Elegant food at L’and

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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.

A school lunch

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In 1940, the Portuguese government announced its “centennial plan,” a program to build a large number of primary schools. The schools in the north of the country, designed by Rogério de Azevedo, look austere with their granite and schist exteriors. The schools in the south, designed by Raul Lino, have graceful arches and whitewashed walls. Both designs used elements of the vernacular architecture and became integral parts of the Portuguese landscape.

With the number of children in decline, some of these schools have been closing. The school in the village of Cachopos near Comporta in Alentejo closed in the late 1990s but found new life as a restaurant appropriately called A Escola (the school).

The building is located in a beautiful woodland. Our arrival was greeted by the chirping of birds and perfumed by the scent of eucalyptus.

As we sat at the table remembering learning the three Rs, a plate of marinated rabbit and a carrot salad arrived. The menu has lots of great offerings, including cuttlefish rice with shrimp, fried eels, pasta with sea bass, stewed partridge, and rabbit pie with pine nut rice. The portions are generous and the food is delicious. A Escola is a great place to enjoy the simple, hearty cuisine of Alentejo.

On the school wall there’s an old map of the Portuguese empire. Those vast possessions of land and sea are long gone. But the empire of the senses–Portugal’s wonderful culinary tradition–continues to thrive.

A Escola is located at Estrada Nacional 253, Cachopos, Alcácer do Sal, tel. 265 612 816.

 

A tavern called Wednesday

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André Freire, the manager of the beautiful Évora pousada, urged us to try a tavern called Quarta Feira (the Portuguese word for Wednesday). “It’s a special place,” André said with a smile. “There’s no menu; you have to trust Zé Dias, the owner, and go with the flow.”

As soon as we entered the restaurant, we became friends with Zé Dias. He moved to Évora from a village in Beira Alta called Quarta Feira, the name he used for the restaurant. Dias worked as a typographer until he opened this tavern 25 years ago with Luisa Batista, a great local cook.

Dias’ enthusiasm for food, wine and life in Alentejo is infectious. Everything he serves comes from people he knows well, from the producers of cheese and sausages to the maker of the clay pots that are integral to Luisa Batista’s cooking. When we asked Dias how he managed to convince Paulo Laureano, a renowned Portuguese enologist, to make the house wine for Quarta Feira, Dias replied “Of course he said yes; we’ve been friends for a long time.”

Our dinner started with slices of local sausages and prosciutto made with black pork from Alentejo. Then a warm sheep cheese seasoned with oreganos arrived, busting with flavor. Next, we had some wonderful mushrooms cooked in mushroom water, seasoned with olive oil, garlic and coriander. “The secret is all in the timing,” Dias tells us and we believe him because at this point we believe everything he says.

The meal’s main event was the house specialty: black iberian pork shoulder marinated in wine cooked slowly in a clay pot. It was so delicious that our taste buds scintillated with delight. The dessert was composed of dried figs, walnuts, cooked quince, and samplings of two conventual desserts.

The meal ended with a glass of licoroso from Herdade do Mouchão. This sweet wine with notes of fruits and spices was a perfectly simple ending to a simply perfect meal.

Zé Dias is a philosopher king who disguises as a tavern owner so that he can share with his guests the joy of living in Alentejo.

Taberna Típica Quarta Feira is on Rua do Inverno 18, Évora, tel. 266 707 530.

A magical Summer soup

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When we sat down for dinner in the beautiful esplanade of the Arraiolos Pousada, we expected good food and attentive service. We got much more than that. We were served a series of delicious dishes that harmonized perfectly with Alentejo wine and made us feel we were at the right place, at the right time.

The dinner started with two soups, a Summer cucumber soup, followed by a tomato soup with quail egg. We then had “migas” (an Alentejo specialty made with bread) with wild asparagus and lamb grilled with rosemary. The grand finale was a sampling of traditional convent desserts updated with great refinement.

We congratulated the chef, Elizabete Velez, who told us that she learned to cook with her mother and grandmother in a small village in Alentejo. She offered to give us the recipe for her delicious Summer cucumber soup because it is very easy to make. Here it is.

Elizabete Velez’s Summer cucumber soup

Get the very best cucumbers you can find. Peel them (this step is key because the peel is very bitter) and remove their seeds. Dice the cucumbers, season them carefully with salt, pepper, and great olive oil. Puree the mixture in a blender. Pour into small bowls, placing one or two ice cubes in each bowl. Garnish with toasted slivered almonds, small strips of cucumber peel, and Portuguese sausage (preferably from Alentejo!).

Imagine eating this soup in a warm Summer evening, as the sun sets over a grove of olive trees and the stars wait their turn to shine on the Arraiolos castle. It’s magical!

Click here for the Pousadas’ website and here for more photos of the Arraiolos Pousada.

Our favorite restaurant in Évora

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Our favorite restaurant in Évora, Botequim da Mouraria, seats only eight people and takes no reservations. There are no tables, everybody eats at the counter. Domingos Canelas, the restaurant’s owner, recites the menu, an endless list of delicacies that includes wild asparagus, eggs laid by blissful chicken, incredible prosciutto from Alentejo, luscious figs, briny clams, succulent fish and meat. In the kitchen, his wife Florbela cooks these ingredients with great skill and refinement. When Domingos brings the food he smiles, anticipating our enjoyment.

We asked him to select a wine from the restaurant’s amazing list. Instead of choosing an expensive bottle, he decided to impress us with a perfectly chilled white wine from Herdade Grande. “In Portugal,” he said, “you don’t need to spend much money to drink great wine.” And we agreed, marveling at the perfect harmony between the wine and the food.

During our leisurely lunch, many customers came to the door and left because there were no seats available. And yet, Domingos didn’t  try to rush us. “You need time to enjoy the food of Alentejo,” he said.

We asked whether he planed to expand the size of the restaurant. He answered without hesitation: “I can only maintain this quality if I stay small.” At Botequim da Mouraria small is wonderful.

Botequim da Mouraria is at Rua da Mouraria, 16-A in Evora, tel. 266-746-775, email: botequim.mouraria@sapo.pt.