A widow from Colares and her extraordinary wines

Viuva Gomes Composit

About 25 years ago, we hosted a friend who’s a great wine connoisseur for a couple of weeks in Lisbon. He tried Portuguese wines from different regions and always had something nice to say. But we noticed that his enthusiasm for these wines paled in comparison to his passion for the French wines that filled his cellar.

Towards the end of his stay, we had dinner at a small restaurant that had a rare wine on its list. “This wine is amazing!” exclaimed our friend after taking a sip. “How many more bottles do you have?,” he asked the waiter. “Two,” the waiter replied. “That is perfect. I am spending two more nights in Lisbon. Can we make dinner reservations for both nights and also reserve the two bottles?”

The wine that so impressed our oenophile friend was a 1969 Viúva Gomes. Its origin goes back to 1808, the year when José Gomes da Silva built a cellar in the village of Almoçageme to produce wines in Colares, near Sintra.

The tiny Colares region is home to two unique grape varietals: the white Malvasia and the red Ramisco. These grapes survived the onset of phylloxera in the 19th century because they are planted on clay soils covered with sand that protected the roots from the deadly bug.

After Gomes da Silva died, his widow and sons continued to produce wine which they sold under the label Viúva Gomes (viúva is the Portuguese word for widow). Their company was sold in 1920 and resold in 1931. By 1988, it was once again up for sale. It was then that José Baeta seized the opportunity to buy the vineyards, the cellar and a treasure trove of vintages going back to beginning of the 20th century.

We knocked on the door of the 1808 cellar and soon José Baeta came to greet us. Visiting this building full of old bottles and ancient wine barrels made from precious woods is a voyage into the 19th century.

José spoke with great passion about the unique character of the Viúva Gomes wines. We sampled a wonderful 2016 white Malvasia that is exuberant, with hints of salt from the Atlantic Ocean. We then tried a red Ramisco from 2009. It is an alluring, intense wine with notes of dried cherries. While most wines pale in the presence of food with bold flavors, the Viúva Gomes Ramisco holds its own and helps the meal sparkle.

Only 2,000 bottles of white and 4,000 bottles of red are produced every year. “I always run out of wine to sell before the year ends,” says José Baeta. With the help of his son Diogo, José is trying to expand his production, finding the right soils to plant more vines.

Drinking a bottle of Viúva Gomes is an extraordinary experience. These are nectars  made from the rarest vines, caressed by the Atlantic winds and guarded by millions of grains of sands.

The cellar of Viúva Gomes is located at Largo Comendador Gomes da Silva, 2 Almoçageme, Colares, tel. 219 290 903 and 967 248 345, email  info@adegaviuvagomes.com . Click here for the Viúva Gomes website.

 

 

A convent carved in rock

Composit Capuchos

The most poignant monument in Sintra is not a palace or a castle. It is the Convent of the Capuchos, also known as the Convent of the Holly Cross. Founded in 1560, it is a place where monks lived a life of frugality and contemplation.

Long before architects designed buildings in harmony with their surroundings, this convent was built to blend into the landscape of the Sintra mountain. Made primarily out of rock, its interior is lined with cork to offer some protection against the cold and dampness of Winter.

In 1581, when Portugal was under Spanish domination, king Philip of Spain and Portugal visited the Sintra convent and declared: “In all my kingdoms there are two places that I highly prize, the Monastery of Escorial for being so rich and the Convent of the Holly Cross for being so poor.”

We wonder how the monks experienced the passage of time. Did time pass slowly in tiny droplets of interminable minutes? Did their minds transcend the discomfort of the body to find richness in the life of the spirit?

The bells of Mafra

RBD_Mafra_dezembro
The Mafra Convent, Rui Barreiros Duarte, ink on paper, December 2016.

In 1711, king Dom João V vowed that if he was blessed with a son, he would construct a convent in Mafra. When a son was born in 1714, Dom João V spared no expense to fulfil his promise. By one count, the building has 880 rooms and 4,500 doors and windows. The convent includes a magnificent palace for the royal family and a basilica made of the purest marble, with intricate altars lavishly decorated with gold leaf.

To top it all, the king commissioned a 200-ton carillon. According to legend, when the craftsmen quoted the price of the carillon, they remarked that the cost seemed too dear for a small country like Portugal. Offended, the king replied: “I didn’t realize the bells were so cheap! I would like two sets.”   And so, two sets were made. Nicholas Levach made 57 bells for the North tower in Liége.  Willem Witlockx made 49 bells for the South tower in Antwerp.

The convent has many other bells: liturgical bells used in religious ceremonies, lecture bells that signaled the beginning and end of study periods, agony bells that rang when a monk was dying, refectory bells that reminded monks of their meal times, and the codfish bell that sounded in days when people should abstain from eating meat.

The carillon and some of the other bells were used to mark the passage of time with minuets and other compositions. In a world where musical sounds were rare, the bells of Mafra filled the village with harmony and grace.

Finding happiness in Sintra

Market products

There’s a farmer’s market in São Pedro de Sintra since the 12th century. Nowadays it runs every second and fourth Sundays of each month. It is a great place to buy local fruits and vegetables, artisanal sausages, olives and cheese. Wood-fired ovens bake chouriço bread, filing the air with appetizing aromas.

We saw a farmer selling a small capsicum frutescens tree loaded with little red peppers.  Five centuries ago, Portuguese navigators brought this plant from South America to Africa, where the Bantu people called its fiery pepper “piri piri.” From Africa, the Portuguese took the plant to India where it changed the course of Indian cuisine.

How could we resist bringing home this symbol of the first age of globalization? “Trim the tree in March and you’ll have piri piri peppers between August to January,” advised the genial farmer. We got into the car feeling ecstatic at this unexpected find. Who knew that happiness is a piri piri tree?

The São Pedro market is located on Largo D. Fernando II, São Pedro de Sintra.

Sweet gratitude

Casa do Gato Preto

The recipe for Sintra’s queijadas was created in the 13th century by friar João da Anunciação at the Penha Longa convent. We know that the voluptuously thin crust is made with flour, lard, water, and salt. And that the indulgent filling has requeijão (a ricotta-style cheese), egg yolks, and two ingredients added in the 15th century: sugar and cinnamon. Each pastry store in Sintra has its own secret version of the recipe.

What are the best queijadas in Sintra? We’ve been pondering on this question for years, but the answer still eludes us. When we try the queijadas at Piriquita, we think nothing can be better. But then we taste the queijadas from Pastelaria Gregório and we fall in love with the crispness of the shell and the sweetness of the filling. Lately, we went to Casa do Preto and were astonished by the harmonious marriage of filling and shell.

One thing we know: these queijadas lift our minds above everyday concerns and fill our souls with sweet satisfaction. Thank you friar João!

Casa do Preto is located at Estr. Chão de Meninos 40, in Sintra, tel. 21 923 0436.

 

Óbidos becomes a literary village

Óbidos Bookstores-Edit

It’s not like Óbidos needs any more attractions. This beautiful medieval town is a must-see destination in Portugal. Inside its castle walls live the echoes of an age of chivalry that is long gone.

Now that books are disappearing, their cellular fibers replaced by electric impulses, Óbidos has created unique bookstores in ancient spaces.

One of our favorites is Livraria do Mercado (the market bookstore). It occupies the wine cellar of an old manor house and doubles as an organic market. Here, the fruits of the land share the space with the fruits of the imagination, everything stored inside one thousand rustic wooden boxes.

Another favorite is Livraria Santiago which occupies a 12th century church. It is a peaceful place where books wait in silence for the readers who seek their blessings.

These bookstores transformed Óbidos into a literary village, a place where the thick castle walls protect the precious art of reading.

Click here to see the list of Óbidos bookstores.

 

Perfection at Adraga

Composit Adraga.JPG

When we were very young, our parents used to take us to an idyllic beach with crystal blue waters and natural rock archways sculpted by the sea. In the end of the afternoon, we often had dinner in a small restaurant right on the beach.  It was simple fare: “percebes” (gooseneck barnacles), grilled fish, and salad. But the flavor and aromas were amazing and so was the spectacle of the sun setting on the ocean. We forgot the name of the beach and that is just as well, for places change and fail to live up to our memories of them.

During a visit to Sintra this summer, we decided to have lunch in the nearby Adraga beach. As soon as we arrived, we realized that this was the beach from our childhood!  There were little kids playing in the same rock archways we once loved and bathing in the same blue waters we so much enjoyed.

We sat at the beachside restaurant and ordered “percebes,” grilled fish, and salad. We kept our expectations low. Surely, the food has changed. Then the seafood and fish arrived, fresh, full of flavor, meticulously prepared. It was as if we were going back in time, to a simplicity and authenticity that are so rare today.

We complimented Jorge Pimenta and his mother Suzette, the restaurant owners, on the quality of their food. They responded with modesty: “Everything we do is simple but we try to do it well.  The percebes were caught this morning right on the beach. The fish is very fresh. All we do is respect the ingredients that the sea brings to us.”

The reasonably-priced wine list has many great choices. But in a restaurant where everything is local, it makes sense to drink the magical wine produced nearby in Casal de Santa Maria by a Russian Baron who is 103 years old.

The same family has owned the Restaurante da Adraga for four generations. In the beginning of the 20th century, queen Dona Amélia used to come here to eat fish while the king hunted in the Sintra mountain. One century later, the Adraga restaurant continues to delight anyone who loves great food, whether or not they have royal blood.

Restaurante da Adraga is located at Praia da Adraga, 143, Sintra, tel. 219280028. Reservations are a must. Ask for a table near the windows facing the beach for a spectacular view.