Celebrating the passage of time at Ramos Pinto

Composit Ramos Pinto

Port wine used to be sold in austere black bottles with somber labels. Adriano Ramos Pinto, a maverick entrepreneur who entered the port wine trade in 1880, changed all that. He wrapped port wine with sensuous images, elegant packaging, and clever marketing.

One of Ramos Pinto’s publicity coups took place in 1922. Two pilots, Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral, planned to make the first aerial crossing of the South Atlantic, flying from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro. Ramos Pinto convinced them to take a bottle of his port wine on board to celebrate their landing in Rio de Janeiro. On the first two attempts, the airplane sunk near the coast of Brazil. But both the pilots and the bottle were saved. The third attempt was successful and the bottle was finally opened to great acclaim. This and other exploits made Adriano Ramos Pinto so famous in Brazil that a glass of port was often called an Adriano.

Tasting port wines at the cellars of Ramos Pinto in Vila Nova de Gaia is a sumptuous experience. You can try splendid tawnies, made by man with the help of God, and divine vintages, made by God with the help of man.

Tawnies are aged in 600-liter wood barrels where they acquire a golden color and the taste of dry fruits, almonds and nuts. As time goes by, some of the wine evaporates and the barrels have to be topped off. This evaporation has a whimsical name: the “angel’s share.”

A bottle of tawny is a blend of wine from different harvests. A 30-year-old tawny is made with wines that average 30 years of age, so it often contains wine that is 60, 70, even 100 years old. The passage of time is a key factor in the production of great ports. There are 4 million liters of port stored in Ramos Pinto’s cellars.  Master blenders use these nectars produced by older generations and save some barrels from the current harvests to be blended by future generations.

Vintage ports are produced from a single harvest in exceptional years. They stage for only two years in wood barrels called balseiros. These barrels are very old and very large, holding 60,000 liters of wine. They are used to smooth the tannins without imparting the taste of wood to the wine. Vintage port is bottled and stored in the dark to preserve its rich red color and the taste of fresh fruit.

Ramos Pinto also produces alluring white ports. We tried a 7-year white blend that has enticing notes of honey and citrus. There are also wonderful late bottled vintage (LVB) ports. Produced more often than the rare vintages, LVBs are aged in balseiros for 4 years and then bottled without being filtered, so they can continue to improve in the bottle.

In 1990, Ramos Pinto was acquired by Roederer, the producer of the famed Cristal champagne. But the company is managed by a Portuguese enologist, João Nicolau de Almeida, son of the legendary Fernando Nicolau de Almeida, creator of the iconic Barca Velha. In addition to wonderful ports, João Nicolau d’Almeida makes two impressive table wines: Duas Quintas and Bons Ares.

It is traditional to buy a bottle of port from the year in which one’s child is born for them to make a toast when they come of age. Buying this birthday bottle for your children is a great excuse to visit the Ramos Pinto cellars and a beautiful way to celebrate the passage of time.

Click here for the Ramos Pinto web site. The cellars are located at Av. Ramos Pinto 400, Vila Nova de Gaia near Oporto.

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Covela’s prima donna grapes

Composit Quinta da Covela

In his novel “A Cidade e as Serras” (The city and the mountains) the great 19th-century writer Eça de Queiroz describes the life of Jacinto, a wealthy Portuguese who enjoys a glamorous life in Paris. Jacinto frequents the theater and the opera, attends scientific and artistic gatherings, reads the newest books and dresses according to the latest fashion. After an earthquake damages his ancestral mansion in the Douro valley, he decides to go home to oversee its reconstruction.  Jacinto falls in love with the simple pleasures of life in the Douro and lives there happily ever after.

Sometimes life imitates art. Tony Smith was a successful journalist who lived a glamorous life in Rio de Janeiro and New York. He used to spend vacations in the Algarve where he liked to drink a wine called Covela. By happenstance, Tony learned that the estate that produces Covela was up for sale. On a whim, he made a purchase offer. Month of negotiations ensued. After he thought all was lost, he managed to buy the property together with his business partner, Marcelo Lima. Tony imagined that producing wine would be a part time occupation. But just like Jacinto, he fell in love with the Douro valley and never left.

We sat at a stone table in the end of a brilliant afternoon admiring the granite terraces where the vines are planted. The quinta, which remounts to the 16th century, has ideal conditions to produce a young white wine known as “vinho verde” (green wine). It is primarily planted with Avesso, a prized local white varietal that has the temperament of a prima donna. Too much heat or too much rain make the grapes unhappy.

Covela produces some of the happiest Avesso in the world. Its remarkable acidity and minerality make every glass of wine an aria of aromas and flavors.

Our palates were still savoring the fantastic white wine made at Covela solely with Avesso when Tony brought out an enticing rosé produced with Touriga Nacional. The grape juice was left in contact with the red skins for a short period of time, just enough to produce a gorgeous rose color. It is a perfect Summer wine, full of joy and freshness.

Finally, Tony brought us two blends of the excitable Avesso with the even-tempered Chardonnay, the “Escolha” and the “Reserva.” The Escolha has everything: an alluring perfume, a perfect body, an irresistible elegance. The Reserva is full of confidence and aristocratic charm. It is the ideal wine to enjoy in the Winter by the fireplace with a slice of cheese from Serra da Estrela.

We thanked Tony for sharing his treasures with us. “You have to return next year,” he said. “Marcelo and I just bought Quinta da Boavista.” We were speechless. This is the legendary property that belonged to the Baron of Forester, author of the famous map of the Douro river published in 1848. “Come visit me at Boavista,” Tony said with a genial smile. We surely will!

Quinta de Covela is located at S. Tomé de Covela, Baião. Click here for the Covela website. 

The delights of Vale da Estrela

Composit Queijaria Vale da Serra

Our grandfather loved cheese from Serra da Estrela, the highest mountain in continental Portugal. He used to buy most of the cheese made by a small producer. Half of this cache he offered to friends. The other half was consumed in our house, either fresh or cured with olive oil and paprika. Every day of the year there was cheese on the table.

We were delighted when Maria João Coelho invited us to visit Queijaria Vale da Estrela, her father’s new artisanal cheese workshop in Mangualde near Viseu. The first thing we noticed when we entered the workshop were the wonderful cheese aromas, so familiar from our childhood.

Jorge Coelho, Maria João’s father, showed us around. He inherited his love for cheese from his grandfather Raul, an “affineur” who procured the best Estrela cheese to sell to gourmet stores in Lisbon.

Serra cheese is made with only three ingredients: sheep milk, thistle flower, and salt. Vale da Estrela only uses milk from Bordaleira ewes, which are indigenous to Serra da Estrela. The precious milk is collected at night and processed immediately to guarantee the best results.

All the cheese is made by hand with rhythmic gestures that transform humble ingredientes into something transcendent. The whey left over from the production process is heated to make “requeijão,” a soft, ricotta-style cheese.

“We make very good cheese but our requeijão is the best in the world,” said Jorge Coelho with pride. We first admired the cheese with its firm texture and delicate taste. Then, we tried the requeijão. As professional requeijão eaters we sampled many wonderful specimens over the years. But nothing as sublime as the requeijão from Vale da Estrela with its silky texture, depth of flavor, and exceptional freshness.

You can generally find the cheese and requeijão from Vale de Serra in supermarkets throughout the country. But when there’s a special occasion in heaven these products disappear from the shelfs because angels come in disguise to get them for the tables of paradise.

Queijaria Vale da Estrela is located in Mangualde on Estrada Nacional 16, n.º 43 São Cosmado. Click here for the queijaria’s website. 

 

 

Optimism is the best recipe

Composit Optimista

There’s an elegant 17th century palace in Bairro Alto that once belonged to the grandfather of the Marquis of Pombal. The palace, which remains beautiful despite its decadence, was converted into an art center called Carpe Diem in 2009. Hidden inside the center was a cafeteria that served delicious food designed in collaboration with artists. The couple who managed the cafeteria, Rita Andringa and Filipe Rocha, also organized magical banquets in the rooms of the Pombal palace.

In July 2017, the Lisbon municipality decided to give the palace a different use and the cafeteria had to close. To continue their food adventures, Rita and Filipe hired two talented young chefs (Pedro Correia and André Andrade) and opened a restaurant. Decorated with a white unicorn and pieces of art from their favorite artists, it continues the tradition of combining art with delicious food that is original and thought provoking. Aware of the fact that food service is a risky venture, Rita and Filipe named their restaurant “The Optimist.” The couple felt encouraged when a friend remarked that “optimism is the best recipe.”

Our meal got off to a good start with bread that came with a delicious Bulhão Pato sauce, the traditional sauce that accompanies clams. A mushroom butter competed with the brilliant sauce for the bread’s attention.

Next, came the fava ceviche that had been recommended by Rita. It was a revelation: full of flavor and with a firm texture that is lost with traditional preparations. The meal continued with moist and rich oxtail croquettes that were accompanied by an appetizing rice made with fresh and dried tomato. Then a splendid codfish arrived topped by a poached egg and soaked in a flavorful broth made with garlic, herbs and seaweed.  Finally, a collection of pork cuts that had been marinated for 24 hours and slow cooked for 7 hours arrived at our table. Every minute of preparation was well spent to produce the resulting complex, satisfying flavors.

The restaurant was full but Rita made everyone feel at home while waves of beautiful plates with delicious food keep coming from the kitchen. We’re optimistic about this place!

The Optimista is located on Rua da Boavista 86 in Lisbon, tel. 21 346 0629. Click here for the restaurant’s web site. 

A taste of Alcobaça in Lisbon

Alcoa

Alcoa, a pastry store in the historical town of Alcobaça, has been producing magical concoctions of flour, sugar and eggs since 1957. They use ancient recipes developed by monks of the order of Cister from two local monasteries, Alcobaça and Santa Maria do Coa.

Alcoa’s pastries have always been revered in the Alcobaça region. But outside the region, only a few knowledgeable gourmets made regular pilgrimages to taste Alcoa’s delights. That all changed when Alcoa started winning top prizes in the annual competition for the best “pastel de nata.” Suddenly, Alcobaça became a destination for dessert lovers.

Neophytes journeyed to Alcoa for the “pastel de nata” only to find a new world of delights with whimsical names and exotic shapes: cornucopias, Saint Peter’s secret, fradinho (little monk), eggs of paradise, and much more. The happiness of Lisbon residents plummeted with the knowledge that these heavenly sweets were 120 km away. Luckily, the owners of Alcoa felt pity for Lisbon’s dwellers and decided to bring their sweet alchemy to Chiado. And now, happiness has returned to the capital city.

The original Alcoa pastry store is on Praça 25 de Abril, 44 in Alcobaça, tel. 262 597 474. The new store in Lisbon is on Rua Garret, 37-39, Chiado, tel 21 1367183.

A rhyming guide to Lisbon

RBD_Lisboa_Sé
Lisbon, ink on paper, Rui Barreiros Duarte December 2017.

It you come to Lisbon by boat or by plane
As soon as you land, you must go to Belém
For there you can try sweet pastries so fine 
They serve them in heaven since 1837

There’s an old monastery, majestic and faery
And a tower that’s built with such precious marbles
Fish jump from the Tagus to see how it sparkles

If it is time for lunch
You do as you wish
But do not go home
Without trying codfish

Clams Bullhão Pato you also must try
It’s a dish so sublime
Foodies rave about it in prose and in rhyme

Which restaurant to choose?
If you really insist
We’ll tell you our favorites
Click here for a list

There are three main plazas that are worthy to see
Terreiro do Paço where the king used to live
Rossio that’s spacious and pretty like few
And then there’s Chiado with shops old and new

You must go to Alfama
The sole place to survive
The Lisbon earthquake of 1755

Then you can relax in an old coffee shop
And pencil a poem about love or loss
If you need inspiration, we know where to go
For a glass of “ginginha” that’ll make your words flow.

You can shop for a gift
For whomever you pick
Here’s a list of suggestions
Diverse and unique

If you’d like to hear fado, stop by Sr. Vinho
To see singers in black make their voices go far
Embraced by the sound of an ancient guitar

Lisbon forgives if you leave for a day
To see Sintra‘s palaces
Cascais and its bay

But you must come back soon
For the city has charms that it only reveals
To those who spend time in its seven hills

Mesa de Lemos

Composit Quinta de Lemos

The most elegant place to dine in the Beira region is called Mesa de Lemos. Located near the village of Canas de Senhorim, the building is ensconced in the ancient granite boulders and looks like an integral part of the landscape. It was built three years ago by Celso de Lemos to showcase the wonderful wines he produces in the winery that also bears his name.

The restaurant tables overlook the surrounding vineyards, making us feel as if we are dining in the middle of the vines. There’s a fixed menu with optional, but indispensable, wine pairings. The delicious food is created by chef Diogo Rocha who was born in Canas de Senhorim. He draws inspirations from local traditional recipes to produce food that is elegant and satisfying.

Our meal started with a joyous sparkling wine called Geraldine in honor of Celso’s daughter. It has very fine bubbles and an elegant brioche aroma that combines perfectly with Diogo Rocha’s appetizers, a set of preparations reminiscent of a picnic in the countryside.

Next came Dona Santana, a complex red made from the four emblematic varietals cultivated in the Dão region: Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Jaen, and Afrocheiro. It paired perfectly with the braised bízaro pork. The last entrée was codfish adorned with an ethereal parsley foam and paired with an elegant red wine made from a single varietal, Afrocheiro.

The dessert feast started with an interesting experimental fortified wine produced by the quinta. It continued with a cherry pudding and a salty ice cream made from requeijão, a pastry filled with a sweet bean paste and a chestnut-shaped concoction made from egg yolks.

The wines of Quinta de Lemos are diamonds that sparkle anywhere. But at Mesa de Lemos they have their perfect setting.

Click here for the Mesa de Lemos web site. The restaurant is located at Quinta de Lemos, Passos de Silgueiros, near Viseu, tel 961 158 503.