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.

Cooking pork and clams on the trail of Jamie Oliver

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We asked Dália Soromenho, the chef/owner of Porto Santana in Alcácer do Sal,  what alchemy made her pork and clams so magical. “I don’t give out my recipes,” she said sternly. “But I have to confess that I taught the recipe to Jamie Oliver when he came to the restaurant,” she continued with pride. “That is like telling everybody!” we argued. Dália relented and shared her recipe with us. So, here it is dear reader, the recipe for the best pork and clams we ever tasted.

Dália Soromenho’s Pork and Clams Recipe

Dália likes to cook this recipe with two cuts of pork: either “pá” (shoulder) of black pork or “cachaço” (neck) of white pork. The quality of the ingredients is essential.

First, marinate the pork cut into cubes with minced garlic and “pimentão,” a paste made of red peppers and salt. Then, slowly simmer the pork in lard until it becomes deliciously tender. The cooked pork can be refrigerated at this point. When you are ready to serve, fry the pork in lard in a frying pan over high heat. Place the clams on top of the pork and cover until the clams open. Cut the potatoes into small pieces and fry them separately. Add the potatoes to the pork-and-clams combination, season with chopped coriander and serve your lucky guests

“You’re welcome to come back to cook the recipe with me,” Dália offered as we said goodbye. We surely will!

Porto Santana is located at Senhora Santana, Alcacer do Sal, tel. 969 020 740.

 

Eating pork and clams in Alcácer do Sal

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The staff of the pousadas, a network of historical hotels with fabulous locations, has always great restaurant tips, so when they recommended Porto Santana in Alcácer do Sal, we called to make reservations.

The restaurant remounts to the days when people traveled by horse to Alcácer and crossed the Sado river through a small wooden bridge to work in the fields. They left their horses by the restaurant building and came in for a bite before work. Later, the place became a tavern where people enjoyed a glass of wine. Later still, it became a “tasca,” a humble eatery that catered to local residents. The restaurant was purchased more than a decade ago by Dália Soromenho, a chef who learned from her mother the traditional recipes of Alentejo. She modernized the old place but preserved key elements of its past like the stone floor and the straw-padded roof.

Our waiter took us to a cozy table by the fireplace. The other tables were occupied by locals, most of whom seemed to be involved in agriculture. They were giving thanks for the rain that was blessing the fields and talked with excitement about their wines and their crops.

Our meal started with a soup made with clams, spinach and rice. The flavors blended perfectly and the rice grains were firm, so there was no starch from the rice clouding the flavorful broth. The meal continued with fried fillets of “peixe galo” accompanied by an “açorda” made with fish eggs. The fish was delicious, but it had a hard time competing with the magnificent açorda, the best we ever had. It was a culinary masterpiece made with fish broth, fish eggs, bread, olive oil, and garlic. Finally, we tried black pork “secretos” salted and grilled to perfection.

We told our waiter how much we liked our meal. “But you didn’t try our pork and clams Alentejo style, they are really outstanding.” he said in a tone that made us feel like we had gone to Rome and not seen the pope.

We repented and returned the next day to Porto Santana for lunch. We were received by Dália Soromenho who recommended we also try her tomato soup as a prelude to the pork and clams.

The meal started with a couvert composed of bread, olives, a delicious carrot salad seasoned with minced garlic and coriander, and fried sardines in an “escabeche” sauce made from olive oil, bay leaves and vinegar. The tomato soup was great, the acidity of the tomato contrasting with the creamy poached eggs. The pork and clams were indeed spectacular. They have everything that is lacking in ordinary preparations: the pork was succulent, the clams were not overcooked, and the fried potatoes were crisp and delicious. The dessert was a combination of eggs yolks and the famous pine nuts from Alcácer.

Dália sat at our table and asked us what we thought about the meal. We told her that it is people like her that make Portugal a place full of culinary treasures waiting to be discovered.

Porto Santana is located at Senhora Santana, Alcacer do Sal, tel. 969 020 740.

Stopping for lunch on the way to Algarve

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If you’re traveling on the highway from Lisbon to the Algarve, resist the temptation to have a quick bite at a highway stop. Drive instead the 9 km from the highway to Grândola, a town in the middle of Alentejo, to enjoy a proper meal at “A Talha de Azeite” (the Olive Oil Amphorae). The restaurant is run by a couple with a reserved demeanor, Celina and Luís Gonçalves. Celina heads the kitchen and Luís manages the dining room.

Grândola has been famous since ancient times as a hunting ground. Luís used to organize wild boar hunts. Celina prepared such appetizing food for Luís to eat in the middle of the day that the other hunters pooled some money and asked Celina to cook for everybody.

These hunter lunches gathered fame and the couple decided to open a restaurant. Twelve years ago, they found a room with an old olive press inside a shopping center. They converted it into restaurant, using the red amphoras that once stored olive oil for decoration.

A Talha de Azeite serves home-cooked meals prepared with the traditional recipes from Alentejo. We tried codfish with “migas gatas,” a delicious bread preparation. It was followed by arroz de canivetes (razor clam rice) that combined the briny taste of the seafood with the earthy flavors of red and green peppers. Finally, we had grilled “secretos” a fatty cut of black port thinly sliced and seasoned to perfection.

When we asked for the check, Luís told us it would be a mistake to leave without tasting Celina’s famous baked chocolate mousse. The mousse was indeed delicious. He also recommended that we come back for the wild boar and the fried eels when they are in season. We dully marked our calendars.

A Talha de Azeite is located at Rua Dom Nuno Álvares Pereira Loja 17 C.C. in Grândola, tel. 269 086 942.

 

Serra d’Ossa

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It was an act of bravery. We drove up the serpentine road to Serra d’Ossa to dine at a restaurant we couldn’t find on trip advisor!  But a trusted local source told us that this was the place to go if we wanted to taste the rustic food of Alentejo. And so we went.

We were welcomed by Paula Patinho who owns the restaurant with her husband Francisco. Her mother cooks and her father makes the house wine. We were surprised by the menu prices: they were half of what we would have paid in Évora or Estremoz.

Francisco suggested that we start with “sopa de cação” (dogfish soup), continued with a tomato and fried meat soup, and ended with “lagartos,” thin strips of black pork grilled to perfection. The flavors are bold but harmonious perhaps because all the ingredients were local, cultivated in the same lands by the same people.

The house wine is staged in stainless steel. It tastes pure and smooth and pairs perfectly with the food.

We asked Francisco what makes the food taste so great. “There is a deceiving complexity to the cuisine of Alentejo,” he explained. “The preparations look simple but pushing the flavors to a higher level takes time and requires many ingredients.”

Our audacity was greatly rewarded. We discovered an inexpensive restaurant that does justice to the rich culinary tradition of Alentejo.

Serra d’Ossa is located on Rua Principal, 77, Aldeia da Serra D’Ossa, Redondo, tel. 266-909-037.

Extraordinary food in Estremoz

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As soon as we entered, we felt that there was something special about Gadanha, a small restaurant in downtown Estremoz. The back wall is decorated with a chocolate cake recipe hand written by Michele Marques, the Brazilian chef who runs the restaurant. The dining room is furnished with old chairs and tables that give the place a cozy feeling.

We asked our waitress whether it was possible to sample a few items from the menu. Our culinary feast began with a plate of goat cheese, pears, walnuts and honey, accompanied by a thyme ice cream. This ethereal combination of flavors from Greece made us feel like gods dining on Mount Olympus.

A plate of delicious lamb croquettes paired with a roasted garlic aioli brought us back to earth. They were followed by one of the restaurant’s signature dishes: an ingenious “mille feuilles” constructed with thin slices of Alentejo bread, codfish and black pork prosciutto. The flavors of Alentejo shined on the next plate: a sausage called “farinheira” toped with fried quail eggs and accompanied by apple purée. The savory part of the meal ended with another signature dish: a delicious slow-cooked codfish topped with a crust made from cornbread, rosemary and thyme.

An extravagant combination of hazelnut and chocolate brought us to the realm of sweetness. It was followed by graceful “îles flottantes” covered with an orange crust, served with strawberries and a basil-infused crème anglaise.

We asked our waitress whether we could compliment the chef on our extraordinary meal. Michele came to our table with a radiant smile. We asked her an indiscreet question: “How does a Brazilian chef open a restaurant in the middle of Alentejo? “I fell in love with someone from Alentejo,” she told us. “That love waned but I liked Alentejo so much that I stayed.” We asked Michele where she gets her inspiration. “I did not grow up with the traditional recipes of Alentejo, I have a different culinary background.” she answered. “But I am inspired by the amazing products that the region has to offer.”

Michele introduced us to her business partner, Mário Vieira, her close collaborators, sous chef Alberto Muralha and pastry chef Gonçalo Carvalho, and all the dining room staff. “The restaurant is a team effort,” she stressed. “We’re all essential to the quality of the food and service. I have to pick the right people to make sure that everything we do, we do with love.“

It is clear that someday soon stars will shine on this restaurant in Alentejo. But we don’t need official accolades to know that Gadanha serves extraordinary food prepared with love.

Gadanha is located at Largo Dragões de Olivença, 84 A in Estremoz, tel. 268 333 262. Click here for their website.