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.

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.