The wonders of Maçussa

Composite Maçussa

Francisco Magalhães, one of our favorite chefs, recommended the lunches that Adolfo Henriques prepares in Maçussa, a small town lost in the middle of Ribatejo. We called Adolfo to see if he could accommodate us and we were told to come the following Saturday at 1:30 pm to Rua do Moinho, number three.

We arrived late because we got lost. Maçussa is ignored by most GPS maps, so we had to resort to the ancient art of asking for directions. We parked underneath an oak tree and walked to a small green door marked with the number there. Inside, next to an old grandfather’s clock, there was a table set with plates of mouthwatering artisanal chèvre, camembert, and prosciutto.

Adolfo came to greet us. He looks like Ernest Hemmingway and speaks in short, crisp sentences much like the characters in Hemmingway’s novels. We asked many questions and this flood of curiosity made him clearly uneasy. “My usual conversation pals are two mules. They’re the only ones who truly understand me,” he tells us.

A server arrives with glasses of orange wine, made by leaving the juice of white grapes in contact with the skins. It has a wonderful acidity and evanescent aromas of fruit, herbs and flowers. “This type of wine was common in the old days when there were 226 wineries in Maçussa,” says Adolfo.

He brings us a basket with two types of bread. “I make this bread with yeast inherited from my grandfather. We kept it alive all these years. One of our breads is made with barbela wheat, an ancient gluten-free variety that is almost extinct. I started with a small bag of seeds. It took years to produce enough wheat to bake bread,” he explains.

Next, Adolfo offers us a tray of “gaspiada,” yellow pieces of baked polenta soaked in fragrant olive oil. He makes cornbread in a clay bowl that is more than a century old, a wedding present received by his grandmother. Some dough leftovers stay attached to the recipient. He mixes them with olive oil, bakes them, and serves them in cabbage leaves. “The elders say it is a recipe left by the French troops who trampled on Ribatejo during the peninsular wars.” says Adolfo.

A server keeps bringing more delights: mushrooms stuffed with goat cheese, an amazing blood sausage, a plate of flavorful smoked codfish liver. We use up all the synonyms for delicious in our vocabulary.  Adolfo rewards these accolades by offering us slices of a small aged cheese. “I don’t understand magic, but sometimes it happens,” he tells us. The cheese thrills all the senses in our palates. “A few years ago a French food journalist and a cheese producer came to visit. I offered them a cheese similar to this one. They refused to believe that it was not French. I had to show them my artisanal workshop to convince them that the cheese was made in Maçussa.”

Adolfo went to Lisbon to study sociology but interrupted his studies because he was drafted. When his army stint finished, he decided to return to his father’s farm. But his father didn’t want him back. “You are from the first generation that can leave and find a better life. There’s nothing for you here. Go back to your studies.” Adolfo stayed. He attended a workshop about making goat cheese with two biologists who had apprenticed in France. Then, he bought some goats and started making chèvre and camembert. “I’ve been surrounded by goats ever since,” he says, smiling.

We sat at the table for lunch. The meal started with sumptuous pied de mouton mushrooms served with scrambled farm eggs and arugula. “I have a friend who has devoted his life to studying mushrooms. He has identified and analyzed 140 varieties. For many years, he lived in a tent because he could not afford a house. I started buying mushrooms from him several years ago.”

Next, Adolfo brings roasted baby goat with mushrooms, new potatoes and onions. We ask him what is the secret to the delectable flavors on our plates. He shrugs his shoulders in silence and we realize that we asked him to explain the unexplainable. Adolfo feels bad about letting the question hang in the air, so he offers a partial answer: “the meat is seasoned with white wine, thyme, marjoram, and wild cumin.”

Dessert is a luscious chocolate cake, “the best in Ribatejo,” says Adolfo, mocking the self-proclaimed world’s best chocolate cake.  There are also amazing coscorões, paper-thin slivers of fried orange-flavored dough that are crunchy and sweet. The grandfather’s clock strikes six; we apologize for staying so long. “You’re not the first,” Adolfo replies. “A couple of years ago, a group of international chefs came to spend two hours and stayed for two days. I had to find places for them to sleep.”

We bought bread and cheese and drove back home, regretting all the years we spent without knowing about the wonders produced by Adolfo Henriques in Maçussa. But now we know. And so do you.

Adolfo Henriques’ company, Granja dos Moinhos, is located on Rua do Moinhos 3, Maçussa, Azambuja, tel 243-719-620, email granjadosmoinhos@sapo.pt. 

 

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.

 

Stone soup at Quinta do Arneiro

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Once upon a time, there was a poor friar was too shy to ask for food. Famished, he knocked on the door of a farm house and solicited a pot and some water to cook a stone soup. The farmer and his wife were intrigued by this request. The friar took a stone from his bag, placed it in the pot and put the pot on the fireplace.

“How is the soup?” the farmer asked. “Delicious,” answered the friar “and when you put some lard, it tastes even better.” The farmer gave the friar a piece of lard. The friar tasted the boiling broth and said “this stone makes an excellent soup, especially when it is seasoned with a little salt.” The farmer’s wife promptly offered the friar some salt. The farmer commented that it was starting to smell good. “If I added some leftover beans, cabbage, and potatoes, the aroma would be divine.” Curious, the farmer gave the friar the vegetables he mentioned. “Is it ready?” the farmer ’s wife asked. “Almost done, if we added some slices of sausage, even the angels would eat it.” The farmer’s wife gave the friar a sausage. He sliced it into the broth and a few minutes later declared the soup ready. He shared it with his hosts who agreed that the stone had produced a remarkable  soup.

Every year on December 8, Quinta do Arneiro, a biological farm near Lisbon, uses its pristine vegetables and sausages to cook a monumental stone soup. The meal starts with hot country bread baked in a wood-fired oven accompanied by plates of freshly made hummus, olive oil and garlic. Then, the hearty soup is served with mulled wine. A delicious dessert composed of oranges, pomegranate, pumpkin jam, and roasted sweet potatoes brings the meal to a satisfying end.

Luisa Almeida, the owner of Quinta do Arneiro inherited the farm from her father. When Luisa was a teenager, she wanted nothing to do with agriculture, But, Luisa went to live on the farm after she married and it was there that her children were born and raised. In 2007, worried about the detrimental health effects of the chemicals used in conventional agriculture, Luisa ventured into organic farming. “It is arduous work but every day we treat nature with the respect it deserves,” she says proudly. The quinta delivers regular baskets of organic produce to lucky subscribers and opens its restaurant  for lunch from Wednesday to Sunday. A meal at the restaurant is a unique opportunity to eat nutritious, delicious seasonal products, freshly picked and cooked with love.

We greatly enjoyed our meal outdoors warmed by the bright sun that joined the feast. And the soup?  Even the angels would eat it!

Quinta do Arneiro is located in Azueira, Mafra. Click here for the farm’s website. To have lunch at the restaurant, email restaurantedaquinta@quintadoarneiro.com  or call 918740906 for reservations.

Repentina

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Several people recommended that we try Repentina, a humble tasca in Poiares famous for its baby goat roasted in a wood-fired oven. Its name is a twist on the word “repente” which means in a flash. We first visited the restaurant last year. When the waiter brought the menu, we said we didn’t need it, we wanted to try their famous roasted goat. Incredulous, the waiter explained that “If you want to eat baby goat, you have to call us a day ahead and reserve the order. We only roast enough meat for the people who reserved it.” Well, no wonder the locals like say that nothing is easy in the Douro valley. Disappointed, we ordered a large beef cutlet that arrived perfectly grilled accompanied by salad and a delicious tomato rice.

This year, we made sure to call ahead to secure our roasted goat servings. We were told that the best time to show up is at 1:00 pm, just as the roast comes out of the wood ovens.

We arrived at the appointed hour and sat in the dining room overlooking the Douro valley. The air was filled with enticing aromas that heralded the arrival of the roast to the table. The taste is indeed exceptional, which explains why this place in the middle of nowhere attracts so many customers.

The restaurant is run by the Cunha family. Fernando who is 82, still operates the ovens. His wife Soledade runs the kitchen together with her daughter Ana Paula. Their son Fernando junior runs the restaurant.

I asked Fernando Cunha what is the alchemy that produces such satisfying flavors. He told us that “You have to get the best ingredients, the goats have to be small and tender, the wood for the fire has to produce the right temperature, the seasoning has to be harmonious and fresh. All the details are important. Our name may be Repentina but we do not cook in a flash. We do everything slowly so we get it right.”

Eating well for less in Portugal

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We get asked so often about the dos and don’ts of eating in Portuguese restaurants that we decided to compile a few tips. Here they are.

When you seat at a table, the waiter brings a basket of bread, butter and olives. These items are called the “couvert.” Simple couverts usually cost a couple of euros. Some restaurants bring more elaborate (and more expensive) couverts,  including items such as cheese, prosciutto, and codfish cakes. If you try one of these items, you’ll often pay for the whole couvert. You can always send the couvert back if you don’t want to pay for it.

The markup on wine in Portuguese restaurants is generally lower than in the U.S. or France. So, it is often affordable to choose a great wine to complement the meal. If you describe the style of wine you enjoy, the waiters can generally make good suggestions. House wines are typically inexpensive, ranging from drinkable to surprisingly good. You can ask to sample the house wine before ordering it.

It is a great idea to share main courses. Portions in traditional restaurants are generally large. Some restaurants prepare half portions, but even these halfs can be sizable. We prefer a multicolored meal to a single monochromatic dish, so we often choose a few main courses to share and ask the waiter to bring them out sequentially. It makes for a much more interesting meal.

Portuguese restaurants don’t serve tap water, only bottled spring water. The good news is that spring-water quality is high and prices are low. You can choose room temperature or cold but ice cubes are not normally used with water.

Fish is served on the bone with the head included. If the fish is large, you might be able to ask the waiter to fillet it for you. If you don’t see the price of a fish dish on the menu, it means that the fish is sold by weight. You can choose a fish that suits your preferences and ask the waiter to weigh it so you know its cost before ordering it.

The Portuguese use different forks and knifes for fish and meat. It is an elegant custom and fish does taste better when eaten with the proper utensils.

If you’re a strict vegetarian, always ask whether the food was prepared with meat products. Vegetable soups are seldom good vegetarian choices because they are often made with chicken stock, sausage or lard. The best bets are salads and vegetable sides.

Espresso is good and cheap. The Portuguese are addicted to high-quality espresso, so  restaurants with lousy coffee are ostracized.

Restaurant waiters earn a fixed salary, so Portuguese leave very modest tips: two or three euros for a normal meal, five euros for exceptional service or for a meal in a fancy restaurant.

If you don’t know what to choose, it is a good idea to ask waiters for advice. If you ask for  the best dishes on the menu, you’re likely to hear that everything on the menu is good. A better way to gather information is to ask what are the waiter’s favorite dishes or which menu offerings are most popular.

That’s it, just bring an appetite, the willingness to try something new, and a great time is guaranteed for all.

DOC

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DOC is a restaurant sited on a dock on the Douro river. With chef Rui Paula at the helm, DOC takes us on a culinary journey of aromas and flavors that harmonize with the wines of the Douro valley.

The menu has a lot of fun starters, ranging from an intense oxtail with carrot to a delicate octopus carpaccio with pomegranate. Main courses include appetizing fish and seafood rices and classics of Portuguese cuisine like codfish with corn bread, a fish stew called caldeirada, and roasted baby goat.

The dessert list offers a sampling of many miniature desserts. Our favorite is a crispy crêpe filled with crème brûlée.

The presentations are beautiful and the food is prepared with great technical skill. The role of modern cooking techniques is not to surprise or shock but to refine and enhance the traditional flavors of Portuguese gastronomy. It is this approach that makes the cuisine of Rui Paula so deliciously unique.

A trip to the Douro valley is not complete without a pilgrimage to DOC, a temple of Portuguese food on the shores of the Douro river.

DOC is located on Estrada Nacional 222, Armamar, tel. 254 858 123. Click here for the restaurant’s web site.

The fox hole

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There are very few great restaurants in the Douro valley. This scarcity has an historical origin: most vineyard owners used to live in Oporto. When they visited the Douro during the harvest, their meals were prepared by the wife of the caretaker or by some other talented local cook. So, a tradition of eating in restaurants never developed.

We were curious when Abílio Tavares da Silva, the Quinta de Foz Torto winemaker, promised to take us to a wonderful restaurant. Abílio drove us to a small village called Ervedosa do Douro and introduced us to Dona Maria da Graça Gomes. For many years, she worked as a cook for the great families of the Douro valley. Her dream of opening a restaurant came true in 2011 with the help of her two children, Rosário who runs the dining room and shares the cooking duties, and Fernando who helps manage the restaurant and curates the wines. The people of the village of Ervedosa are known as “raposas” (foxes), so they called the restaurant A Toca da Raposa (the Fox Hole).

We liked the food so much that we kept returning to Toca da Raposa during our Douro visit. We asked Rosário to choose our meals and she filled our table with culinary delights. The “pataniscas de bacalhau” a combination of codfish, potatoes and parsley are light and flavorful, the best we ever tried. The eggs with alheira (a sausage made with bread and fowl) are delicious. We loved the satisfying taste of the fatty baby-goat rice cooked in the oven. The flavorful “salpição” rice cooked with beans and salpicão sausage made at the restaurant is a revelation.  We marveled at the quality of the codfish and at the flavor of the grilled pork butt.

For dessert, Rosário brought us slices of cheese with an assortment of delicate jams made of strawberries, white grapes, quince, blackberries, orange, and zucchini.

Ervedosa is surrounded by vineyards that produce some of the best wine in the Douro valley. And at Toca da Raposa, it has food that is as great as the wine.

Toca da Raposa is located at Rua da Praça in Ervedosa do Douro, tel. 254 423 466.