Was Christopher Columbus born in Cuba, Alentejo?

Adega Monte Pedral

Last Summer, we visited Cuba, a small town in Alentejo. We were attracted by the legend that this hamlet of white-washed houses is the true birth place of Christopher Columbus. The navigator called Cuba the large Caribbean island he discovered in 1492. Why did he choose such an unusual name? Was it to honor his hometown?

We asked a local where to go for lunch. He smiled and pointed to a building on the other side of the road. A large sign read “Adega da Casa de Monte Pedral.”

As soon as we entered the restaurant, we heard voices singing in harmony. A group of locals was sharing a glass of amphora wine and singing traditional Alentejo songs called “cante.”

We sat at a corner table in the spacious dining room full of old wine amphoras. Our waiter asked whether we would like to try the wine that the singers were drinking. Of course we did! It came with a bowl of terrific olives and a plate of splendid prosciutto made from black pigs raised in Alentejo on a diet of acorns. The white wine was deliciously refreshing and devoid of affectation.

Our meal started with a soup made from beans, sausages, black pork, and “tengarrinhas,” a wild thistle abundant in the region. The flavors blended perfectly, to create a deeply satisfying taste and aroma. Our main course was culinary perfection: grilled black pork with a lettuce and mint salad and olive “migas,” a bread-based accompaniment.

José Soudo, the restaurant owner, said farewell to the singers and started making the rounds. He stopped at every table to talk to the diners, using a small glass to try the wine they were drinking. José told us that the building used to be the home of a wealthy family. He bought it four decades ago and turned it into a restaurant that quickly became part of the community. It is a place where the locals stop before lunch and dinner to drink a glass of wine and sing a few songs. His son is the cook. “You have to come back to try his other specialties, tomato soup, purslane soup, lamb stew, and much more,” said José.

The house came with six large amphoras which José used to make 3,500 liters of wine to drink with his friends. Over time, he accumulated 28 amphoras, so now he has enough amphora wine to serve in the restaurant.

We left confident that Cuba is not Christopher Columbus’ hometown. After all, if he was born in a place with such enticing wine, satisfying food and harmonious singing why would he ever leave?

Adega da Casa de Monte Pedral is located at Rua da Fonte dos Leões, Cuba, tel. 936 520 036, email geral@casamontepedral.pt. Click here for the restaurant’s website.

Taberna Albricoque

Taberna Albricoque

Albricoque, a quaint word for apricot used in the Algarve, is a great name for a Lisbon restaurant that blends the old with the new. The space is old; it opened in 1905 as a tavern for travelers from the nearby Santa Apolónia train station. The food is rooted in the traditional culinary vocabulary of the Algarve, the birth place of Albricoque’s chef, Bertílio Gomes. But the approach to food and service is new. Every recipe has been refined to make it more appealing. The character of the restaurant, imparted by features such as the original floor paved with hydraulic tiles, was preserved. But modern amenities, unthinkable in 1905, have been added.

Everything on the menu is delicious. Our meal began with a plate of olives that tasted like sausage because of the way in which they were fermented. There was also a salad made with the purple carrots that were common in the Algarve in old times. Then, the feast continued: savory muxama (cured tuna), plump oysters from Ria Formosa, crispy rissois de berbigão (cockle turnovers), silky alhada de raia (manta ray with garlic), extraordinary marinated carapau (horse mackerel) combined with figs and toasted almonds and served on shinzo leafs.

Chef Bertílio likes to explore the methods for preserving food used in the Algarve before refrigerators became common. He salts a fish called abrótea then hangs it in the cold for a couple of days to drain its liquid. The result is an intense, satisfying taste reminiscent of that of salted codfish.

We didn’t order the fried moreia (moray), because it is usually greasy and chewy, but the chef brought a plate to the table for us to try. It was very thinly sliced and perfectly fried, a revelation of flavor, texture and aroma. The meal ended on a sweet note with almere, a dessert made with the liquid that is left from the making of requeijão, flavored with thyme and pine nuts.

If you’re near Santa Apolónia, stop by Taberna Albricoque to try its delicacies. If you’re far, come to Santa Apolónia for the privilege of dining at Taberna de Albricoque.

Taberna Albricoque is located at Rua Caminhos de Ferro nº98, Lisboa, tel. 21 886 1182, email reservas@albricoque.pt.

The shark’s beach

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Roger Sobreiro, an American wine merchant of Portuguese descent, recommended a small restaurant called A Praia do Tubarão (the shark’s beach) that is his safe harbor when he visits Portugal. We drove to the picturesque town of Costa Nova to try it out.

The restaurant’s facade is painted with the traditional red and white stripes used to decorate fishermen houses. The same red and white palette dominates the cosy interior where Adriano Ferreira, the owner, was waiting for us. He has worked in Costa Nova for 50 years, first as a waiter and then, in the last three decades, together with his wife at A Praia do Tubarão.

“I hunt and fish and all hunters and fishermen are liars,” he said as a way of introduction. Despite this forewarning, we asked Adriano to choose our lunch menu.  “Most of our food is served in the pots where it is cooked: caldeiradas (boulliabaisses) , “ensopados,” and seafood rices. We follow two simple rules: everything is fresh and everything is cooked to order,” he explained.

Adriano went into the kitchen and returned with a plate of petinga (small sardines) and tiny fried balls of berbigão rice. Then, he poured two generous glasses of the wonderful Duas Quintas white from Ramos Pinto. The petinga was crisp, hot, luxuriously fresh and perfectly fried. The rice balls were flavorful and deeply satisfying.

We ate an “ensopado,” a plate made with fish, potatoes, onions, garlic, and olive oil. It is seasoned with “sal d’unto,” a salt and lard combination. It comes with a sauce called “alhada,” made from garlic, lemon and piri piri. The flavors blend to create a unique taste and aroma. The quality of the ingredients and the cooking is superb.

Dessert was a small bowl of the traditional “ovos moles,” a convent sweet made with egg yolks and sugar. The meal ended with a vibrant espresso made with Delta’s famous diamond blend.

We said goodbye to Adriano and promised to be back soon to this welcoming place that serves delicious traditional food.

A Praia do Tubarão is located at Rua José Estevão, 136, Costa Nova Prado, Ilhavo, tel. 234 369 602.

Culinary bliss at Essencial

Restaurant Essencial_

If the cobblestones of Bairro Alto were not so slippery, we would tell you to run to Essencial, a new restaurant in Bairro Alto. Walk instead as fast as you can because this dinning room that seats only 25 guest will soon be impossible to get into.

The restaurant is headed by André Cordeiro, a chef with impeccable knowledge of French technique. He studied for five years with Alain Ducasse in Paris and then worked with three chefs who earned the coveted title of Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (best craftsmen in France). André came back to Lisbon to combine fine-dining ingredients such as truffles and foie gras with the amazing fresh produce available in Portugal. The results are stunning–elegant food that is a joyful symphony of tastes, textures and aromas.

While we were chatting with chef André, a plate of bread arrived. It came with a blend of butter from Pico in Azores, lard and rosemary. It was the one of several unexpected  combinations that delighted our palates throughout the meal.

The first appetizer was a crowd pleaser: delicate slices of marinated salmon with radishes, crème fraiche and tarragon oil, served with the luscious crêpes vonnassiennes made famous by chef George Blanc. The second appetizer was a sea urchin shell filled with beef tartare, sea urchin and nori seaweed. These dissonant ingredients created a pleasing harmony that made our taste buds sing.

It is customary to serve the fish entrée before the meat but here the latter came first. It was a paté en croute made with duck, pork and foie gras served with smoked carrot purée and beets. How could the fish compete with these gratifying earthy flavors? The answer came in the form of a plate of sole. The freshness of the fish was a canvas that made the truffle stuffing and the Champagne sauce stand out.

The last entrée was a lush journey to the flavors of the woods: hare with foie gras, trumpet mushrooms and Jerusalem artichokes in a reduction of red wine, port wine and chocolate.

A vanilla mille feuilles with salted caramel produced a happy ending to a blissful meal. But our culinary experience was not over. There were still fireworks provided by a buttery French toast with vanilla mouse and a rich choux with praline.

Essencial’s minimalist space, impeccable service and interesting French and Portuguese boutique wines perfectly complement the food. We do not need the Michelin guide to tell us that the culinary stars shine brightly on Essencial’s dinner table.

Essencial is located at Rua da Rosa, 176, tel. 211573713, email info@essencialrestaurant.pt. Click here for the restaurants website. 

Pristine fish at Taberna do Valentim

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We met Valentim, the chef and owner of Taberna Valentim in Viana do Castelo, as soon as we entered the restaurant. He was working hard at the grill but took time to show us the superb mullets that had just been delivered. “The seas are often rough during Winter so at times we have to close the restaurant because we can’t find fresh fish of the quality we seek. These mullets came from Póvoa do Varzim. The sea was rough yet the fishermen still went out. Their fish is gorgeous but the they take too much risk to catch it.”

Taberna do Valentim has offered the same small menu for 40 years: pristine seasonal fish perfectly grilled, fish rice, “ensopado de peixe,” a fish stew prepared with white pepper and served on bread toasts, and caldeirada (bouillabaisse). The quality is high and prices are modest so the place is always packed.

After a very satisfying lunch, we resumed our conversation with Valentim.  “I started working when I was 8, serving glasses of wine and codfish cakes in my mother’s tavern,” he told us. “Then, I began to cook, so I’ve been cooking for a long time. But time is not what’s important. Passion is. Unless you have passion for what you do you’ll never be great at it.” This passion is evident in everything that comes to the table at Taberna Valentim.

Taberna Valentim is located at Avenida Campo do Castelo nº45 in Viana do Castelo, tel. 258-827-505.

Prado: the prairie in Lisbon

Prado Composit

Never underestimate the power of the light of Lisbon. Chef António Galapito was happily working at Nuno Mendes’ Taberna do Mercado in London when he was offered the opportunity to open a restaurant in Lisbon. Galapito said he was not interested. But he agreed to see the space.

It is a place full of memories, from Roman ruins to old fish-canning equipment from a factory that once operated there. The ceilings are high, making room for generous windows that invite the light in. It was impossible for Galapito to say no. He called the restaurant Prado, the Portuguese word for prairie, to signal his intention of bringing the best products from the fields of Portugal to his table.

The light became the inspiration for the menu. The food is simple, fresh, organic and seasonal. The wines are natural and biodynamic. The vibe is relaxed and the decoration minimalist.

We sat at a beautiful common table made from old pine wood. Our dinner started with a refreshing strawberry kombucha. Then, a plate of bread and goat cheese arrived at the table. The bread, fermented for 28 hours at Gleba, fused with the flavorful goat cheese and melted in our mouth.

The menu has many small plates that are perfect for sharing. We sampled several of these delights:  mussels, leeks, parsley and fried bread, cabbage cooked with sour milk and sunflower seeds, pleurotus mushrooms, with pimentão (a traditional pepper-based paste) and crunchy sarraceno wheat, green asparagus, requeijão and azedas, mackerel, mizuna, lettuce and tangerine, and finally, squid from Azores cooked in a pork broth.

Dinning at Prado is a wonderful opportunity to taste pristine produce harmoniously combined to create satisfaction and joy.

Prado is located at Travessa das Pedras Negras, 2, tel. 210 534 649, email info@pradorestaurante.com. Click here for the restaurant’s website. 

Quorum

Quorum Composit

Just when we thought we knew every great restaurant in Lisbon, we found Quorum in Chiado. We went in without knowing what to expect. An amiable waiter greeted us with a glass of refreshing apple and pineapple cider made at the restaurant. It tasted like a Summer ale and set the evening of to an auspicious start.

As soon as the appetizers arrived, we knew that the dinner would be memorable. The trio, composed of sausage bread, “pataniscas” (codfish fried in batter), and dried, grilled octopus, was deliciously appealing. Sommelier Bruna Esteves filled our glasses with an interesting white wine made from Malvasia at Adega Cooperativa de Torres Vedras.

The following course was a delectable ravioli made with rose shrimp from Algarve and served in a sauce prepared with prosciutto and sausages from the Barroso mountain. It was accompanied by a delightful red from the Douro valley called Oboé. Next, came another savory treat: clams, potatoes and beetroots.

Soon after, a plate with pork belly cooked at 65 degrees for 28 hours and then cured arrived at the table. It had a rich, satisfying taste that was perfectly complemented by Quinta do Arcossó, a bold red wine made in Trás os Montes with the bastardo varietal.

Dessert was a gorgeous combination of sour oranges from Alentejo, olive oil, honey, and poejo (pennyroyal). It was paired with a “licoroso” (dessert wine) made with Fernão Pires at Quinta da Alorna. It was a fabulous end to a fabulous meal.

Quorum’s chef, Tiago Santos, trained as a geographer before going to culinary school. He likes to wander throughout Portugal in search of unique products and producers. He prepares his culinary finds with meticulous techniques and an exuberant imagination that make his dining room one of the most exciting in Lisbon.

Quorum is located at Rua do Alecrim 30 B Lisboa, tel. 21 604 0375.

Attla

Attla Restaurant

After cooking around the world with Alain Ducasse and other starred chefs, André Fernandes moved with his partner Rita Chandre to Costa Rica in search of an exotic life filled with adventurous pursuits. They found a market for their talents catering luxurious events in spectacular natural settings. It was a blissful existence except for the feeling that the Portuguese call “saudade”: they missed Lisbon.  One day, this feeling became so strong that they packed their recipe notebooks and flew back home.

They opened a restaurant in the Alcantara neighborhood called Attla that serves fresh fish from the Atlantic coast and seasonal, biological products.  It is an intimate place with a relaxed vibe. We felt like we had been invited to a dinner party at a friend’s house. The food is wonderful, a combination of inventive textures and flavors that make the meal interesting and fun.

We tried many small plates that are perfect for sharing. Our dinner started with a “sarda,” a large Atlantic mackerel, adorned with Cordycep mushrooms, fried bread and a bechamel sauce made with miso and beer. It was followed by an extraordinary squid served with an ink curry, angel hair pasta and watercress. There were many more delights: artichokes with eggplant, sea spaghetti with a kefir emulsion, codfish with new onions and hazelnut chimichurri, royal mushrooms with cauliflower and Swiss chard, white asparagus with a palette of appetizing sauces, spicy blue shrimp with almond milk, bisque and potato noodle.

The dinner was brought to a perfect ending by a plate of strawberry and eucalyptus ice cream decorated with chocolate from Equador and a cracket made from hazelnut and carob.

Talking to André and Rita helped us understand why Lisbon is such a unique place. Young people travel the world looking for their vocation only to find that their talents shine most brightly in Lisbon.

Attla is located at Rua Gilberto Rola 65, email contact@attlarestaurant.com, telephone 21 1510555 and 93 250 9887. Click here for the restaurant’s web site.

 

 

 

 

 

The donkey’s shelter

Cozido no Pão

When we visited Moínho de Avis at Serra de Montejunto, Miguel Nobre showed us his new venture–a small restaurant sheltered from the wind with sprawling mountain views. It is called Curral do Burro (the donkey’s shelter) because it occupies the place where the donkey used to lodge. “Donkeys were a miller’s prized possession because they carted the bags of grain and flour back and forth, so they had to be well fed and protected from the elements,” Miguel explained.

Miguel used his skills as a carpenter to build the restaurant’s furniture. The menu offers simple, delicious food: mussels, clams, cockles, eggs with farinheira (a type of sausage), and grilled black pork.

The specialty is “cozido no pão” a combination of meats, sausages, potatoes, cabbage and carrots cooked in the oven inside bread. The vegetables have a glorious taste imparted by the sausages and the meat. It is a privilege to enjoy these deeply satisfying flavors on a mountain top, sheltered from the wind, away from it all.

Eating at Curral do Burro requires making reservations in advance by sending a Facebook message to Moínho de Avis, click here for the link.

 

 

Dining with the minister at Campo Maior

Taberna O Ministro

We strolled around in Campo Maior, a small town in Alentejo close to the border with Spain, looking for a place for lunch. We noticed a tavern called O Ministro (the minister) which was full of locals. There was a bottle of Caiado–the wonderful entry wine from Adega Mayor—on every table. Encouraged by these favorable omens, we decided to enter.

Traditional music played in the background, mostly fado tunes about the travails of love and the fickleness of life. Every now and then, a folk song from Alentejo came on and the locals raised their voices to sing along.

A plate with codfish cakes, slices of sausage, and green olives arrived at the table. We ordered “migas” made with bread and turnips and fried cação, a small shark that somehow manages to swim from the coast to the menus of Alentejo. We also ordered “carne do alguidar,” marinated pork loin. We were astonished by the quality of everything that came to the table. It was delicious and deeply satisfying food, with a perfect sense of time and place.

João Paulo Borrega, the chef and owner of this magical restaurant came out of the kitchen, and stoped by each table to ask whether people liked his food. “The food is fantastic,” we told him. “Can we make reservations for dinner and arrive a little early to talk to you?” Sure, he said with a bemused smile.

Late in the afternoon, he sat down to talk with us. Like most Alentejo cooks, he learned cooking from his mother and grandmother. His restaurant opened in 1989 and has changed location over the years. It is named after João Paulo’s father, a man whose role in the revolutionary days after April 1974 earned him the nickname “the minister.”

João Paulo tells us that the current restaurant location is ideal. “I want to cook by myself, and this space has the maximum number of tables I can comfortably handle.” He talks enthusiastically about his favorite recipes: fried rabbit, toasted chicken, chickpea soup, and ensopado de borrego (lamb stew).

“Why does your food taste so good?,” we asked. “I am going to show you my secret,” he said, inviting us into the small kitchen. He pointed to an old, tiny refrigerator. “Everything I use I buy fresh every day. That is why I have no freezer, just this small refrigerator. At the end of the day I give away any leftovers to my friends. The next day I start everything from scratch. Meats, fish, vegetables, herbs, sauces, everything has to be fresh.”

All his products are local and seasonal, produced by people he knows. He rattled off the names of the friends who supply him: the olive-oil maker, the farmer who plants the potatoes and onions, the person who chooses ripe melons for his table; the list goes on. The quality of his sourcing would make many three-star chefs envious.

João Paulo talks with great knowledge about the details of the different recipes and the properties of various herbs and spices. “People often use too much laurel. That is a mistake,” he says. “Laurel is very powerful and can overwhelm other ingredients.” “The cuisine of Alentejo does not require much fussing around,” he explains. “But the ingredients need to be first rate and the last flourishes before the dish is brought to the table have to be perfect. Some dishes are finished with white wine, others with vinegar, herbs play a key role.”

We sat down for a wonderful dinner. It started with toasted chicken perfumed with vinegar and prepared with olive oil, garlic and parsley. Then came a steaming chickpea soup with Alentejo sausages, Savoy cabbage, carrots, and mint. Next, we tried the fried rabbit. The meat had been  marinated with rosemary, thyme, pepper, white and red wine. Then it was stewed to perfection in a large iron-cast pan with olive oil, garlic, and some more wine. Delicious slices of ripe melon brought this memorable meal to a sweet finale.

No matter how much you travel, it is hard to find food that is as simply satisfying as the one served in this little tavern in Alentejo. If you have a chance, come to Campo Maior to dine with the minister.

Taberna O Ministro is located at Travessa dos Combatentes da Grande Guerra
Campo Maior, Portalegre, tel. 351-965-421-326.