The tavern of the tides

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Portimão, a city in the Algarve, is famous for the quality of its sardines. Our favorite place to enjoy the silver of the sea is Taberna da Maré (tavern of the tides), which opened in 1946. The current owner, Zeca Pinhota, restored the restaurant with great sensitivity and care, using the original floor mosaic, vintage furniture, and photos by Julio Bernardo, a photographer born a century ago in nearby Ferragudo.

The food is wonderful. When they are in season, between June and September, the sardines are the main event. But there are many other delicacies. We had a feast composed of razor-clam rice, fried fish with “açorda,” clams Bulhão Pato, and grilled fish eggs.

We told Zeca that his clams are amazing. “That’s because they come from the sea to the restaurant. They do not spend time in tanks, shedding weight and flavor.” Zeca explained. “I call the local fisherman first thing in the morning to ask about the catch of the day. I want to cook the best of what the tide brings.” And that is indeed what you get at the tavern of the tides.

Taberna da Maré is located at Travessa da Barca 9, Portimão, tel. 282 414 614.

The ducal palace of Vila Viçosa

Palácio Vila Viçosa

Portugal is a dream reborn in the prairies of Alentejo. In 1580, the king of Portugal died without an heir and the king of Spain inherited the throne of Portugal. After six decades of Spanish domination, a small group of nobles organized a coup to restore independence. They wanted to make Dom João of Braganza, a duke with royal blood who lived in Vila Viçosa, king of Portugal.

The king of Spain had arranged a marriage between Dom João and a Spanish aristocrat, Dona Luisa de Gusmão, hoping she would persuade the duke to support the Spanish rule. Instead, Dona Luisa became a passionate advocate for Portugal’s independence.

Dom João worried that the rebellion was likely to fail. He was willing to die for his country but did not like risking the fate of his wife and children. Dona Luisa convinced him to go forward with the words: “I would rather be queen for a day than duchess for life.” Portugal regained independence on December 1, 1640 and the duke became king João IV.

The ducal palace of Vila Viçosa is still owned by the House of Braganza. A visit to the palace is a rare glimpse into the domestic life of the royal family.

Dom Carlos, who ruled between 1889 and 1908, loved to vacation at Vila Viçosa. A talented painter, he covered the palace walls with his oils and watercolors. It was here that the king slept his last night before returning to Lisbon where he was assassinated.

There’s an elegant garden in the back of the palace that has no flowers. Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese princess who married Charles II of England, banned flowers from royal gardens after learning that the king liked to pick them for his mistresses. In deference to Catherine, flowers were removed from the garden of the ducal palace.

The visit’s grand finale is the magnificent royal kitchen. It is equipped with 2.4 tons of copper pots used to prepare the elaborate banquets offered by the royal family to visiting aristocrats and foreign dignitaries.

If you’re traveling in Alentejo, don’t miss the chance to see the palace of Vila Viçosa, a retreat of kings where history was made.

 

 

Finding truffles in Bombarral

composit D. José

Bombarral’s rolling hills offer their vines daily to the sun. In return, the star ripens the grapes so they can make intense, aromatic wines. The region is full of small wineries and traditional restaurants waiting to be discovered.

Our latest find is a restaurant called Dom José. It is named after José Louro who in 1992 left his job in London to open a restaurant in his hometown. His son Nelson told us that “My father used the honorary prefix Dom to name the restaurant, but we don’t have royal blood.”

Nelson was working in London in the real estate industry when, in 2012, his father announced he was selling the restaurant. Nelson quit his job and came to Bombarral to run Dom José. “I have no regrets,” he said. “I like the idea of building on what my father did and making the restaurant better every day.”

The menu offers traditional food prepared with great care using the wonderful ingredients that the region offers. Our meal began with clams bulhão Pato. The clams were succulent and their sauce was a poem to the brilliant simplicity of Portuguese gastronomy. Next, Nelson brought out his version of “fish and chips.” The fish was moist and the batter crisp. The chips were replaced by a hearty bean and spinach rice. The last dish was a wonderful “feijoada” (stewed beans and cabbage) made with black pork. It is so popular that it always on the menu.

We told Nelson that we were too full to venture into dessert territory. “But I saved the best for last,” he said as he placed on the table a plate of chocolate truffles. They melted in our mouths filling our palates with caramel, lime, and chocolate sensations. “Where do you get these magnificent truffles?” we asked. “After I started running the restaurant, my sister Carla left her banking job in London to study with William Curley, a famous British chocolatier. Then, she joined me at the restaurant. Her truffles are a great success. They’re already sold in many gourmet shops and we are starting to export them to England.”

We left the restaurant inspired by the nobility of what Carla and Nelson are doing. And certain that, somewhere in their ancestry, there is royal blood.

Dom José is located at Rua Dr Alberto Martins dos Santos 4, in Bombarral, tel. 262 604 384.

Mizette’s rugs

Composit Tapetes Mizette

Mizette Nielsen moved from Holland to Portugal and got into the production of textiles.  In 1976, she received a large order and started looking for a factory to execute it.

She traveled to Reguengos de Monsaraz to visit the Fábrica Alentejana de Lanifícios (Wool Factory of Alentejo). Entering the factory was like stepping into the 19th century. Inside, she found the last manual looms of the Iberian peninsula. Old weavers operated these looms with confidence and grace to make wool blankets traditionally used by shepherds to keep warm during Winter.

In the early 20th century, these blankets were often included in the trousseaux of Alentejo brides. But they had since fallen out of fashion.

Realizing that the factory might close soon, Mizette decided to buy it. “I could not stand the idea that the knowledge of these master weavers would be lost forever,” she said with quiet intensity. “I got them to teach the next generation of weavers. And this generation will teach the next, so that this chain that goes back centuries will be unbroken.”

The blankets produced in the factory are too heavy to be used in houses with modern heating and insulation. But they are sturdy, so they became popular as rugs. Mizette started by producing the traditional designs inspired by the colors of the Alentejo landscape. Then, in collaboration with Gil Kalisvaart, she added new designs that combine well with contemporary furniture.

Mizette’s rugs are one of the most beautiful thing you can buy in Portugal. They are works of art that link past, present, and future.

Mizette has a store in Monsaraz at Rua do Celeiro, tel. 266-557-159, email mizettenielsen@yahoo.com. You can also buy her rugs at A Vida Portuguesa. Click here for their website.

Lunch at Herdade do Esporão

composit Herdade do Esporão

We should have known that it is hard to get to paradise. We drove from Vila Viçosa to Herdade do Esporão guided by a GPS system that chose an old dirt road over the new road from Reguengos. Taking the slow road helped us understand that Esporão is an oasis. A place in the dusty interior of Alentejo where a blue lake nurtures pristine vines that produce some of Portugal’s best wines.

The road to the success of Esporão was also slow. José Roquette bought the estate in 1973 at a time when Alentejo was not a major producer of great wines. Shortly after the 1974 revolution, the estate was nationalized. It was returned to its owner only in 1984. The first wine was bottled in 1985 and released in 1987. The success of this vintage and of those that followed put Alentejo on the world wine map.

Maria Roquette, José’s daughter in law, welcomed us to the dinning room. It is a tranquil space that overlooks the lake and the vines. The walls are decorated with art that Esporão commissioned over the years to use in the labels of its reserve wine.

Maria introduced us to the chef, Pedro Pena Bastos. We did not guess that this unassuming 25-year-old was about to take us on an extraordinary culinary journey.

To prepare our senses, Pedro brought us a heavenly concoction of chick peas, seaweed, codfish eggs, and citrus caviar.  Next, came a marriage of peasant food and contemporary cuisine: pig’s feet with coriander in a red shiso gelatin. We visited the woods to taste wild mushroom beignets and a green garlic custard with truffles. We cruised rivers to enjoy crayfish and sailed seas to eat mackerel and porgy. Back on land, we had lamb from Alentejo with artichokes and apricots.

Finally, we entered the garden of delights: a green-almond ice cream, a lavender and peach tart, a gelatin of late-harvest wine, and marshmallows made of hazelnuts and chocolate.

Our traveling companions were the wonderful wines of Esporão. There were many different personalities and styles. Some, like the experimental white made from the Sardinian varietal Vermentino, were new and festive. Others, like the classic reserve red, were gracious and wise. The meal ended with fireworks provided by a wonderful tawny-style dessert wine.

If you’re visiting Portugal, travel the road to Herdade do Esporão, a place where you can taste the food and wine of paradise.

The Herdade do Esporão is located at Reguengos de Monsara, near Évora, Alentejo. Their telephone and email are 266 509 280
 and reservas@esporao.com , respectively. The Herdade’s GPS coordinates are: latitude: 38.398611 and longitude: -7.546111. Chef Pedro Pena Bastos is the fifth from the left on the photo above.

The Queluz pousada

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Once upon a time, there was a prince called Pedro who was calm and handsome. As the younger brother of the king, he did not expect to have to perform royal duties. So he devoted his energies to the construction of a palace in the village of Queluz where he could host hunting parties.

The king died and his daughter Maria inherited the throne. Her volatile temperament made many fear for the future of the kingdom. Pedro was asked to marry his niece, so that he could help rule Portugal. The prince accepted this arranged marriage as an obligation. But the queen fell in love with her dashing prince and her devotion was such that he fell in love with her.

The Queluz palace became a royal project, financed by the river of gold and diamonds that flowed from Brazil. A French architect, Jean Baptiste Robillon, was hired to build a palace that would rival Versailles. The original plan was inspired by the harmonious royal marriage: it included two symmetrical buildings that complemented each other.

After the first edifice was built, the royal couple spent as much time as they could at Queluz. They lived a blissful life, surrounded by their six children in one the world’s most graceful palaces.

Before the construction of the second building began, these happy times came to an end: Dom Pedro died of a stroke. The queen never recovered from this loss and her elder son replaced her as the prince regent.

In 1819, to mark the birth of a granddaughter of the old queen, the royal family built the watch tower of the second building planned for Queluz. Later, a private theater and servant quarters were later added to the tower.

In 1995, the watch-tower building and the old palace kitchen were converted into an historical hotel called Pousada Dona Maria I.

If you’re planning to divide your time between Lisbon and Sintra, Queluz is a superb location. You can wake up in the morning to the singing of birds, enjoy a wonderful breakfast, and walk to the Queluz palace before other visitors crowd in. You can drive or take the train to Lisbon (12 km) or Sintra (16 km). And return in the evening to this enchanting place that preserves the romance and splendor of an age gone by.

 

The Pousada Dona Maria I is located at Largo do Palácio Nacional, Queluz, tel. 351 21 435 6158. Click here for the pousadas’ website and here for a large collection of photos of the hotel.

Ephemeral gardens in Viseu

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Every year, the Ephemeral Gardens festival jolts Viseu, a serene city in the interior of Portugal. Sandra Oliveira organizes this grand event, inspiring a large troupe of collaborators to adorn Viseu with modern art and serenade it with contemporary music.

Shops become installation spaces, ancient churches double as music venues, old walls serve as canvases for street art. Every plaza seems to have its own DJ, every garden its own sculpture show.

Stores, bookshops, restaurants, and bars stay open until late. The flowers of the linden trees blend their fragrance with the aromas of chocolate, vanilla and popcorn. There are workshops to attend, movies to watch, performances not to miss. It is a wonderful celebration of the many ways in which the old inspires the new.

The Ephemeral Gardens (Jardins Efémeros) festival runs from July 1 to 10, 2016. All events are free. Click here to see the program.