The bells of Mafra

RBD_Mafra_dezembro
The Mafra Convent, Rui Barreiros Duarte, ink on paper, December 2016.

In 1711, king Dom João V vowed that if he was blessed with a son, he would construct a convent in Mafra. When a son was born in 1714, Dom João V spared no expense to fulfil his promise. By one count, the building has 880 rooms and 4,500 doors and windows. The convent includes a magnificent palace for the royal family and a basilica made of the purest marble, with intricate altars lavishly decorated with gold leaf.

To top it all, the king commissioned a 200-ton carillon. According to legend, when the craftsmen quoted the price of the carillon, they remarked that the cost seemed too dear for a small country like Portugal. Offended, the king replied: “I didn’t realize the bells were so cheap! I would like two sets.”   And so, two sets were made. Nicholas Levach made 57 bells for the North tower in Liége.  Willem Witlockx made 49 bells for the South tower in Antwerp.

The convent has many other bells: liturgical bells used in religious ceremonies, lecture bells that signaled the beginning and end of study periods, agony bells that rang when a monk was dying, refectory bells that reminded monks of their meal times, and the codfish bell that sounded in days when people should abstain from eating meat.

The carillon and some of the other bells were used to mark the passage of time with minuets and other compositions. In a world where musical sounds were rare, the bells of Mafra filled the village with harmony and grace.

Stopping for lunch on the way to Algarve

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

If you’re traveling on the highway from Lisbon to the Algarve, resist the temptation to have a quick bite at a highway stop. Drive instead the 9 km from the highway to Grândola, a town in the middle of Alentejo, to enjoy a proper meal at “A Talha de Azeite” (the Olive Oil Amphorae). The restaurant is run by a couple with a reserved demeanor, Celina and Luís Gonçalves. Celina heads the kitchen and Luís manages the dining room.

Grândola has been famous since ancient times as a hunting ground. Luís used to organize wild boar hunts. Celina prepared such appetizing food for Luís to eat in the middle of the day that the other hunters pooled some money and asked Celina to cook for everybody.

These hunter lunches gathered fame and the couple decided to open a restaurant. Twelve years ago, they found a room with an old olive press inside a shopping center. They converted it into restaurant, using the red amphoras that once stored olive oil for decoration.

A Talha de Azeite serves home-cooked meals prepared with the traditional recipes from Alentejo. We tried codfish with “migas gatas,” a delicious bread preparation. It was followed by arroz de canivetes (razor clam rice) that combined the briny taste of the seafood with the earthy flavors of red and green peppers. Finally, we had grilled “secretos” a fatty cut of black port thinly sliced and seasoned to perfection.

When we asked for the check, Luís told us it would be a mistake to leave without tasting Celina’s famous baked chocolate mousse. The mousse was indeed delicious. He also recommended that we come back for the wild boar and the fried eels when they are in season. We dully marked our calendars.

A Talha de Azeite is located at Rua Dom Nuno Álvares Pereira Loja 17 C.C. in Grândola, tel. 269 086 942.

 

Finding happiness in Sintra

Market products

There’s a farmer’s market in São Pedro de Sintra since the 12th century. Nowadays it runs every second and fourth Sundays of each month. It is a great place to buy local fruits and vegetables, artisanal sausages, olives and cheese. Wood-fired ovens bake chouriço bread, filing the air with appetizing aromas.

We saw a farmer selling a small capsicum frutescens tree loaded with little red peppers.  Five centuries ago, Portuguese navigators brought this plant from South America to Africa, where the Bantu people called its fiery pepper “piri piri.” From Africa, the Portuguese took the plant to India where it changed the course of Indian cuisine.

How could we resist bringing home this symbol of the first age of globalization? “Trim the tree in March and you’ll have piri piri peppers between August to January,” advised the genial farmer. We got into the car feeling ecstatic at this unexpected find. Who knew that happiness is a piri piri tree?

The São Pedro market is located on Largo D. Fernando II, São Pedro de Sintra.

Sweet gratitude

Casa do Gato Preto

The recipe for Sintra’s queijadas was created in the 13th century by friar João da Anunciação at the Penha Longa convent. We know that the voluptuously thin crust is made with flour, lard, water, and salt. And that the indulgent filling has requeijão (a ricotta-style cheese), egg yolks, and two ingredients added in the 15th century: sugar and cinnamon. Each pastry store in Sintra has its own secret version of the recipe.

What are the best queijadas in Sintra? We’ve been pondering on this question for years, but the answer still eludes us. When we try the queijadas at Piriquita, we think nothing can be better. But then we taste the queijadas from Pastelaria Gregório and we fall in love with the crispness of the shell and the sweetness of the filling. Lately, we went to Casa do Preto and were astonished by the harmonious marriage of filling and shell.

One thing we know: these queijadas lift our minds above everyday concerns and fill our souls with sweet satisfaction. Thank you friar João!

Casa do Preto is located at Estr. Chão de Meninos 40, in Sintra, tel. 21 923 0436.

 

Quinta Dona Maria

Quinta D. Maria Winery

Estremoz is a town in Alentejo famous for its white marble. The same geological conditions that fashioned its pristine stones created limestone soils perfect for wine production. So it’s no wonder that there are so many wineries around Estremoz.

The prettiest of them all is Quinta Dona Maria. The estate, which dates back to 1718, was purchased by King João V and offered to Dona Maria, a courtesan with whom he fell in love. In the 19th century, the estate was bought by the Reynolds, a family of British merchants who came to Portugal to produce cork and wine. The current owner, Julio Bastos, inherited the estate from an aunt who married into the Reynolds family.

Bastos got his passion for wine from his father. Every year, father and son came to the harvest so that young Julio could be initiated into the mysteries of wine making. Bastos is particularly fond of Alicante Bouchet, a varietal brought to Alentejo by his family in the 19th century.

Eager to produce extraordinary wines, Bastos entered into a partnership with Lafite Rothschild. But when the Rothschild team started uprooting his old family vines to plant French varietals, Basto decided to go his own way.

He nurtured the old vines and used 17th century marble tanks to tread the grapes. The result are wines with a unique personality: rich and earthy with elegant aromas and a smooth finish.

Production volumes are low, so these wines are hard to find. If you’re traveling in Alentejo, stop by Quinta Dona Maria and take home these exquisite wines made in soils nourished by the love of the land and blessed by the richness of marble.

Click here for the website of Quinta Dona Maria.

A noble crab soup

Sapateira - IMG_0402

Almost three decades ago, a friend took us to a new restaurant called Nobre in the Ajuda neighborhood. The name, which means noble, came from the surname of the chef, Justa Nobre. We recall with fondness the meals we enjoyed there. After a successful run, Nobre closed so that the chef could pursue other projects,

Last week, the same friend invited us for lunch. We were delighted to discover that we were going to a new restaurant that marks Justa Nobre’s return to Ajuda. It is called “À Justa,” an expression based on the chef’s first name that means “just right.”

The menu offers a cuisine without foreign accents that has the satisfying taste of authenticity. The recipes are grounded in the cooking of Justa’s grandmothers. But they are not a copy of the past. They reflect years of refinements shaped by the personality and creativity of this self-taught chef.

The restaurant was full. The Portuguese like to flirt with contemporary food trends but they always come back to their one true love, which is the traditional cooking of Portugal.

We had a great meal that included bright green fava beans, chickpeas with codfish, codfish “pataniscas,” and fried cuttlefish. These delights were preceded by a classic of Justa Nobre’s repertoire: the spider crab soup. Its aristocratic taste makes all other seafood soups in Lisbon look common by comparison.

Many chefs keep their secrets, but Justa generously shared some of her recipes in a book titled Passion for Cooking. We translate her recipe for spider crab soup below. But you must try the original at À Justa where they make it just right.

 

Justa Nobre’s spider crab soup

Ingredients: 2 large spider crabs weighing about 1 kg. each, 3 liters of water, 3 tablespoons of sea salt, 150 grams of margarine, a large onion, 2 cloves of garlic, a parsley bunch, a sliced fennel head, 4 tablespoons of tomato paste, half liter of cream, 0.1 liter of dry white port, one teaspoon of powdered ginger, one teaspoon of saffron, 2 tablespoons of potato starch.

Preparation: Boil the crabs in the salted water for 8 minutes. Remove them, let then cool off and extract all the meat. Return the shells to the pan. Add some shrimp shells and let them boil for 10 minutes. In a large pot, melt the margarine and add the sliced onion, fennel and garlic. Let these ingredients cook briefly and then add the white port, the cream, the tomato paste, the spices, and two liters of the crab broth. Mix the potato starch with some cold water and add it to the soup. Check the seasoning and strain the soup. Add the crab meat and serve the soup it in the shell of the spider crab.

À Justa is located at Calçada Ajuda 107, in Lisbon. The restaurant seats only 36 people, so reservations are a must. Call 21 363 0993 or email reservas@ajusta.pt. Click here for Justa Nobre’s web site.

 

An hotel in the land of silence

Composit Colmeal

As we drove on the narrow road from Figueira do Castelo Rodrigo to Colmeal, we felt we were leaving the modern world behind. All we saw ahead of us were granite hills and fertile valleys under a sapphire blue sky. Even as we got close to the hotel, the building remained invisible. Its honeycomb shape dissolves into the landscape leaving us with a pristine view of the Marofa mountain. The same view that the Neolithic people saw when they made their paintings nearby, 3,000 years ago. The same panorama that welcomed the pilgrims who followed the ancient spring that goes by the village of Colmeal, on their way to Santiago de Compostela. This water, crystalline and pure, was a blessing to the travelers. And so was the food and hospitality offered by the population of this village that dates back to the 12th century.

The new Colmeal Countryside Hotel seeks to revive this tradition of hospitality.  In the evening we enjoyed a simple meal of watercress soup, local cheese and fruit. When we asked our waiter why the soup tasted so great, he told us that one of the secrets is the local spring water. “Anything cooked with this water is transformed,” he said.

The hotel, designed by architect Pedro Brígida, is warm and welcoming. It integrates perfectly with its the surroundings, which include a manor house and a church that once belonged to the family of Pedro Álvares Cabral, the navigator who discovered Brazil.

The environment is so peaceful that we found ourselves whispering to avoid staining the immaculate silence. We sat on the terrace on a warm Summer night bathing in star light, happy to have left the modern word behind.

Click here for the hotel’s website.