Astral insecurity

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It is reassuring to know that even the sun is insecure. On our last day in our favorite beach in Portugal, the star staged an unforgettable sunset. It clearly wants us to return next year to worship again its glorious light. How can we say no?

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Lunch at Noah

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We had a perfect lunch at Noah, a scenic restaurant in the Santa Cruz beach, with very dear old friends. Our table was so close to the sea that it looked like the waves were taking part in our conversation.

The food was simple, grilled sardines and peixe galo (dory) fillets with tomato and pepper rice. A rosé called Pinta Negra produced nearby by Adega Mãe paired perfectly with the fish.

Time flew while we enjoyed the delicious meal, the eternal beauty of the sea and the precious gift of friendship.

Noah Surf House is on Avenida do Atlantico, A dos Cunhados,  tel 261 932 355. Click here for their web site.

 

The painter arrived!

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Between March and July the grapes wear bright green colors. But, once August comes, some grapes trade their green garments for red clothes, others change into bright yellow hues. When this makeover occurs, wine makers say that the “painter arrived,” as if some celestial artist came to color the grapes one by one.

After the painter arrives, the period of maturation begins. A few weeks later, it is time for the harvest, the culmination of all the work done by man, women and nature in the vineyard.

In Portugal, the painter has arrived everywhere and in some areas of the Douro valley and Alentejo the harvest is well under way. All we can do is wait until the colorful grapes turn into memorable wines we can share with friends.

Making Alenquer a food destination

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In the 19th century, Alenquer was one of Portugal’s premier wine regions. Its fortunes waned for much of the 20th century. But the tide turned and Alenquer rightly regained its status as a prized wine destination. A young chef called João Simões wants to help Alenquer become a food destination as well.

João apprenticed at the Ritz and worked in many posh hotels and restaurants. Three years ago, he decided to return to his roots to recover and renew the culinary traditions of the region where he was born. He uses local products like quails and Rocha pears and works with farmers on projects like producing goat cheese in the Montejunto mountain. His restaurant is called Casta 85. Casta means varietal, a reference to the region’s wine tradition. The number 85 refers to the chef’s birth year.

The dining room is decorated with furniture procured in the chef’s village. It is a pleasant space that overlooks the Alenquer river. This tributary of the Tagus flows proudly through town, reveling from the praise it received in Luis Vaz de Camões’ epic poem, the Lusíadas.

Casta 85’s service is relaxed and attentive. Ana Santana, our genial server, met the chef when they both played in a brass band. The chef’s old instrument is now part of the decoration and some of the band’s brashness inspires the intense, harmonious food.

We tried appetizing alheira croquettes with apple sauce and crisp green bean tempura with garlic mayonnaise. Next, came a delicious quail Brás style served with a quail egg, fried onion and cassava chips. Our meal ended with a luscious duck leg served over a risotto of mushrooms and asparagus.

We returned from Alenquer through a scenic road that took us though countless vineyards. We can’t wait to go back to visit the wine quintas and have another great lunch at Casta 85!

Casta 85 is located at Largo do Espírito Santo, 31 in Alenquer, tel. 915 761 911.

A joyous view

Vista Alegre-Montebelo

In the early 19th century, Portugal’s royal family and nobility served their meals on expensive porcelain imported from China. José Pinto Bastos, an entrepreneur,  saw in this fashion a business opportunity: he decided to produce porcelain in Portugal. It was a risky venture because the process for porcelain production was a closely guarded secret. So, Pinto Bastos started by making glass and crystal to finance his porcelain experiments.

He found the name of his brand and the perfect location for his factory on a hill near Ilhavo that overlooks the “ria,” an elongated body of water where fresh water mixes with salty water. On top of the hill there’s a beautiful church built in 1696 by a bishop who liked the location because of its “vista alegre” (joyous view).

In 1824, Pinto Bastos built a house adjacent to the chapel and a factory called Vista Alegre. There, he started to unravel the secrets of porcelain making. A team of workers labored day and night to feed large ovens with coal or wood so they could burn at 1,400 degrees Celsius for 40 hours in a row.

After much trial and error, a few pieces of porcelain were finally produced. But these pieces had a light gray color which was much less attractive than the pure white of Chinese porcelain.  Out of desperation, Pinto Bastos sent his son to Sèvres, the famous French porcelain factory, to ask for technical assistance. The young man came back with bad news: porcelain production requires a rare mineral rock called kaolin. Pinto Bastos was not deterred, he searched all over Portugal for this precious rock. Eventually, he found a large deposit a mere 20 km from his factory.

By 1835 Vista Alegre was producing excellent porcelain. Over the years, it became one of Portugal’s most cherished brands and a very successful business.

When, after a long sleep, China woke up to the world in the late 20th century, it flooded the market with cheap porcelain. Vista Alegre had trouble competing and for a while it looked like Portugal would, once again, buy all its porcelain from China. But Vista Alegre found new owners who modernized its factories. They also built a new hotel around the original Pinto Bastos family home, an interesting museum that traces the history of Vista Alegre, and stores where visitors can buy the company’s products.

The new wing of the hotel overlooks the “ria” and the old Pinto Bastos house was converted into elegant suites. It is a thrill to stay in this porcelain palace and enjoy its joyous view.

Click here for the website of the Montebelo Vista Alegre hotel. 

Mugasa

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Bairrada is a region in the center of Portugal known for its refreshing sparkling wine and its “leitão” (roasted piglet). The best leitão in Bairrada comes from a restaurant called Mugasa located in the middle of nowhere in a small village called Fogueira.

The restaurant’s owner, Álvaro Nogueira, retired from a desk job and opened a small café in 1981. He wanted to learn the art of roasting piglets to turn his café into a restaurant. But the learning curve was steep until one of his cousins, a master roaster, offered to teach him.

After this jump start, Álvaro kept perfecting his art. In 1991, he entered a competition organized by a gastronomic society and won first prize.

“Why is roasting so difficult?” we asked Álvaro. ” Every pig is different, with a different size and fat content. We use six wood-fired ovens and every oven is different. We have to make constant adjustments to guarantee perfection. That is why we only roast four piglets per oven, to have time to make all the necessary adjustments.”

“In the first 20 minutes, the oven has to be very hot, between 280 and 300 degree Celsius to make the outside crunchy. Then we cover the wood with ashes to bring down the temperature. There are many details so we have to pay close attention. The traditional seasoning made with garlic, lard, white pepper, and salt is important but you cannot use it to cover up mistakes.”

We sat at the table to try Mugasa’s leitão. It is indeed remarkable, crunchy on the outside, succulent on the inside, with just enough seasoning to accentuate the taste of the meat.

Álvaro is very proud of the celebrities that drive to Fogueira just to eat at his restaurant. But he is even more proud of his son Ricardo. “My son is the best master roaster in Portugal,” Álvaro said smiling. “He learned my secrets and discovered new ones.”

Many Bairrada wine makers eat regularly at Mugasa, so you often overhear discussions about weather conditions and grape maturation. The restaurant offers some of the best wines from these producers at very attractive prices.

The formula for Mugasa’s success is easy to write down but hard to replicate: amazing leitão plus great Bairrada wine = unforgettable meals.

Mugasa is located at Largo da Feira, Fogueira, Aveiro, tel. 234 741 061

 

A bread revolution

Composit GlebaDiogo Amorim was working as a chef at the famous Fat Duck when Heston Blumenthal, the restaurant’s head chef, decided to improve the bread they serve. Diogo liked the project so much that he decided to return to Portugal to research Portuguese bread. He traveled from north to south in search of old grains that have low yields and no gluten but are rich in flavor and nutrients. He studied how old windmills used to process these grains to make superior flours.

In a small village, he found a pair of extraordinary mill stones from La Ferté-sous-Jouarre, a region of France renowned for the quality of its mill stones. Diogo brought the stones to Lisbon, so that he could mill the grains only a few hours before baking to obtain more flavor and freshness. He convinced a few farmers to supply him with old grains and opened a bakery called Gleba.

Diogo bakes four times a day two sourdough breads (barbela wheat and rye) and a white corn bread called “broa”. Every day, he makes special editions, like wheat bread with dried figs and cinnamon or rye with galega olive paste from Alentejo.

There’s a steady stream of customers coming into the bakery. Diogo takes time to talk to all of them and smiles with pride when they praise his creations: “your bread is a revelation,” “your “broa” tastes like the one my grandmother used to make,” “I haven’t tasted bread this good since my childhood.”

Diogo Amorim is starting a bread revolution and the people of Lisbon are rising to support him.

Gleba is located on Rua Prior Crato, nº 16 in Lisbon, tel. 966 064 697. Click here for the bakery’s web site,