A dinner in grape country

País das Uvas

Paulo Laureano recommended that we try O País das Uvas for dinner. “Sopa de Cardo (thistle soup) is one of their specialties,” he said.

The name of the restaurant, which means The Grape Country, is a literary reference. It is the title of a book by Fialho de Almeida, a writer born in 1857 in Vila De Frades, the Vidigueira village where the restaurant is located.

The restaurant is full of ancient amphoras inscribed with messages left by patrons praising the food and the hospitality. António Honrado told us that this place has been a tavern for more than a century. He bought it 17 years ago with his wife Jacinta to turn it into a restaurant.

In the early days, Jacinta’s mother was in charge of the cooking. But she was advanced in age and the work was hard. One day, Jacinta told her mother that they had hired a new cook who had come during the night to prepare the most popular dishes on the menu. Jacinta’s mother worried that hiring a new chef would worsen the quality of the food. But upon trying the different dishes she exclaimed: “They taste exactly like my cooking! Who prepared them?” “I did,” confessed Jacinta. Since that day, Jacinta has been the chef at O País das Uvas.

We ordered the famous Thistle Soup and Cozido de Grão, a traditional chickpea stew made with cabbage, carrots, potatoes, meats, and sausages. Both dishes have bold, satisfying flavors that made our taste buds fall in love with the simple ways of Alentejo.

After dinner, António and Jacinta invited us to see their discovery. When they did some construction on the restaurant, they uncovered a cellar that is many centuries old. It has a well-preserved clay-tile floor, graceful arches and a water well. They restored the cellar and devoted it to producing amphorae wine with the help of Paulo Laureano.

We bid farewell to António and Jacinta, promising to return. Then we went out into the warm Summer night, enchanted by the honesty of the food and the warmth of the people of Alentejo.

O País das Uvas is located at Rua General Humberto Delgado, nº19, Vila De Frades, Alentejo, tel. 284 441 023.

Finding perfect codfish cakes

Bacalhoaria composite

When people ask us what to eat in Lisbon, we recommend they try one of the city’s culinary triumphs: the humble, sublime codfish cake. You can order it in many eateries, from simple “tascas” to fancy restaurants. But, unfortunately, codfish cakes vary greatly in the quality of their ingredients and the care used in their preparation.

Luckily, there is a restaurant in Lisbon called Bacalhoaria Moderna (the modern codfish eatery) that serves perfect codfish cakes.  It is headed by Ana Moura, a talented young chef who cooks with intensity and flair. She uses superb codfish, captured in the pristine waters of Iceland and expertly dried and salted by Portuguese fishermen.

As soon as you seat at Bacalhoaria, the waiter brings one gorgeous codfish cake per guest, together with a plate of irresistible brandade. These appetizers are a culinary lesson. A chance to compare a Portuguese and a French codfish recipe. The brandade is elegant and delicious–the best we ever tried. The codfish cakes are light, crisp, warm and flavorful—little pieces of culinary magic.

After this heady start, we can choose from a plethora of other codfish preparations as well as many great alternatives like octopus, roasted pork, and vegetarian options.

An intriguing culinary question is: where will a new classic codfish recipe be created and by whom? Our answer is: at Bacalhoaria Moderna by Ana Moura.

Bacalhoaria Moderna is located at Rua São Sebastião da Pedreira, 150, Lisbon, tel. 21 605 3208, 

Ancient wheat, dancing in the wind

Adolfo Henriques

Another wondrous lunch with Adolfo Henriques at Maçussa. A taste of another recipe that almost got lost: “manja,” a combination of bread, potatoes, garlic and olive oil that goes great with grilled sardines.

The meal started with Adolfo’s legendary goat cheeses served with bread made from barbela wheat and a baked mixture of cornbread and olive oil called gaspiada. “I call this one cabrabert,” says Afonso, pointing to a round cheese, proud of his play on the Portuguese word for goat (cabra) and the word camembert. The cheese was followed by a variety of wonderful sausages, codfish liver, gravlax, and figs.

After lunch, Adolfo took us to a field planted with barbela wheat. Barbela is an ancient Egyptian variety abandoned after World War I in favor of wheats that offer larger yields in exchange for less taste and nutrition. “People often choose quantity over quality,” laments Adolfo.  It took him several years to harvest enough wheat to make bread. He grinds his crop in windmills that only process traditional grains, like Valentim da Silva’s Moinho do Boneco at Moita dos Ferreiros and Miguel Nobre’s Moinho de Avis in the Montejunto mountain. The result is the type of flour used a century ago. It that makes a rustic, delicious, nutritious bread.

Adolfo does not use fertilizers or pesticides. After each crop, he lets the field rest for a year so that the soil can recover. Standing in the middle of a field planted with his prized crop, Adolfo smiles and says: “Look at how the wheat dances in the wind.”

Adolfo Henriques’ company, Granja dos Moinhos, is located on Rua do Moinhos 3, Maçussa, Azambuja, tel 919 474 476, email granjadosmoinhos@sapo.pt. 

 

Leopoldo Calhau’s tavern in Mouraria

Taberna do Calhau

Leopoldo Calhau, a gourmet architect who became a chef, opened a restaurant in Mouraria, an old Lisbon neighborhood.  The courtyard outside the restaurant offers a classic view of Lisbon: the walls of St. Jorge’s caste against a cerulean blue sky. But once you step inside the restaurant, you are in Alentejo. All the furniture and decor came from an old tavern in Beja. The menu offers a creative interpretation of the rustic food of Alentejo that is deliciously fun.

Our dinner started with an unusual combination of flavors that worked well together: eggs and peppers served in a bouillabaisse sauce. We then had a bowl of shrimp with minced lupini beans and garlic dressed with olive oil. This preparation is inspired by an old saying that lupini beans are the seafood of those who are broke. Another inventive dish followed: grilled vegetables and codfish confit served with a magical combination of coriander, olive oil and garlic traditionally used to cook clams Bulhão Pato style. Next, we had pork cheeks with an amazing sauce. Leopoldo would not reveal its ingredients other than saying that it is an Alentejo version of the sauce used in the francesinha, a popular sandwich in Oporto. Dessert was simply delicious: pears roasted in olive oil and sugar served in a wine made from pears poached in wine.

The tavern serves small plates meant for sharing that cost between 5 and 10 euros and offers interesting wines and olive oils from Alentejo. At Taberna do Calhau every meal is a party.

Taberna do Calhau is located on Largo das Olarias 23, tel. 21 585 1937.

Taberna Salmoura

IMG_1484-Edit Taberna Salmoura

After failing to get a table at Taberna Sal Grosso, we walked the narrow, winding streets of Alfama towards Taberna Salmoura. The name of the restaurant appealed to us.  Salmoura is the Portuguese word for brine, a mixture of water and salt traditionally used to tenderize meat and enhance its flavor.

Taberna Salmoura is owned by Joaquim Saragga, the chef of Taberna Sal Grosso, together with Filipe Ramalho, an interior designer turned restaurateur. The concept of the two taverns is similar—traditional recipes cooked with local, seasonal ingredients–but Taberna Salmoura is more spacious and offers a different menu.

The restaurant was full but we found some seats in a large communal table by the kitchen. Filipe suggested we order a few dishes to share. We tried two xeréms (a version of polenta popular in the Algarve) one with duck and the other with a cockle called berbigão. Next, came rissóis stuffed with a manta ray filling, a salad made with snap peas, fava beans, turnip and peanuts. The grand finale was an oxtail pie. Everything was tasty and satisfying.

It is wonderful to find a restaurant with modest prices that does not compromise on the quality of the food it serves. When we congratulated Filipe, he told us that his dream was to create the kind of restaurant where he would like to eat regularly. At Taberna Salmoura he made this dream came true.

Taberna Salmoura is located at Rua dos Remédios 98 Alfama, Lisboa, Portugal, tel. 968711094.

 

 

Taberna Sal Grosso

Taberna Sal Grosso

When we arrived at number 22, Calçada do Forte in Lisbon’s old Alfama neighborhood, there was a group of people congregated around the door. They were all trying to get a table in a small restaurant called Taberna do Sal Grosso (Coarse Salt Tavern). An exasperated waiter explained that he could not bend the laws of physics to accommodate more guests. No one was happy with the news that miracles could not be made. We too walked away disappointed. But we were so intrigued by the tavern’s atmosphere that we made reservations for lunch two days later.

As soon as we sat for lunch, it became obvious why the place is so popular. It serves delicious food with a happy vibe at modest prices. This trio of qualities is rare. It is hard to keep the quality of the food consistent and feel happy about serving inexpensive meals. Joaquim Saragga, the chef and owner, manages to do it because because he views his restaurant as more than just a business.

Joaquim lost his job, so he decided to change his life. When he was a student in London,  he used to cook for his roommates. He remembered feeling happy in the kitchen, so he enrolled in culinary school and went on to complete a Masters in gastronomy.

When he opened the tavern in 2015, he shunned the tricks that most eateries use to become more profitable. There are no couvert charges. He serves only two inexpensive but very drinkable house wines and a few artisanal beers. Desserts are modestly priced.

“I’m not trying to innovate, only to serve my favorite traditional recipes prepared with local, seasonal ingredients. I cook the food I like to eat.” he told us. Everything we tried was perfect: a watercress and orange salad, codfish cakes, manta ray and garlic, oxtail with quince, codfish and chickpeas.  “I needed to create my own job,” he explained, “but I also wanted to create a place where people feel at home.”

We proposed to take a photo of the staff at the door of the restaurant but then another wave of guests came in. Joaquim asked one of the chefs and the waiters to pose for us but he stayed inside the restaurant, clearing the tables and welcoming people. It is this dedication to serving others that make Taberna do Sal Grosso such a special place.

Taberna do Sal Grosso is located at Calçada do Forte, 22. Reservations are a must. They do not accept phone reservations. Reservations can only be made by sending a message through Facebook. You need to receive a confirmation in order for the reservation to be valid.

Where great views and delicious food go together

EPUR

It is often said that restaurants with good views serve lousy food. This aphorism doesn’t apply to EPUR, chef Vincent Farges’ new restaurant in Lisbon. Its windows offer beautiful views of the Tagus river and the rooftops of downtown Lisbon. But, once the food arrives, it is hard to choose between looking out the window and admiring the elegance of the sustenance on our plate. When we taste the food, our brain’s ability to process pleasurable sensations has to stretch even further.

Served on graceful white plates, the food looks ready for a Vogue photoshoot. Its beauty is not superficial, it stems from the quality of the ingredients and the meticulous preparations.

We tried a flavorful rabbit rillette with foie gras, seasoned with pear vinegar, a delicate avocado mousse topped with crispy Galician cabbage, the type of cabbage used to make caldo verde. Our lunch ended with a sumptuous soup starring a trio of marvelous fish: manta ray, sea bass, and monkfish.

It is hard to think of a better place to meet Lisbon for a lunch date than at Vincent Farge’s EPUR.

EPUR is located at Largo da Academia Nacional de Belas Artes 14, Lisboa, tel. 21 346 0519.