Finding a culinary treasure in Viseu

The heart of Viseu, our home town, is the “four corners,” the intersection of Rua Direita (straight street) and Rua Formosa (pretty street). One of these corners was once occupied by Pastelaria Santos, a legendary pastry store. Its service was impeccable. Attentive waiters dispensed a wide variety of pastries and beverages in plates and cups made from porcelain. Coffee and tea pots, forks, spoons and knives were all made of silver. 

The pastries were culinary gold. The queen of the savories was a chicken “empada,” a small pie shaped like a crown with a crisp dough and a luscious filling. The king of the sweets was the “pastel de feijão,” a traditional convent confection made with light puff pastry filled with a delicate mixture of white beans, eggs and sugar. 

Santos’ pastry chef was called Adelino. He selected the best ingredients and was meticulous about their preparation. When Adelino became too old for the kitchen grind, he taught a young chef called António all his secrets.  When times were busy, an industrious 16-year-old waiter called João volunteered in the kitchen. He had an eye for detail and, little by little, he too learned the secrets of chef Adelino.

In 1985, Pastelaria Santos was replaced by a lottery store and the city lost a culinary fortune. Luckily, António and João were hired by a new coffee shop. It offered quicker service and less variety, but the famous chicken pies and bean pastries continued to delight the city’s gourmands. After a few years, the coffee shop was sold. The new owner demanded faster production methods and cheaper ingredients. António and João tried to adapt but, eventually, they left, disenchanted. Other pastry stores offered chicken pies and bean pastries. But these were mere imitations. The culinary treasures of Pastelaria Santos seemed forever lost.

We recently heard that a small shop called Flor da Ponte was selling pastries made according to the original Santos recipes. The store is owned by João Mendes Marques, the waiter who started working at Pastelaria Santos when he was 16. We talked to him on the phone and he invited us to his kitchen. His directions resembled the instructions of a treasure map. “Find a house that looks like a castle and then take a narrow road that seems to lead nowhere. You’ll find me at the end of the road.”

He was indeed there waiting for us with two trays of chicken pies ready to be baked. João covered the pies with a generous egg wash and tucked them in the oven. He then returned to the granite table in the middle of the kitchen to show us how to make the crown. While his fingers worked the dough, he told us about the many details that contribute to the final product, from the quality and composition of the flour to the time it takes for the dough to rest. Even the chicken filling requires an elaborate process that involves an ice bath to cool the meat right after it is cooked.

Next, João showed us how he makes the bean pastries. The puff pastry is made by hand. The sugar point needs to be exact, the consistency of the eggs and beans mixture needs to be perfect. We tried some freshly-made pastries. They are heavenly; light and full of flavor.

João peaked into the oven and announced that the chicken pies were ready. He took the trays out and let them cool a bit. As soon as we tried them, their extraordinary taste took us back to our childhood.

We thanked João for preserving these wonderful recipes. He tells us he is planning for the future. His two sons work with him and they will carry on once he retires.

And this is how, in the last few days of spring, at the end of a road that seemed to lead nowhere, we found a culinary treasure. 

Flor da Ponte is located at Travessa do Forno 13, 3510-799 Viseu, tel. 964 186 043.

The delights of Vale da Estrela

Composit Queijaria Vale da Serra

Our grandfather loved cheese from Serra da Estrela, the highest mountain in continental Portugal. He used to buy most of the cheese made by a small producer. Half of this cache he offered to friends. The other half was consumed in our house, either fresh or cured with olive oil and paprika. Every day of the year there was cheese on the table.

We were delighted when Maria João Coelho invited us to visit Queijaria Vale da Estrela, her father’s new artisanal cheese workshop in Mangualde near Viseu. The first thing we noticed when we entered the workshop were the wonderful cheese aromas, so familiar from our childhood.

Jorge Coelho, Maria João’s father, showed us around. He inherited his love for cheese from his grandfather Raul, an “affineur” who procured the best Estrela cheese to sell to gourmet stores in Lisbon.

Serra cheese is made with only three ingredients: sheep milk, thistle flower, and salt. Vale da Estrela only uses milk from Bordaleira ewes, which are indigenous to Serra da Estrela. The precious milk is collected at night and processed immediately to guarantee the best results.

All the cheese is made by hand with rhythmic gestures that transform humble ingredientes into something transcendent. The whey left over from the production process is heated to make “requeijão,” a soft, ricotta-style cheese.

“We make very good cheese but our requeijão is the best in the world,” said Jorge Coelho with pride. We first admired the cheese with its firm texture and delicate taste. Then, we tried the requeijão. As professional requeijão eaters we sampled many wonderful specimens over the years. But nothing as sublime as the requeijão from Vale da Estrela with its silky texture, depth of flavor, and exceptional freshness.

You can generally find the cheese and requeijão from Vale de Serra in supermarkets throughout the country. But when there’s a special occasion in heaven these products disappear from the shelfs because angels come in disguise to get them for the tables of paradise.

Queijaria Vale da Estrela is located in Mangualde on Estrada Nacional 16, n.º 43 São Cosmado. Click here for the queijaria’s website. 

 

 

Mesa de Lemos

Composit Quinta de Lemos

The most elegant place to dine in the Beira region is called Mesa de Lemos. Located near the village of Canas de Senhorim, the building is ensconced in the ancient granite boulders and looks like an integral part of the landscape. It was built three years ago by Celso de Lemos to showcase the wonderful wines he produces in the winery that also bears his name.

The restaurant tables overlook the surrounding vineyards, making us feel as if we are dining in the middle of the vines. There’s a fixed menu with optional, but indispensable, wine pairings. The delicious food is created by chef Diogo Rocha who was born in Canas de Senhorim. He draws inspirations from local traditional recipes to produce food that is elegant and satisfying.

Our meal started with a joyous sparkling wine called Geraldine in honor of Celso’s daughter. It has very fine bubbles and an elegant brioche aroma that combines perfectly with Diogo Rocha’s appetizers, a set of preparations reminiscent of a picnic in the countryside.

Next came Dona Santana, a complex red made from the four emblematic varietals cultivated in the Dão region: Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Jaen, and Afrocheiro. It paired perfectly with the braised bízaro pork. The last entrée was codfish adorned with an ethereal parsley foam and paired with an elegant red wine made from a single varietal, Afrocheiro.

The dessert feast started with an interesting experimental fortified wine produced by the quinta. It continued with a cherry pudding and a salty ice cream made from requeijão, a pastry filled with a sweet bean paste and a chestnut-shaped concoction made from egg yolks.

The wines of Quinta de Lemos are diamonds that sparkle anywhere. But at Mesa de Lemos they have their perfect setting.

Click here for the Mesa de Lemos web site. The restaurant is located at Quinta de Lemos, Passos de Silgueiros, near Viseu, tel 961 158 503.

Ephemeral gardens in Viseu

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Every year, the Ephemeral Gardens festival jolts Viseu, a serene city in the interior of Portugal. Sandra Oliveira organizes this grand event, inspiring a large troupe of collaborators to adorn Viseu with modern art and serenade it with contemporary music.

Shops become installation spaces, ancient churches double as music venues, old walls serve as canvases for street art. Every plaza seems to have its own DJ, every garden its own sculpture show.

Stores, bookshops, restaurants, and bars stay open until late. The flowers of the linden trees blend their fragrance with the aromas of chocolate, vanilla and popcorn. There are workshops to attend, movies to watch, performances not to miss. It is a wonderful celebration of the many ways in which the old inspires the new.

The Ephemeral Gardens (Jardins Efémeros) festival runs from July 1 to 10, 2016. All events are free. Click here to see the program. 

The great Vasco

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Vasco Fernandes worked as a painter in Viseu during the first half of the 16th century. His prodigious talent earned him the nickname Grão Vasco, the great Vasco. According to legend, he once painted a fly that looked so real that his apprentices tried to shoo it away.

It is easy to believe this story when you’re standing in front of his masterpiece, a painting called Saint Peter that is the crown jewel of Viseu’s Grão Vasco Museum. The intricate architectural elements and background scenes are influenced by the work of Italian, German and Flemish painters. But the pope’s rugged face and gentle look are Portuguese.

Who was the model for the painting?  We like to think that it was a shepherd from the Estrela mountain. That the great painter trusted the keys of heaven to someone who on earth lived a simple life.

The Grão Vasco museum is located at Adro Sé in Viseu, tel 232 422 049.

 

The coolest place in Viseu

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The coolest place in Viseu is called Carmo 81. It is an art gallery where you can have a drink, listen to live music, watch a movie, attend a workshop or simply hang out. Located on a winding street in the heart of the old city, the name of the gallery doubles as its address: Rua do Carmo, 81.

The gallery occupies a space that was for many years a farming equipment store. The thick granite walls and elegant oak beans retired from a hard life of selling irrigation equipment to pursue their dream of being surrounded by art.

Viseu is already the coolest place in Portugal during July, when the Ephemeral Gardens festival fills this ancient city with art installations, live music and modern dancing. Now, with Carmo 81, Viseu is cool all year round!

Carmo 81 is located on Rua do Carmo 81, Viseu, tel. 232 094 366. Click here to see a list of upcoming events.

Wood saints

Christmas Card 2015

The Grão Vasco museum in Viseu houses an exquisite collection of wood statues from the 18th century. The names of the sculptors who created these pieces have long been lost. What remains is the mastery with which they used their mallets and chisels to breathe life into wood.

The Grão Vasco museum is located at Adro Sé in Viseu, tel 232 422 049.

Viseu turned upside down

Mesas

Roman cities are generally organized around two perpendicular streets, the “cardo” and the “documanus.” In Viseu, an elegant city in the interior of Portugal, the cardo is called Rua Direita. This ancient street has been turned upside down by an installation called Mesas (the Portuguese word for tables). Artists Pedro Rebelo and Ricardo Jacinto suspended in the air tables once used by jewelers, tailors, office workers, school children, card and ping-pong players. These tables project sounds recorded while they were in use, inviting us to celebrate the people who study, work, and play in this city.

Mesas is part of Ephemeral Gardens, a great annual event which fills the streets of Viseu with art, music, dance, theater, and gastronomy. Click here for more information.

Summer feasts

CavalhadasIn the 17th century, the Viseu region depended on the waters of the Pavia river to irrigate the farmland and power the watermills. In 1652, after a terrible drought, farmers built dykes that reduced the river flow to a trickle. As a result, the watermills in the village of Vildemoinhos stopped working. The millers clashed with the farmers over water rights until, in 1653, the royal court resolved the case with a verdict favorable to the millers.

To show their appreciation for this life-saving decision, the millers organized a cavalcade called Cavalhada through the city of Viseu. The Cavalhada was so successful that it became an annual event. It is held on June 24 (St. John’s day). Farmers sell pots of wild basil and children feast on Viriatos, a local sweet. There are marching bands, traditional dancing troupes, groups of drummers, and giant paper-machê dolls.

This Cavalhada is one of the many Summer feasts organized everywhere across the country. If you see a sign for Festa Popular (popular feast), be sure to stop by. They’re always fun events. And they celebrate the ancient traditions that make Portugal more than just a pretty landscape.

A childhood treat

Farturas are similar to Spanish churros but they are larger and softer.  A light dough made of eggs and flour is squeezed out of a pastry bag to form a large spiral shape. The dough is gently fried in oil and then cut into pieces with a pair of scissors. These pieces are sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon and served immediately. Eating a warm fartura makes you feel like a kid again: everything is simple and wondrous and the infinite future looks sweet.  You can find farturas in many fairs. Our favorites are from the São Mateus fair in Viseu. This year the fair runs until September 23. So, you still have time to go and be a kid again.