Dining with the minister at Campo Maior

Taberna O Ministro

We strolled around in Campo Maior, a small town in Alentejo close to the border with Spain, looking for a place for lunch. We noticed a tavern called O Ministro (the minister) which was full of locals. There was a bottle of Caiado–the wonderful entry wine from Adega Mayor—on every table. Encouraged by these favorable omens, we decided to enter.

Traditional music played in the background, mostly fado tunes about the travails of love and the fickleness of life. Every now and then, a folk song from Alentejo came on and the locals raised their voices to sing along.

A plate with codfish cakes, slices of sausage, and green olives arrived at the table. We ordered “migas” made with bread and turnips and fried cação, a small shark that somehow manages to swim from the coast to the menus of Alentejo. We also ordered “carne do alguidar,” marinated pork loin. We were astonished by the quality of everything that came to the table. It was delicious and deeply satisfying food, with a perfect sense of time and place.

João Paulo Borrega, the chef and owner of this magical restaurant came out of the kitchen, and stoped by each table to ask whether people liked his food. “The food is fantastic,” we told him. “Can we make reservations for dinner and arrive a little early to talk to you?” Sure, he said with a bemused smile.

Late in the afternoon, he sat down to talk with us. Like most Alentejo cooks, he learned cooking from his mother and grandmother. His restaurant opened in 1989 and has changed location over the years. It is named after João Paulo’s father, a man whose role in the revolutionary days after April 1974 earned him the nickname “the minister.”

João Paulo tells us that the current restaurant location is ideal. “I want to cook by myself, and this space has the maximum number of tables I can comfortably handle.” He talks enthusiastically about his favorite recipes: fried rabbit, toasted chicken, chickpea soup, and ensopado de borrego (lamb stew).

“Why does your food taste so good?,” we asked. “I am going to show you my secret,” he said, inviting us into the small kitchen. He pointed to an old, tiny refrigerator. “Everything I use I buy fresh every day. That is why I have no freezer, just this small refrigerator. At the end of the day I give away any leftovers to my friends. The next day I start everything from scratch. Meats, fish, vegetables, herbs, sauces, everything has to be fresh.”

All his products are local and seasonal, produced by people he knows. He rattled off the names of the friends who supply him: the olive-oil maker, the farmer who plants the potatoes and onions, the person who chooses ripe melons for his table; the list goes on. The quality of his sourcing would make many three-star chefs envious.

João Paulo talks with great knowledge about the details of the different recipes and the properties of various herbs and spices. “People often use too much laurel. That is a mistake,” he says. “Laurel is very powerful and can overwhelm other ingredients.” “The cuisine of Alentejo does not require much fussing around,” he explains. “But the ingredients need to be first rate and the last flourishes before the dish is brought to the table have to be perfect. Some dishes are finished with white wine, others with vinegar, herbs play a key role.”

We sat down for a wonderful dinner. It started with toasted chicken perfumed with vinegar and prepared with olive oil, garlic and parsley. Then came a steaming chickpea soup with Alentejo sausages, Savoy cabbage, carrots, and mint. Next, we tried the fried rabbit. The meat had been  marinated with rosemary, thyme, pepper, white and red wine. Then it was stewed to perfection in a large iron-cast pan with olive oil, garlic, and some more wine. Delicious slices of ripe melon brought this memorable meal to a sweet finale.

No matter how much you travel, it is hard to find food that is as simply satisfying as the one served in this little tavern in Alentejo. If you have a chance, come to Campo Maior to dine with the minister.

Taberna O Ministro is located at Travessa dos Combatentes da Grande Guerra
Campo Maior, Portalegre, tel. 351-965-421-326.

A dinner in grape country

País das Uvas

Paulo Laureano recommended that we try O País das Uvas for dinner. “Sopa de Cardo (thistle soup) is one of their specialties,” he said.

The name of the restaurant, which means The Grape Country, is a literary reference. It is the title of a book by Fialho de Almeida, a writer born in 1857 in Vila De Frades, the Vidigueira village where the restaurant is located.

The restaurant is full of ancient amphoras inscribed with messages left by patrons praising the food and the hospitality. António Honrado told us that this place has been a tavern for more than a century. He bought it 17 years ago with his wife Jacinta to turn it into a restaurant.

In the early days, Jacinta’s mother was in charge of the cooking. But she was advanced in age and the work was hard. One day, Jacinta told her mother that they had hired a new cook who had come during the night to prepare the most popular dishes on the menu. Jacinta’s mother worried that hiring a new chef would worsen the quality of the food. But upon trying the different dishes she exclaimed: “They taste exactly like my cooking! Who prepared them?” “I did,” confessed Jacinta. Since that day, Jacinta has been the chef at O País das Uvas.

We ordered the famous Thistle Soup and Cozido de Grão, a traditional chickpea stew made with cabbage, carrots, potatoes, meats, and sausages. Both dishes have bold, satisfying flavors that made our taste buds fall in love with the simple ways of Alentejo.

After dinner, António and Jacinta invited us to see their discovery. When they did some construction on the restaurant, they uncovered a cellar that is many centuries old. It has a well-preserved clay-tile floor, graceful arches and a water well. They restored the cellar and devoted it to producing amphorae wine with the help of Paulo Laureano.

We bid farewell to António and Jacinta, promising to return. Then we went out into the warm Summer night, enchanted by the honesty of the food and the warmth of the people of Alentejo.

O País das Uvas is located at Rua General Humberto Delgado, nº19, Vila De Frades, Alentejo, tel. 284 441 023.

Paulo Laureano

Paulo Lauriano

Now we know how it feels to go from purgatory to heaven. After many hours of delays in Newark, we arrived in Lisbon and drove to Vidigueira to meet with Paulo Laureano, a famous Portuguese enologist. The encounter was five years in the making because he is a busy man and our schedules never intersected.

Paul greeted us at the door of his winery with the easy smile of a man who has found his place in the world. Many harvests ago he graduated in enology in Évora. After an internship in Australia, he was invited to teach at the university. But soon he became involved with so many wineries that he left academia to practice enology full time. He bottled the first wines under his name in 1999. Since then, he has produced a steady stream of remarkable nectars.

Our visit started with a tour of the winery. “There is no technology here,” he says proudly. “Our work is all done in the vineyards. We use old vines and we harvest the grapes by hand, that is our secret.”

Paulo is passionate about the terroir of Vidigueira. He explains to us how the hard schist soils give minerality and freshness to the wines. How the winds travel from the sea to Vidigueira to bring humidity. How the slopes of the terrain create different exposures to the sun. How the varietals change when planted in this soil. And how the indigenous varietal Tinta Grossa creates wines like no others.

Since wines cannot be understood without drinking them, Paulo took us to a tasting room that overlooks the vineyards. We started with a white wine produced from old vines made from Antão Vaz, Arinto and Fernão Pires. We would have been happy continuing drinking it, but there were more wines to taste.

Paulo showed us two wonderful wines he makes for the U.S. market. When his long-time U.S. distributor visited with his little daughter, Ema, the girl asked whether she could have her own vineyard. Remembering this endearing moment, Paulo called the white and red blends Ema’s vineyard.

Next. our glasses filled with an Old Vines Private Selection white. It showcases the brilliance of the Antão Vaz from Vidigueira. “Antão Vaz can be heavy and boring but here in Vidigueira it is always interesting and elegant,” says Paulo.

It is time for two more reds. The Old Vines Private Selection is smooth and refined, an harmonious combination of Aragonês, Trincadeira, Alicante Bouchet and Touriga Nacional.  Our tasting ended with fireworks: we tried one of the 5,000 bottles of Tinta Grossa produced in 2015. It is a remarkable wine full of depth and character,

Wherever you are, if you see a bottle of Paulo Laureano’s wine grab it without hesitation. And then you too can have a taste of these heavenly wines made in the unique terroir of Vidigueira.

Paulo Laureano’s winery is located in Monte Novo da Lisboa, Vidigueira, tel. 284-437-060.

 

 

The delights of Alkazar

Alcacer - @mariarebelophotography.com

Helena Silva was born and raised in Alcácer do Sal. As a kid, she was fascinated by the history of this ancient city and wanted to become an archeologist to find out more about its past.

Instead, Helena opened a gourmet store called Alkazar (the Arab name for Alcácer do Sal) on the city’s main street, overlooking the Sado river. With the patience of an archeologist, she gathered the best products from the region.

Alcácer is known for the production of salt, pine nuts and rice, so these products have pride of place in Helena’s store. But there are also interesting wines, artisanal honey, appetizing canned fish, regional sweets, and much more.

Our favorite discovery was “pinhoada,” a highly-addictive nougat made with local pine nuts and honey. There’re many good reasons to visit the wonderful town of Alcacer do Sal. But the taste of the pinhoada alone justifies a visit.

Helena Silva’s store, Alkazar Gourmet is located on Rua Machado dos Santos n º4, 7580-162 Alcácer do Sal, Tel. 265088739.

Cooking pork and clams on the trail of Jamie Oliver

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We asked Dália Soromenho, the chef/owner of Porto Santana in Alcácer do Sal,  what alchemy made her pork and clams so magical. “I don’t give out my recipes,” she said sternly. “But I have to confess that I taught the recipe to Jamie Oliver when he came to the restaurant,” she continued with pride. “That is like telling everybody!” we argued. Dália relented and shared her recipe with us. So, here it is dear reader, the recipe for the best pork and clams we ever tasted.

Dália Soromenho’s Pork and Clams Recipe

Dália likes to cook this recipe with two cuts of pork: either “pá” (shoulder) of black pork or “cachaço” (neck) of white pork. The quality of the ingredients is essential.

First, marinate the pork cut into cubes with minced garlic and “pimentão,” a paste made of red peppers and salt. Then, slowly simmer the pork in lard until it becomes deliciously tender. The cooked pork can be refrigerated at this point. When you are ready to serve, fry the pork in lard in a frying pan over high heat. Place the clams on top of the pork and cover until the clams open. Cut the potatoes into small pieces and fry them separately. Add the potatoes to the pork-and-clams combination, season with chopped coriander and serve your lucky guests

“You’re welcome to come back to cook the recipe with me,” Dália offered as we said goodbye. We surely will!

Porto Santana is located at Senhora Santana, Alcacer do Sal, tel. 969 020 740.

 

Eating pork and clams in Alcácer do Sal

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The staff of the pousadas, a network of historical hotels with fabulous locations, has always great restaurant tips, so when they recommended Porto Santana in Alcácer do Sal, we called to make reservations.

The restaurant remounts to the days when people traveled by horse to Alcácer and crossed the Sado river through a small wooden bridge to work in the fields. They left their horses by the restaurant building and came in for a bite before work. Later, the place became a tavern where people enjoyed a glass of wine. Later still, it became a “tasca,” a humble eatery that catered to local residents. The restaurant was purchased more than a decade ago by Dália Soromenho, a chef who learned from her mother the traditional recipes of Alentejo. She modernized the old place but preserved key elements of its past like the stone floor and the straw-padded roof.

Our waiter took us to a cozy table by the fireplace. The other tables were occupied by locals, most of whom seemed to be involved in agriculture. They were giving thanks for the rain that was blessing the fields and talked with excitement about their wines and their crops.

Our meal started with a soup made with clams, spinach and rice. The flavors blended perfectly and the rice grains were firm, so there was no starch from the rice clouding the flavorful broth. The meal continued with fried fillets of “peixe galo” accompanied by an “açorda” made with fish eggs. The fish was delicious, but it had a hard time competing with the magnificent açorda, the best we ever had. It was a culinary masterpiece made with fish broth, fish eggs, bread, olive oil, and garlic. Finally, we tried black pork “secretos” salted and grilled to perfection.

We told our waiter how much we liked our meal. “But you didn’t try our pork and clams Alentejo style, they are really outstanding.” he said in a tone that made us feel like we had gone to Rome and not seen the pope.

We repented and returned the next day to Porto Santana for lunch. We were received by Dália Soromenho who recommended we also try her tomato soup as a prelude to the pork and clams.

The meal started with a couvert composed of bread, olives, a delicious carrot salad seasoned with minced garlic and coriander, and fried sardines in an “escabeche” sauce made from olive oil, bay leaves and vinegar. The tomato soup was great, the acidity of the tomato contrasting with the creamy poached eggs. The pork and clams were indeed spectacular. They have everything that is lacking in ordinary preparations: the pork was succulent, the clams were not overcooked, and the fried potatoes were crisp and delicious. The dessert was a combination of eggs yolks and the famous pine nuts from Alcácer.

Dália sat at our table and asked us what we thought about the meal. We told her that it is people like her that make Portugal a place full of culinary treasures waiting to be discovered.

Porto Santana is located at Senhora Santana, Alcacer do Sal, tel. 969 020 740.

Sleeping in a medieval castle by the Sado river

Composite Alcácer

One hour away from Lisbon, you can stay in an historical hotel that occupies a medieval castle with wonderful views of the Sado river and the rice fields of Alcácer of Sal. It is a place where people have gathered since the Iron Age to worship the gods above.

For more than 2,000 years, people came to Alcácer do Sal to farm the land, tend to herds of sheep and goats and produce salt on the marshes of the Sado river. The Sado made it all possible, its waters bestowed fertility on the land and carried boats loaded with agricultural products to far away lands. Underneath the pousada there are remnants of Greek pottery and Egyptian jewelry, foreign luxuries purchased with the fruits of the Sado river.

In the 2nd century BC, Alcácer was conquered by the Romans who made it a center for the production of wool and salt. With their penchant for grandiose names, the Romans named the city Salacia Urbs Imperatoria.

In the 6th century AC, the Visigoths conquered the territory that is now Portugal. But life did not change in Alcácer until the moorish conquered the city in the middle of the 8th century AC. They built the caste and made the town an important trading outpost.

The first king of Portugal, D. Afonso Henriques, conquered Alcácer in 1160. But the moors fought back and it was only in 1217 that Alcácer became a permanent part of the Portuguese territory. The castle was then converted into a monastery occupied by the order of Saint James.

In the 17th century, the old monastery was adapted to welcome the nuns of Saint Claire of Assisi. The new building was called the Convent of Her Lady of Aracaeli.

The Pousada is a magical place. Every window frames a beautiful landscape. Every step reminds us that we are on hallowed ground. But hard decisions have to be made: should we stay by the spacious hotel pool relaxing or go see the gorgeous beaches of the coast of Alentejo?

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