Extraordinary food in Estremoz

Composit Gadanha Mercerearia.jpg

As soon as we entered, we felt that there was something special about Gadanha, a small restaurant in downtown Estremoz. The back wall is decorated with a chocolate cake recipe hand written by Michele Marques, the Brazilian chef who runs the restaurant. The dining room is furnished with old chairs and tables that give the place a cozy feeling.

We asked our waitress whether it was possible to sample a few items from the menu. Our culinary feast began with a plate of goat cheese, pears, walnuts and honey, accompanied by a thyme ice cream. This ethereal combination of flavors from Greece made us feel like gods dining on Mount Olympus.

A plate of delicious lamb croquettes paired with a roasted garlic aioli brought us back to earth. They were followed by one of the restaurant’s signature dishes: an ingenious “mille feuilles” constructed with thin slices of Alentejo bread, codfish and black pork prosciutto. The flavors of Alentejo shined on the next plate: a sausage called “farinheira” toped with fried quail eggs and accompanied by apple purée. The savory part of the meal ended with another signature dish: a delicious slow-cooked codfish topped with a crust made from cornbread, rosemary and thyme.

An extravagant combination of hazelnut and chocolate brought us to the realm of sweetness. It was followed by graceful “îles flottantes” covered with an orange crust, served with strawberries and a basil-infused crème anglaise.

We asked our waitress whether we could compliment the chef on our extraordinary meal. Michele came to our table with a radiant smile. We asked her an indiscreet question: “How does a Brazilian chef open a restaurant in the middle of Alentejo? “I fell in love with someone from Alentejo,” she told us. “That love waned but I liked Alentejo so much that I stayed.” We asked Michele where she gets her inspiration. “I did not grow up with the traditional recipes of Alentejo, I have a different culinary background.” she answered. “But I am inspired by the amazing products that the region has to offer.”

Michele introduced us to her business partner, Mário Vieira, her close collaborators, sous chef Alberto Muralha and pastry chef Gonçalo Carvalho, and all the dining room staff. “The restaurant is a team effort,” she stressed. “We’re all essential to the quality of the food and service. I have to pick the right people to make sure that everything we do, we do with love.“

It is clear that someday soon stars will shine on this restaurant in Alentejo. But we don’t need official accolades to know that Gadanha serves extraordinary food prepared with love.

Gadanha is located at Largo Dragões de Olivença, 84 A in Estremoz, tel. 268 333 262. Click here for their website.

 

Elegant food at L’and

land-vineyards

We arrived at L’and blinded by the midday Alentejo sun. It felt great stepping into the cool shade offered by this elegant hotel surrounded by vineyards.

Chef Miguel Laffan came to meet us. We asked him how he felt relocating from Cascais, a cosmopolitan beach near Lisbon, to this secluded place in the interior of Alentejo. “I came to focus on food,” he told us. “Here there are no distractions. But it took two or three years for the people of Alentejo to trust and accept me. Now, they say that I am a chef from Alentejo!”

The meal began with a small round cheese made from sheep milk in nearby Arraiolos. It was Laffan’s way of saying that this simple cheese is as good as the high cuisine on the menu. No wonder the locals adopted him as one of their own.

A beautiful bread box offered us the choice between old and new traditions: Alentejo bread was paired with new breads made from local products—carob, seeds, and olives.

Next, came a set of delightful appetizers: a glass of tomato, pepper and strawberry gazpacho, a codfish “rissol” covered with bread crumbs soaked in cuttle fish ink, ceviche with oyster and turbot accompanied by a banana cream, and a croquette made with alheira and bergamot orange.

Laffan came back to our table and we talked about his approach to cooking. “I like to use local ingredients, but I am not a fundamentalist. What is important to me is to cook food that I enjoy eating. I admire the lightness of Asian cooking but I do not do fusion. Instead, I let that lightness inspire me to create something different here in Alentejo.”

We had scallops “Brás” style, an adaptation of the traditional codfish Brás-style recipe and Alentejo pork loin cooked slowly and served over a bed of cauliflower, peas and asparagus. Both were masterpieces of taste, aroma, texture, and presentation.

The desserts were a manga panna cotta beautifully decorated with beet flowers and fresh raspberries combined with raspberry mousse, merengue, and foam. Coffee came with wine gelatins and irresistible chocolates.

The following day, we saw in the Vila Viçosa ducal palace the menus of the banquets offered by king Dom Carlos and queen Dona Amélia. They are handwritten in French by the queen and illustrated with watercolors by the king. Portuguese recipes share the table with many preparations from France and elsewhere. These foreign recipes were probably viewed as more elegant than the rustic food of Portugal.

Today the royal couple would not need to look across borders for culinary elegance and refinement. They could find it at L’and in the cuisine of Miguel Laffan.

L’and and Vineyards is located in Montemor-o-Novo in Alentejo, tel. 266-242-400. Click here for their website.

The ducal palace of Vila Viçosa

Palácio Vila Viçosa

Portugal is a dream reborn in the prairies of Alentejo. In 1580, the king of Portugal died without an heir and the king of Spain inherited the throne of Portugal. After six decades of Spanish domination, a small group of nobles organized a coup to restore independence. They wanted to make Dom João of Braganza, a duke with royal blood who lived in Vila Viçosa, king of Portugal.

The king of Spain had arranged a marriage between Dom João and a Spanish aristocrat, Dona Luisa de Gusmão, hoping she would persuade the duke to support the Spanish rule. Instead, Dona Luisa became a passionate advocate for Portugal’s independence.

Dom João worried that the rebellion was likely to fail. He was willing to die for his country but did not like risking the fate of his wife and children. Dona Luisa convinced him to go forward with the words: “I would rather be queen for a day than duchess for life.” Portugal regained independence on December 1, 1640 and the duke became king João IV.

The ducal palace of Vila Viçosa is still owned by the House of Braganza. A visit to the palace is a rare glimpse into the domestic life of the royal family.

Dom Carlos, who ruled between 1889 and 1908, loved to vacation at Vila Viçosa. A talented painter, he covered the palace walls with his oils and watercolors. It was here that the king slept his last night before returning to Lisbon where he was assassinated.

There’s an elegant garden in the back of the palace that has no flowers. Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese princess who married Charles II of England, banned flowers from royal gardens after learning that the king liked to pick them for his mistresses. In deference to Catherine, flowers were removed from the garden of the ducal palace.

The visit’s grand finale is the magnificent royal kitchen. It is equipped with 2.4 tons of copper pots used to prepare the elaborate banquets offered by the royal family to visiting aristocrats and foreign dignitaries.

If you’re traveling in Alentejo, don’t miss the chance to see the palace of Vila Viçosa, a retreat of kings where history was made.

 

 

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, José’s daughter in law, 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.

Perfect moments in Alentejo

Monte Barrão Composit

Many tourists drive from Lisbon to Algarve without stopping in Alentejo. If the beautiful landscapes you see from the highway tempt you to make a detour, you’ll be richly rewarded. Alentejo is a place where days are blessed by warm light and nights bejeweled by precious stars.

The best way to discover Alentejo is to stay at a local farm. Being surrounded by nature helps us put aside schedules and to-do lists to go where our senses take us: follow the scent of lavender, the sight of a stork in flight, the shade of an olive tree, or the chant of a local brook.

If you don’t have friends who own a farm in Alentejo, we can introduce you to Helena and João Borges. They receive guests in their beautiful farm near Alter do Chão through a program called Perfect Moments. You can take horseback ridding lessons, taste wines with their enologist, try the farm’s magical olive oil, eat wonderful meals cooked with local produce, and stroll through pristine fields painted with colors that no artist can rival.

Our friends Helena and João are wonderful hosts who are passionate about the land that has been in their family for centuries. If you visit them, you’ll have a great time and we bet you’ll become their friends.

Click here for the Perfect Moments web site.

The convent of the blue monks

Composit Évora

When we entered the Pousada dos Loios in Évora, we stepped on grounds that have seen war and peace, creation and destruction. The Arabs built a castle on this site that was destroyed by fire during the Portuguese war of 1383-85. In 1485, a local noble built a convent for the order of Loios on top of the castle ruins.

The villagers called the members of this order the blue monks because of the color of their robes. These religious men lived an austere life, working and praying in silence. Their serenity and wisdom led the royal family to choose them as confessors.

The convent was severely damaged by the 1755 earthquake and later rebuilt through the efforts of an enterprising priest. In 1834, Portugal abolished religious orders and the convent was closed down.

In 1963, the ancient building was converted into an historical hotel.  The cells of the monks were turned into comfortable rooms and elegant suites. The courtyard became a spacious breakfast room.

The Pousada is in the center of Évora and yet inside its thick stone walls the clatter of the city vanishes. Staying here for a few days felt like a long vacation. We were content and at ease in the convent of the blue monks.

The Pousada dos Loios in Évora is located on Largo do Conde de Vila Flor, tel. 351 266 730 070. Click here for the pousadas’ website and here for a large collection of photos of the hotel.