Porto Côvo

There are so many seashore towns in Portugal that it’s hard to single one out. But Porto Côvo, an old fisherman’s hamlet on Alentejo’s Vicentine coast, deserves special mention. It is blessed with sandy beaches bathed by turquoise waters and a view to the enigmatic Peachtree Island where two forts, now in ruins, once kept pirates at bay. 

In the late 18th century, Jacinto Fernandes Bandeira, a successful businessman, bought a vast stretch of land in Porto Côvo. He hired an architect to draw plans to populate the area and turn it into a significant harbor. The king rewarded these efforts by granting him, in 1805, the title of Baron of Porto Côvo da Bandeira. 

Bandeira’s plan was inspired by the grid system used to rebuild downtown Lisbon after the 1755 earthquake. The construction of Porto Côvo did not adhere closely to it, but its sense of geometry prevailed, giving the town a harmonious feeling.

In the center, the farmers market brims with fresh fruits from land and sea. Local restaurants turn these products into appetizing meals. Our favorite is Lamelas, a place where chef Ana Moura serves veritable culinary pearls. We owe these riches to Baron Jacinto Fernandes Bandeira who first recognized the beauty of Porto Côvo.

The maker of Barca Velha

Luís Sottomayor, the enologist who makes Barca Velha, an iconic Douro valley wine, is uncomfortable with his fame. He misses spending August in quiet solitude amidst the vines at Quinta da Leda, the large estate that produces most of the grapes used in Barca Velha. Today everybody wants to talk to him, journalists, sommeliers, and wine enthusiasts. They all want to discover the secret of Barca Velha.

Luís says the style was created by the legendary Fernando Nicolau de Almeida when he produced the first Barca Velha in 1952. Nicolau de Almeida traveled the Douro valley in search of grapes that could make an exceptional table wine and found them in a region called Douro Superior. He blended grapes from high altitudes that have acidity and freshness with those from low altitudes that have maturation, body, and color. This marriage of acidity and structure created a sublime wine that can age and improve for decades. 

Barca Velha is made with the best grapes that Sogrape, Portugal’s largest wine company, has in Douro Superior. The parcels are vinified separately and stored in casks. Luís creates a blend from the different barrels. If the resulting wine meets his exacting standards, he bottles it. Then the wait begins. He samples the wine with his team for four, five, six, sometimes seven years before deciding whether to label it Barca Velha or Reserva Especial. Since 1952, there have only been 20 vintages of Barca Velha and 17 of Reserva Especial. 

Luís says that some decisions are challenging but he was lucky to learn with the two masters who made Barca Velha before him, Fernando Nicolau de Almeida and José Maria Soares Franco. Luís was hired by Soares Franco in 1989 and became responsible for Barca Velha in 2007. 

“For how long should we store a Barca Velha?” we ask. Luís smiles and says he doesn’t like waiting too long to pull the cork from the heavy bottles that guard the precious wine. “Open it when you’re with good friends,” he recommends. Luís is a hunter, so he loves to pair Barca Velha with partridge or duck. “But the wine also can be enjoyed without food, especially by the fire on a cold winter night,” he says. 

We asked Luís about another remarkable Sogrape wine called Legado (the Portuguese word for legacy). “Barca Velha has a consistent style and is the expression of a large terroir,” says Luís. “Legado is the opposite. It comes from a small terroir– a vineyard planted in 1910 with eight hectares that produce only six or seven tons of grapes. Each vintage is a different chapter of the life of that vineyard.”

Luís grew up on a farm near Porto. His father, who studied enology in Dijon after the 2nd World War, worked in a port wine company. From an early age, Luís dreamed about being a winemaker. Now he makes wines that people dream about drinking.

Belmiro

Belmiro is the kind of restaurant that is increasingly hard to find in Lisbon. It does not prepare food to look good on Instagram. It does not seek originality for its own sake. Instead, it cooks classics of the Portuguese cuisine with good-quality, seasonal ingredients. 

The restaurant is named after Belmiro de Jesus, an old hand who’s been a chef at places like Salsa & Coentros. Belmiro is famous for his mouthwatering “empadas,” small pies with delightful fillings. And he is a virtuoso at cooking partridge and hare. He prepares them with rice, in “açorda,” with beans, and much more. The menu is seasonal, it changes to reflect what’s fresh in the market. If you can’t decide what to choose, a good rule of thumb is to order anything cooked in a “tacho” (a saucepan). 

We like to go to Belmiro with friends and ask the chef to prepare a few entrées we can all share. Accompanied by some good bottles of wine, the meal always turns into a party. 

Belmiro is located at Paço da Rainha 66, Lisbon, tel. 21 885 2752.

The professor’s partridges

The best partridges we ever tasted were cooked by a professor. His name is Emídio Gomes. He is the rector of the UTAD, the university that trained many of the star enologists who work in the Douro valley. 

Emídio learned to cook while studying in France on a meager scholarship. He asked his grandmother to teach him some of her recipes so that he could eat at home. Cooking was so relaxing that he continued to cook regularly after returning to Portugal.

Emídio’s stewed partridges are renowned throughout the Douro valley. The professor generously gave us his grandmother’s recipe and allowed us to share it with our readers. 

The recipe starts with an admonition: “If the partridges are good, make sure you don’t ruin them.” Here’s the rest. 

Remove the feathers and the tripes of the wild partridges and cut them into pieces. Marinate them for twelve hours in a small amount of white wine, laurel, parsley, and a little thyme.

Heat a cast iron pot. Pour a generous amount of olive oil. The quality of the olive oil is paramount. Choose an olive oil with low acidity, ideally from the Douro valley. Slice enough onions to cover the bottom 2 inches of the pot. Slowly sweat the onions. Remove the thyme, laurel, and parsley, and place the partridges in the pot. Add a small amount of water to prevent the stew from drying.

Cover the pot with the lid and slowly stew the partridges for four to five hours. Monitor periodically to ensure the stew does not dry; add small amounts of water as necessary. Season with salt towards the end of the cooking period. After the first four hours, regularly pierce the meat with a fork. The partridge is ready when the meat offers no resistance. Serve with white rice and toasts.

Like a top scientific paper, the recipe requires high-quality content and flawless execution. And in the end, the results look deceptively simple.

The timeless Quinta do Seixo

Quinta do Seixo in the Douro valley is a place of timeless beauty. Here’s how Henry Vizetelly described it in his book “Facts about Port and Madeira,” published in 1880:

“It occupies the spurs and slopes of a mountain, one side of which bounds the Douro, and the other the Rio Torto valley. Scattered over the heights above are the white cottages of the village of Valença, the vineyards of which produce a considerable quantity of first-class wine. The buildings of the Quinta do Seixo , which is entered through an imposing gateway, surmounted by the armorial bearings of its owner, are very extensive. The casa is both commodious and well arranged, and has a certain air of pretension about it, while the lagares and the adega are on a scale proportionate to the extent of the surrounding vineyard.”

This description remains remarkably apt. The main house still offers spectacular views of the surrounding vineyards, some of which are centenarian. But Vizetelly would be amazed to see that inside the traditional building, there’s a state-of-the-art winery. 

Our guide explained what makes the Douro different: the stone terraces built to support the vines, the “field blends” made from varietals planted together in the vineyards, the poor soils that force the plants to struggle, making the berries small but full of flavor, and the methods used to produce tawnies, vintages, and late-bottled vintages. 

She also told us about Georges Sandeman, the Scottish merchant who founded Sandeman in 1790. The company quickly became the largest port-wine shipper. Its mysterious logo, created in 1928, was inspired by its two product lines: ports from Portugal and sherries from Spain. It is a silhouette of a man wearing a Spanish hat and dressed in the cloak used by students in Coimbra, Portugal’s oldest university.

At the end of the tour, we tasted four wines—first, a harmonious white Vinha Grande with fine tannins and a pleasing acidity. Then, an exuberant red Callabriga made with grapes from the Callabriga hill, which was originally planted by the Romans. Next, a delicious 2019 Vintage Port from Quinta do Seixo that tastes even better with a view of the vines that produced it. And, finally, a great Sandeman Vau port wine from the 1999 vintage.

A visit to Quinta do Seixo is a delightful introduction to the wonders of the Douro valley.

Click here for Quinta do Seixo’s website.

Chocapalha’s fascinating wines

Some of our favorite wines come from an estate near Lisbon called Chocapalha. It has a privileged location. The Montejunto mountain protects the land from cold winds and the Atlantic breeze lends the wines an enticing freshness and acidity. The farm, which is known for its wines since the 16th century, has a hilly terrain with different sun exposures and soils rich in clay and limestone.

Chocapalha belonged since the 19th century to the family of Diogo Duff, a Scottish noble who came help the Duke of Wellington fight the Napoleonic troups. Paulo Tavares da Silva, a retired Portuguese Navy officer, and his Swiss wife Alice bought the estate from the Duff family in 1987. 

The journey to the glorious wines produced today was long and arduous. There was a modern winery to build, laborers to hire, new vineyards to plant, sustainable practices to implement, and many other tasks. When we first met Paulo, he told us that a visiting producer tried to discourage him by quoting a French aphorism: “wine is an easy business; only the first 200 years are hard.” But he and Alice were not deterred. They were driven by a passion for the land and a desire to create a legacy for future generations. For this reason, they paid from the start close attention to environmental issues. They want to see that the soil is alive, the vineyards are healthy, and the birds and animals are thriving. 

The family worked so hard that success came much sooner than anticipated. Alice and Paulo enlisted two of their daughters, Sandra and Andrea, to work at Chocapalha. Sandra, a renowned enologist, took time from Wine & Soul, the project she has in the Douro valley with her husband, to oversee the planting of the vineyards and the making of the wines. Andrea left a lucrative career in finance to manage the estate. Paulo works tirelessly in the vineyards. Alice graciously receives the many guests that visit the farm. 

The wines speak for themselves: they are pure and refined, produced with minimal intervention so that each glass can take our palate to the sunny hills of Chocapalha. 

There are many wines to try. There’s a Castelão with the elegance of a Pinot Noir and a Viosinho with the charm of a Chardonnay. Vinha Mãe has rich tannins and great concentration; it is a perfect companion for a cold winter night. The CH white, made with Arinto from old vines, is an aristocratic wine with subtle salinity. The wine is an homage to Alice (CH is the symbol of Switzerland, her homeland). The red Guarita, named after the farm’s sentry house, is an homage to Paulo. Produced with Alicante Bouschet, it is a symphony for the palate.

When you visit Chocapalha, you can taste their wines, visit the picturesque vineyards, and get to know a family passionate about creating some of the world’s most fascinating wines.

Chocapalha is located at Aldeia Galega da Merceana, 50 km from Lisbon. You can schedule a wine tasting by emailing chocapalha@chocapalha.com. Click here for their website.

Dining by candlelight at Quinta Dona Maria

We arrived late in the afternoon and waited outside the imposing marble gate. Before we could say ‘abracadabra’ or some other incantation, the gate opened, welcoming us to Quinta Dona Maria, a magnificent wine estate in Alentejo. 

Isabel Bastos came to greet us. We walked with her to the palace’s chapel and sat down to hear her recount the story of Quinta Dona Maria. The estate was a gift from King John V to Dona Maria, a lady of the court with whom the king fell in love. Dona Maria left no descendants, so the property was sold in a public auction upon her death. The Reynolds, a family of merchants from southern England, purchased it. They renamed the estate Quinta do Carmo in honor of an image of the Lady of Carmo they bought for the chapel in 1752. The estate currently belongs to Júlio Bastos, Isabel’s husband, who descends from the Reynolds family. 

Júlio’s grandfather started producing fine wines on the estate. The project was so successful that in a blind tasting with the Rothschilds held in the late 1980s, the wines from Quinta do Carmo tied with Lafitte Rothschild. Impressed by this feat, the Rothschilds proposed Júlio Bastos a partnership. But the two winemakers had different objectives and approaches. Júlio is passionate about the old vines planted with the traditional varietals of Alentejo, most of all Alicante Bouschet, a varietal brought by the Reynolds from France to Alentejo. The Rothschilds wanted to replant the vineyards with French varietals that could appeal to the international market. Eventually, the two parties separated. In this process, the Rothschilds kept the brand Quinta do Carmo, so Júlio renamed his wines and estate Quinta Dona Maria. 

We walked to the wine cellar to see the 18th-century marble tanks where the grapes are still crushed by foot treading. The tanks were brimming with grapes that were starting the fermentation process that transmutes earthly grape juice into heavenly wine. Isabel served us an enticing rosé with pleasing fruit notes and refreshing acidity. Next, we tried a delightful white Viognier that shows how much this French grape shines in the soils of Alentejo. The tasting ended with pomp and circumstance provided by two sumptuous Dona Maria red reserves from 2005 and 2008.

It was time to go to the palace. The large door creaked as it slowly opened to show us rooms lit by candlelight that made us feel like we were back in the 18th century. Júlio joined us for dinner. His love for the land, food, and wine of Alentejo were evident throughout the meal. 

The dinner, prepared by Filipe Ramalho from Páteo Real and Beatriz Tobinha, the palace’s resident chef, was a memorable feast. It started with Filipe’s famous tart made from chestnut-flower sausage, pears cooked in wine, quince marmalade, and chard. Then there was a slew of appetizers: tomato and watermelon salad, roasted peppers with bacon, slices of the brilliant sausages made at Salsicharia Canense, plates with savory Alentejo cheeses, and chickpeas with pickled codfish salad. A rich white Dona Maria reserve delicately aged in oak was an enthralling gastronomical companion.

Next came the main dishes: cação (a fish popular in Alentejo) in coriander sauce, pheasant in escabeche sauce and marinated carrots, and duck croquettes with black garlic mayonnaise. A splendid Dona Maria red reserve from 2017 made from old vines complemented the food with its festive taste of berries and hints of spices. 

The dessert was an almond and pumpkin tart paired with the famed Júlio B. Bastos Alicante Bouschet, named after Júlio’s father. The wine’s acidity, tannins, and fruit sing to the palate in perfect harmony.

Glancing at the watch, we saw the two hands pointing to midnight. We knew from fairy tales that it was time to leave. We thanked Isabel and Júlio for their warm hospitality and drove back to our hotel. We slept peacefully but woke up wondering: was the dinner at Quinta Dona Maria a dream? 

Click here for the website of Quinta Dona Maria.

Enchantment at Ceia

Standing in the shadow of Lisbon’s old pantheon, we knock on an inconspicuous door that opens into a courtyard erected in 1728. On our right is the entrance to one of Lisbon’s most hallowed dining rooms: a restaurant called Ceia. Those who’ve been here before experienced much more than superb food, exquisite wines, and courteous service. We had an enchanted evening.  

João Rodrigues, Ceia’s owner, is an alchemist who knows how to transform a meal that nourishes the body into a celebration that nurtures the soul. He gathered a star team, headed by chef Diogo Caetano and sous-chef Tiago Silva, and trusted them with precious ingredients: pristine organic produce freshly picked at Herdade do Tempo in Alentejo.

Ivo Custódio, the sommelier, greets us with an old acquaintance: a white wine made by Luís Mota Capitão, the iconoclast winemaker of Herdade do Cebolal. We enjoy the wine and the conversation with the other guests. Then, Ivo invites us into the dining room. We gather around a long wooden table to hear him explain that the meal is a journey through Portugal’s culinary and enological landscapes.

The voyage starts at the bottom of the ocean with tuna tartare on crunchy seaweed crackers, seaweed sponge cake, and gooseneck barnacles. An Atlantis rosé made with Negra Mole on the Madeira Island enhances the sea flavors.

We rise to the ocean’s surface with the taste of briny oysters paired with tart apples from Alcobaça and seaweed ice cream. The oysters come with a magnificent 2014 white wine from Colares, a small region near the sea where the vines, planted in the sand, survived the phylloxera scourge that decimated Europe in the 19th century. Made by Chitas (the nickname of an old producer called Paulo da Silva) it is a complex wine that fascinates and delights.

We arrive at the beach with a delicately cooked turbot seasoned with smoky olive oil powder and served in a Bulhão Pato sauce. It is so delicious we barely resist the urge to ask for seconds. 

But we find new joys in the lowlands where a sourdough bread fermented for three days and a cornbread baked with dried fruits await us. They come with Amor é Cego, a piquant oil made from Galega olives. There are also plates of luscious butter from Pico, an island in the Azores archipelago.

Ivo serves an elegant 2012 red from Quinta de Lemos in the Dão region. It is made with Jaen–a grape varietal brought to Portugal by pilgrims who traveled to Santiago de Compostela. Like the wine, the conversation flows freely around the table.

In the plains, there is rabbit served with an ice cream made from escabeche, a traditional sauce prepared with vinegar and olive oil. Kompassus, a sparkling wine made from Baga, a red grape from Bairrada, refreshes our palate. 

We climb up the mountain with a roasted purple cabbage dressed with a pennyroyal and champagne sauce. It comes with Sousão, a vibrant red wine from Vale da Raposa in the Douro valley. 

At the top of the mountain, we taste pigeon and potatoes from Trás-os-Montes served with a fermented garlic sauce. There’s also a mystery box with a delightful croquette and a scrumptious Philo-dough cup filled with sorrel leaves. 

Ivo serves a celebratory Breijinho da Costa, a fortified wine made in Setúbal with purple muscatel grapes. The meal ends with sweet fireworks: a noisette pave, petals of roasted peach, thyme ice cream, and lemon curd. And there are mignardises: a traditional Abade de Prisco pudding, coconut biscuits, cinnamon and strawberry truffles.  

Everybody lingers around the table feeling a sense of camaraderie. Then, we say our thanks and goodbyes and walk into the warm night in a state of enchantment. 

Ceia is located at Campo de Santa Clara, 128. Lisbon. Click here for the restaurant’s website.

Susana Esteban’s thrilling wines

Susana Esteban agreed to present her wines at the Arraiolos Pousada in September. It was an act of generosity because the harvest was in full motion, and she’s a perfectionist. Like the photographer Cartier-Bresson, she’s always looking for the decisive moment. The moment when the grapes are perfectly ripe to be gently harvested by hand, when the fermentation has run its course and worked its magic, when the oak barrels have refined the wine without changing its temperament.

As soon as Susana started talking, the sun set as if sensing that another star had arrived. Her Portuguese is seasoned with a charming accent–she was born in a Spanish region called Galicia. After graduating in enology, she decided to do an internship in the Douro valley, a place that was then remote and isolated. She stayed and worked in the Douro during her formative years. Then, like the swallows, she went south in search of something new– vineyards where she could develop her style and make wines that can age and evolve for many decades.

She made her first wine in 2011. It is called Procura, the Portuguese word for search. Susana found what she was searching for in the hills of São Mamede in Portalegre–centenarian vines full of character. They needed a lot of care, but Susana nursed them back to health with patience and affection.

Susana is cloning the old vineyards to preserve their genetic material and pass it onto the new vineyards that she is planting. None of her vineyards, new or old, are irrigated. The thirsty vines produce low quantity but high quality. 

We first tried a rosé made from Aragonês and purple muscatel that is pleasantly aromatic and light in alcohol–a perfect summer drink. 

Then, we tasted an exquisite white wine made in amphoras called Tira o Véu (removing the veil). The first time Susana made it, in 2019, she witnessed a rare phenomenon: a veil formed on top of the amphora. It is a film created by yeast highly prized in the production of sherries. No one knows what makes it occur, but every year the veil returns to make this wine more seductive and mysterious.

Next, we drank an alluring red wine made with Touriga Nacional and Aragonês. For Susana producing wine is an adventure, so she calls it Aventura. We’re lucky to be part of this thrilling experience that results in a wine full of freshness and minerality.

Finally, we tried the wonderfully harmonious 2016 red Procura. It combines a field blend with Alicante Bouschet from ancient vines aged in oak to round the tannins. It is a “vinho de guarda,” a wine with great longevity that will improve and surprise with the passage of time. We’re so lucky that Susana found the vineyards she was looking for!

Dona Octávia’s culinary wealth

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.