Dom Rodrigo

dom-rodrigos

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!

Salt-water tea

composit-cha-com-agua-salgada

Two architects working in Lisbon, Paulo Esteves and Sandra Gomes, went to the Algarve to visit their family. By happenstance, they heard about a competition for the concession of a restaurant at the entrance of the Manta Rota beach. They were tired of their busy lives in the capital and yearned to be closer to nature, so they decided to apply.

A long time passed until one day, when they had almost forgotten about the competition, they learned they had won!

They called their restaurant Chá com Agua Salgada (salt-water tea). It is a beautiful place with a terrace overlooking the ocean. The food is great and tastes even better because the appetizing aromas are mixed with the ocean breeze.

Our meal started with octopus samosas that were crispy and flavorful, seasoned with a curry mayonnaise. Then came carabineiros, large shrimps from Algarve, paired with spinach wilted in oil and garlic. Next, we enjoyed a luminous corvina cooked with lemon and a delicate algae called sea lettuce. The octopus returned to end the meal, this time seared and adorned with migas, a bread-based accompaniment.

The food looks deceptively simple, but it is prepared with great expertise by chef Marco Jacó. The service is flawless, we felt like we were having lunch at a friend’s house. And the location is heavenly.

Chá com Água Salgada is located at the entrance of the Manta Rota beach, tel. 281 952 856. Click here for their website.

A comet called Noélia

Noélia composit

“One good thing about Winter is that it is easier to dine at Noélia” our Algarve friends told us. “In the Summer it is impossible to get in.” Curious, we made reservations a week in advance.

As soon as we sat down in this seaside restaurant in the village of Cabanas, we knew we were in for something special. There was a festive atmosphere and the aromas of the sea filled the air.

The restaurant is noisy but our waiter was a mind reader who guessed what we wanted without the need for much verbal communication. And so a perfectly chilled bottle of sparkling wine arrived, followed by a plate of steamed langoustines. “They were caught this morning” the waiter told us. “I know you’ll like them.” We were so impressed by the crustaceans’ exquisite taste that we vowed never to eat frozen seafood again.

Our main dish was rice with lemon, corvina, and conquilhas, small cockles that only exist in the Algarve. We appreciated in silence the sublime combination of flavors. A Dom Rodrigo, a sweet combination of fios de ovos (egg threads) and almonds, rounded the meal.

Noélia, the chef, seemed to be everywhere: cooking, talking to regulars, giving instructions to the staff, making final adjustments to the plates before they were brought out. She is a culinary comet that brightens everything she touches.

Suddenly, she arrived at our table and asked: “did you like the food?” “We loved it,” we replied. “But we’re sorry we’re too full to try other dishes.” “Next time order oyster risotto and favas with cuttle fish,” she said. “I get up at 6:00 am to make sure I buy the best oysters in Algarve.” And she was gone as quickly as she had arrived.

Outside, the moon was painting the sea with its silver light. But no one in the restaurant paid any attention. The moon cannot compete with a comet called Noélia.

The Restaurante Noélia & Jerónimo is located in the village of Cabanas near Tavira, Algarve at Rua da Fortaleza, Edifício Cabanas-Mar, Loja 6, tel, 281370649. Reservations are a must.

 

A pink palace in the Algarve

358 - Pousada de Estói - @mariarebelophotography.comFIt takes a long time to build a beautiful palace. An Algarve aristocrat started in 1840 to build the Estoi palace in an estate near Faro. When he died, his son took over. But by 1893, the building was still unfinished and seemed destined to become a decorative ruin. It was then that a wealthy landowner bought the palace and spent a fortune on its completion. The sumptuous inauguration took place in May 1909. Decades later, the palace was abandoned.

In 2009, a century after its inauguration, Estoi opened once again, this time as a luxury historical hotel. It is a place out of a fairytale, its opulent salons and elegant gardens restored to their original glory.

Our stay at Estoi was an extraordinary experience. Some days, we relaxed by the pool and spent time admiring the statues, fountains and myriad of architectural details. Other days, we went to the beach and enjoyed the pleasures of the sea even more than usual. For we knew that when the day was done, we would have our pink palace to return to.

The Estoi palace is part of a network of historical hotels called Pousadas. Click here for the Pousadas’ website and here to see a large collection of photos of the palace.

The extraordinary salt of Castro Marim

Castro Marin Composit

The Romans loved salt. They used it to cook, to preserve food, and as a form of currency (the practice of paying soldiers in salt is the origin of the word salary). So, it is not surprising that the Romans settled in Castro Marim. This small town on the marshes of the Guadiana river produced great salt.

During the 20th century, this production became industrialized. The salt was harvested with heavy machinery that leaves plenty of chemical residues. It was then washed and processed to turn its grey color into white, striping the salt of magnesium, potassium, and other important minerals.

Artisanal producers abandoned their salt ponds and so did the fish and birds that used them as habitats. Centuries of knowledge about producing great salt was on the verge of being lost.

But then, the tide turned. In the late 1990s, a cooperative called Terras de Sal revived the artisanal salt trade. It invited a French certification body to establish the strictest certification norms to ensure the highest standard of quality. It created the conditions to attract a new generation of producers who left their city jobs and came to Castro Marim to produce the best salt in the world.

These producers harvest the salt manually with wooden tools, a slow process that is essential to avoid chemical contamination. They do not wash the salt, to ensure that it retains all its important minerals. Since rain muddies the water, they only harvest when the weather is dry, between May and September.

One of the cooperative’s producers is called Água Mãe. Their salt is amazingly white and flavorful. Their “fleur de sel,” made of fine crystals created by temperature differentials between water and air, is exquisite. Água Mãe also bottles liquid salt, which is low in sodium and high in magnesium. When we spray it on our salads it gives them layers of delicate flavor.

The Romans were prescient in their love of salt. An amazing fact about our bodies is that, because life began in the sea, the composition of our tissue fluid resembles that of natural sea salt.

The ordinary act of seasoning our food becomes extraordinary when we use salt from Castro Marim. It is a privilege to nourish our body with the same pristine salt prized by the Romans 2000 years ago.

You can find the Água Mãe salt store on Travessa dos 3 Marcos, n.º 11, Castro Marim, Algarve, tel. 961380503, email  aguamae@aguamae.pt . Click here for the Terras de Sal web site. To buy the wondrous salt of Castro Marim in the U.S., click here.

The octopus capital

St. Luzia (Polvo) Composit

The best octopus in Portugal comes from Santa Luzia, a small village near Tavira in the Algarve. The locals proudly call it octopus capital.

The shores of Santa Luzia are full of small shrimp that attract the octopi. Old-time fishermen lay clay pots called “alcatruz” in the water. The octopi cuddle in these pots to sleep and get caught when the pots are removed from the water.

Younger fishermen don’t like to wait for the mollusks to fall asleep, so they prefer to use a “covo,” a plastic trap with a sardine inside.

Old timers swear that the octopus caught with the alcatruz tastes much better than the one caught with the covo. But young and old agree that Casa do Polvo is a great place to eat octopus. There are many preparations to choose from, including carpaccio, stewed, fried, and roasted. Our favorite is “polvo panado,” octopus combined with egg and bread crumbs and then fried. No matter which preparation you choose, the octopus is tender and delicious.

If you’re traveling in the Algarve, it is a great idea to include Santa Luzia on your itinerary. You’ll have the opportunity to enjoy a wonderful meal and earn the right to brag that you’ve visited the octopus capital.

Casa do Polvo is on Avenida Eng. Duarte Pacheco, N. 8, Santa Luzia, Tavira. Tel. 281-328-527. In the Summer reservations are a must.

Pink glamour

Lula, Rui Barreiros Duarte, ink on paper, 2012.

The squid is a sea socialite, always hopping from shrimp to smelt parties, elegant and glamorous in its pink-dotted design gown. This cephalopod has in recent years become a globe trotter. Every day, billions of squid travel by road, sea and air to the menus of fashionable restaurants around the world. But all this roving takes a toll on the delicate mollusk, which arrives tired and frozen, long on frequent-flyer miles and short on taste.

If you’re in Portugal, don’t miss the chance to try some fresh squid. The best way to cook it is “Algarve style” (lulas à Algarvia):  the squid is lightly fried in olive oil, garlic, and bay leaves. It’s a simple preparation and yet, it produces sublime results that do justice to the squid’s diaphanous freshness.