The farmers market was bustling. The baker ran out of cornbread; the vegetable stalls were out of Christmas cabbages. At home, thick slices of salt codfish were soaked to be cooked and doused with fragrant olive oil. In a country with so many splendid wines, it’s hard to elect one to grace the table. But the choice was made. Pumpkin fritters and other delights are ready to be served. And most of all, there are friends and family coming to enjoy each others’ company in this beautiful corner of the world called Portugal.
Twin wines from Bairrada?
Luís Pato, the famous Bairrada winemaker, is always doing something new. One of his recent projects is a white wine made from a rare grape called Sercialinho. This varietal was created in the 1950s by crossing two iconic grapes: Sercial, used in Madeira wine, and Alvarinho, used in vinho verde (green wine). João Pato, Luís’ father, planted this new varietal about half a century ago on the sandy soils of his Quinta de Ribeirinho. Luís always loved the grape’s aromas, which resemble those of Alsatian Rieslings. For years, he has used Sercialinho to add acidity and aroma to his renowned Vinhas Velhas (old vines). In 2013 Luís made a single-varietal Sercialinho in his father’s honor. He started producing it regularly with great results since 2019. “I’m the world’s sole producer of Sercialinho,” Luís told us with pride.
But Sogrape, Portugal’s largest wine producer, also launched to great acclaim a Sercialinho wine produced in Bairrada (in Quinta de Pedralvites). It is part of their “Séries Ímpares” created to showcase unique varietals and terroirs.
DNA analysis revealed that Sogrape’s Sercialinho is a cross of Vital and Uva Cão. Is this the same varietal that João Pato planted? Are the two Sercialinhos identical twins, fraternal twins, or homonymous strangers? It is a mystery. What we do know is that they’re both spectacular wines!
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.
What’s your favorite Madeira?
If you’re looking for a fun holiday activity for your grown-up friends, we have just the thing: a Madeira wine tasting. We suggest starting with the four classic styles, each named after the white grape varietal used in its production: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malmsey.
These wines have a combination of sweetness and acidity that enchants the palate. But each style is distinct. Sommeliers often serve the dry Sercial and medium-dry Verdelho as aperitifs and the medium-sweet Bual and sweet Malmsey as dessert wines.
Madeiras are fortified wines. Winemakers add neutral vinic alcohol at 96 degrees to stop the fermentation process through which yeast converts grape fructose into alcohol. As a result, not all fructose is converted into alcohol and the wine retains some residual sugar. Fortification has been used since the mid-18th century to give Madeiras the endurance they needed to survive long sea voyages.
Francisco Albuquerque, Blandy’s winemaker, says he generally stops the Sercial fermentation after ten days. For Malmsey, he suspends the fermentation after two days, so there’s a lot more sweetness left in the wine. Perhaps that is why, according to Shakespeare, the Duke of Clarence, condemned to death for treason against his brother King Edward IV, asked to be drowned in a cask of Malmsey.
Shippers discovered that Madeiras improve when they cross the equator in the hulls of sailboats. To mimic this effect, producers expose Madeiras to heat. For superior Madeiras this exposure happens in warm cellars, where the wines age for several years in old American oak casks before they’re ready for our enjoyment. The longer they stay in oak barrels, the more complex they become.
So, which Madeira do you favor? And which do your friends prefer? It’s great fun to find out!
Enchantment at Ceia
Standing in the shadow of Lisbon’s old pantheon, we knock on an inconspicuous door that opens into a courtyard erected in 1728. On our right is the entrance to one of Lisbon’s most hallowed dining rooms: a restaurant called Ceia. Those who’ve been here before experienced much more than superb food, exquisite wines, and courteous service. We had an enchanted evening.
João Rodrigues, Ceia’s owner, is an alchemist who knows how to transform a meal that nourishes the body into a celebration that nurtures the soul. He gathered a star team, headed by chef Diogo Caetano and sous-chef Tiago Silva, and trusted them with precious ingredients: pristine organic produce freshly picked at Herdade do Tempo in Alentejo.
Ivo Custódio, the sommelier, greets us with an old acquaintance: a white wine made by Luís Mota Capitão, the iconoclast winemaker of Herdade do Cebolal. We enjoy the wine and the conversation with the other guests. Then, Ivo invites us into the dining room. We gather around a long wooden table to hear him explain that the meal is a journey through Portugal’s culinary and enological landscapes.
The voyage starts at the bottom of the ocean with tuna tartare on crunchy seaweed crackers, seaweed sponge cake, and gooseneck barnacles. An Atlantis rosé made with Negra Mole on the Madeira Island enhances the sea flavors.
We rise to the ocean’s surface with the taste of briny oysters paired with tart apples from Alcobaça and seaweed ice cream. The oysters come with a magnificent 2014 white wine from Colares, a small region near the sea where the vines, planted in the sand, survived the phylloxera scourge that decimated Europe in the 19th century. Made by Chitas (the nickname of an old producer called Paulo da Silva) it is a complex wine that fascinates and delights.
We arrive at the beach with a delicately cooked turbot seasoned with smoky olive oil powder and served in a Bulhão Pato sauce. It is so delicious we barely resist the urge to ask for seconds.
But we find new joys in the lowlands where a sourdough bread fermented for three days and a cornbread baked with dried fruits await us. They come with Amor é Cego, a piquant oil made from Galega olives. There are also plates of luscious butter from Pico, an island in the Azores archipelago.
Ivo serves an elegant 2012 red from Quinta de Lemos in the Dão region. It is made with Jaen–a grape varietal brought to Portugal by pilgrims who traveled to Santiago de Compostela. Like the wine, the conversation flows freely around the table.
In the plains, there is rabbit served with an ice cream made from escabeche, a traditional sauce prepared with vinegar and olive oil. Kompassus, a sparkling wine made from Baga, a red grape from Bairrada, refreshes our palate.
We climb up the mountain with a roasted purple cabbage dressed with a pennyroyal and champagne sauce. It comes with Sousão, a vibrant red wine from Vale da Raposa in the Douro valley.
At the top of the mountain, we taste pigeon and potatoes from Trás-os-Montes served with a fermented garlic sauce. There’s also a mystery box with a delightful croquette and a scrumptious Philo-dough cup filled with sorrel leaves.
Ivo serves a celebratory Breijinho da Costa, a fortified wine made in Setúbal with purple muscatel grapes. The meal ends with sweet fireworks: a noisette pave, petals of roasted peach, thyme ice cream, and lemon curd. And there are mignardises: a traditional Abade de Prisco pudding, coconut biscuits, cinnamon and strawberry truffles.
Everybody lingers around the table feeling a sense of camaraderie. Then, we say our thanks and goodbyes and walk into the warm night in a state of enchantment.
Ceia is located at Campo de Santa Clara, 128. Lisbon. Click here for the restaurant’s website.
The leader of the Barbela tribe
Barbela is a nutritious wheat that, until the 1930s, accounted for the bulk of Portuguese wheat consumption. It came from the fertile crescent and thrived in Portugal because it is hardy and can grow anywhere. Its long roots allow it to survive droughts and flourish in poor soils.
Hybrid wheats arrived in Portugal in the 1930s. They are low in nutrition but have high production yields boosted by chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Gradually, barbela lost ground to these flashy newcomers until only one barbela field remained. It is located on the foot of the Montejunto mountain and belongs to João Vieira. We drove to this place, far from the commotion of urban life, to meet with him.
At 83 years of age, João speaks with the passion of youth and the wisdom earned over the course of a life well lived. Everything he says comes from a well of deep reflection.
João worked in France during his youth, but when manufacturing jobs started to disappear, he returned to the land of his ancestors. He realized that barbela, once ubiquitous on the sandy soils of Montejunto, was vanishing. The seed stock was dwindling, and so was the cultivation knowledge. João started planting barbela seeds that came from his father and grandfather. He loved seeing this tall wheat sway again with the wind, making waves like the sea.
What started as a one-person campaign against oblivion mobilizes today a small army. João calls it the barbela tribe. It is a loose network of farmers who plant barbela and share their experiences. João inducts new members by giving them seeds on the condition that they later provide other people with seeds and bring them into the tribe.
Barbela is a soft wheat that produces flour suitable for breads, tarts, and cakes. Every day, João makes bread with his barbela flour. After harvesting, threshing, and milling, the sieve has the last word, choosing what makes it into the flour. João likes his bread with a coarse texture, so he occasionally overrules the sieve and lets a few larger grains into the mix.
He went into the kitchen and returned with a basket of bread to share with us. We sat with him for quite a while, trying this exquisite bread and listening to his precious words. It was a very fine use of time.
A codfish restaurant
If you’re yearning for codfish, we know a restaurant that will satisfy your lust. Called Sal na Adega, it is part of Adega Mãe, a winery in Torres Vedras that belongs to Ribeiralves, a company famous for its salted cod.
Sal na Adega has a spacious dining room that overlooks serene vineyards. A large round window gives us a glimpse of the kitchen’s hustle and bustle.
You can accompany the meal with any wine from the winery’s shop by paying a modest cork fee. The menu lists many meat and fresh fish preparations, but the star offering is salted cod. Codfish usually pairs with red wine, but if you’re feeling adventurous, we suggest a white wine made from Vital. There are only a few wineries making wine with this grape varietal. The results are exciting, and the wine is a great companion for the fish.
Our meal started with codfish cakes, a litmus test passed with flying colors–the cakes were crispy, rich, and flavorful. Then we tried a trio of cod preparations. First, a codfish loin topped with crunchy prosciutto and onion in a vinegar sauce called escabeche. Second, grilled codfish neck, the most succulent part of the fish because of its abundance of collagen. It is an epic preparation, up there in the pantheon of best codfish we have ever tried. Third, a delicious codfish in coriander rice.
The dessert menu includes many temptations and one irresistible choice: the famous bean pastries from Serra da Vila in Torres Vedras.
The meal ends with a pleasant surprise: a 10 percent discount on the wines purchased at the wine shop. We went to Sal na Adega for the codfish, and came back with some great wine.
Sal na Adega is located at Estrada Municipal 554, Torres Vedras, tel. 261-950-105.
Susana Esteban’s thrilling wines
Susana Esteban agreed to present her wines at the Arraiolos Pousada in September. It was an act of generosity because the harvest was in full motion, and she’s a perfectionist. Like the photographer Cartier-Bresson, she’s always looking for the decisive moment. The moment when the grapes are perfectly ripe to be gently harvested by hand, when the fermentation has run its course and worked its magic, when the oak barrels have refined the wine without changing its temperament.
As soon as Susana started talking, the sun set as if sensing that another star had arrived. Her Portuguese is seasoned with a charming accent–she was born in a Spanish region called Galicia. After graduating in enology, she decided to do an internship in the Douro valley, a place that was then remote and isolated. She stayed and worked in the Douro during her formative years. Then, like the swallows, she went south in search of something new– vineyards where she could develop her style and make wines that can age and evolve for many decades.
She made her first wine in 2011. It is called Procura, the Portuguese word for search. Susana found what she was searching for in the hills of São Mamede in Portalegre–centenarian vines full of character. They needed a lot of care, but Susana nursed them back to health with patience and affection.
Susana is cloning the old vineyards to preserve their genetic material and pass it onto the new vineyards that she is planting. None of her vineyards, new or old, are irrigated. The thirsty vines produce low quantity but high quality.
We first tried a rosé made from Aragonês and purple muscatel that is pleasantly aromatic and light in alcohol–a perfect summer drink.
Then, we tasted an exquisite white wine made in amphoras called Tira o Véu (removing the veil). The first time Susana made it, in 2019, she witnessed a rare phenomenon: a veil formed on top of the amphora. It is a film created by yeast highly prized in the production of sherries. No one knows what makes it occur, but every year the veil returns to make this wine more seductive and mysterious.
Next, we drank an alluring red wine made with Touriga Nacional and Aragonês. For Susana producing wine is an adventure, so she calls it Aventura. We’re lucky to be part of this thrilling experience that results in a wine full of freshness and minerality.
Finally, we tried the wonderfully harmonious 2016 red Procura. It combines a field blend with Alicante Bouschet from ancient vines aged in oak to round the tannins. It is a “vinho de guarda,” a wine with great longevity that will improve and surprise with the passage of time. We’re so lucky that Susana found the vineyards she was looking for!
Dona Octávia’s culinary wealth
We loved the sausages served during our epic lunch at Páteo Real. Chef Filipe Ramalho offered to call Dona Octávia, the sausage maker, to see if we could meet her. She agreed, so we drove through the golden plains of Alentejo to a small village called Cano. Blinded by the exuberant sunlight, we knocked on a green door marked Salsicharia Canense. Dona Octávia welcomed us inside, greetings us with glasses of cold water that quenched our thirst.
She’s been making sausages for 40 years. Her parents had eight children, so there were many mouths to feed. Everybody had to work to help out. The only education available to Dona Octávia was learning how to make sausages with her grandmother.
She opened Salsicharia Canense with her husband in 1997. People quickly noticed that her sausages were finer than the rest. “I enjoy my work and try to make everything I do special,” Dona Octávia confided. She has always used local ingredients–pigs raised in Alentejo and herbs from her garden or the nearby Portalegre mountain. She uses no preservatives or foreign spices, and all her sausage casings are natural and hand-sewn.
Dona Octávia says she was born poor but now feels rich because her son João returned to Cano to work with her and preserve her culinary knowledge. It’s the kind of wealth that trickles down to us all.
Salsicharia Canense is located at Rua de São José, Cano. You can order their products by calling 962 938 107.
Funchal’s farmers market
If you’re visiting Funchal, the capital of the Madeira archipelago, make sure you stop by Mercado dos Lavradores, the farmer’s market. It is a place full of color—exuberant fruits fight for attention with fragrant spices and strings of hot red and yellow peppers.
The fish stalls overflow with large tuna, red and black bodião, and slender scabbardfish. The latter lived inconspicuously, deep in the ocean, until fishermen discovered them in the 17th century. Despite their scary look, scabbardfish became a mainstay of Madeira cuisine. Often served fried accompanied by fried bananas, it is delicious!