A white palace in Estremoz

Composit Estremoz

Estremoz is a village in Alentejo built on a hill by king Dom Afonso III in 1258.  It was once an important citadel that guarded the Portuguese kingdom from potential aggressors.

In 1360, king Dom Dinis built a royal palace in Estremoz for his wife Isabel of Aragon. It was in this palace that king Dom Manuel appointed Vasco da Gama as the commander of the fleet that sailed to India, beginning a new chapter in world history.

The palace, converted into an historical hotel, is sumptuously decorated with antique paintings and furniture. Corridors and stairs are covered with the famous white marble excavated from local quarries.

The war trophies that hang in the dining room reminded us of the momentous decisions made in this palace. And they made us appreciate even more the tranquil days we spent with only one difficult decision to make: which of the 22 wineries in Estremoz to visit.

Here’s a link to the pousadas’ website. You can find a large collection of photos of the pousadas at www.mariarebelophotography.com.

The most famous fish monger in Lisbon

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Until the middle of the 20th century, street fish sellers called “varinas” were a common sight in Lisbon. They carried a basket of fresh fish on their heads and attracted customers with their catchy slogans and charismatic personalities.

Varinas are a relic of the past, but some of the best fish in Lisbon is still sold by a charismatic woman. Many restaurants in the capital city order their fish from Açucena Veloso.

Visiting Açucena at Mercado 31 de Janeiro is a fascinating experience. It was in a stall in this market that she started selling fish at nine years of age. Today, she owns 23 stalls.

The quality and variety of Açucena’s fish would astonish the patrons of Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market.  But it is not easy to gather these marine treasures. Açucena wakes up every weekday at 2:00 am to make sure she buys the best fish the sea has to offer. Despite her long work hours, she’s always in a good mood. “Look at these ocean jewels” she says with pride pointing to fish that go by quaint names like rascasso, cantaril, and emperador.

When Albert Einstein visited Lisbon in 1925, he wrote in his diary about a fascinating varina with a proud, mischievous look. We think he would have loved meeting Açucena Veloso.

Açucena Veloso’s fish stalls are at Mercado 31 de Janeiro, Rua Engenheiro Vieira da Silva, 31, tel. 91 721 8169

 

Magano

Composit Magano

When lunch time comes, some Lisbon residents dream about being magically transported to the plains of Alentejo. “O Magano,” a restaurant in the Campo de Ourique neighborhood, is a place where these dreams come true. Open for more than a decade, it brings to the capital untranslatable Alentejo delights such as “pézinhos de coentrada” and “carne de alguidar.”

We told our waiter that we wanted to try a little of everything. “I can bring you the menu or you can leave it up to me,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes. We agreed to put him in charge and soon the table was covered with small plates of codfish with chickpeas, grilled peppers, favas with chouriço, miniature pies, green bean tempura, and marinated partridge with razor-thin fried potatoes.

“This was a wonderful lunch,” we said, complimenting our waiter on his choices “It’s not a problem if you want to skip it,” he said “but I had something else for you to try.” He went to the kitchen and brought back a steaming terrine of tomato broth. He carefully placed a piece of bread on each soup plate. Then, he poured the tomato broth and toped each piece of bread with a slice of grouper. The result was pure culinary satisfaction.

We made it clear that we didn’t have room for dessert. “I understand,” our waiter said with an enigmatic smile. He then brought us a plate with “queijadas,” “lérias,” “fidalgo,” and a Portuguese version of “îles flottantes.” “Just in case you change your mind and decide to end the meal on a sweet note,” he said. It was a pleasure to succumb to these temptations.

Magano means mischievous boy in the slang of Alentejo. Our waiter is a magano who knows that no one can resist the brilliant simplicity of the food of Alentejo.

O Magano is located at Rua Tomás da Anunciacão 52 in Lisbon, tel. 21 395 4522. Reservations are a must. 

Mystical jesuits

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We have a major weakness for a Portuguese pastry called “jesuita.” Its shape and color resemble the habits of Jesuit monks, hence the name.

The “jesuita” was invented more than a century ago by a Spanish pastry chef who worked in Santo Tirso, a town in the north of Portugal. It combines puff pastry with two egg-based creams. The whites and the yolks are separated. The yolks are used to make a cream that is layered inside the puff pastry. The whites are used for the frosting.

The quality of “jesuitas” varies from satisfying to divine, depending on the excellence of the ingredients and the exactness of the execution. One of the best “jesuitas” we ever tried came from a wonderful pastry store near Chiado called Tartine. We bit into this delight, and the yolks and whites reunited into a mystical explosion of flavor!

Tartine is located on Rua Serpa Pinto, 15-A, tel 21-342-9108. Click here for their web site.

Dom Rodrigo

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The most revered noble in the kingdom of Algarve does not own land or royal charters. Dom Rodrigo is a dessert that has been produced since the 18th century. It looks like a gift, wrapped in colored foil and tied with a ribbon.

Alchemists all over the world tried to turn lead into gold. In Algarve, cooks tried to turn eggs, sugar, cinnamon and almonds into joy. And they succeeded!

Sainthood is great but so are partridges

Perdiz Escabeche

We had lunch at the São Lourenço do Barrocal restaurant in a beautiful room overlooking the fields.  The house wines, produced on the property by Susana Esteban, a Spanish enologist who fell in love with Portugal, are interesting and full of character.

The food is simple but delicious. We tried the grilled beef with “migas” and the wild boar. The desserts are delightful:  traditional “gadanhas,” lemon and olive oil pudding, and a cake made with nuts and honey.

The highlight of the meal was the marinated partridge. The texture was perfect and each bite had layers of tangy vinegar and wholesome olive oil.

We were reminded of Saint Teresa of Ávila who once accepted an invitation to eat partridges. When people expressed surprise that a nun known for her poverty vows agreed to a luxurious meal, Teresa explained that “santidad es santidad mas perdices son perdices,” meaning sainthood is great but so are partridges.

The partridges at São Lourenço do Barrocal are prepared according to a recipe written by the great-grand mother of the owner of the estate, José António Uva. The recipe is on display in the dining room, next to a precious 1875 bottle of fortified wine from Reguengos de Monsaraz. It is a privilege to share this treasured recipe from the heart of Alentejo with you, dear reader:

Marinated partridges

Cut the partridge in pieces and cook it in strong white wine vinegar, olive oil, a small amount of water, and plenty of onion slices (use more olive oil than water). Season with whole black peppercorns, cloves and bay leafs. When the partridge is cooked, remove it from the pot and place it in a deep dish. Reduce the sauce left in the pot, strain it and pour it over the partridge.

Click here for the web site of São Lourenço do Barrocal.

 

Eternal beauty in the heart Alentejo

Composit São Lourenço

We hope the gods of the sea will forgive us, but São Lourenço do Barrocal made us forget the ocean and its waves. We were dazzled by the exuberant fields covered with white daffodils, surrounded by the simple elegance of the old farm buildings.

São Lourenço has been in the family of its current owner, José António Uva, since the 19th century. It once employed 50 families who lived and worked on the farm. The estate was occupied in 1975, the year in which José António was born, as part of the wave of expropriations that followed the 1974 revolution. After the property was returned to the Uva family in 1984, the abandoned fields were replanted and the farm was brought back to life. But the buildings that once served as cellars and accommodation for the workers remained in ruins.

After studying in Paris and working in London, José António returned to Alentejo. While thinking about his future, he rebuilt a small house for his own use and a water tank that served as a swimming pool. He decided to devote four years to turning the estate into a hotel. Instead, the project took 14 years. Eight of these years were spent working with Eduardo Souto de Moura, the Pritzker laureate architect who oversaw the reconstruction project. Instead of using the property as a canvas to design new buildings, Souto de Moura followed a humble approach: he preserved and highlighted the beauty of the vernacular buildings that were there.

The interiors were decorated by José António’s wife, Ana Anahory. She used a wide range of artifacts, from antique agricultural implements to the heads of animals once hunted on the property. Her exuberance contrasts with the restraint of Souto Moura’s style. But, somehow, this creative tension works, making the space interesting and alive.

There are great hiking trails on the property with beautiful views of Reguengos de Monsaraz and the surrounding country side. One of the highlights is a menhir that is 7,000 years old.

It is heartwarming to see the natural beauty of a place where humans lived in the distant past so well preserved for the future.

Click here for the web site of São Lourenço do Barrocal.