Sweet secrets

Ovos Moles

“I’ll take you there,” our friend promised. He dialed a number on his cell phone and asked “Can you show us what we want to see?” The answer was positive so we got into his car and he drove us to the outskirts of Aveiro.

We stopped outside an ordinary building, walked to the back door and rang twice.  Rosa Líria Soares opened the door. She greeted us with a welcoming smile, even though it was Sunday and she had been working since 6:00 am. Rosa is a legendary producer of “ovos moles,” an Aveiro delicacy.

It all started thirty years ago when a pastry store closed and the owners offered Rosa their equipment and recipes. She began making “ovos moles” and soon it became her full-time occupation.

We asked whether she would show us the secretive production process. She said yes, she would show us everything except how to combine fresh egg yolks, sugar and water to make the filling. “I won’t share that secret with anyone,” she said. “What if we promise not to tell?” we insisted. “The answer is still no,” she replied.

Rosa buys molded sheets with shells, whelks, sardines, and other designs from one of two producers in Aveiro. The sheets are made with the same wafers used for holy communion. Rosa fills two identical molds with her prized egg filling and moists the edges with water. The wafers are then placed inside a wooden mold and pressed together until the two pieces are glued.

Rosa’s husband, Henrique Carmona, arrived from their shop, Moliceiro dos Sabores, in downtown Aveiro. He told us with pride about all the awards that Rosa has won over the years.

Rosa offered us some freshly made “ovos moles.” “They keep for two weeks but they taste best in the first five days. And if you can try then like this, freshly made, they are even better.”

The crunchy wafer and the soft filling combined in our mouth and we stood there in silence savoring this lavish moment. “You didn’t like them?” Rosa asked. We explained that we couldn’t find words to describe these “ovos moles,” the very best we ever had.

“We dream about coming for a couple of weeks to apprentice with you, because something as sublime as these sweets needs to be passed on to future generations. Will you consider it?” Rosa took time to answer. And then she said “maybe.” We left with our palates full of sweetness and our hearts full of hope.

You can try the divine ovos moles made by Rosa Líria Soares at her store Moliceiro dos Sabores located on Rua dos Mercadores 4, Aveiro, tel. 234 421 776.

 

The most famous fish monger in Lisbon

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Until the middle of the 20th century, street fish sellers called “varinas” were a common sight in Lisbon. They carried a basket of fresh fish on their heads and attracted customers with their catchy slogans and charismatic personalities.

Varinas are a relic of the past, but some of the best fish in Lisbon is still sold by a charismatic woman. Many restaurants in the capital city order their fish from Açucena Veloso.

Visiting Açucena at Mercado 31 de Janeiro is a fascinating experience. It was in a stall in this market that she started selling fish at nine years of age. Today, she owns 23 stalls.

The quality and variety of Açucena’s fish would astonish the patrons of Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market.  But it is not easy to gather these marine treasures. Açucena wakes up every weekday at 2:00 am to make sure she buys the best fish the sea has to offer. Despite her long work hours, she’s always in a good mood. “Look at these ocean jewels” she says with pride pointing to fish that go by quaint names like rascasso, cantaril, and emperador.

When Albert Einstein visited Lisbon in 1925, he wrote in his diary about a fascinating varina with a proud, mischievous look. We think he would have loved meeting Açucena Veloso.

Açucena Veloso’s fish stalls are at Mercado 31 de Janeiro, Rua Engenheiro Vieira da Silva, 31, tel. 91 721 8169

 

The best cheese in Azeitão

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In the beginning of the 19th century, a farmer called Gaspar Henriques de Paiva moved from the Beira region to Azeitão, near Lisbon. He liked his new home, but craved the taste of the famous cheese made in Beira’s Estrela mountain. In 1830, Gaspar brought some “bordalesa” sheep from the Estrela mountain to Azeitão and arranged for a shepherd to come once a year to help him make cheese.

Gaspar owned only a few sheep, so his cheeses were small in size and his production low in volume. But the cheese was so great that it quickly gathered fame. Gaspar taught his neighbors how he made cheese with only three ingredients: sheep milk, cardoon and salt. Soon there were several cheese producers in Azeitão.

We traveled to Azeitão to try the cheeses made by the current generation of producers. When we asked the locals about their favorite cheese, they we unwilling to take sides. Finally, someone agreed to talk under condition of anonymity: “the best cheese in Azeitão is made in the village of Quinta do Anjo (Angel’s farm) and the best producer in Quinta do Anjo is Rui Simões,” he whispered, making sure he was not overheard.

We were lucky to get this tip because Rui Simões’ cheese is sold in only a few places, so we might have missed it.

We liked all the cheeses we tried in Azeitão, but there was indeed something special about the ones made by Rui Simões. They have an addictive creamy, salty, satisfying taste. Now that we are no longer near Azeitão, we crave them. Maybe we’ll buy some “bordalesa” sheep…

Click here for the web site of Queijaria Simões. 

The Portuguese Tea Company

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Portugal played a leading role in the trade with the Far East after Vasco da Gama discovered the sea way to India in 1498. One of the commodities brought from the orient by the caravels were the dried leaves of a plant called Caméllia sinensis. The Portuguese called these leaves and their infusion chá, after the Cantonese word chàh. Their Dutch rivals preferred a word from China’s Fujian province: tea.

When Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess, married Charles II of England in 1662, her trousseau included a basket of tea leaves. She used them to throw tea parties at court. These parties were such a success that drinking tea became a fashion that endures.

Two centuries later, Wenceslaus de Moraes, a Portuguese diplomat who lived in the orient, wrote a poetic book called The Cult of Tea. His goal was to introduce Europeans to the ancient art of serving tea.

Despite these historical connections, Portugal didn’t have a purveyor of fine teas until an Argentinian called Sebastian Filgueiros came to live in Lisbon. Trained as a tea sommelier, he decided to create the Companhia Portugueza de Chá (the Portuguese tea company). The company’s logo combines the profile of Catherine of Braganza with the word Lisbon handwritten by Wenceslaus de Moraes.

Sebastian travels often to the Far East in search of new producers. His favorite teas are the Darjeelings from India and the old black teas from China. But he is very proud of the teas made in Portugal. He’s been able to source two wonderful teas from Azores. The first is a delicate white tea made in cooperation with a research institute. The second is a rare Oolong from the Gorreana plantation. Sebastian sells a fragrant earl grey produced with bergamot oil from Alentejo and his own tea blend called Lisbon breakfast.

When he talks about tea, Sebastian has all the time in the world. And there’s a lot to talk about, from the harvest and oxidization of the leaves, to the way each tea is prepared and served. He speaks softly, as if the secrets of tea are for our ears only. It is worth listening because on the shelves of his store lies a world of tantalizing aromas and flavors waiting to be discovered.

The Companhia Portugueza do Chá operates in Rua do Poço dos Negros, 105, near Chiado, tel. 21-395-1614.

 

A faithful friend

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Portugal’s favorite fish does not swim in Portuguese waters. Since the 16th century, Portuguese fishermen have sailed to Newfoundland in search of gadus morhua, more commonly known as codfish. The French call the bland-tasting fresh cod “cabillaud” and the more appetizing salted cod “morue.” In Portugal this distinction is superfluous because only the salted variety is appreciated. So, one word suffices: “bacalhau.”

Since cod has very little fat, once it is cured in salt it keeps for a long time without becoming rancid. For this reason, dried codfish was often consumed by those who lived far from the coast in days of religious abstinence from meat like Christmas Eve.

The quality of the cod depends on the size of the fish (the larger the better) and the type of cure. To produce the best cod, the cure must begin on the boat, shortly after the fish is captured. This cure continues on land, usually in open-air pavilions. Lesser cod is stored frozen in the boat and cured only on land. Much of the codfish consumed in Portugal is cured in Ílhavo, a region with abundant sea salt.

Two popular sources of cod are Norway and Canada, but the best cod is caught in Iceland by Portuguese fishermen.

Before cooking, salted cod is soaked in water for two or three days to re-hydrate and remove most of the salt. The fish is then ready to be combined with symbiotic ingredients such as garlic, potatoes and olive oil.

The commerce of “bacalhau” is so important that there’s a whole street in Lisbon, Rua dos Bacalhoeiros, that was once reserved for codfish vendors.

In good times and bad, the Portuguese gather at the table to share this fish we call “fiel amigo” (faithful friend). It is a delicacy that comes from afar but has the taste of home.

Royal pies

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The Portuguese love eating “empadas,” small pies that are perfect for a light meal or a mid-afternoon nibble. The art of making these treats reached great heights in the court of Dom Pedro II. The court’s chef, Domingos Rodrigues, regaled the royal guests with a wide variety of empadas made with fillings that ranged from wild boar to lamprey. His recipes are collected in The Art of Cooking, published in 1680.

Three centuries later, another chef, Belmiro de Jesus, applied himself to the art of making empadas. Belmiro loved the empadas made by his grandmother and spent a lifetime perfecting her recipe.

You can try the result of his efforts at Bel’empada, a take-out place in Lisbon’s Alvalade neighborhood. Belmiro’s delicious creations would make Domingos Rodrigues proud. Paired with a great bottle of wine, these small marvels are a royal meal.

Bel’empada is located at Av. João XXI 24, right at the crossing of Av. João XXI and Av. de Roma (tel. 21 407 5172).

 

Eels from Murtosa

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When we were young, every September our family ate fried eels that came from Murtosa, a small town in the estuary of the Vouga river. The eels were marinated in “escabeche,” a sauce made with olive oil, white wine, onions, paprika, laurel, and vinegar.  These ingredients were combined according to ancient rules of alchemy so that when the eels, the sauce and boiled potatoes were placed on the plate, they transformed into culinary gold.

Eels are mysterious creatures. They spend their early years in fresh river waters. After reaching maturity, they swim to the middle of the Atlantic ocean to lay their eggs in the Sargasso Sea. The baby eels swim back in search of fresh river water and the cycle of life restarts.

How do the infant eels know where to go? And why do the best tasting eels end up in Murtosa? These are inscrutable mysteries.

Before refrigeration was available, the Murtosa eels were a local delicacy. The fisherman ate them fried or in a “caldeirada” that combines the fish with potatoes, tomato, onion, garlic, olive oil, lard, herbs, and spices.

In the first half of the 20th century, some local cooks started marinating fried eels in escabeche sauce. First they packed them in wooden barrels and later in tin cans. These marinated eels gained great fame and popularity in the center of Portugal.

Over time, eels became scarce, the number of fisherman declined, canning factories closed, and it became hard to find marinated eels. So imagine our surprise when, strolling in downtown Lisbon, we found a store called 1942 that specializes in marinated eels from Murtosa! The cans come from a factory that has been processing eels since 1942.

We took this precious find home and opened the can slowly, preparing to be disappointed. But, when we placed the eels, the sauce and boiled potatoes on a plate, the old magic flavors came to life and we felt young again.

The 1942 store  is located on the corner of Rua da Conceição and Rua da Prata in Lisbon (tel. 21-599-9890).