The resplendent tranquility of the Mafra library

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Standing at the entrance of the library of the Mafra palace, it is easy to believe that the world is orderly. In the pristine silence of this space designed by architect Manuel Caetano de Sousa, we have everything we need to understand the world of the 18th century. There are science and mathematics books in the shelves near the entrance, so we can learn the laws of the physical world. Further ahead, there are bookshelves with travel diaries that tell us about lands near and far. Dictionaries and grammars teach us the rhythms and intonations of foreign languages. If we use them to master Greek and Latin, we can enjoy the classics of antiquity, tales of love and war, stories about gods and humans. Walking the 88 meters of marble floors that take us to the end of the library, we reach the shelfs devoted to the mysteries of the soul.

The palace of Mafra and its library were built with the riches from Brazil. But the money ran out and the gold decorations that had been planned for the library were never executed. It is just as well, because the white Nordic-pine shelves give this library an elegant simplicity that looks modern.

It was here that José Saramago, a Nobel laureate, found inspiration for his famous novel about the construction of the Mafra Palace as seen through the eyes of two young lovers, Baltasar and Blimunda.

If you’re traveling in Portugal, don’t miss the chance to experience the resplendent tranquility of the Mafra library. And don’t forget to take a notebook, in case the muses that inspired Saramago whisper in your ear.

Stone soup at Quinta do Arneiro

Quinta do Arneiro Composit (cropped)

Once upon a time, there was a poor friar was too shy to ask for food. Famished, he knocked on the door of a farm house and solicited a pot and some water to cook a stone soup. The farmer and his wife were intrigued by this request. The friar took a stone from his bag, placed it in the pot and put the pot on the fireplace.

“How is the soup?” the farmer asked. “Delicious,” answered the friar “and when you put some lard, it tastes even better.” The farmer gave the friar a piece of lard. The friar tasted the boiling broth and said “this stone makes an excellent soup, especially when it is seasoned with a little salt.” The farmer’s wife promptly offered the friar some salt. The farmer commented that it was starting to smell good. “If I added some leftover beans, cabbage, and potatoes, the aroma would be divine.” Curious, the farmer gave the friar the vegetables he mentioned. “Is it ready?” the farmer ’s wife asked. “Almost done, if we added some slices of sausage, even the angels would eat it.” The farmer’s wife gave the friar a sausage. He sliced it into the broth and a few minutes later declared the soup ready. He shared it with his hosts who agreed that the stone had produced a remarkable  soup.

Every year on December 8, Quinta do Arneiro, a biological farm near Lisbon, uses its pristine vegetables and sausages to cook a monumental stone soup. The meal starts with hot country bread baked in a wood-fired oven accompanied by plates of freshly made hummus, olive oil and garlic. Then, the hearty soup is served with mulled wine. A delicious dessert composed of oranges, pomegranate, pumpkin jam, and roasted sweet potatoes brings the meal to a satisfying end.

Luisa Almeida, the owner of Quinta do Arneiro inherited the farm from her father. When Luisa was a teenager, she wanted nothing to do with agriculture, But, Luisa went to live on the farm after she married and it was there that her children were born and raised. In 2007, worried about the detrimental health effects of the chemicals used in conventional agriculture, Luisa ventured into organic farming. “It is arduous work but every day we treat nature with the respect it deserves,” she says proudly. The quinta delivers regular baskets of organic produce to lucky subscribers and opens its restaurant  for lunch from Wednesday to Sunday. A meal at the restaurant is a unique opportunity to eat nutritious, delicious seasonal products, freshly picked and cooked with love.

We greatly enjoyed our meal outdoors warmed by the bright sun that joined the feast. And the soup?  Even the angels would eat it!

Quinta do Arneiro is located in Azueira, Mafra. Click here for the farm’s website. To have lunch at the restaurant, email restaurantedaquinta@quintadoarneiro.com  or call 918740906 for reservations.

A glass of Jampal wine?

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André Manz, a Brazilian soccer player turned entrepreneur, was searching for a place to build offices on the outskirts of Lisbon. He liked a small village near Mafra called Cheleiros. There, he bought the Orchard of the Holy Spirit (Pomar do Espírito Santo), named for its proximity to the Holy Spirit chapel. His wife Margarida fell in love with the orchard and convinced André to use it to build their home and locate the offices elsewhere.

When they moved to Cheleiros, an elderly lady called Dona Celeste told André that in the old days everybody in the village made their own wine. There were 43 wine presses in a village with only 800 people. André said that it would be cool to produce wine and Dona Celeste seized the opportunity to sell him her abandoned vineyard.

When enologists came to study the old vines, they concluded that the red grapes were “castelão” but they couldn’t identify the white grapes. André told Dona Celeste about their difficulties and she replied “Young people don’t know anything! Those grapes are jampal.” This is a grape varietal that was considered extinct. It produces small grapes so, in years gone by when quantity trumped quality, farmers replaced it with higher-yielding varietals. The wine institute sent technicians to certify that the grapes are indeed jampal and André became the world’s sole producer of jampal wine.

In the first few years, André bottled the wine in plain bottles. He gave a few to his friends and consumed the rest in his household. On the occasion of an important lunch, André decided to put some labels on the wine. He called it Dona Fátima, the name of his mother in law. When the bottles arrived at the table, Dona Fátima was delighted. “Why did you name the wine after me?” she asked André with curiosity. “Because of its acidity,” quipped André.

When Julia Harding and Jancis Robinson were working on their book, The World of Grapes, they contacted André to see if they could get a bottle of jampal wine. They liked it so much that they included it in their selection of the 50 best Portuguese wines.

Since then, it has become very hard to buy one of the 6,000 bottles of Dona Fátima produced every year.  If you see one in a wine store make sure you get it. If not, drive to the village of Cheleiros, to try one of the world’s most unique wines.

Click here for Manzwine’s web site.

 

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

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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.