Mizette’s rugs

Composit Tapetes Mizette

Mizette Nielsen moved from Holland to Portugal and got into the production of textiles.  In 1976, she received a large order and started looking for a factory to execute it.

She traveled to Reguengos de Monsaraz to visit the Fábrica Alentejana de Lanifícios (Wool Factory of Alentejo). Entering the factory was like stepping into the 19th century. Inside, she found the last manual looms of the Iberian peninsula. Old weavers operated these looms with confidence and grace to make wool blankets traditionally used by shepherds to keep warm during Winter.

In the early 20th century, these blankets were often included in the trousseaux of Alentejo brides. But they had since fallen out of fashion.

Realizing that the factory might close soon, Mizette decided to buy it. “I could not stand the idea that the knowledge of these master weavers would be lost forever,” she said with quiet intensity. “I got them to teach the next generation of weavers. And this generation will teach the next, so that this chain that goes back centuries will be unbroken.”

The blankets produced in the factory are too heavy to be used in houses with modern heating and insulation. But they are sturdy, so they became popular as rugs. Mizette started by producing the traditional designs inspired by the colors of the Alentejo landscape. Then, in collaboration with Gil Kalisvaart, she added new designs that combine well with contemporary furniture.

Mizette’s rugs are one of the most beautiful thing you can buy in Portugal. They are works of art that link past, present, and future.

Mizette has a store in Monsaraz at Rua do Celeiro, tel. 266-557-159, email mizettenielsen@yahoo.com. You can also buy her rugs at A Vida Portuguesa. Click here for their website.

Lunch at Herdade do Esporão

composit Herdade do Esporão

We should have known that it is hard to get to paradise. We drove from Vila Viçosa to Herdade do Esporão guided by a GPS system that chose an old dirt road over the new road from Reguengos. Taking the slow road helped us understand that Esporão is an oasis. A place in the dusty interior of Alentejo where a blue lake nurtures pristine vines that produce some of Portugal’s best wines.

The road to the success of Esporão was also slow. José Roquette bought the estate in 1973 at a time when Alentejo was not a major producer of great wines. Shortly after the 1974 revolution, the estate was nationalized. It was returned to its owner only in 1984. The first wine was bottled in 1985 and released in 1987. The success of this vintage and of those that followed put Alentejo on the world wine map.

Maria Roquette, the daughter in law of José, welcomed us to the dinning room. It is a tranquil space that overlooks the lake and the vines. The walls are decorated with art that Esporão commissioned over the years to use in the labels of its reserve wine.

Maria introduced us to the chef, Pedro Pena Bastos. We did not guess that this unassuming 25-year-old was about to take us on an extraordinary culinary journey.

To prepare our senses, Pedro brought us a heavenly concoction of chick peas, seaweed, codfish eggs, and citrus caviar.  Next, came a marriage of peasant food and contemporary cuisine: pig’s feet with coriander in a red shiso gelatin. We visited the woods to taste wild mushroom beignets and a green garlic custard with truffles. We cruised rivers to enjoy crayfish and sailed seas to eat mackerel and porgy. Back on land, we had lamb from Alentejo with artichokes and apricots.

Finally, we entered the garden of delights: a green-almond ice cream, a lavender and peach tart, a gelatin of late-harvest wine, and marshmallows made of hazelnuts and chocolate.

Our traveling companions were the wonderful wines of Esporão. There were many different personalities and styles. Some, like the experimental white made from the Sardinian varietal Vermentino, were new and festive. Others, like the classic reserve red, were gracious and wise. The meal ended with fireworks provided by a wonderful tawny-style dessert wine.

If you’re visiting Portugal, travel the road to Herdade do Esporão, a place where you can taste the food and wine of paradise.

The Herdade do Esporão is located at Reguengos de Monsara, near Évora, Alentejo. Their telephone and email are 266 509 280
 and reservas@esporao.com , respectively. The Herdade’s GPS coordinates are: latitude: 38.398611 and longitude: -7.546111. Chef Pedro Pena Bastos is the fifth from the left on the photo above.

Ephemeral gardens in Viseu

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Every year, the Ephemeral Gardens festival jolts Viseu, a serene city in the interior of Portugal. Sandra Oliveira organizes this grand event, inspiring a large troupe of collaborators to adorn Viseu with modern art and serenade it with contemporary music.

Shops become installation spaces, ancient churches double as music venues, old walls serve as canvases for street art. Every plaza seems to have its own DJ, every garden its own sculpture show.

Stores, bookshops, restaurants, and bars stay open until late. The flowers of the linden trees blend their fragrance with the aromas of chocolate, vanilla and popcorn. There are workshops to attend, movies to watch, performances not to miss. It is a wonderful celebration of the many ways in which the old inspires the new.

The Ephemeral Gardens (Jardins Efémeros) festival runs from July 1 to 10, 2016. All events are free. Click here to see the program. 

A cheese revolution

Composit Queijaria 2016

Queijaria, our favorite cheese store in Lisbon, keeps getting better. It is a place where the ordinary is banned to make room for extraordinary artisanal cheeses made in small batches by traditional producers.

On our last visit Pedro Cardoso, one of the owners, invited us to taste two unique cheeses. The first was from São Jorge, an island in the Azores archipelago. It is made with the milk of happy cows that roam free on the island. São Jorge cheese is always delicious but this one was the best we ever had–sharp, peppery and full of flavor. “This cheese is aged for 30 months which makes all the difference. It is very hard to find because the production is tiny and almost all consumed locally,” said Pedro.

The second cheese was from Serra da Estrela. It melted in our mouths leaving an amazing buttery after taste. It is made with milk from “bordalesa” sheep. This breed is being replaced with sheep whose milk is less flavorful but more abundant. “Eating this cheese is an act of defiance. It is saying that we don’t want this wonderful taste to disappear; that quality trumps quantity.”

Pedro speaks with revolutionary zeal. He wants to preserve and enrich Portugal’s wonderful cheese heritage. Will you support his cause?

Queijaria is at Rua das Flores, 64, Lisbon. Click here for their web site.

 

Food with character

Composit Moma

Rua dos Correeiros is a street in downtown Lisbon where leathersmiths once sold harnesses to horseback riders. Local residents are used to seeing commerce evolve. But they are surprised by the how much space has recently been taken by souvenir shops and pizzerias. Will Lisbon end up losing its unique character? they ask.

At the end of Rua dos Correeiros we saw a new restaurant called Moma Grill that was full of locals. Curious, we decided to try it.

We loved the space with its mosaic floor, warm lighting, large blackboards with culinary drawings, and Thonet chairs. The owner, João Vaz Guedes, was so gracious that we were predisposed to like the food.

But when we asked for his recommendations and he said “pasteis de massa tenra,” our hearts sank. These delicate combinations of fried dough and meat filling were often on the table during our childhood. How could a restaurant compete with memories of food prepared by our grandmothers? “It’s not fair,” we told João, “the bar will be too high, we prefer to try something else.” João smiled and said, “I am very interested in your opinion, let me bring you a plate.” The pasteis were smaller and crispier than the ones we are used to. But we loved them, they were some of the best we ever had.

Our group tried an assortment of other items from the menu. Everything was delicious. The arugula salad was perfectly dressed. The codfish cakes were light, with the perfect mix of  potato and fish. The grilled sardines were moist and succulent. The partridge was magically infused with the taste of olive oil and vinegar. The black pork was bursting with flavor.

The meal was well paced and the service had a quiet elegance that is rare. For the grand finale, João brought an irresistible raspberry tart accompanied by a glass of ginjinha (a cherry liqueur).

The wine list is short, but the choices are careful and the prices modest. We had a great white Encruzado and an excellent red from the Douro region (Quinta dos Aciprestes).

João and his wife Maria loved to cook for friends so, after retiring, they decided to open a restaurant to serve food inspired by Portugal’s culinary heritage. It’s people like them that keep Lisbon’s character going strong.

Moma grill is located on Rua dos Correeiros, 22-26, tel. 911 762 349. 

 

 

Bussaco’s mystical wines

Buçaco Branco

Karl Baedeker, the famous guidebook writer, recommended a visit to Bussaco in his “Spain and Portugal, a Handbook for Travelers,” published in 1908. Here’s what he wrote:

“The royal domain of Bussaco vies with Sintra in natural beauty. In variety of trees and shrubs, the woods are without a rival in Europe and the views ranging from the Atlantic to the Estrela mountain are as picturesque as they are extensive. […] The woods […] include not only trees indigenous to Portugal but also a large number of exotic varieties, some brought home by the Portuguese navigators as early as the 16th century.”

Baedeker arrived too early to appreciate one of the great pleasures of Bussaco, which is the wine produced by the Bussaco Palace Hotel. The first bottles date back to 1917.

The Palace Hotel owns no vineyards, it buys its grapes from the Bairrada and Dão region. The quality of the wine comes from the careful grape selection and the meticulous traditional methods used in production. Bussaco wines taste great when they are young and taste even better when they lived for some decades. Both whites and reds are famous for their longevity.

These wines are difficult to buy, the easiest way to try them is to stay at the magnificent Palace Hotel. The cellar of the palace stores thousands of bottles going back to the 1920s. Trying these old Bussacos can be a mystical experience. The cellar walls are used to hearing visitors say words like divine, blessed, and sacred. These words would have delighted Friar João Batista, the Carmelite monk who started making wine in Bussaco in the 17th century.

Click here, for the Bussaco Palace web site.

The great Vasco

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Vasco Fernandes worked as a painter in Viseu during the first half of the 16th century. His prodigious talent earned him the nickname Grão Vasco, the great Vasco. According to legend, he once painted a fly that looked so real that his apprentices tried to shoo it away.

It is easy to believe this story when you’re standing in front of his masterpiece, a painting called Saint Peter that is the crown jewel of Viseu’s Grão Vasco Museum. The intricate architectural elements and background scenes are influenced by the work of Italian, German and Flemish painters. But the pope’s rugged face and gentle look are Portuguese.

Who was the model for the painting?  We like to think that it was a shepherd from the Estrela mountain. That the great painter trusted the keys of heaven to someone who on earth lived a simple life.

The Grão Vasco museum is located at Adro Sé in Viseu, tel 232 422 049.