A convent in Alentejo

It is hard to believe that there’s a monastery larger than Lisbon’s Rossio plaza in the middle of Alentejo. Driving on the winding roads of the d’Ossa mountain, we almost lost faith. But we were climbing, and that is always a good omen. Convents often occupy mountain tops so that monks can be closer to heaven.

The first glimpse of the building is easy to miss. The sprawling monastery hides behind 600 hectares of olive trees, pines, oaks, ashes, and oleanders. After a few more twists and turns, we arrived at the Convent of São Paulo.

Marília Nanitas came out to greet us. She works for the foundation that manages the hotel. “Can you tell us the story of this place?” we asked with curiosity.  “I can tell you a good lie, which is better than a half-truth,” she replied teasingly. Then, she lent us a book about the history of the convent. 

What we learned from this tome is that it took centuries to build this monastery. The first edifice was a hermitage erected in the year 315. In 446, an earthquake partially destroyed the structure. When in 715 the Arabs invaded the region, the hermits abandoned the sanctuary.

The second king of Portugal, Sancho I, decided in 1182 to rebuild the hermitage as a monastery. In 1372, Dona Brites, the daughter of King Dom Pedro I and Inês de Castro, donated her lands near the convent to the monks. The royal family provided steady support, financing the glorious collection of cobalt blue tiles installed between 1710 and 1725. 

After the state abolished religious orders in 1834, the convent was disputed for 37 years by two municipalities, Estremoz and Redondo. Before leaving the monastery, the monks protected the tiles with plaster walls. It is thanks to their ingenuity that more than 50,000 tiles have survived to this day.

When the government auctioned the convent and the surrounding lands, Henriqueta Leotte Tavares purchased it with her dowery. It was a dream to own a place like this. But also a burden, a responsibility to history. Over the next two centuries, Henriquetta’s family used their income from agriculture to restore the convent. The first generation built a factory that made tiles to repair the roof. The second generation hired carpenters to rebuild the doors and windows. 

Henrique Lotte Tavares, a chemical engineer, belongs to the third generation. He has no descendants, so he decided to turn the convent into a hotel to preserve it for posterity. Between 1989 and 2009, Henrique oversaw countless renovations.  In 1993, he created a foundation to manage the hotel and continue the restoration work.

How was life in the monastery? The Latin word “silentio” inscribed in the tiles reminded the monks of their vow of silence. There are many fountains, perhaps because the sound of flowing water makes silences feel less awkward. The monks could talk only on their way to lunch or dinner. To make the most out of these convivial moments, the friars walked slowly through the corridor that leads to the dining room, which became known as “passos perdidos” (lost steps).

We too walked slowly on the long corridors of the convent to savor the moments spent in this beautiful place so far from the hurries of modern life, so close to the tranquility of heaven.

The Convento de São Paulo is located at Aldeia da Serra d’Ossa in Redondo, Évora. Click here for the hotel’s website.

Ease and tranquility in Alentejo

João Rodrigues spends most of his time flying as a pilot. Perhaps it’s in the sky that the muses inspire him. When he is on the ground, João runs Silent Living, a company that is reinventing the art of hospitality.

On a warm summer day, we got on the road to Casa no Tempo, a Silent Living guest house in Alentejo. It is a secluded place where only the wind brings news of the outside world.  

At first sight, the house looks ordinary. It has a rectangular geometry with thick stone walls and a roof covered with weathered orange tiles. Then, we notice that the proportions are perfect. The sinuous swimming pool confirms that this is no ordinary place. Filled with emerald water, it looks as if it is made of salt.  

The house is spacious, with large windows that frame the landscape. A light breeze flows through the rooms as if it owns the place. Walls, doors, and windows are painted with white hues that soften the sunlight. The floor is paved with cubes of orange tile that convey warmth and comfort. It all adds up to a wonderful sense of ease and tranquility.

A vaulted arch shades a courtyard with a large wooden table and some benches. While we went for a quick swim, two cooks set up the table for lunch with plates of local cheese, plump olives, and a basket of country bread. Glasses of refreshing white wine accompanied a gazpacho made from sweet tomatoes. The main course was lamb roasted with potatoes, a rustic dish that is deeply satisfying. The dessert was an appetizing fruit tart that came with cups of strong coffee. 

After this delightful lunch, we sat in the courtyard watching the sun paint the landscape with layers of golden light. The sound of bells heralded the arrival of a herd of goats that strolled by the house without a care in the world. Then, a peaceful silence returned to this place where everything is simple and everything is perfect. 

Click here for the Silent Living website.

The natural wines of Herdade do Cebolal

Seven years ago, we booked a table at Boi-Cavalo in Lisbon and chef Hugo Brito told us that dinner included a pairing with wines from a great family winery in Alentejo called Herdade do Cebolal. The wonderful food and wine turned the dinner into a party in which everybody talked to each other as if we were longtime friends.

We experienced the same festive feeling during a memorable lunch at the Lamelas restaurant in Porto Côvo. The spectacular food prepared by chef Ana Moura was accompanied by wines from Herdade do Cebolal. What is it about these wines that hang out with chefs who know how to turn meals into celebrations?  

Ana told us that Herdade de Cebolal is a stone’s throw from the restaurant, so we called the winery to see whether we could go by for a visit. We were received by enologist Luis Mota Capitão. The winery has been in his family since 1880. His great-grandfather made wines and vinegars to sell to doctors for medicinal use. 

Luís also wants his wines to be good for us. He avoids as much as possible using chemicals in wine production. And he is passionate about creating an ecosystem that is healthy and sustainable. The 20 hectares of vineyards are surrounded by 65 hectares of forest planted with cork and holm oaks, carob and lime trees, and many other species. He uses algae, including sargassum harvested in Porto Côvo, to fertilize the land because he believes it produces superior grapes. Luís encourages animals to roam the farm. There many bees, as well as chicken, hares, and sheep. Even foxes, lynxes, wild boars, and saca-rabos (Egyptian mongese), which are often considered a nuisance in other farms, are welcome at Herdade de Cebolal. “They all have a role to play and this land belongs to them too,” says Luís. Later, as we were leaving the herdade, we saw a large wild boar crossing the road. 

Luís’ grandfather used to age the wines he served at Christmas time inside a water well. Inspired by this experience, Luís started aging wine in bottles immersed in sea water. The wines age faster and something magical happens, perhaps because of higher pressure, cooler temperatures, and less oxygen. 

The herdade has many different types of soils and sun exposures. Luís says that the best way to illustrate this diversity is to go to the cellar and try some wines from the barrels. We first sampled a white from a vineyard planted in sal gema (rock salt) soil. It has great persistence and acidity. Then, we tried a complex white from “vinha do Rossio,” a vineyard planted by Luis’ great-grandfather 82 years ago. His grandfather added to the vineyard resulting in a mixture of 13 varietals, include some rare species like Tamarez and Tália. Next, we tasted an elegant blend of Arintos that is bright and fresh.

We moved from the cellar to a terrace overlooking the vineyards to try two fascinating reds: a clarete (claret) and a palhete. The clarete is made from Castelão, a grape popular in the Setúbal region. The palhete is made from a mixture of white (Antão Vaz) and red (Aragonês) grapes. These are highly enjoyable wines that can quench the thirst on a hot summer day. In old times, when drinking water was unsafe because of possible contamination with pathogenic bacteria, these were the wines preferred by farmers. Their alcohol content is relatively low (12.5 for clarete and 10.5 for palhete) but high enough to kill any pathogens.

Luís brought us some food to pair with the next two wines: a plate with wonderful sausages made in Alentejo from black pork, small cups of stewed chicken gizzards, an assortment of cheeses, and a delicious honey made from esteva (rock rose) and tojo (gorse). 

A 2017 white made from Fernão Pires and Arinto paired perfectly with the cheeses. Then came the grand finale: a red called Caios, which was the name of Luis’ great-great-grandfather. It is produced only in exceptional years and it includes grapes from vines planted by different generations: Alicante Bouchet planted by Luís, Petit Verdot planted by his father and grandfather, and old vines brought from Saint-Émilion by his great-grandfather.

The sun had long retired and the Alentejo stars shined brightly on the vineyards. Luis kept talking with revolutionary zeal about the legacy he wants to leave to future generations: a way of producing wine that is good for us and good for the earth.

Herdade de Cebolal is located at Vale das Éguas. Click here for their website (in Portuguese).

Dining with Ana Moura in Porto Côvo

We’ve been following chef Ana Moura since her spectacular debut at Cave 23 in Lisbon. So, when we heard she had opened a restaurant in Porto Côvo, a fishermen village on the coast of Alentejo, we went on a pilgrimage to see how her cooking has evolved.

Ana called the restaurant Lamelas, after her mother’s family name. The Lamelas have lived in Porto Côvo for generations and Ana spent her childhood summers there. 

The restaurant has a beautiful terrace overlooking a small harbor.  It was there that our lunch began, with glasses filled with rosé from a local winery called Herdade da Cebolal. Marta, our genial server, brought small plates with appetizing starters: Alentejo bread with an orange butter made with pork fat and red pepper paste; almece, a local cheese, topped with cured fish; a salad made with hake eggs that were so fresh we felt as if the sea had moved closer to our table.

Marta filled our glasses with a delectable white from Herdade do Cebolal to prepare our palates for the next dish: a luscious abrótea (a local fish) with clams, green sauce, and toasted bread. Next, there was a rice made with robalo (seabass), pargo (snapper), and shrimp. We admired the perfection of the confection, all rice grains perfectly cooked, all flavors in harmony. 

Migas, a bread-based preparation, accompanied pork ribs and a purslane salad. It was an explosion of flavor that paired well with the grand reserve red from another local winery, Herdade da Carochinha. 

The meal ended with sweetness from a chocolate mousse lightly seasoned with fleur de sel, a cheese cake, and sopa dourada (golden soup). 

Throughout the meal, we could see Ana cooking in the kitchen. She was in a state of intense concentration, tasting everything and making last minute adjustments.  

We lingered at the table drinking coffee and trying some local brandies made from medronho, waiting for Ana to finish the service. When she came to greet us, we told her that the meal had been unforgettable. She blushed with humility and spoke with passion about her team and the local producers she is working with. 

We asked Ana whether there were any other local restaurants we should try. She praised the cooking of many local chefs and we left with a long list of suggestions. 

We said our goodbyes and started to research Ana’s list. But we had found an epicurean paradise and it made no sense to leave it. We called Lamelas and made lunch and dinner reservations for the following day. It was an inspired decision. We tried many more gastronomical jewels: a stunning açorda made with sole, magnificent mullets, perfect cuttlefish, delicate abrótea livers, and delicious “carabineiro” shrimps. Just when we thought we had sampled the whole menu, Ana sent something new for us to try: pasteis de massa tenra (turnovers) with a boulliabaisse filling. They were fantastic! 

There’s an old Arab tale about someone who travels the world searching for a treasure, only to find it in the courtyard of their childhood home. Ana traveled the world to apprentice in great restaurants. And now, in the beach of her childhood summers, she created a culinary treasure.  

Lamelas is located at Rua Candido da Silva 55a in Porto Covo, tel. 924060426.

Bel canto wines at Herdade da Calada

Herdade da Calada

Herdade da Calada is a sprawling estate near Évora, owned by a French couple, Marie and André Jean-Claude Penauille. Founded in 1854 by the descendants of the Duke of Lancaster, the estate is planted with vineyards, olive trees, cork oaks, and pasture fields nurtured by a network of lakes that save the increasingly precious rain water.

The wines are made by Eduardo Cardeal, an enologist born into a family of winegrowers from the Douro valley. He brought to Alentejo a gentle style of wine making that seeks to preserve the aromas and character of the fruit. It produces elegant wines with relatively low alcoholic content and round tannins. To achieve these results, the quality of the grapes is key. The yields need to be low and the maturation has to be perfect. Eduardo spends much of his time in the vineyard examining the evolution of the grapes. He harvests in the middle of the night to ensure that the grapes are cool before they enter the winery through the roof, ushered by gravity.

The results are exceptional. In a region known for operatic wines, Herdade da Calada offers wines that sing with the elegance of bel canto.

Herdade da Calada is located at Estrada de Évora-Estremoz km 12 (EN 18), Évora, tel. 266-470-030, email geral@herdadecalada.com. Click here for the wineries web site.

The generosity of cork oaks

Cork Trees Ravasqueira

Cork oaks are generous trees. They provide homes to the birds that nest on their branches and nourishment to the black pigs that feed on their acorns. The bark of the oak tree is manually stripped to produce cork, a natural material known since ancient times for its versatility. Pliny the Elder writes in his Natural History that the bark can be used to make anchors, drag-ropes, and shoe soles. The bows and keels of the ships used by Portuguese navigators were made of cork.

After each stripping, the oak bark grows back. The first stripping generally occurs when the tree is 25-year old. Subsequent strippings follow a nine-year cycle. Trees are marked with a number that indicates the time of the last stripping. It takes 43 years for the bark to be thick enough to produce wine corks. So, most wine corks come from oaks that are much older than the wine they protect.

Cork oaks live for roughly two centuries. Their roots make them resilient to winds and droughts so they can grace the landscape of Portugal with their generosity and beauty.

L’and vineyards

L'and Vyneards

We arrived at L’and Vineyards blinded by the midday Alentejo sun. It was soothing to step into the cool shade offered by this elegant hotel surrounded by vineyards.

There are no normal hotel rooms at L’and. Each guest stays in a expansive suite that has an outdoor tub and fireplace. The ceiling on top of the bed opens at the touch of a button to reveal the star-studded Alentejo sky.

Early in the morning, we saw the first sun rays arriving at the vineyards. We then took a swim in the resplendent pool.

The service is seamless, the food delicious. We felt completely at home in this spacious, gracious hotel in the heart of wine country.

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

 

 

Convento do Espinheiro

Convento do Espinheiro composit-2

The origins of Convento do Espinheiro (the convent of the thorn bush) remount to the 12th century when a shepherd reported seeing the Virgin Mary on top of a burning thorn bush. Inspired by this vision, the shepherd sold his flock to build a modest chapel where he lived as a hermit. Two centuries later, king Dom Afonso built a convent for the order of Saint Jerome in the place where the chapel stood. The convent’s white walls reach towards the blue skies of Alentejo with an exuberance of forms and decorative details.

According to legend, in 1490 the convent was the site of a romantic encounter between Afonso, a Portuguese prince, and his wife-to-be, Isabel of Castile, a few days before their wedding. The bolt of lightning that destroyed a convent tower during the night was interpreted by the monks as a sign of heavenly displeasure with the pre-marital affair.

The convent was converted into a luxury hotel in 2005. The spaces once used by the monks, from the courtyard to the dining room, were carefully restored. An ancient water deposit was turned into an elegant wine shop where guests can enjoy daily wine tastings.

Surrounded by vineyards, Convento do Espinheiro exudes peace and tranquility. Over the centuries, many Portuguese kings spent time in this convent. Perhaps that is why a stay inside these ancient walls feels like a royal privilege.

Convento do Espinheiro is located five kilometers outside of Évora. Click here for the hotel’s website.

 

 

Ilda Vinagre shares a recipe

Ilda Vinagre

Ilda Vinagre is a legendary chef. In the 1980s, she opened a restaurant called Bolota (acorn) in Terrugem, a small town in Alentejo. The restaurant earned her two Michelin stars, attracting gourmets from Portugal and beyond. After this feat, she traveled the world cooking, heading restaurants in the United States and Brazil, and preparing banquets that showcased the cuisine of Alentejo in lands as far away as China.

The good news is that Ilda is back in Alentejo. We met with her at the restaurant of Herdade dos Adeans where she oversees the kitchen. Ilda told us about her life and her love of cooking. That these days she enjoys decorating her plates with edible flowers. And that there are four herbs no Alentejo chef can do without: mint, coriander, oregano and “poejo” (pennyroyal). In the end of our conversation, she generously gave us one of her favorite octopus recipes so we could share it with our readers. Here it is!

Country-style Octopus

Cook “al dente” the octopus in water with salt, onion, coriander, pepper and oregano. Cut it in pieces and grill the pieces in a hot griddle with bacon and a little olive oil. Dress with lemon juice, lemon rind and oregano. Accompany with a sweet potato puree. To make the puree, roast the sweet potato with the peel on. Take the peel, mash the pulp and mix it with butter.

 

The magic of the harvest

Harvest at Monte da Ravasqueira

Most days come and go without leaving a trace. But the harvest day we spent at Monte da Ravasqueira in Alentejo is unforgettable.

The sun, disappointed that we didn’t stay by the hotel pool worshiping its radiant glory, sulked behind clouds. It was just as well. The star’s temper tantrum brought cooler temperatures and created softer shadows that made the fields of Alentejo look like paintings. Monte da Ravasqueira was gorgeous, its white and blue buildings contrasting with the colors of the vines, already changing from their Summer greens to the browns and yellows of the Autumn season.

Mário Gonzaga, our genial guide at Ravasqueira, equipped us with straw hats, gloves and scissors. Then, we followed enologists Pedro Pereira Gonçalves and Vasco Rosa Santos, the magicians who turn grape juice into wine, through the glorious fields. On the way to our vineyard, we passed by the famed Vinha das Romãs, a plot planted with Touriga Franca and Syrah that produces wines with hints of the pomegranates that once grew there.

We received a large box and were assigned a row planted with Petit Verdot. An accordion player made our work lighter by serenading us while we picked the grapes. Wine grapes are very different from table grapes. Their berries are small, so they have much more skin than water, resulting in more intense flavors and aromas.

Once our box was brimming with fruit, we walked over to the winery where Mário talked about the wine-production process. The grape juice has to be kept at 16 degrees Celsius so that the yeast in the grapes starts the fermentation process that turns fruit sugar into alcohol. The cellar was filled with strong wine aromas. “These are primary aromas,” explained Mário. “They need to be abundant at this stage because some will dissipate over time. The yeast-like secondary aromas are produced by the fermentation process. The tertiary aromas come from aging. The estate’s best wines age for three years in oak barrels and two years in bottle.”

As we walked back to the center of the estate, Mário showed us a Roman marble tombstone shaped like a wine barrel. “We think that here lies our first enologist,” says Mário. “He wanted to sleep forever close to his vineyards.”

The country-style lunch was wonderful: salads made with fava beans and chickpeas, duck rice, and a mille-feuilles of red berries for dessert.  We tried to pick our favorite wine. The beautiful rosé, the enticing family reserve white? The luscious red from Vinhas das Romãs? It is impossible to decide.

There was much more to see and do during the afternoon. As the sun began to set, we were greeted by a choir from Alentejo. Three rows of farmers sang in harmony about love and loss, work and rest, food and wine.

Dinner was a feast. Our appetite was wetted with the stunning Ravasqueira sparkling great reserve. Then, an intense red Alicante Bouschet paired perfectly with the savory coriander soup and a delicious codfish with cornbread. The dessert, an irresistible chocolate praliné, came with a glamorous late harvest and a luxurious port-style wine made at Ravasqueira.

The following day, it was time to go back to normal life. But we couldn’t bear to lose the state of enchantment we felt in Alentejo. So we said a silent incantation to keep the magic going: “we’ll return to the harvest.”

Monte da Ravasqueira is located near Arraiolos, tel. 266-490-200, email ravasqueira@ravasqueira.com. Click here for information about how to schedule a visit.