Dining by candlelight at Quinta Dona Maria

We arrived late in the afternoon and waited outside the imposing marble gate. Before we could say ‘abracadabra’ or some other incantation, the gate opened, welcoming us to Quinta Dona Maria, a magnificent wine estate in Alentejo. 

Isabel Bastos came to greet us. We walked with her to the palace’s chapel and sat down to hear her recount the story of Quinta Dona Maria. The estate was a gift from King John V to Dona Maria, a lady of the court with whom the king fell in love. Dona Maria left no descendants, so the property was sold in a public auction upon her death. The Reynolds, a family of merchants from southern England, purchased it. They renamed the estate Quinta do Carmo in honor of an image of the Lady of Carmo they bought for the chapel in 1752. The estate currently belongs to Júlio Bastos, Isabel’s husband, who descends from the Reynolds family. 

Júlio’s grandfather started producing fine wines on the estate. The project was so successful that in a blind tasting with the Rothschilds held in the late 1980s, the wines from Quinta do Carmo tied with Lafitte Rothschild. Impressed by this feat, the Rothschilds proposed Júlio Bastos a partnership. But the two winemakers had different objectives and approaches. Júlio is passionate about the old vines planted with the traditional varietals of Alentejo, most of all Alicante Bouschet, a varietal brought by the Reynolds from France to Alentejo. The Rothschilds wanted to replant the vineyards with French varietals that could appeal to the international market. Eventually, the two parties separated. In this process, the Rothschilds kept the brand Quinta do Carmo, so Júlio renamed his wines and estate Quinta Dona Maria. 

We walked to the wine cellar to see the 18th-century marble tanks where the grapes are still crushed by foot treading. The tanks were brimming with grapes that were starting the fermentation process that transmutes earthly grape juice into heavenly wine. Isabel served us an enticing rosé with pleasing fruit notes and refreshing acidity. Next, we tried a delightful white Viognier that shows how much this French grape shines in the soils of Alentejo. The tasting ended with pomp and circumstance provided by two sumptuous Dona Maria red reserves from 2005 and 2008.

It was time to go to the palace. The large door creaked as it slowly opened to show us rooms lit by candlelight that made us feel like we were back in the 18th century. Júlio joined us for dinner. His love for the land, food, and wine of Alentejo were evident throughout the meal. 

The dinner, prepared by Filipe Ramalho from Páteo Real and Beatriz Tobinha, the palace’s resident chef, was a memorable feast. It started with Filipe’s famous tart made from chestnut-flower sausage, pears cooked in wine, quince marmalade, and chard. Then there was a slew of appetizers: tomato and watermelon salad, roasted peppers with bacon, slices of the brilliant sausages made at Salsicharia Canense, plates with savory Alentejo cheeses, and chickpeas with pickled codfish salad. A rich white Dona Maria reserve delicately aged in oak was an enthralling gastronomical companion.

Next came the main dishes: cação (a fish popular in Alentejo) in coriander sauce, pheasant in escabeche sauce and marinated carrots, and duck croquettes with black garlic mayonnaise. A splendid Dona Maria red reserve from 2017 made from old vines complemented the food with its festive taste of berries and hints of spices. 

The dessert was an almond and pumpkin tart paired with the famed Júlio B. Bastos Alicante Bouschet, named after Júlio’s father. The wine’s acidity, tannins, and fruit sing to the palate in perfect harmony.

Glancing at the watch, we saw the two hands pointing to midnight. We knew from fairy tales that it was time to leave. We thanked Isabel and Júlio for their warm hospitality and drove back to our hotel. We slept peacefully but woke up wondering: was the dinner at Quinta Dona Maria a dream? 

Click here for the website of Quinta Dona Maria.

Howard’s Folly

It is great fun to visit Howard’s Folly in Estremoz. The restaurant, winery, and art gallery are a joint venture between Howard Bilton, a British financier, and David Baverstock, a legendary winemaker. 

After studying enology in his home country, Australia, David worked in France and Germany. Before returning home, he vacationed in Portugal and met his future wife, Maria Antonieta. He returned to Australia to work in the Barossa Valley, where Maria joined him. But Maria was homesick, and in 1982 the couple came back to Portugal. David worked in the Douro valley until 1992, when he became chief winemaker at Herdade do Esporão in Alentejo. He felt at home in the endless plains that reminded him of Australia. His thirty harvests at Esporão helped establish Alentejo as an important wine region.  

Howard’s Folly is an exuberant place. It occupies a large building that was once a “grémio da lavoura,” an agriculture association. There is art everywhere. Sewing machines turned into miniature tractors bought in the local market, pig sculptures, and much more.

David shows us the winery with its colorful walls painted by a graffiti artist. Freshly picked grapes are arriving to be sorted, crushed, and cooled with dry ice. 

We head to the restaurant. The food, prepared by chef Hugo Bernardo, is Portuguese with a whimsical British twist. The butter has a strong umami taste because it is mixed with Marmite, a salty yeast extract popular in Britain. 

David opens a delightful white wine called Sonhador (dreamer), made from old vines planted in the hills of São Mamede in Portalegre. It is an excellent companion for the codfish and chips that soon arrived at the table. Then we try the Winemaker’s Choice, a velvety red that pairs beautifully with a delicious shitake mushroom salad.

Lunch ends with a glass of 1991 Carcavelos. The wine, produced at Quinta dos Pesos by the Manuel Bulhosa family, was stored in barrels and almost forgotten. David and Howard convinced the family to sell them some barrels so that David could make a blend. The result is spectacular.  

David retired from Esporão and was planning to take it easy. But Ravasqueira convinced him to join them as chief winemaker. And that is lucky for us. We’ll be able to enjoy many more of David’s harvests to come!

Howard’s Folly is located at Rua General Norton de Matos in Estremoz, tel. 268 332 151.

Lunch at a royal courtyard

We drove to Alter do Chão in Alentejo to have lunch at Páteo Real, a restaurant headed by a young chef called Filipe Ramalho. Páteo Real means royal courtyard, a reference to the castle of Alter do Chão, which stands proudly in the restaurant’s backyard. 

After working in fine dining for seven years, Filipe wanted to put the new techniques he mastered at the service of the traditional cuisine of Alentejo. When he learned that Páteo Real was for sale, he drove there on a Friday and closed the deal by Monday. 

But this new beginning was tough. The locals suspected the restaurant would charge high prices for small portions of pretty food. Visitors were few and far between. One year later, it is difficult to get a reservation–the restaurant is full of visitors and locals. And for a good reason: its food is a delicious evolution of the traditional cooking of Alentejo. 

We sat in the courtyard under large white umbrellas that protected us from the exuberant Alentejo sun. A waiter filled our glasses with “O Nosso,” a pleasant white wine from Serra Papa Leite. The meal started with Filipe’s signature dish: a tart cooked with farinheira sausage made with chestnut flour, topped with pears cooked in wine, quince marmalade, and chard. This unusual combination is so harmonious that it will likely become a classic.

A plate of sliced sausages followed the iconic tart. Alentejo’s sausages are generally excellent, but these are exceptional. They come from Salsicharia Canaense, an artisanal producer with whom Filipe collaborates. Their products also starred on the following two plates: cabeça de xara (a pork preparation) served with pickled purple onions and coriander pesto and delicately smoked bacon served with roasted red peppers, olive oil, coriander, paprika, and large capers.

Next, we tried some delightful duck croquettes served with puffed rice and coriander mayonnaise. The savory part of the meal ended with duck livers seared in brandy and combined with thinly-sliced fried potatoes. It is an explosion of flavor. “When we recommend duck livers and the clients hesitate, we offer a money-back guarantee,” said Filipe smiling. “People are always surprised at how good it is.”

The dessert was a delicious tart made from almonds and pumpkin jam. We loved the arch and rhythm of the meal. It kept our palates interested and left us deeply satisfied. It is a royal honor to dine in Filipe Ramalho’s courtyard!

Páteo Real is located at Av. Dr. João Pestana 37, Alter do Chão, tel. 960 155 363.

The Saint Hubert tavern

We were in Alentejo with Manuel Malfeito, a professor of enology,  when he suggested that we visit one of his former students, Joaquim Saragga Leal. Joaquim used to run Taberna Sal Grosso in Lisbon but moved to Évora to be closer to his roots. 

We arrived late because we got lost. Evora is a labyrinthine Roman city with narrow streets that hide its secrets from global positioning systems. But, eventually, we found the Taberna de Santo Humberto. Joaquim tells us that it was once a tavern called O Berto that served wine and simple food. Then, some well-to-do women took it over, serving elegant food that became one of Évora’s culinary references. They turned O Berto into Hubert. For good luck they canonized him, so the place became the Saint Hubert Restaurant. Joaquim kept the saint but brought back the tavern, both in name and attitude.

He studied mechanical engineering in London and worked as an engineer but, on the side, he always cooked for friends. One day, he returned to Alentejo to help his grandmother run a famous wine estate, Herdade dos Coelheiros. He joined a wine program in Bordeaux and then went to culinary school. When he finished, he enrolled in a master of gastronomic sciences program, taking classes with professor Malfeito. 

Joaquim tells us that he wants to cook more rustic, more affectionate food, recover old, forgotten recipes, cook what his grandmother used to make, and what Alentejo taverns used to serve. “A meal at my restaurant consists of many small plates meant to be shared because the art of sharing is close to the art of conversation,” he says. 

After this long introduction, he asked: “what would you like to eat?” Manuel answered without hesitation: “the choice is up to you.” Joaquim grimaced and replied, “this sounds like another exam.” “Indeed!” agreed Manuel.  

We ran out of culinary adjectives during the meal. Cornish hens in escabeche sauce were mouthwatering, the liver duck was amazing, the bacon and garlic marvelous, the codfish tongs outstanding, and the frog legs Bulhão Pato style fantastic. 

After a brief interlude, Joaquim brought two delicious salads, one with watercress and orange and the other with tomato, figs, and hydrated prosciutto. Then, there were incredible croquettes made from beef tongue and Osso Bucco, crispy codfish cakes, and exquisite stewed bone marrow.

The dessert was a cake made from cheese, the traditional Abade de Priscos pudding, a local cake called padinha, and a chocolate mousse seasoned with salt.

After this culinary marathon, Joaquim arrived holding a tray with coffee cups and glasses of pennyroyal liqueur. Then he asked, “What grade did I get?” “A+!” we shouted.

Taberna de Santo Humberto is located at Rua da Moeda, 39, Évora, tel. 913 198 215.

Dining with Ana Moura in Porto Côvo

We’ve been following chef Ana Moura since her spectacular debut at Cave 23 in Lisbon. So, when we heard she had opened a restaurant in Porto Côvo, a fishermen village on the coast of Alentejo, we went on a pilgrimage to see how her cooking has evolved.

Ana called the restaurant Lamelas, after her mother’s family name. The Lamelas have lived in Porto Côvo for generations and Ana spent her childhood summers there. 

The restaurant has a beautiful terrace overlooking a small harbor.  It was there that our lunch began, with glasses filled with rosé from a local winery called Herdade da Cebolal. Marta, our genial server, brought small plates with appetizing starters: Alentejo bread with an orange butter made with pork fat and red pepper paste; almece, a local cheese, topped with cured fish; a salad made with hake eggs that were so fresh we felt as if the sea had moved closer to our table.

Marta filled our glasses with a delectable white from Herdade do Cebolal to prepare our palates for the next dish: a luscious abrótea (a local fish) with clams, green sauce, and toasted bread. Next, there was a rice made with robalo (seabass), pargo (snapper), and shrimp. We admired the perfection of the confection, all rice grains perfectly cooked, all flavors in harmony. 

Migas, a bread-based preparation, accompanied pork ribs and a purslane salad. It was an explosion of flavor that paired well with the grand reserve red from another local winery, Herdade da Carochinha. 

The meal ended with sweetness from a chocolate mousse lightly seasoned with fleur de sel, a cheese cake, and sopa dourada (golden soup). 

Throughout the meal, we could see Ana cooking in the kitchen. She was in a state of intense concentration, tasting everything and making last minute adjustments.  

We lingered at the table drinking coffee and trying some local brandies made from medronho, waiting for Ana to finish the service. When she came to greet us, we told her that the meal had been unforgettable. She blushed with humility and spoke with passion about her team and the local producers she is working with. 

We asked Ana whether there were any other local restaurants we should try. She praised the cooking of many local chefs and we left with a long list of suggestions. 

We said our goodbyes and started to research Ana’s list. But we had found an epicurean paradise and it made no sense to leave it. We called Lamelas and made lunch and dinner reservations for the following day. It was an inspired decision. We tried many more gastronomical jewels: a stunning açorda made with sole, magnificent mullets, perfect cuttlefish, delicate abrótea livers, and delicious “carabineiro” shrimps. Just when we thought we had sampled the whole menu, Ana sent something new for us to try: pasteis de massa tenra (turnovers) with a boulliabaisse filling. They were fantastic! 

There’s an old Arab tale about someone who travels the world searching for a treasure, only to find it in the courtyard of their childhood home. Ana traveled the world to apprentice in great restaurants. And now, in the beach of her childhood summers, she created a culinary treasure.  

Lamelas is located at Rua Candido da Silva 55a in Porto Covo, tel. 924060426.

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.

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.