We can’t blame the moon for feeling unappreciated. Its life revolves around the earth and yet people prefer sunsets to moonrises. In the first day of the year, the full moon commanded the waves to bathe the beach sand and the clouds to sprinkle the earth with their blessed water.
The sun, feeling guilty about the droughts of the old year, let the moon have its way. But in the last few minutes of the day the star sent its rays to pierce the clouds and make everything shine.
We hope the New Year will have enough rain so you can come to Portugal to see lush green fields illuminated by brilliant sunshine.
Codfish is the star of the Portuguese Christmas-eve supper, but a cabbage called “penca” plays an essential supporting role. It is a hardy variety, capable of surviving the frost that usually covers the fields in December.
Penca is often planted next to “couve galega” a cabbage similar to kale used to make the traditional “caldo verde” (green soup) served at midnight on New Year’s Eve.
We love to see the fields of Portugal planted with these cabbages, dressed for the holidays in stunning green hues.
A completely reliable source told us that the best roasted suckling pig sandwich came not from Bairrada, the region famous for this culinary delicacy, but from a small café in Fátima called Mister Leitão. We couldn’t ignore this tantalizing tip, so we got on the road to Fátima to investigate.
We were advised to call in advance to reserve our sandwiches and we duly contacted José Miguel Vitório, the restaurant owner. He confirmed that they always run out of roasted suckling pig at some point in the early afternoon and that a reservation is indeed wise.
Mister Leitão has no place to sit, just a few counters where the sandwiches can be enjoyed. There’s always a line because the sandwiches are made to order. The air is filed with the smell of the roasted suckling pig and the bread baked in the premises. These appetizing aromas make the few minutes we waited seem like hours.
But the wait was well worth it. The sandwiches are amazing: the warm, crispy bread enfolds the succulent meat that is lean and has a deep taste reminiscent of prosciutto.
José Miguel is the heir to a tradition that started with his father in 1956. It takes a lifetime to learn how to roast a suckling pig. There are many details, seasoning the meat, sowing the animal, choosing the right fire wood, learning how to read and adjust the temperature of the oven. “But all the technique in the world will not matter if the ingredients are not great,” says José. He uses only fresh ingredients bought directly from selected farmers. “We peel by hand large quantities of fresh garlic. But that is what it takes to get the flavor we strive for,” he says. José carefully selects all the suckling pigs he uses, making sure that they were not fed with grain but were breastfed by their mothers.
After talking to José we felt hungry again. So we went back in line for another dose of suckling pig perfection.
Mister Leitão is located at Estrada da Batalha, 6, 2495 Fátima, tel. 249-538-120.
The most elegant place to dine in the Beira region is called Mesa de Lemos. Located near the village of Canas de Senhorim, the building is ensconced in the ancient granite boulders and looks like an integral part of the landscape. It was built three years ago by Celso de Lemos to showcase the wonderful wines he produces in the winery that also bears his name.
The restaurant tables overlook the surrounding vineyards, making us feel as if we are dining in the middle of the vines. There’s a fixed menu with optional, but indispensable, wine pairings. The delicious food is created by chef Diogo Rocha who was born in Canas de Senhorim. He draws inspirations from local traditional recipes to produce food that is elegant and satisfying.
Our meal started with a joyous sparkling wine called Geraldine in honor of Celso’s daughter. It has very fine bubbles and an elegant brioche aroma that combines perfectly with Diogo Rocha’s appetizers, a set of preparations reminiscent of a picnic in the countryside.
Next came Dona Santana, a complex red made from the four emblematic varietals cultivated in the Dão region: Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Jaen, and Afrocheiro. It paired perfectly with the braised bízaro pork. The last entrée was codfish adorned with an ethereal parsley foam and paired with an elegant red wine made from a single varietal, Afrocheiro.
The dessert feast started with an interesting experimental fortified wine produced by the quinta. It continued with a cherry pudding and a salty ice cream made from requeijão, a pastry filled with a sweet bean paste and a chestnut-shaped concoction made from egg yolks.
The wines of Quinta de Lemos are diamonds that sparkle anywhere. But at Mesa de Lemos they have their perfect setting.
Click here for the Mesa de Lemos web site. The restaurant is located at Quinta de Lemos, Passos de Silgueiros, near Viseu, tel 961 158 503.
Just when we think that Lisbon told us all her secrets, the city finds new ways to surprise and delight us. This time we discovered a new hotel called Palácio do Governador (the governor’s palace). Located near the Tagus river, it occupies a 16th century manor house that once belonged to the governor of the Belém neighborhood.
The governor’s room overlooks the Tower of Belém which used to be connected to the house through an underground passage. Near this passage, you can find the ruins of a Roman factory that produced garum, a fish sauce used in Roman cuisine.
We had a wonderful stay. The hotel integrates old and new with ease, offering comfortable rooms and elegant public spaces. The service is attentive and the location is perfect.
Our only source of anxiety was the temptation to forego breakfast at the hotel and walk over to the Confeitaria dos Pasteis de Bélem to start the day with a heavenly pastel de Belém.
Palácio do Governador is located on Rua Bartolomeu Dias 117, in Lisboa, tel. 212 467 800. Click here for the hotel’s website.