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.

Funchal’s farmers market

If you’re visiting Funchal, the capital of the Madeira archipelago, make sure you stop by Mercado dos Lavradores, the farmer’s market. It is a place full of color—exuberant fruits fight for attention with fragrant spices and strings of hot red and yellow peppers. 

The fish stalls overflow with large tuna, red and black bodião, and slender scabbardfish. The latter lived inconspicuously, deep in the ocean, until fishermen discovered them in the 17th century. Despite their scary look, scabbardfish became a mainstay of Madeira cuisine. Often served fried accompanied by fried bananas, it is delicious!

Howard’s Folly

It is great fun to visit Howard’s Folly in Estremoz. The restaurant, winery, and art gallery are a joint venture between Howard Bilton, a British financier, and David Baverstock, a legendary winemaker. 

After studying enology in his home country, Australia, David worked in France and Germany. Before returning home, he vacationed in Portugal and met his future wife, Maria Antonieta. He returned to Australia to work in the Barossa Valley, where Maria joined him. But Maria was homesick, and in 1982 the couple came back to Portugal. David worked in the Douro valley until 1992, when he became chief winemaker at Herdade do Esporão in Alentejo. He felt at home in the endless plains that reminded him of Australia. His thirty harvests at Esporão helped establish Alentejo as an important wine region.  

Howard’s Folly is an exuberant place. It occupies a large building that was once a “grémio da lavoura,” an agriculture association. There is art everywhere. Sewing machines turned into miniature tractors bought in the local market, pig sculptures, and much more.

David shows us the winery with its colorful walls painted by a graffiti artist. Freshly picked grapes are arriving to be sorted, crushed, and cooled with dry ice. 

We head to the restaurant. The food, prepared by chef Hugo Bernardo, is Portuguese with a whimsical British twist. The butter has a strong umami taste because it is mixed with Marmite, a salty yeast extract popular in Britain. 

David opens a delightful white wine called Sonhador (dreamer), made from old vines planted in the hills of São Mamede in Portalegre. It is an excellent companion for the codfish and chips that soon arrived at the table. Then we try the Winemaker’s Choice, a velvety red that pairs beautifully with a delicious shitake mushroom salad.

Lunch ends with a glass of 1991 Carcavelos. The wine, produced at Quinta dos Pesos by the Manuel Bulhosa family, was stored in barrels and almost forgotten. David and Howard convinced the family to sell them some barrels so that David could make a blend. The result is spectacular.  

David retired from Esporão and was planning to take it easy. But Ravasqueira convinced him to join them as chief winemaker. And that is lucky for us. We’ll be able to enjoy many more of David’s harvests to come!

Howard’s Folly is located at Rua General Norton de Matos in Estremoz, tel. 268 332 151.

How do we tell the king?

We used to buy jams endorsed by the British monarchs, figuring that centuries of sampling jams at tea time gave them the practice required to select the cream of the jam crop.

We quite liked the British jams until one fateful lunch at Toca da Raposa in Ervedosa do Douro. A sampling of jams arrived without fanfare at dessert time. When we tried them, we experienced a whole new level of deliciousness!  

What makes these jams so sublime? Their fruit comes from the Douro valley, a place where the scorching summer heat and a wealth of soil micronutrients create unique conditions that intensify aromas and flavors. And each batch is handcrafted by Dona Graça, a legendary cook, and her talented daughter, Rosário. The two leave nothing to chance, shunning the use of preservatives and making adjustments small and large to ensure that the results are perfect. 

There is an orange jam chockfull of strips of orange rind that delight the palate and an orange and hot pepper jam with the ideal combination of sugar and spice. There are jars of jam brimming with perfectly ripe whole figs; a surprisingly delicious zucchini jam; amazing jams made with must from grapes used to produce port wine; jams made from a rare peach variety that grows amidst the vines, and much more.

The jams favored by his royal majesty pale by comparison with the wondrous jams from Toca da Raposa! The question is: how do we tell the king?

Toca da Raposa is located at Rua da Praça in Ervedosa do Douro, tel. 254 423 466.

Alentejo’s star wine grape

In the middle of the 19th century, Henri Bouschet crossed Petit Bouschet, a combination of Aramon and Teinturier de Cher conceived by his father, with Grenache. The new varietal, Alicante Bouschet, produces wines with a beautiful dark-red color. 

Over time, the French lost interest in Alicante Bouschet. But the grape found its home in Alentejo, where it flourished and transformed, becoming one the region’s most emblematic varietals. 

Alicante Bouschet was first planted in Alentejo at the end of the 19th century by the Reynolds, a British family that purchased Herdade de Mouchão. It is the star of the wines made by Julio Bastos, an heir to the Reynolds family, at Quinta Dona Maria

The photo shows some beautiful Petit Verdot (on the right) and Alicante Bouschet (on the left) grapes picked at Monte da Ravasqueira. Like Petit Verdot, most red grapes have white pulp. That is why we can make white wine from red grapes (“blanc de noirs”). If we extract the red-grape juice and avoid contact with the skins, the result is a white wine. If we allow for some skin contact, we get a rosé.  

Both the skin and pulp of Alicante Bouschet grapes are red. This type of grape is called tintoreira (dyeing) because it gives color to the wine. But it has much more to offer: enticing aromas, structure, concentration, and aging ability. Open up a bottle of Alentejo wine, and you’ll see!

Dinning with Marlene

When we dined at Marlene Vieira’s new restaurant, appropriately called Marlene, the place was packed. But, like a star performer, Marlene made us feel like she was cooking just for us, often coming to our table to chat about the food she served. 

The meal started with a variation on one of her classic themes, the “filhós de berbigão” that she serves at Zun Zum, her more casual restaurant. This time, the filhós, a star-shaped shell made from fried dough, was gloriously stuffed with foie gras, reineta apple, and a Madeira-wine gel. 

Next, came a trompe l’oeil preparation. It looked like cheese topped with prosciutto. But the cheese turned out to be an egg cooked at low temperature that, mixed with the prosciutto, created a festival of umami sensations.

We were taken to the sea by a delicate combination of violet shrimp from the Algarve accompanied by a gazpacho made with the shrimp’s head, topped with a percebes tartlet. 

Then, we returned to land with two crusty loaves of bread, one made with wheat and rye and the other with white corn. They came with fragrant olive oil made in Trás-os-Montes at Quinta de São Miguel do Seixo. 

The next menu entry was a delicate part of the codfish called cocochas seasoned with parsley and pine nuts. We reached the mid-point of our culinary journey with tasty white truffles and morel mushrooms stuffed with requeijão

They were followed by a ravishing sole dressed in an asparagus sauce, butter, and caviar. We reached the climax with a savory pudding made with an eel broth seasoned with saffron and topped with the eel’s skin. It is sublime!

Dessert was a delightful pine nut mousse with apple granita and pineapple from the Azores. The petit fours were lovely: merengue with a strawberry cream, tangerine leaves, and macaroons stuffed with almonds and eggs.

We’re lucky to have a chef like Marlene Vieira, who studied the past to invent the future of our culinary tradition!

Marlene is located at Av. Infante D. Henrique, Doca do Jardim do Tabaco, Lisboa, tel. 351 912 626 761, email marlene@marlene.pt.

Lunch at a royal courtyard

We drove to Alter do Chão in Alentejo to have lunch at Páteo Real, a restaurant headed by a young chef called Filipe Ramalho. Páteo Real means royal courtyard, a reference to the castle of Alter do Chão, which stands proudly in the restaurant’s backyard. 

After working in fine dining for seven years, Filipe wanted to put the new techniques he mastered at the service of the traditional cuisine of Alentejo. When he learned that Páteo Real was for sale, he drove there on a Friday and closed the deal by Monday. 

But this new beginning was tough. The locals suspected the restaurant would charge high prices for small portions of pretty food. Visitors were few and far between. One year later, it is difficult to get a reservation–the restaurant is full of visitors and locals. And for a good reason: its food is a delicious evolution of the traditional cooking of Alentejo. 

We sat in the courtyard under large white umbrellas that protected us from the exuberant Alentejo sun. A waiter filled our glasses with “O Nosso,” a pleasant white wine from Serra Papa Leite. The meal started with Filipe’s signature dish: a tart cooked with farinheira sausage made with chestnut flour, topped with pears cooked in wine, quince marmalade, and chard. This unusual combination is so harmonious that it will likely become a classic.

A plate of sliced sausages followed the iconic tart. Alentejo’s sausages are generally excellent, but these are exceptional. They come from Salsicharia Canaense, an artisanal producer with whom Filipe collaborates. Their products also starred on the following two plates: cabeça de xara (a pork preparation) served with pickled purple onions and coriander pesto and delicately smoked bacon served with roasted red peppers, olive oil, coriander, paprika, and large capers.

Next, we tried some delightful duck croquettes served with puffed rice and coriander mayonnaise. The savory part of the meal ended with duck livers seared in brandy and combined with thinly-sliced fried potatoes. It is an explosion of flavor. “When we recommend duck livers and the clients hesitate, we offer a money-back guarantee,” said Filipe smiling. “People are always surprised at how good it is.”

The dessert was a delicious tart made from almonds and pumpkin jam. We loved the arch and rhythm of the meal. It kept our palates interested and left us deeply satisfied. It is a royal honor to dine in Filipe Ramalho’s courtyard!

Páteo Real is located at Av. Dr. João Pestana 37, Alter do Chão, tel. 960 155 363.

St. George’s castle

If you’re up for a climb in Lisbon, we recommend visiting St. George’s castle. You can start at the bottom of the hill and go up the old meandering streets of Alfama, the only neighborhood that survived the 1755 earthquake.

At almost every corner, someone sells glasses of ginginha, a delightful liquor made from sour cherries. But it is unbecoming to drink ginginha from plastic glasses. We prefer to get it at “A Ginginha” in Largo São Domingos, where they’ve served it in proper glasses since 1840.  

It’s worthwhile to buy the ticket to enter the castle. However, keep your expectations low–a first sight, there isn’t much to see. A bronze statue of Dom Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal, who conquered the castle from the Moors in 1147. A marble statue of Dom Manuel, the monarch who oversaw the golden age of discoveries by Portuguese navigators. Fountains whose water has run dry, broken marble columns, and cannons that are no longer battle-ready lie around the castle, all in medieval disarray. There are pines and olive trees, their branches sought by vain peacocks searching for a thrill.

The castle was built and rebuilt over centuries, first with cement and stone and then with brick and mortar. The layers of the imposing walls read like a diary of all those who lived here: Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Moors, and Portuguese. 

What the castle offers are magnificent views of Lisbon. The city lies at our feet, making us feel like royalty—scratch your skin, and surely blue blood will trickle out. A map made out of tiles shows us the lay of the land. Nearby there are benches inscribed with the words of Sophia de Mello Breyner. What a beautiful idea to carve in stone the words of a poet!

We stroll around the castle until the sun sets down. Only then do we go downhill. Be careful because the cobblestones are slippery. And there’s no need to rush. There’s plenty of time to get to Largo de São Domingos and enjoy a glass of ginginha.

You can get tickets online at the castle’s website, here.

The Correio-mor palace

We visited the Correio-mor palace in Loures on a sunny winter morning. The building was the country house of the family that, for two centuries, had a monopoly on mail distribution in the Portuguese empire. When the 1755 earthquake destroyed their Lisbon home, the family relocated to Loures and made this palace their permanent residence.

The ornate gates opened with ease as if they were expecting us. We stepped into a spacious courtyard that overlooks the Baroque building. Our first stop was the kitchen. White and blue tiles reflect the bright light that pours through the windows. The tiles depict the delicacies served at the palace: fish, game, vegetables, and fruits. A lonely marble table sits in the middle of the room, longing for the days when armies of cooks crowded around it to prepare sumptuous banquets. Across from the kitchen, we see vast wine cellars that once stored the fruits of many harvests.

An elegant staircase takes us to the noble floor. The limestone steps show the gentle wear that only shoes made of silk and soft leather can produce. At the top of the stairs, a hallway overlooks the expansive garden. We admire the ancient pine trees that have seen all the parties and heard all the gossip. Impassive, they sway in the wind, revealing nothing.

It is easy to get lost inside the palace. There are many elegant rooms with lavishly decorated ceilings and walls covered with tiles depicting naval scenes, hunting expeditions, and garden parties. 

At the Correio-mor palace we do not feel the stress of the modern world, only the gilded ease of aristocratic life. 

You can rent the Correio-mor palace for movies, weddings, and other special events. Click here for the palace’s website.