Ambrosia from Azores

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The ancient gods of Greece and Rome satiated their hunger with ambrosia, a food with exuberant colors, an elegant aroma and a taste that has the perfect combination of sweetness and acidity.

No one knows what this divine food looks like except the people from the island of São Miguel in Azores.  It is an open secret that ambrosia grows in the island in the form of a small pineapple.

While other places produce ordinary pineapples meant for human consumption, São Miguel produces extraordinary pineapples meant for the gods.

If you visit the island, don’t miss the chance to try this transcendent food. Just make sure the gods are not looking.

 

 

Elegant food at L’and

land-vineyards

We arrived at L’and blinded by the midday Alentejo sun. It felt great stepping into the cool shade offered by this elegant hotel surrounded by vineyards.

Chef Miguel Laffan came to meet us. We asked him how he felt relocating from Cascais, a cosmopolitan beach near Lisbon, to this secluded place in the interior of Alentejo. “I came to focus on food,” he told us. “Here there are no distractions. But it took two or three years for the people of Alentejo to trust and accept me. Now, they say that I am a chef from Alentejo!”

The meal began with a small round cheese made from sheep milk in nearby Arraiolos. It was Laffan’s way of saying that this simple cheese is as good as the high cuisine on the menu. No wonder the locals adopted him as one of their own.

A beautiful bread box offered us the choice between old and new traditions: Alentejo bread was paired with new breads made from local products—carob, seeds, and olives.

Next, came a set of delightful appetizers: a glass of tomato, pepper and strawberry gazpacho, a codfish “rissol” covered with bread crumbs soaked in cuttle fish ink, ceviche with oyster and turbot accompanied by a banana cream, and a croquette made with alheira and bergamot orange.

Laffan came back to our table and we talked about his approach to cooking. “I like to use local ingredients, but I am not a fundamentalist. What is important to me is to cook food that I enjoy eating. I admire the lightness of Asian cooking but I do not do fusion. Instead, I let that lightness inspire me to create something different here in Alentejo.”

We had scallops “Brás” style, an adaptation of the traditional codfish Brás-style recipe and Alentejo pork loin cooked slowly and served over a bed of cauliflower, peas and asparagus. Both were masterpieces of taste, aroma, texture, and presentation.

The desserts were a manga panna cotta beautifully decorated with beet flowers and fresh raspberries combined with raspberry mousse, merengue, and foam. Coffee came with wine gelatins and irresistible chocolates.

The following day, we saw in the Vila Viçosa ducal palace the menus of the banquets offered by king Dom Carlos and queen Dona Amélia. They are handwritten in French by the queen and illustrated with watercolors by the king. Portuguese recipes share the table with many preparations from France and elsewhere. These foreign recipes were probably viewed as more elegant than the rustic food of Portugal.

Today the royal couple would not need to look across borders for culinary elegance and refinement. They could find it at L’and in the cuisine of Miguel Laffan.

L’and and Vineyards is located in Montemor-o-Novo in Alentejo, tel. 266-242-400. Click here for their website.

Sweet moments in Lisbon

Composit Manteigaria

What is the best pastel de nata in Lisbon?  The answer depends on our mood. Some days, we like them perfumed with lemon. Other days, we prefer them scented with vanilla.

Our current favorites are the lemony kind. They are made by Manteigaria in Praça Camões near Chiado at a location that was once occupied by a butter shop (manteiga is the Portuguese word for butter). Perhaps as an homage to the past, Manteigaria’s pasteis have a buttery taste. The crispy crust and the rich filling are so satisfying that they make us feel, for a moment, that we discovered the meaning of life.

Whenever a new batch of pasteis comes hot out of the oven, Mantegaria’s cashier rings a bell. You’ll see people dropping what they’re doing and rushing to Manteigaria in search of a moment of sweetness.

Manteigaria is located on Rua do Loreto, 2 near Chiado in Lisbon, tel. 21-347-1492.

Avillez’s neighborhood

Bairro do Avillez

It is common for writers to imagine new worlds and share them with us. But it is uncommon for chefs to pursue this creative strategy. José Avillez, the Michelin-starred chef of Belcanto, dreamed of an old Lisbon neighborhood where friends gathered to share great food. He imagined timeworn buildings guarded by carved wooden doors with windows adorned by crocheted curtains.

When the space once occupied by the 13th-century Convent of Trindade became available, Avillez seized the opportunity to make his dreams come true. He invited architect Joana Astolfi to design an installation inspired by old building facades, artist Cátia Pessoa to create ceramic sculptures representing fish and vegetables, and painter Henriette Arcelin to produce a large tile panel at the famous Viúva Lamego factory.

The result is a fun atmosphere perfect to enjoy the classics of Portuguese cuisine, refined and, in some cases, reinvented. Bairro do Avillez (Avillez’s neighborhood) has a grocery store (Mercearia) with some of the chef’s favorite products, a tapas bar (Taberna), and a restaurant (Páteo).

In the Taberna, you can eat a wide variety of “petiscos” (the Portuguese word for tapas), from Portuguese prosciutto and sausages, to codfish with cornbread, and roasted piglet.

The Páteo offers pristine fish from the Portuguese coast, grilled, cooked with rice, or combined with bread, olive oil and garlic in a fragrant “açorda.” The menu also includes great seafood (lobster, shrimp, clams, crab, and razor clams), delicious steaks, and grilled black pork from Alentejo.

There’s a wonderful house wine made in collaboration with Quinta do Monte d’Oiro. And there is also a great new line of artisanal beers called Selection 1927.

We told José Avillez that we were impressed to see him take time to welcome the people who walked in to see the new space. He told us that these gestures are important to him: “What makes Portugal unique is the combination of great ingredients and a rich culinary tradition with our warm hospitality.”

Chef José Avillez is a dreamer who makes Lisbon more fun with his gracious demeanor and delicious food. It is a privilege to be in his neighborhood.

Bairro do Avillez is located at Rua Nova da Trindade, 18, Lisbon, tel. 215 830 290.

Saffron from the Azores

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“There’s something special about this seafood rice.” We’ve been hearing similar comments all Summer long; about soups, stews, and other preparations. It’s all because we’ve been cooking with açaflor.  It is a saffron-like spice produced in the Azores islands. The flowers of the Carthamus tinctorius are dried and crushed to produce beautiful yellow and red strands that add a delicate flavor to everything they touch.

If you’re looking for an original gift for a friend who likes to cook, get a bag of açaflor. In a world where almost everything is known, açaflor is a wonderful new spice waiting to be discovered.

You can find açaflor in stores that sell products from the Azores. Our favorite one is Merçearia dos Açores on Rua da Madalena, 115 Lisbon, tel. 218-880-070. Their email is loja@merceariadosacores.pt. Click here for their website. 

The ducal palace of Vila Viçosa

Palácio Vila Viçosa

Portugal is a dream reborn in the prairies of Alentejo. In 1580, the king of Portugal died without an heir and the king of Spain inherited the throne of Portugal. After six decades of Spanish domination, a small group of nobles organized a coup to restore independence. They wanted to make Dom João of Braganza, a duke with royal blood who lived in Vila Viçosa, king of Portugal.

The king of Spain had arranged a marriage between Dom João and a Spanish aristocrat, Dona Luisa de Gusmão, hoping she would persuade the duke to support the Spanish rule. Instead, Dona Luisa became a passionate advocate for Portugal’s independence.

Dom João worried that the rebellion was likely to fail. He was willing to die for his country but did not like risking the fate of his wife and children. Dona Luisa convinced him to go forward with the words: “I would rather be queen for a day than duchess for life.” Portugal regained independence on December 1, 1640 and the duke became king João IV.

The ducal palace of Vila Viçosa is still owned by the House of Braganza. A visit to the palace is a rare glimpse into the domestic life of the royal family.

Dom Carlos, who ruled between 1889 and 1908, loved to vacation at Vila Viçosa. A talented painter, he covered the palace walls with his oils and watercolors. It was here that the king slept his last night before returning to Lisbon where he was assassinated.

There’s an elegant garden in the back of the palace that has no flowers. Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese princess who married Charles II of England, banned flowers from royal gardens after learning that the king liked to pick them for his mistresses. In deference to Catherine, flowers were removed from the garden of the ducal palace.

The visit’s grand finale is the magnificent royal kitchen. It is equipped with 2.4 tons of copper pots used to prepare the elaborate banquets offered by the royal family to visiting aristocrats and foreign dignitaries.

If you’re traveling in Alentejo, don’t miss the chance to see the palace of Vila Viçosa, a retreat of kings where history was made.

 

 

Finding truffles in Bombarral

composit D. José

Bombarral’s rolling hills offer their vines daily to the sun. In return, the star ripens the grapes so they can make intense, aromatic wines. The region is full of small wineries and traditional restaurants waiting to be discovered.

Our latest find is a restaurant called Dom José. It is named after José Louro who in 1992 left his job in London to open a restaurant in his hometown. His son Nelson told us that “My father used the honorary prefix Dom to name the restaurant, but we don’t have royal blood.”

Nelson was working in London in the real estate industry when, in 2012, his father announced he was selling the restaurant. Nelson quit his job and came to Bombarral to run Dom José. “I have no regrets,” he said. “I like the idea of building on what my father did and making the restaurant better every day.”

The menu offers traditional food prepared with great care using the wonderful ingredients that the region offers. Our meal began with clams bulhão Pato. The clams were succulent and their sauce was a poem to the brilliant simplicity of Portuguese gastronomy. Next, Nelson brought out his version of “fish and chips.” The fish was moist and the batter crisp. The chips were replaced by a hearty bean and spinach rice. The last dish was a wonderful “feijoada” (stewed beans and cabbage) made with black pork. It is so popular that it always on the menu.

We told Nelson that we were too full to venture into dessert territory. “But I saved the best for last,” he said as he placed on the table a plate of chocolate truffles. They melted in our mouths filling our palates with caramel, lime, and chocolate sensations. “Where do you get these magnificent truffles?” we asked. “After I started running the restaurant, my sister Carla left her banking job in London to study with William Curley, a famous British chocolatier. Then, she joined me at the restaurant. Her truffles are a great success. They’re already sold in many gourmet shops and we are starting to export them to England.”

We left the restaurant inspired by the nobility of what Carla and Nelson are doing. And certain that, somewhere in their ancestry, there is royal blood.

Dom José is located at Rua Dr Alberto Martins dos Santos 4, in Bombarral, tel. 262 604 384.