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.

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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.

 

Elegant food at L’and

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We arrived at L’and blinded by the midday Alentejo sun. It felt great stepping into the cool shade offered by this elegant hotel surrounded by vineyards.

Chef Miguel Laffan came to meet us. We asked him how he felt relocating from Cascais, a cosmopolitan beach near Lisbon, to this secluded place in the interior of Alentejo. “I came to focus on food,” he told us. “Here there are no distractions. But it took two or three years for the people of Alentejo to trust and accept me. Now, they say that I am a chef from Alentejo!”

The meal began with a small round cheese made from sheep milk in nearby Arraiolos. It was Laffan’s way of saying that this simple cheese is as good as the high cuisine on the menu. No wonder the locals adopted him as one of their own.

A beautiful bread box offered us the choice between old and new traditions: Alentejo bread was paired with new breads made from local products—carob, seeds, and olives.

Next, came a set of delightful appetizers: a glass of tomato, pepper and strawberry gazpacho, a codfish “rissol” covered with bread crumbs soaked in cuttle fish ink, ceviche with oyster and turbot accompanied by a banana cream, and a croquette made with alheira and bergamot orange.

Laffan came back to our table and we talked about his approach to cooking. “I like to use local ingredients, but I am not a fundamentalist. What is important to me is to cook food that I enjoy eating. I admire the lightness of Asian cooking but I do not do fusion. Instead, I let that lightness inspire me to create something different here in Alentejo.”

We had scallops “Brás” style, an adaptation of the traditional codfish Brás-style recipe and Alentejo pork loin cooked slowly and served over a bed of cauliflower, peas and asparagus. Both were masterpieces of taste, aroma, texture, and presentation.

The desserts were a manga panna cotta beautifully decorated with beet flowers and fresh raspberries combined with raspberry mousse, merengue, and foam. Coffee came with wine gelatins and irresistible chocolates.

The following day, we saw in the Vila Viçosa ducal palace the menus of the banquets offered by king Dom Carlos and queen Dona Amélia. They are handwritten in French by the queen and illustrated with watercolors by the king. Portuguese recipes share the table with many preparations from France and elsewhere. These foreign recipes were probably viewed as more elegant than the rustic food of Portugal.

Today the royal couple would not need to look across borders for culinary elegance and refinement. They could find it at L’and in the cuisine of Miguel Laffan.

L’and and Vineyards is located in Montemor-o-Novo in Alentejo, tel. 266-242-400. Click here for their website.

Lunch at Herdade do Esporão

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We should have known that it is hard to get to paradise. We drove from Vila Viçosa to Herdade do Esporão guided by a GPS system that chose an old dirt road over the new road from Reguengos. Taking the slow road helped us understand that Esporão is an oasis. A place in the dusty interior of Alentejo where a blue lake nurtures pristine vines that produce some of Portugal’s best wines.

The road to the success of Esporão was also slow. José Roquette bought the estate in 1973 at a time when Alentejo was not a major producer of great wines. Shortly after the 1974 revolution, the estate was nationalized. It was returned to its owner only in 1984. The first wine was bottled in 1985 and released in 1987. The success of this vintage and of those that followed put Alentejo on the world wine map.

Maria Roquette, José’s daughter in law, welcomed us to the dinning room. It is a tranquil space that overlooks the lake and the vines. The walls are decorated with art that Esporão commissioned over the years to use in the labels of its reserve wine.

Maria introduced us to the chef, Pedro Pena Bastos. We did not guess that this unassuming 25-year-old was about to take us on an extraordinary culinary journey.

To prepare our senses, Pedro brought us a heavenly concoction of chick peas, seaweed, codfish eggs, and citrus caviar.  Next, came a marriage of peasant food and contemporary cuisine: pig’s feet with coriander in a red shiso gelatin. We visited the woods to taste wild mushroom beignets and a green garlic custard with truffles. We cruised rivers to enjoy crayfish and sailed seas to eat mackerel and porgy. Back on land, we had lamb from Alentejo with artichokes and apricots.

Finally, we entered the garden of delights: a green-almond ice cream, a lavender and peach tart, a gelatin of late-harvest wine, and marshmallows made of hazelnuts and chocolate.

Our traveling companions were the wonderful wines of Esporão. There were many different personalities and styles. Some, like the experimental white made from the Sardinian varietal Vermentino, were new and festive. Others, like the classic reserve red, were gracious and wise. The meal ended with fireworks provided by a wonderful tawny-style dessert wine.

If you’re visiting Portugal, travel the road to Herdade do Esporão, a place where you can taste the food and wine of paradise.

The Herdade do Esporão is located at Reguengos de Monsara, near Évora, Alentejo. Their telephone and email are 266 509 280
 and reservas@esporao.com , respectively. The Herdade’s GPS coordinates are: latitude: 38.398611 and longitude: -7.546111. Chef Pedro Pena Bastos is the fifth from the left on the photo above.

A school lunch

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In 1940, the Portuguese government announced its “centennial plan,” a program to build a large number of primary schools. The schools in the north of the country, designed by Rogério de Azevedo, look austere with their granite and schist exteriors. The schools in the south, designed by Raul Lino, have graceful arches and whitewashed walls. Both designs used elements of the vernacular architecture and became integral parts of the Portuguese landscape.

With the number of children in decline, some of these schools have been closing. The school in the village of Cachopos near Comporta in Alentejo closed in the late 1990s but found new life as a restaurant appropriately called A Escola (the school).

The building is located in a beautiful woodland. Our arrival was greeted by the chirping of birds and perfumed by the scent of eucalyptus.

As we sat at the table remembering learning the three Rs, a plate of marinated rabbit and a carrot salad arrived. The menu has lots of great offerings, including cuttlefish rice with shrimp, fried eels, pasta with sea bass, stewed partridge, and rabbit pie with pine nut rice. The portions are generous and the food is delicious. A Escola is a great place to enjoy the simple, hearty cuisine of Alentejo.

On the school wall there’s an old map of the Portuguese empire. Those vast possessions of land and sea are long gone. But the empire of the senses–Portugal’s wonderful culinary tradition–continues to thrive.

A Escola is located at Estrada Nacional 253, Cachopos, Alcácer do Sal, tel. 265 612 816.

 

A tavern called Wednesday

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André Freire, the manager of the beautiful Évora pousada, urged us to try a tavern called Quarta Feira (the Portuguese word for Wednesday). “It’s a special place,” André said with a smile. “There’s no menu; you have to trust Zé Dias, the owner, and go with the flow.”

As soon as we entered the restaurant, we became friends with Zé Dias. He moved to Évora from a village in Beira Alta called Quarta Feira, the name he used for the restaurant. Dias worked as a typographer until he opened this tavern 25 years ago with Luisa Batista, a great local cook.

Dias’ enthusiasm for food, wine and life in Alentejo is infectious. Everything he serves comes from people he knows well, from the producers of cheese and sausages to the maker of the clay pots that are integral to Luisa Batista’s cooking. When we asked Dias how he managed to convince Paulo Laureano, a renowned Portuguese enologist, to make the house wine for Quarta Feira, Dias replied “Of course he said yes; we’ve been friends for a long time.”

Our dinner started with slices of local sausages and prosciutto made with black pork from Alentejo. Then a warm sheep cheese seasoned with oreganos arrived, busting with flavor. Next, we had some wonderful mushrooms cooked in mushroom water, seasoned with olive oil, garlic and coriander. “The secret is all in the timing,” Dias tells us and we believe him because at this point we believe everything he says.

The meal’s main event was the house specialty: black iberian pork shoulder marinated in wine cooked slowly in a clay pot. It was so delicious that our taste buds scintillated with delight. The dessert was composed of dried figs, walnuts, cooked quince, and samplings of two conventual desserts.

The meal ended with a glass of licoroso from Herdade do Mouchão. This sweet wine with notes of fruits and spices was a perfectly simple ending to a simply perfect meal.

Zé Dias is a philosopher king who disguises as a tavern owner so that he can share with his guests the joy of living in Alentejo.

Taberna Típica Quarta Feira is on Rua do Inverno 18, Évora, tel. 266 707 530.

A magical Summer soup

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When we sat down for dinner in the beautiful esplanade of the Arraiolos Pousada, we expected good food and attentive service. We got much more than that. We were served a series of delicious dishes that harmonized perfectly with Alentejo wine and made us feel we were at the right place, at the right time.

The dinner started with two soups, a Summer cucumber soup, followed by a tomato soup with quail egg. We then had “migas” (an Alentejo specialty made with bread) with wild asparagus and lamb grilled with rosemary. The grand finale was a sampling of traditional convent desserts updated with great refinement.

We congratulated the chef, Elizabete Velez, who told us that she learned to cook with her mother and grandmother in a small village in Alentejo. She offered to give us the recipe for her delicious Summer cucumber soup because it is very easy to make. Here it is.

Elizabete Velez’s Summer cucumber soup

Get the very best cucumbers you can find. Peel them (this step is key because the peel is very bitter) and remove their seeds. Dice the cucumbers, season them carefully with salt, pepper, and great olive oil. Puree the mixture in a blender. Pour into small bowls, placing one or two ice cubes in each bowl. Garnish with toasted slivered almonds, small strips of cucumber peel, and Portuguese sausage (preferably from Alentejo!).

Imagine eating this soup in a warm Summer evening, as the sun sets over a grove of olive trees and the stars wait their turn to shine on the Arraiolos castle. It’s magical!

Click here for the Pousadas’ website and here for more photos of the Arraiolos Pousada.