wine was common in the old days when there were 226 wineries in Maçussa,” says Adolfo.

He brings us a basket with two types of bread. “I make this bread with yeast inherited from my grandfather. We kept it alive all these years. One of our breads is made with barbela wheat, an ancient gluten-free variety that is almost extinct. I started with a small bag of seeds. It took years to produce enough wheat to bake bread,” he explains.

Next, Adolfo offers us a tray of “gaspiada,” yellow pieces of baked polenta soaked in fragrant olive oil. He makes cornbread in a clay bowl that is more than a century old, a wedding present received by his grandmother. Some dough leftovers stay attached to the recipient. He mixes them with olive oil, bakes them, and serves them in cabbage leaves. “The elders say it is a recipe left by the French troops who trampled on Ribatejo during the peninsular wars.” says Adolfo.

A server keeps bringing more delights: mushrooms stuffed with goat cheese, an amazing blood sausage, a plate of flavorful smoked codfish liver. We use up all the synonyms for delicious in our vocabulary.  Adolfo rewards these accolades by offering us slices of a small aged cheese. “I don’t understand magic, but sometimes it happens,” he tells us. The cheese thrills all the senses in our palates. “A few years ago a French food journalist and a cheese producer came to visit. I offered them a cheese similar to this one. They refused to believe that it was not French. I had to show them my artisanal workshop to convince them that the cheese was made in Maçussa.”

Adolfo went to Lisbon to study sociology but interrupted his studies because he was drafted. When his army stint finished, he decided to return to his father’s farm. But his father didn’t want him back. “You are from the first generation that can leave and find a better life. There’s nothing for you here. Go back to your studies.” Adolfo stayed. He attended a workshop about making goat cheese with two biologists who had apprenticed in France. Then, he bought some goats and started making chèvre and camembert. “I’ve been surrounded by goats ever since,” he says, smiling.

We sat at the table for lunch. The meal started with sumptuous pied de mouton mushrooms served with scrambled farm eggs and arugula. “I have a friend who has devoted his life to studying mushrooms. He has identified and analyzed 140 varieties. For many years, he lived in a tent because he could not afford a house. I started buying mushrooms from him several years ago.”

Next, Adolfo brings roasted baby goat with mushrooms, new potatoes and onions. We ask him what is the secret to the delectable flavors on our plates. He shrugs his shoulders in silence and we realize that we asked him to explain the unexplainable. Adolfo feels bad about letting the question hang in the air, so he offers a partial answer: “the meat is seasoned with white wine, thyme, marjoram, and wild cumin.”

Dessert is a luscious chocolate cake, “the best in Ribatejo,” says Adolfo, mocking the self-proclaimed world’s best chocolate cake.  There are also amazing coscorões, paper-thin slivers of fried orange-flavored dough that are crunchy and sweet. The grandfather’s clock strikes six; we apologize for staying so long. “You’re not the first,” Adolfo replies. “A couple of years ago, a group of international chefs came to spend two hours and stayed for two days. I had to find places for them to sleep.”

We bought bread and cheese and drove back home, regretting all the years we spent without knowing about the wonders produced by Adolfo Henriques in Maçussa. But now we know. And so do you.

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