Dinning with Marlene

When we dined at Marlene Vieira’s new restaurant, appropriately called Marlene, the place was packed. But, like a star performer, Marlene made us feel like she was cooking just for us, often coming to our table to chat about the food she served. 

The meal started with a variation on one of her classic themes, the “filhós de berbigão” that she serves at Zun Zum, her more casual restaurant. This time, the filhós, a star-shaped shell made from fried dough, was gloriously stuffed with foie gras, reineta apple, and a Madeira-wine gel. 

Next, came a trompe l’oeil preparation. It looked like cheese topped with prosciutto. But the cheese turned out to be an egg cooked at low temperature that, mixed with the prosciutto, created a festival of umami sensations.

We were taken to the sea by a delicate combination of violet shrimp from the Algarve accompanied by a gazpacho made with the shrimp’s head, topped with a percebes tartlet. 

Then, we returned to land with two crusty loaves of bread, one made with wheat and rye and the other with white corn. They came with fragrant olive oil made in Trás-os-Montes at Quinta de São Miguel do Seixo. 

The next menu entry was a delicate part of the codfish called cocochas seasoned with parsley and pine nuts. We reached the mid-point of our culinary journey with tasty white truffles and morel mushrooms stuffed with requeijão

They were followed by a ravishing sole dressed in an asparagus sauce, butter, and caviar. We reached the climax with a savory pudding made with an eel broth seasoned with saffron and topped with the eel’s skin. It is sublime!

Dessert was a delightful pine nut mousse with apple granita and pineapple from the Azores. The petit fours were lovely: merengue with a strawberry cream, tangerine leaves, and macaroons stuffed with almonds and eggs.

We’re lucky to have a chef like Marlene Vieira, who studied the past to invent the future of our culinary tradition!

Marlene is located at Av. Infante D. Henrique, Doca do Jardim do Tabaco, Lisboa, tel. 351 912 626 761, email marlene@marlene.pt.

Tasting Malvasias in Madeira

Prince Henry the Navigator was an early-day venture capitalist. He financed expeditions on small boats called caravels to find new lands, keeping 20 percent of the resulting profits. His first big success came in 1419 when his navigators discovered an island covered by a laurel forest. They named it Madeira, the Portuguese word for wood.  

The prince brought sugar cane from Sicily to Madeira, where it thrived because of the abundance of water and subtropical climate. The island became Europe’s leading sugar producer until the first half of the 16thcentury, when Brazil supplanted it.

Prince Henry was also interested in wine, in part because of its use in liturgic services. The best 15th-century wine was made in Crete from a white varietal called Malvasia Cândida and produced with overripe grapes. 

The Jesuits planted Malvasia Cândida from Crete in a small region of Madeira called Fajã dos Padres. Today, this varietal is rare on the island. It was superseded by Malvasia de São Jorge, a hybrid created in the 1950s by Leão Ferreira de Almeida and generally used to make Madeira Malmsey. 

Manuel Malfeito, our friend who’s an enology professor, brought to Madeira a bottle of fortified wine made in Crete from Malvasia Cândida so we could compare it with Malmsey. “Perhaps this is the first time in 500 years that a wine from the original Malvasia Cândida is drunk on the island of Madeira!” said Manuel with glee. 

How do the two wines compare? The wine from Crete is pleasant and intensely sweet. The Madeira Malmsey has much more depth because of its acidity. This acidity comes in part from Madeira’s volcanic soils, which are rich in iron, manganese, and magnesium. 

It is the combination of sweetness and acidity that makes Madeiras so exquisite. Each glass of Madeira wine is a gift from a prince.

The Paimogo fort

There are two ways to reach the fort of Her Lady of the Angels of Paimogo. During low tide, we can walk on the white beach sand while the cool sea waters bathe our feet. We can always go by land, through rolling hills painted with sepia colors that contrast with the shimmering blue of the sea. Either way, the fort awaits us at the end of our journey. 

Built in 1674, it maintains its original architecture. It has two spacious rooms on each side of the main door. In the back, a chamber with thick walls and a vaulted ceiling stored ammunition. Side stairs lead to a terrace with magnificent views. In the distance, we see the Berlenga island surrounded by the infinite sea. Below, the bay of Paimogo offers shelter from the storms.  

The fort was part of a line of defense that stretched from Cascais to Peniche, protecting the coast against pirates and other aggressors. It was used in 1808 during the Napoleonic invasions and again in 1832 during the civil war that pitched two royal brothers, Pedro and Miguel, against each other. Since then, the fort has retired from military pursuits. It is a peaceful place where we can marvel at the beauty of the land and the splendor of the sea.

The Paimogo fort is located 3.5 km north of Praia da Areia Branca.

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.

Casa Cadaval

Manuel Malfeito, our friend who teaches enology, invited us to meet a German countess. We traveled to Ribatejo, a region near Lisbon, where Teresa Schonbörn, countess of Schonbörn and Wiesentheid, lives in Casa Cadaval. It is a sprawling estate with 5,000 hectares of agricultural land that has been in Teresa’s family for 11 generations. 

Teresa was born in Germany and studied in Switzerland and England. But her Portuguese mother made sure she spent her vacations in Portugal. The memories of those carefree summers probably played a significant role in her decision to live in Cadaval.

The property was the dowery of the countess of Odemira when she married the 1st duke of Cadaval in 1660. The countess brought a herd of mares from one of her estates in Alentejo, starting a tradition of breeding pure-blood Lusitano horses at Casa Cadaval that continues to thrive. 

Teresa invited us into her Mercedes for a tour of the estate. Her three dogs came along for the ride. Our first stop was a field where the estate’s famous Lusitano horses roam free. Teresa stopped the car, and the horses came to greet her. She addressed each one by name as if they were part of her family. 

A flock of herons followed us on the way to the vineyard that is the estate’s ex-libris. It has 70-year-old trincadeira vines planted by the countess’s parents. When we returned to the car, the dogs sat on our laps, teaching us about the terroir by covering our clothes with the sandy soil.

Next, Teresa drove us to a field covered by a flock of storks. We stopped to admire their elegant dance. The storks rehearse their flight maneuvers for three straight weeks before flying to Africa. There are no signs of modern civilization around us, only majestic pines, oaks, and holms. We could well be in a different century. Archeologists discovered, in these fields, silex from 7,000 years ago. They also found many shells of pre-historic cockles (berbigão) that lived on a river delta.

Cadaval has produced wine since the 17th century. The property is near a village called Muge. Tong in cheek, the countess calls the new wine they make Moujolais Nouveaux. 

We tried a few wines with Tiago Correia, the estate’s enologist. The first was a 2016 Riesling with a flint aroma. The grapes were harvested early in the season, resulting in low alcohol content and enticing acidity. Manuel noticed the influence of the Berlengada, the cold wind from the Berlengas islands.

Next, we sampled a delicate Pinot noir that filled our palate with joy. Finally, we tried a 2017 Trincadeira old vines. It has a vibrant, fresh taste that is enticing. Made only in exceptional years, it bears the hallmarks of Casa Cadaval: understated elegance, aristocratic charm, and remarkable longevity.

Click here for Casa Cadaval’s website.

St. George’s castle

If you’re up for a climb in Lisbon, we recommend visiting St. George’s castle. You can start at the bottom of the hill and go up the old meandering streets of Alfama, the only neighborhood that survived the 1755 earthquake.

At almost every corner, someone sells glasses of ginginha, a delightful liquor made from sour cherries. But it is unbecoming to drink ginginha from plastic glasses. We prefer to get it at “A Ginginha” in Largo São Domingos, where they’ve served it in proper glasses since 1840.  

It’s worthwhile to buy the ticket to enter the castle. However, keep your expectations low–a first sight, there isn’t much to see. A bronze statue of Dom Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal, who conquered the castle from the Moors in 1147. A marble statue of Dom Manuel, the monarch who oversaw the golden age of discoveries by Portuguese navigators. Fountains whose water has run dry, broken marble columns, and cannons that are no longer battle-ready lie around the castle, all in medieval disarray. There are pines and olive trees, their branches sought by vain peacocks searching for a thrill.

The castle was built and rebuilt over centuries, first with cement and stone and then with brick and mortar. The layers of the imposing walls read like a diary of all those who lived here: Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Moors, and Portuguese. 

What the castle offers are magnificent views of Lisbon. The city lies at our feet, making us feel like royalty—scratch your skin, and surely blue blood will trickle out. A map made out of tiles shows us the lay of the land. Nearby there are benches inscribed with the words of Sophia de Mello Breyner. What a beautiful idea to carve in stone the words of a poet!

We stroll around the castle until the sun sets down. Only then do we go downhill. Be careful because the cobblestones are slippery. And there’s no need to rush. There’s plenty of time to get to Largo de São Domingos and enjoy a glass of ginginha.

You can get tickets online at the castle’s website, here.

A port wine toast

In much of the world, old vines are thorn out and replaced with new ones. But not in the Douro valley. There, old vines are nurtured and treasured. Their grapes are few in number and small in size, but they make sublime wines.

We raise this glass to wish you all health and longevity. And to remind us of what we can learn from the old vineyards that make this port. We can produce a lot when we’re young, but we need to age before we can make something precious. Cheers!

The Correio-mor palace

We visited the Correio-mor palace in Loures on a sunny winter morning. The building was the country house of the family that, for two centuries, had a monopoly on mail distribution in the Portuguese empire. When the 1755 earthquake destroyed their Lisbon home, the family relocated to Loures and made this palace their permanent residence.

The ornate gates opened with ease as if they were expecting us. We stepped into a spacious courtyard that overlooks the Baroque building. Our first stop was the kitchen. White and blue tiles reflect the bright light that pours through the windows. The tiles depict the delicacies served at the palace: fish, game, vegetables, and fruits. A lonely marble table sits in the middle of the room, longing for the days when armies of cooks crowded around it to prepare sumptuous banquets. Across from the kitchen, we see vast wine cellars that once stored the fruits of many harvests.

An elegant staircase takes us to the noble floor. The limestone steps show the gentle wear that only shoes made of silk and soft leather can produce. At the top of the stairs, a hallway overlooks the expansive garden. We admire the ancient pine trees that have seen all the parties and heard all the gossip. Impassive, they sway in the wind, revealing nothing.

It is easy to get lost inside the palace. There are many elegant rooms with lavishly decorated ceilings and walls covered with tiles depicting naval scenes, hunting expeditions, and garden parties. 

At the Correio-mor palace we do not feel the stress of the modern world, only the gilded ease of aristocratic life. 

You can rent the Correio-mor palace for movies, weddings, and other special events. Click here for the palace’s website.

Marlene Vieira’s Codfish Recipe

The Portuguese culinary tradition does not come from palace kitchens. It comes from the cooking of humble people who, in every season, took the best ingredients that nature offered and prepared them using recipes perfected over centuries. The food presentation is often rustic, but the taste is delicious because everything is harmonious and natural.

Many chefs are reinventing the cuisine of Portugal. But the truth is that there’s no need for reinvention. What we need is an evolution, the creation of new recipes that, like clams Bulhão Pato and Caldo Verde, bring joy to the dining tables of Portugal. Easy to say, but who can do it? 

We know one chef who can: Marlene Vieira. Her Zun Zum and Time Out restaurants are indispensable stops in any culinary tour of Lisbon. Her food is creative, not because she wants to surprise or shock. Marlene’s originality stems from her ability to intuit new, delicious ways of preparing Portugal’s great food products. 

Marlene started cooking at age 12. Her father, who owned a butcher shop, took her on a delivery to an Oporto restaurant that served French-inspired food. The chef invited Marlene to sample what they were preparing, and she was hooked. She loved the taste, the refinement, and elegance. Marlene spent holidays and school vacations helping out at the restaurant. She relishes the organized chaos of a professional kitchen, and cooking proved to be an ideal outlet for her bountiful energy. 

At age 16, Marlene went to culinary school. She graduated as the best student and stayed as a teaching assistant, while working as a pastry chef at a boutique hotel. Up to this point, all her cooking had revolved around French techniques. 

At age 20, a friend invited her to work at a Portuguese restaurant in New York. For the first time, Marlene had to cook traditional Portuguese food. She remembered fondly the food that her mother and grandmother prepared, but she did not know how to cook it. More than three thousand miles away from home, this young chef started to study the cuisine of Portugal. And for the first time, she realized that she had a role to play: embrace Portuguese cuisine and make it her own.

Marlene returned to Portugal inspired to learn more about traditional cooking. She continued to work in fine dining, but her cooking became more and more Portuguese. A breakthrough moment came when Time Out magazine chose her dish featuring a large shrimp called “carabineiro” served with an almond brulée as the year’s best recipe. This dish has the hallmark of Marlene’s cooking: it draws on combinations of ingredients and techniques that are hard to envision but feel utterly natural once you try them. 

We asked Marlene whether she could share a recipe with our readers. She generously gave us a codfish recipe. 

Portugal has many codfish recipes, but only a few have stood the test of time, like those of Brás, Zé do Pipo, and Gomes de Sá. Perhaps one day, this recipe will be known as Codfish Marlene. Enjoy!

Codfish Confit with Sweet Potatoes Gnocchi, Low-temperature Egg, and Pea Emulsion

Ingredients for four people

600 grams of codfish filets

2 garlic cloves

1 laurel leaf

400 grams of sweet potatoes

5 eggs

100 grams of flour

70 grams of onion

70 grams of leaks

300 grams of peas

Microgreens for garnish

3 deciliters of olive oil

200 milliliters of whole milk

Sea salt

Preparation

Pre-heat the oven at 150 ºC.

Clean the codfish fillets, removing the bones. Divide into 12 portions. Smash the garlic, leaving the skin. Place the garlic, the codfish, the laurel leaf, and 2 dl of olive oil on a tray. Set aside.

Place 4 eggs in a pot with water. Heat the pot until the temperature reaches 63.5 ºC. Use a thermometer to control the temperature and keep it steady for 45 minutes. Once the time is up, place the eggs in an ice bowl to lower the temperature.

Cook the sweet potatoes with the skin on. Let them cool, peel them, and make a purée. Mix in a bowl the flour, the purée, and one egg. Blend until the mixture is homogeneous. Make small cylinders and cut them into gnocchi. Bring water and salt to a boil. Once it is boiling, add the gnocchi, cooking for 3 minutes. Remove them with a slotted spoon and drain the remaining water by placing the gnocchi on paper towels.    

Slice the onions and leek. Put olive oil, the onion, and leek in a pot and let the vegetables sweat for 10 minutes in low heat. Add the peas, season with salt, cover with milk and cook for another 15 minutes. Blend the mixture with a hand blender and strain.

Place the codfish in the oven for 10 minutes. Heat a frying pan with a bit of olive oil. Once the oil is warm, add the gnocchi and let them cook—season with salt and pepper. 

Heat up the eggs in tepid water for 10 minutes. Remove the eggshell.

Warm the pea emulsion and blend with a hand blender until it makes foam. 

Serve on a deep plate, placing the gnocchi at the bottom, then the codfish and the egg. Finalize using the pea emulsion and some microgreens. 

Click here for Marlene Vieira’s website.

The sublime wines of the Madeira island

Novice wine drinkers like slightly sweet wines, while wine connoisseurs favor wines with acidity. Madeira wines have the best of both worlds, a pleasant sweetness and a refined acidity. 

These wines are named after their terroir—a volcanic archipelago of captivating beauty. When Portuguese navigators discovered it in 1419, it had lush woods, so they called it Madeira, the Portuguese word for wood.

Like Ports, Madeiras are fortified wines. The process by which yeast turns fructose into alcohol is interrupted by adding neutral, vinic alcohol. As a result, some fructose remains, giving the wine its sweetness.

Producers begin the aging process by gently heating the wine. Winemakers developed this technique after discovering that wines improved significantly when subject to tropical temperatures during sea voyages. 

Entry-level wines are heated in large tanks for at least three months, a process called “estufagem.” More noble wines are stored in hot, humid attics for at least two years, a process known as “canteiro.” Heat ruins most wines. But not Madeiras—their acidity gives them the fortitude to survive the heat and age beautifully.

There are five main grape varietals used in Madeira production. Sercial makes dry wines, Verdelho medium-dry, Bual semi-sweet, and Malmsey sweet. Tinta Negra is perhaps the most versatile of all the Madeira varietals, capable of producing a range of styles, from nutty dry to luscious rich.

The drier wines are generally served as aperitifs and the sweeter wines as dessert wines. But Madeiras are very versatile. For example, Sercial is an excellent pairing for oysters and sashimi. 

We had the privilege of tasting Madeiras with Chris Blandy, the CEO of Blandy’s, a company that has produced Madeira wine since 1811. We compared wines made from Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malmsey with “raw” versions of these wines. The raw wines have just been fortified but have not been heated or aged. This tasting showed us the enormous impact of heating and aging on wine quality. Water evaporates, concentrating and refining flavors. In some 20-year-old Madeiras, only 8 percent of the original wine remains, but what is left is sublime. 

Chris refilled our tasting glasses. “These wines are moreish,” he says, using a quaint British expression that refers to food or drink that make us ask for more. No wonder that in Shakespeare’s play Henry IV, Sir John Falstaff sells his soul to the devil for a glass of Madeira. We’re so lucky to drink these extraordinary wines without losing our souls!

Click here for the Blandy’s website.