Santa Clara 1728

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When João Rodrigues opened the doors of Santa Clara to greet us, the sun rushed in, eager to revisit this 1728 building that laid in ruins until two years ago.

João lives a double life. He manages Silent Living, an expanding group of exquisite hotels, while flying around the world as an airline pilot. We expected a short conversation, but instead we spent a leisurely afternoon getting to know him and his project.

This act of making time for his guests tells you why João’s hotels are so unique. “When people stay with us, we receive them as friends. If I could afford it, I wouldn’t charge for the rooms,” João explains in his soft voice. “We ask guests to pay in advance, so we do not have to collect money during their stay. That is also why everything is included, our breakfast, the drinks in the mini bar, all the amenities. Prices are constant throughout the year because our goal is not to generate high returns but to find a sustainable way of offering an extraordinary experience.” João pauses and then he reveals that “We like to surprise guests by picking them up from the airport in a vintage Rolls Royce. It is a gesture that sets the tone for their stay at Santa Clara, a way to tell them they will be cared for.”

We ask João how he finds time to do everything, renovate an historical building, create a team to run the hotel and operate Ceia, a high-end restaurant. He shrugs his shoulders and smiles with the equanimity of someone who often sees the world from above the clouds.

The hotel was designed by architect Aires Mateus, who is João’s habitual collaborator. The interiors are decorated with wood and stone, the same materials used to erect the nearby Pantheon. The colors used in the rooms seem to come from old black and white photographs. These monochromatic hues provide the ideal framing for the glorious views—the contrast of the blue river with the orange roofs punctuated by the white marble of the Pantheon.

A stay at Santa Clara offers the rarest of gifts: ease, simplicity and serenity. It took someone who constantly travels to create a place that is so hard to leave.

Santa Clara 1728 is located at Campo de Santa Clara, 128 in Lisbon, tel. 964 362 816, email booking@silentliving.pt. Click here for the hotel website.

 

Dona Antónia’s great grandson

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João Brito e Cunha is the great grandson of the legendary Dona Antónia Ferreira, the woman who shaped the future of wine production in the Douro valley.  Born in 1811 to a family of rich wine makers, Dona Antónia seemed destined to enjoy a life of leisure. Instead, she had to contend with two plagues that decimated European vineyards, the oidium in 1850 and the phylloxera in 1870. Dona Antónia rose to the occasion, making shrewd choices and taking calculated risks. She made great wine and amassed a large fortune. When she died in 1896, she owned 24 wine estates and huge wine cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia.

João’s grandfather was a taster for the renowned Real Company Velha. His father managed the famous Quinta do Vesuvio, which in Dona Antónia’s time produced some of the most expensive wines in the Douro valley.

We tell you this family history so that you know that João Brito e Cunha had no choice, the love of wine runs in his blood. He studied enology, first in Vila Real’s UTAD and then in Australia. He interned in Champagne and in many other wine regions. When he felt ready, he bought Quinta Dom José from his father and moved to the estate with his wife Sofia and their kids.

We arrived at Quinta Dom José late in the afternoon, just as the sun was getting tired of making the brilliant light that shines on the Douro valley. João is very intense and his energy is contagious. He wanted to show us everything, the vines, the cellars, the different viewpoints. As soon as we got into his jeep, he accelerated up the steep, treacherous road leaving being a colorful dust cloud.

We stopped on a hill top with breathtaking views of the Douro river. João wants us to understand that in a region where beauty abounds, this quinta is like no other. He shows us with pride the schist soil that preserves humidity during the scorching Summers and the vine roots that dig deep in search of water.

João drove us up to the tasting room to try his wines. The Flor de São José white Reserva is an aristocratic wine that enchants the palate with its refined elegance. The Touriga Nacional Reserva is an indulgent red, with a full body and an understated intensity. The Grande Reserva is a profound wine, full of wisdom, finesse and subtlety. The 3,400 bottles produced last year quickly sold out.

We stayed in the terrace outside the tasting room talking to João for hours. It was a warm night with a sky full of stars.  A choir of crickets sang in the background. João told us about his vines, his wines and his dreams.

Dona Antónia regretted every moment she spent away from the Douro. João feels the same way–he inherited his great grandmother’s passion for the Douro valley. And like her, João is destined to make great wine.

Quinta de São José is located on Ervedosa do Douro, tel. 93 4041413. Click here for their website. 

The sea tavern

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A dinner at A Taberna do Mar (the sea tavern) is a culinary plunge into the waters of Sesimbra, Trafaria and Costa da Caparica. These are the beaches near Lisbon where chef Filipe Rodrigues sources his fish.

Filipe was born in the Algarve. His grandparents were cannery workers who taught him some of the secrets of the sea. He discovered other secrets on his own, through years of hard work. After creating the menu for several popular restaurants, Filipe decided to open his own place. It is a cozy tavern with ancient stone walls and a quaint tile floor.

You can order a la carte or choose a menu prepared by the chef. Feeling adventurous, we went for the menu. The feast began with a warm tortilla decorated with cuttlefish ink topped with a cream of lupini beans, mint, and sea fennel, a plant that grows on sandy dunes. Then, we enjoyed a carob bun stuffed with dried horse mackerel accompanied by a miso mayonnaise. It came with a dumpling stuffed with tender veal tongue, seaweed and mushrooms. It was moist and delicious. We went back to the sea with a plate of sarrejão sashimi. Sarrejão is a fish from the bonito family that shines brightly when it is very fresh.

We were still savoring this delight when Filipe brought us his version of muxama. This prosciutto of the sea, made by salting and drying the best parts of the tuna, has been produced in the Algarve since Roman times. Filipe marinated the tuna in a mixture of soy and moscatel wine before he dried it. The muxama came with an exuberant combination of pumpkin pickle, sushi rice and a large shrimp from Algarve called “carabineiro.”

An appetizing bread seasoned with sardine sauce and a tasty mackerel soup came next. They were followed by xerem, an Algarve version of polenta, with berbigão and seaweed. Then the air filled with the aroma of grilled sardines that came from a tray where the sardine nigiri was being prepared. Our taste buds jumped for joy while the sardine melted in our mouth.

Filipe asked us whether we would like to repeat any of the items from the menu. We answered in unison:  yes, we would love some more sardine nigiri!

The meal ended with three desserts: a carob mousse served with tangerine sorbet, a bread pudding and a crème brulée where the milk was replaced with a berry puree.

A Taberna do Mar is a place where East meets West, where Japanese cooking techniques are used to recreate Portuguese flavors with delicious results.

Taberna do Mar is located at Calçada da Graça 20 B, in Lisbon, tel. 21 093 9360.

 

100 years of great ports

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Making great port requires exceptional grapes and a deep knowledge of the production process. But most of all, it requires time, lots of time. Time for the nectars to lose the brashness of youth and mellow with age. That is why we cannot produce port wine by ourselves. We need our children and grandchildren to help. And if our great grandchildren can also lend a hand, even better.

The British port-wine families guarantee their longevity by leaving the business to a single son or daughter and compensating their siblings with cash. In contrast, Portuguese families generally sell their estates to divide the proceeds among the heirs. There is why there are almost no major Portuguese port houses left. The one remarkable exception is Poças, a company that celebrated 100 years in August 2018.

In 1918, Manoel Poças Júnior started buying brandy to supply port-wine producers. He was at times paid with barrels of port, so gradually he also became a port-wine merchant. In 1932, one of Manoel’s brandy clients paid a large debt with a wine estate called Quinta das Quartas. Manuel loved the estate which has granite tanks dating back to 1873.  Every week, he made the arduous trip from Oporto to Quinta das Quartas to visit the vineyards.

This passion is shared by his great granddaughter, Maria Manuela Maia, the viticulturist in charge of Quinta das Quartas and of the other two estates acquired by the family, Quinta de Santa Bárbara and Quinta de Vale de Cavalos. Even though today it is much easier to drive from Oporto to the Douro, Maria moved to the Douro valley to be closer to the vineyards.

We met with Maria in Vila Nova de Gaia, at the cellars where barrels full of precious nectars produced by past generations are stored. She shared with us some superb ports: a Vintage from 1997, a Reserva from 2014, and a Vale dos Cavalos from 2015. Our tasting ended with fireworks provided by a remarkable 1967 Tawny, full of freshness and acidity. We filled our glasses with this liquid treasure and made two toasts: to Manoel Poças for the successes of the past and to Maria for the successes of the future.

Click here for the Poças web site. To visit the Poças cellars email visitors@pocas.pt or call 223 203 257.

 

 

 

An unforgettable supper at Ceia

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If food was just fuel for the body, how come there are meals that linger in our memory as incandescent moments? One of these moments was a lunch amid the vineyards of Herdade do Esporão prepared by a young chef called Pedro Pena Bastos. Another such moment was a recent dinner at a new Lisbon restaurant called Ceia, the Portuguese word for supper. The setting was different but the chef was the same.

We were received in the spacious courtyard outside the Ceia dining room by sommelier Mário Marques. He offered us a choice of two welcome drinks: cherry kombucha or a natural sparkling wine from Quinta da Serradinha. The drinks came with plates of beet beignets served with smoked codfish eggs. Like everything else in this enchanted evening, these choices seemed unusual until we tried them and perfect once we tried them.

Mário invited us into the serene dining room where a long wooden table awaited 14 lucky guests. Pedro welcomed us with three tantalizing bites: Jerusalem artichokes, French toast with seaweed and cockles, and venison from Alentejo served with fermented walnuts and black olives. They were followed by a precious taco made with rose prawns from Algarve, beetroot pearls and yuzu.

A Japanese-inspired tomato broth with mackerel and broccoli showcased Pedro’s ability to create unusual combinations that work perfectly. Then, a large oyster shell from Alvor was placed on the table surrounded by bowls with sweet oysters, fermented asparagus and lima caviar. We were still savoring this intense taste from the sea when flavors from the woods arrived: grilled Hokkaido pumpkin, mushrooms, and a beurre blanc made with Indian cress.

The service progressed with the pace of a sacred ritual that has been perfected throughout the ages. Alexandre Coelho, our amiable server, invited us to visit the adjacent room where chefs place final touches on their next offerings. It is fascinating to observe the choreographed precision that produces such refined food.

Each guest received a bowl of pasta, only it was not pasta—it was the freshest squid, delicately cooked, cut like tagliatelle and served with a sauce made with bergamot zest, hazelnuts and pickled onions. The flavors of the sea continued with a line-caught robalo (sea bass) dressed with chanterelle mushrooms, marjoram and fennel cooked in parsley oil.

A beautiful loaf of sourdough bread smoked with tomato and thyme created an intermission that separated the fish from the meat courses. It came with aged butter seasoned with salt from Castro Marim and a bright-green, spicy olive oil from Pedro’s family estate.

These rustic flavors prepared out palates for the next dish, a rectangular prism of slow-cooked bísaro pork jowl that melted in our mouths. The other meat course was a cylinder of beef from Simental cows, grilled on charcoal and adorned by collard greens and buckwheat.

Next, came a plate of lovage with compote, ganache and sorbet made from a huge Buddha’s hand lemon cultivated in Alentejo. The pungent citrus notes readied our palates for a trio of desserts made with enoki mushrooms, cocoa and quince.

Coffee, brewed in a double-globe glass coffee maker, was served with gum made from dehydrated beets and coriander, raspberry bonbons, and spicy cookies coated with a cream of turmeric and sweet potatoes.

Throughout the meal, Pedro Pena Bastos combines tastes, aromas, textures, and temperatures with the skill of a master orchestrator. His deep understanding of the subtle qualities of different ingredients allows him to create brilliant flavors and invent bold harmonies. The result is a culinary symphony that is unforgettable.

Ceia is located at Campo de Santa Clara, 128. Lisbon. Click here for the restaurant’s website.

 

Six Senses Douro Valley

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One of the most enchanting places in the Douro region is called Vale de Abraão (the valley of Abraham). It got its name from Abraão Farah, a Jew from nearby Lamego who rented the estate from João Lourenço de Seara, a squire of the king. No one knows for sure what Abraão did. Some say he was a physician, others that he was a scientist. But he must have been a remarkable person for the people of the Douro named the valley after him.

Five centuries later, the estate belonged to a descendent of the king’s squire called Laura Leitão. At the time, the Douro was remote and isolated. But Laura and her husband fell in love with Vale de Abraão and decided to make it their home. Together, they built a house and a chapel surrounded by serene gardens, graceful fountains and woods planted with exotic trees. They brought the first electrical generator to the Douro and at night their lightbulbs shined like new stars in the sky.

In the 20th century, the estate was owned by an aristocratic family from Oporto called Serpa Pimentel who lived there until the 1980s. On the other side of the valley, in the village of Godim, lived a young girl who grew up to become a writer called Agustina Bessa-Luis. Her childhood in the valley inspired “Vale de Abraão,” one of her novels.

A fire destroyed the manor house in the 1990s and the place became a romantic ruin. But the house and the surrounding gardens have since been reborn as an extraordinary hotel called Six Senses Douro Valley. It is the perfect place to connect with nature, relax and recharge.

The quality of the service offered by the 180 people on staff matches the exuberant beauty of the location. Each guest has a “gem” who serves as a guide to all the leisure opportunities available. There is much to do, from wine tastings, to helicopter tours, from cooking classes, to radical sports. But some of the best activities are the simplest: a walk in the woods, a picnic in a cabin by the river, or a lunch by the expansive pool.

Every staff member we met is terrific. Our waitress is an engineer who traded her job as a manager to work in the tranquil environment of the hotel. She spoke with enthusiasm about the excellence of the produce from the Douro valley. The head of the wine shop talks about wines with the erudition of an enologist. We asked him a few questions and soon our table was full of glasses with interesting wines for us to sample. The young chef in charge of the restaurant produces healthy, delicious food cooked with local ingredients using techniques that combine the best of tradition and modernity.

How lucky is this valley whose beauty and serenity keeps attracting such remarkable people.

The 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. 

 

Inspired beer at Musa

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Nuno Melo and Bruno Carrilho enjoyed so much the craft beers they tried in their travels abroad that they started gathering information about the art and science of beer production. Beer is made with only four ingredientes. You can buy the first three–yeast, malts and hops–all over the world. But the fourth ingredient—high-quality water–has to be locally available. When Nuno and Bruno discovered that Lisbon’s water is perfect for beer making, they bought a warehouse in an industrial suburb called Marvila and set to work.

They hired an accomplished British engineer to design and set up their factory and located suppliers of premium yeast, malts and hops. Then, they persuaded a talented American artisanal beer maker to create some unique beer recipes. Finally, they hired a dedicated crew willing to share the toil and joy of making great beer.

Nuno and Bruno called their project Musa, the Portuguese word for muse, to acknowledge the flashes of inspiration that kept the spirit of fun and irreverence alive.  This spirit is reflected in the rock-tinted names of their brews: Red Zeppelin, Mick Lager, Twist and Stout, Saison O’Connor, Born in the IPA, and Frank Apa.

The back of the Musa warehouse houses the factory. The front is a bar with beer on tap that provides immediate customer feedback about the new beers that are launched. Some of these new beers result from collaborations with restaurants, artists and gourmet-food producers like chocolate mavens Bettina and Niccolo Corallo.

Musa uses the bar to organize Sunday lunches prepared by well-known chefs and to throw awesome parties featuring singers, bands and DJs. One of the year’s biggest events, Ouro, Incenso e Birra (Gold, Incense and Byrrh), jointly organized with fellow craft-beer makers Dois Corvos and Lince, is coming up on January 12. If you’re in Lisbon this Saturday, it will be hard to find a better party!

Musa is located at Rua do Açúcar 83, in Lisbon. Click here for their website.