Dining with Miguel Castro e Silva at Quinta de Ventozelo

We have for years admired chef Miguel Castro e Silva from the distance. We dined at his restaurants, read his cookbooks, tried his recipes (his marinated sardine preparation is a staple at our table). So it was a great privilege to have dinner with him at Quinta de Ventozelo

We met at Cantina, the restaurant that occupies the place where the old farm canteen used to be. Miguel arrived with a bottle of wine. “Do you want to try the wines I make at Ventozelo?” he asked as a way of introduction. Soon our glasses were filled with a white Viosinho from 2017 that is fresh and vibrant. It went perfectly with our first course, river fish “escabeche.” 

We told Miguel how much we had enjoyed the food we had for lunch in the picturesque esplanade of Cantina:  wild boar covilhetes (a version of the small pies popular in nearby Vila Real), a warm soup made with beets and apple, grilled octopus, and a peach tart that celebrated the natural sweetness of the peaches. We asked how does he manage to achieve such high standards in all his restaurants. Miguel told us that he inherited both his organization skills and creativity from his German mother. He writes meticulous recipes and coaches his cooks in their preparation until they meet his exacting standards.

Miguel started cooking professionally only at age 31. Born into a family of doctors in Porto, he was expected to study medicine. He studied biology in Germany but lost interest and became a musician. To earn a bit of money on the side, he started cooking. When he returned to Portugal, his friend Dirk Niepoort asked him to prepare food for his wine tastings. Dirk would describe the wines he planned to serve and Miguel had to come up with food that paired well with the wines. It was an experience that allowed him to perfect his cooking skills and learn a lot about wine. 

This enological knowledge is evident in the next wine we tried, a remarkable white that combines Viosinho with a blend of red varietals. It was a perfect complement to our second starter: a sausage called “alheira” topped with a fried quail egg. 

Miguel tells us that he is reviving and refining the cooking traditions of the Douro valley. Every Sunday, the cooks at Cantina prepare a roast in an oven fired with vine wood. The soup is made in old iron-cast pots on a large outdoor fire. All the ingredients come from the farm. The animals are naturally raised and everything from nose to tail is used in the kitchen.

Our main course, a suculent stewed rooster, was a perfect example of the refined, satisfying rustic food that Miguel is devising. It combined well with a delicate red wine aged in oak barrels previously used to make white wines.  

Several fruit-based desserts arrived. Once again, we admired the sparse use of sugar that gives the fruits their chance to shine. As the dinner came to an end, we made a few toasts with some old Dalva tawnies.

But there was one more thing. Miguel ordered a pot of tea. Ventozelo produces a wonderful gin with the aromatics that grow on the farm. Miguel had the idea of making an herbal tea with the same aromatics: lavender, lemon thyme, Portuguese thyme, and globe amaranth. It makes a fragrant infusion that was the perfect ending to a perfect meal. Thanks to chef Miguel Castro e Silva the food at Cantina is as spectacular as the view.

Click here for the web site of Cantina, the restaurant at Quinta de Ventozelo and here for Miguel Castro e Silva’s website.

A rested pudding

One of our favorite destinations in the Douro valley is a charming village called Ervedosa do Douro. Its main attraction is Toca da Raposa, a restaurant that prepares the traditional food served in local aristocratic homes. 

The ingredients are immaculate and the cooking is sublime. The preparations look deceptively simple, but they require knowledge of all the small details that make the difference between good and exceptional.

Dona Graça, a cook who worked for Douro families before opening Toca da Raposa with her children, has a large repertoire of recipes from the time when food was prepared in wood-fired ovens and cast-iron pans. We’ve been trying to convince her to collect these recipes in a cookbook. But codifying all her experience is a huge task and she has no time–the restaurant is always full.

Recently, Dona Graça started writing down some recipes. She shared one of these recipes with us. It is called Pudim de Laranja Descansado (rested orange pudding) because it takes time to prepare. You should try it only when you’re not in a hurry. We hope this recipe is the first of many pages that preserve Dona Graças’s culinary artistry.

Rested Orange Pudding

Pudding ingredients

7 eggs

300 grams of sugar

250 ml of freshly squeezed orange juice

Port-wine caramel

150 grams of sugar

50 ml of port wine

Mix the pudding ingredients at night and let the mixture rest. Cook the pudding in the morning.

To prepare the mixture, combine the eggs and sugar in a mixer. Three seconds after you start the mixer at medium speed, slowly pour the orange juice into the mixture. Once all the juice has been added, keep the mixer on for an extra 30 seconds or so, until you see foam made from small bubbles. Stop the mixer and use a wooden spoon to the pudding ingredients with a movement from top to bottom until you no longer feel any sugar at the bottom of the bowl.

Once the mixture has rested, make the port-wine caramel and use it to coat the pudding mold. Pour the mixture into the mold and place the mold inside a pan filled with two fingers of water surrounding the pan. Cook on the stove on a small burner at medium heat for 40 minutes. Take it out of the mold and let it cool. Enjoy!

Toca da Raposa is located at Rua da Praça in Ervedosa do Douro, tel. 254 423 466.

The Vintage House

We can take the winding road that leads to the elegant bridge designed by Gustav Eiffel. Or ride the old train that stops at the local station, decorated with bright blue tiles. Our preference is to arrive by boat, carried gently by the river. But no matter how we get to Pinhão, a quaint town at the center of the Douro valley, we always feel like staying.

The perfect place to stay is a sprawling yellow edifice on the bank of the river. It was once a warehouse that stored the precious brandies used to produce port wine. In 1997, the building was converted into the Vintage House hotel. 

What makes the Vintage House unique are the generous views of the Douro. We can wake up, open the window and sense the mood of the river. Everyday is different. Sometimes, the Douro dresses in festive blues and greens. Other times, it chooses yellows and browns, to give the small tributary that named the town (the Pinhão river) a chance to shine.

The roads of the Douro valley are narrow, forcing us to drive slowly and admire the glorious landscape. There is so much to see that we crisscross the valley many times. At the end of the day, we are always tired. And we love falling asleep in the Vintage House, knowing that in the morning the river will be there to greet the start of another memorable day in the Douro valley.

The Vintage house is located at Rua António Manuel Saraiva, 5085-034, Pinhão, Douro, Portugal. Click here for the hotel’s website.

Quinta de Ventozelo

There is a new jewel in the Douro valley called Quinta de Ventozelo. The setting is not new, the estate has produced wine since the beginning of the 16th century. But there are 29 new gems–luxurious rooms with magnificent vistas located in various houses throughout the quinta. Some houses have old roofs built with the same schist used to brace the terraces that hold the vines. Others are built out of giant balloons that once stored 80,000 liters of port wine. 

The sprawling estate is the perfect place to create wonderful memories. Of the rolling hills descending towards the river to bade in its green waters. Of the breeze caressing the silvery leaves of the olive trees. Of the restful silence punctuated only by the sounds of nature. Of the joy of sitting outdoors at sunset savoring a glass of wine in the company of friends. 

You can drive to the quinta, but it is much more spectacular to take the boat from Pinhão and arrive at the dock by the river. Arriving is the easy part. Leaving is hard to do. 

Quinta de Ventozelo is located in Ervedosa do Douro, S. João da Pesqueira. Click here for the quinta’s website.

The Douro historical train

Our journey begins with the clatter of a steam engine pulling five rickety wooden carriages into the Régua train station. Trains like this one have trod on the steel tracks that connect Régua to Pinhão since 1879. In 1883, the line was extended all the way to Foz do Tua.

Once all passengers get on board, the chimney blows a cloud of black smoke and we see Régua recede in the distance. The train moves slowly and yet there is not enough time to take in all that there is to admire, from the myriad colors of the river to the wondrous vine terraces sculpted into the mountain sides. 

A group of folk musicians walks through the carriages singing traditional tunes accompanied by accordion, triangle, “cavaquinho” (a small stringed instrument), and a drum made out of goat skin and wood. The musicians’ faces are weathered by a lifetime of work in the fields. But they sing with joy the tunes that lift the spirits of the laborers during the harvest. 

We arrive at the Tua station and the train stops for a well-deserved rest. As our journey resumes, we marvel at the feat of 19th-century engineering that allows the train to go back without turning around. The locomotive’s engine simply goes into reverse, pushing the carriages towards Régua. We travel on the same tracks as before, but the landscape looks different. The light has changed and the blues and greens are now mixed with yellows and oranges. 

The train crew serves us a glass of port wine and some traditional candy. We stop at the picturesque Pinhão train station to admire the 1937 tile panels that depict in blue hues the inimitable colors of the Douro landscape. Then, it is time to return to Régua. The locomotive screeches and puffs as it reaches the place where our journey ends.

It is a privilege to travel in this relic of the industrial revolution that saw the world change and the beauty of the Douro endure. 

Click here for more information about the Douro Historical Train. You can buy tickets online. The best seats are on the right side of the train since you can see the Douro valley from your window both on the way to Tua and on the return.

The wines of Wine & Soul

Quinta da Manoella

We spent a bright Winter morning with Jorge Serôdio Borges in Vale de Mendiz. He met us at Wine & Soul, the winery where, together with his wife Sandra Tavares da Silva, he is making some of the Douro’s most iconic wines. Jorge showed us the granite tanks where the hand-picked grapes are treaded by foot, just like in the old days. Then he asked with boyish excitement “Would you like to see the vines?” Of course we did.

He drove us through the winding road that leads to the old vineyard that produces the grapes for the famous Pintas. The vines are planted on a steep incline. We wondered why these grapes are so special–is it the constant vertigo sensation they probably feel? Jorge explained that the high altitude and the cool nights help balance the intense sun exposure to produce grapes that are consistently great. Before we left, he showed us how the ground between the vines is planted with cloves that help retain the nitrogen in the soil.

Next, we went to Quinta da Manoella. Jorge seems to know every tree and every creek. He talked about the numerous fruit trees they planted, the mushrooms that grow in the forest, and the olive groves that make tangy olive oil. In his view, biodiversity is key for the sustainability of the region and the quality of the wines. Finally, he showed us the cellars which are full of old oak barrels beautifully restored, ready to receive precious vintage ports.

Visiting the two Wine & Soul estates gave us a new appreciation for the wines they produce. It is amazing how much knowledge, work and passion it takes to produce great wine.

Click here for information about how to visit Wine & Soul.

Breakfast at Six Senses in the Douro valley

Sixsenses Breackfast

Breakfasts come in many different forms. Some are quick, others leisurely. Some are frugal, others abundant. But most are quickly forgotten. A breakfast at Six Senses in the Douro valley is different because it lingers in our memory as a moment of relaxation and gastronomic pleasure.

The breakfast is served in an expansive room with a granite floor. In the back, a rectangular window frames the views of the Douro valley. There’s a large wooden table set with all sorts of culinary delights, from fruits, seeds and nuts, to milks, yogurts, juices, kombuchas, kefirs, jams, and compotes. Behind it, another table offers a dazzling array of breads and pastries. In the back, there’s an open kitchen where chefs prepare made-to-order dishes, from omelets to waffles. Many herbs, fruits and vegetables come from the hotel’s garden to the table. This freshness is integral to the quality of the food that is served.

Next to the dining room, there’s a place with cheeses and charcuteries. You can travel from the north to the south of Portugal through the taste of these products.

The meal is orchestrated with great care, from the seamless service to the skill with which the ingredients are curated and prepared. The result is an unforgettable breakfast.

Six Senses Douro Valley is located at Quinta de Vale de Abraão, Samodães, Lamego, tel. 254-660-600. Click here for the hotel’s website. 

The yellow house farm

Quinta da casa Amarela

We called Laura Regueiro, the owner of Quinta da Casa Amarela (the yellow house farm), to apologize for being a little late. It is easy to misjudge travel times in the Douro valley. Distances are short but the narrow, winding roads make us slow down and admire the landscape. “You don’t need to rush,” Laura said gracefully, “take your time to enjoy the beautiful drive.”

As soon as we arrived, she came to greet us with her husband, Gil. They taught history in Oporto for almost three decades. Every Saturday, they packed their bags and their children, Gil junior and Sónia, to drive to Quinta da Casa Amarela for the weekend. In 1979, the couple moved to the Douro valley to focus on producing wine.

The quinta, located in Vale de Cambres, belongs to the Regueiro family since 1875. It was from Vale the Cambres that the first Douro wines were exported to England in the 16th century. Initially, the wine was called “vinho de embarque” (shipping wine), later it was renamed port wine.

“Port is the supreme expression of the Douro valley,” Laura explains. “My grandfather used to say that port wine is so perfect that we should kneel before drinking it to show our reverence.”

“In 2000, our son convinced us to produce table wines; or “tranquil wines” as the Douro people sometimes call them,” said Laura. We tried a wonderful rosé with impeccable acidity and a sublime reserve white with tropical fruit aromas, great freshness and persistence in the palate. The wine labels are decorated with ladybugs. Laura loves these colorful insects because they help control the pests that plague the vineyards. This control is particularly important because some of the vines are about 80-years old. They produce extraordinary grapes that lend complexity and character to the wines.

The production process, managed by Jean-Hugues Gros, a French enologist who moved to the Douro valley, relies on traditional methods. The grapes are still treaded by foot to the sound of an accordion, just like in the old days. But the wines are modern, interesting and elegant. The reserve red wine is a great examplar of the quinta’s style.

Laura loves gathering friends around the dinner table. Her duck rice is legendary. “Food and wine stimulate great conversations,” she says. When Paulo Rodrigues from Quinta do Regueiro came for lunch, he brought some bottles of his green wine made with Alvarinho grapes. During lunch, Laura mixed the Alvarinho with her white wine. The results were so interesting that they created a wine called II Terroir that combines grapes from their two quintas. Laura is also collaborating with a maverick wine maker from Alentejo called Paulo Laureano. Their PL/LR wine marries grapes from the plains of Alentejo and the Douro mountains.

We stayed until late talking to Laura and Gil as if we had known them forever. Happily married for 50 years, they are preparing the 6th generation to continue the work that began in 1875: to turn some of the best grapes in the Douro valley into wines that are perfect to gather friends around the dinner table.

Quinta da Casa Amarela is located at Riobom in Lamego, tel. 254-666-200, email quinta@quinta-casa-amarela.com. Click here for their website.

 

 

A superb vermouth

Soberbo Vermouth

The Summer winds brought a wonderful gift, a vermouth called Soberbo, the Portuguese word for superb. It is made with white port by Poças, a centenarian port-wine house, according to an updated version of a 1930s recipe.

The sweetness of the white port balances the bitterness of the aromatic herbs to create an harmonious vermouth. Enjoying a glass of this nectar is the perfect way to prepare our palates for an elegant dinner.

Click here for the Poças web site.

Provesende, a fairy tale village

ProvesendeIn the first half of the 18th century the production of port wine was in dire straits. Inferior wines were often mixed with sugar, spices and elderberry juice to be sold off as port wine. In 1756, the Marquis of Pombal, the autocratic prime minister of King Dom José, created the Royal Company to regulate the production of port wine in order to protect its authenticity.

Pombal sent officials to define the boundaries of the Douro region and classify all its vineyards, creating one of the world’s oldest demarcated wine regions. Vineyards classified as “vinho de ramo” could only produce wine for domestic consumption. Vineyards classified as “vinho de feitoria” could export their wine. These classifications had an enormous impact on property values.

The officials charged with classifying the vineyards and regulating the port-wine trade settled in a small village called Provesende. Over the following decades, the village experienced a construction boom. Large land owners built imposing manor houses so they could spend time in Provesende and rub shoulders with government officials.

The memories of the parties hosted in these mansions have faded in time. What we have left is a charming village that belongs in a fairy tale.