Convento do Espinheiro

Convento do Espinheiro composit-2

The origins of Convento do Espinheiro (the convent of the thorn bush) remount to the 12th century when a shepherd reported seeing the Virgin Mary on top of a burning thorn bush. Inspired by this vision, the shepherd sold his flock to build a modest chapel where he lived as a hermit. Two centuries later, king Dom Afonso built a convent for the order of Saint Jerome in the place where the chapel stood. The convent’s white walls reach towards the blue skies of Alentejo with an exuberance of forms and decorative details.

According to legend, in 1490 the convent was the site of a romantic encounter between Afonso, a Portuguese prince, and his wife-to-be, Isabel of Castile, a few days before their wedding. The bolt of lightning that destroyed a convent tower during the night was interpreted by the monks as a sign of heavenly displeasure with the pre-marital affair.

The convent was converted into a luxury hotel in 2005. The spaces once used by the monks, from the courtyard to the dining room, were carefully restored. An ancient water deposit was turned into an elegant wine shop where guests can enjoy daily wine tastings.

Surrounded by vineyards, Convento do Espinheiro exudes peace and tranquility. Over the centuries, many Portuguese kings spent time in this convent. Perhaps that is why a stay inside these ancient walls feels like a royal privilege.

Convento do Espinheiro is located five kilometers outside of Évora. Click here for the hotel’s website.

 

 

Ilda Vinagre shares a recipe

Ilda Vinagre

Ilda Vinagre is a legendary chef. In the 1980s, she opened a restaurant called Bolota (acorn) in Terrugem, a small town in Alentejo. The restaurant earned her two Michelin stars, attracting gourmets from Portugal and beyond. After this feat, she traveled the world cooking, heading restaurants in the United States and Brazil, and preparing banquets that showcased the cuisine of Alentejo in lands as far away as China.

The good news is that Ilda is back in Alentejo. We met with her at the restaurant of Herdade dos Adeans where she oversees the kitchen. Ilda told us about her life and her love of cooking. That these days she enjoys decorating her plates with edible flowers. And that there are four herbs no Alentejo chef can do without: mint, coriander, oregano and “poejo” (pennyroyal). In the end of our conversation, she generously gave us one of her favorite octopus recipes so we could share it with our readers. Here it is!

Country-style Octopus

Cook “al dente” the octopus in water with salt, onion, coriander, pepper and oregano. Cut it in pieces and grill the pieces in a hot griddle with bacon and a little olive oil. Dress with lemon juice, lemon rind and oregano. Accompany with a sweet potato puree. To make the puree, roast the sweet potato with the peel on. Take the peel, mash the pulp and mix it with butter.

 

The magic of the harvest

Harvest at Monte da Ravasqueira

Most days come and go without leaving a trace. But the harvest day we spent at Monte da Ravasqueira in Alentejo is unforgettable.

The sun, disappointed that we didn’t stay by the hotel pool worshiping its radiant glory, sulked behind clouds. It was just as well. The star’s temper tantrum brought cooler temperatures and created softer shadows that made the fields of Alentejo look like paintings. Monte da Ravasqueira was gorgeous, its white and blue buildings contrasting with the colors of the vines, already changing from their Summer greens to the browns and yellows of the Autumn season.

Mário Gonzaga, our genial guide at Ravasqueira, equipped us with straw hats, gloves and scissors. Then, we followed enologists Pedro Pereira Gonçalves and Vasco Rosa Santos, the magicians who turn grape juice into wine, through the glorious fields. On the way to our vineyard, we passed by the famed Vinha das Romãs, a plot planted with Touriga Franca and Syrah that produces wines with hints of the pomegranates that once grew there.

We received a large box and were assigned a row planted with Petit Verdot. An accordion player made our work lighter by serenading us while we picked the grapes. Wine grapes are very different from table grapes. Their berries are small, so they have much more skin than water, resulting in more intense flavors and aromas.

Once our box was brimming with fruit, we walked over to the winery where Mário talked about the wine-production process. The grape juice has to be kept at 16 degrees Celsius so that the yeast in the grapes starts the fermentation process that turns fruit sugar into alcohol. The cellar was filled with strong wine aromas. “These are primary aromas,” explained Mário. “They need to be abundant at this stage because some will dissipate over time. The yeast-like secondary aromas are produced by the fermentation process. The tertiary aromas come from aging. The estate’s best wines age for three years in oak barrels and two years in bottle.”

As we walked back to the center of the estate, Mário showed us a Roman marble tombstone shaped like a wine barrel. “We think that here lies our first enologist,” says Mário. “He wanted to sleep forever close to his vineyards.”

The country-style lunch was wonderful: salads made with fava beans and chickpeas, duck rice, and a mille-feuilles of red berries for dessert.  We tried to pick our favorite wine. The beautiful rosé, the enticing family reserve white? The luscious red from Vinhas das Romãs? It is impossible to decide.

There was much more to see and do during the afternoon. As the sun began to set, we were greeted by a choir from Alentejo. Three rows of farmers sang in harmony about love and loss, work and rest, food and wine.

Dinner was a feast. Our appetite was wetted with the stunning Ravasqueira sparkling great reserve. Then, an intense red Alicante Bouschet paired perfectly with the savory coriander soup and a delicious codfish with cornbread. The dessert, an irresistible chocolate praliné, came with a glamorous late harvest and a luxurious port-style wine made at Ravasqueira.

The following day, it was time to go back to normal life. But we couldn’t bear to lose the state of enchantment we felt in Alentejo. So we said a silent incantation to keep the magic going: “we’ll return to the harvest.”

Monte da Ravasqueira is located near Arraiolos, tel. 266-490-200, email ravasqueira@ravasqueira.com. Click here for information about how to schedule a visit.

Dining with the minister at Campo Maior

Taberna O Ministro

We strolled around in Campo Maior, a small town in Alentejo close to the border with Spain, looking for a place for lunch. We noticed a tavern called O Ministro (the minister) which was full of locals. There was a bottle of Caiado–the wonderful entry wine from Adega Mayor—on every table. Encouraged by these favorable omens, we decided to enter.

Traditional music played in the background, mostly fado tunes about the travails of love and the fickleness of life. Every now and then, a folk song from Alentejo came on and the locals raised their voices to sing along.

A plate with codfish cakes, slices of sausage, and green olives arrived at the table. We ordered “migas” made with bread and turnips and fried cação, a small shark that somehow manages to swim from the coast to the menus of Alentejo. We also ordered “carne do alguidar,” marinated pork loin. We were astonished by the quality of everything that came to the table. It was delicious and deeply satisfying food, with a perfect sense of time and place.

João Paulo Borrega, the chef and owner of this magical restaurant came out of the kitchen, and stoped by each table to ask whether people liked his food. “The food is fantastic,” we told him. “Can we make reservations for dinner and arrive a little early to talk to you?” Sure, he said with a bemused smile.

Late in the afternoon, he sat down to talk with us. Like most Alentejo cooks, he learned cooking from his mother and grandmother. His restaurant opened in 1989 and has changed location over the years. It is named after João Paulo’s father, a man whose role in the revolutionary days after April 1974 earned him the nickname “the minister.”

João Paulo tells us that the current restaurant location is ideal. “I want to cook by myself, and this space has the maximum number of tables I can comfortably handle.” He talks enthusiastically about his favorite recipes: fried rabbit, toasted chicken, chickpea soup, and ensopado de borrego (lamb stew).

“Why does your food taste so good?,” we asked. “I am going to show you my secret,” he said, inviting us into the small kitchen. He pointed to an old, tiny refrigerator. “Everything I use I buy fresh every day. That is why I have no freezer, just this small refrigerator. At the end of the day I give away any leftovers to my friends. The next day I start everything from scratch. Meats, fish, vegetables, herbs, sauces, everything has to be fresh.”

All his products are local and seasonal, produced by people he knows. He rattled off the names of the friends who supply him: the olive-oil maker, the farmer who plants the potatoes and onions, the person who chooses ripe melons for his table; the list goes on. The quality of his sourcing would make many three-star chefs envious.

João Paulo talks with great knowledge about the details of the different recipes and the properties of various herbs and spices. “People often use too much laurel. That is a mistake,” he says. “Laurel is very powerful and can overwhelm other ingredients.” “The cuisine of Alentejo does not require much fussing around,” he explains. “But the ingredients need to be first rate and the last flourishes before the dish is brought to the table have to be perfect. Some dishes are finished with white wine, others with vinegar, herbs play a key role.”

We sat down for a wonderful dinner. It started with toasted chicken perfumed with vinegar and prepared with olive oil, garlic and parsley. Then came a steaming chickpea soup with Alentejo sausages, Savoy cabbage, carrots, and mint. Next, we tried the fried rabbit. The meat had been  marinated with rosemary, thyme, pepper, white and red wine. Then it was stewed to perfection in a large iron-cast pan with olive oil, garlic, and some more wine. Delicious slices of ripe melon brought this memorable meal to a sweet finale.

No matter how much you travel, it is hard to find food that is as simply satisfying as the one served in this little tavern in Alentejo. If you have a chance, come to Campo Maior to dine with the minister.

Taberna O Ministro is located at Travessa dos Combatentes da Grande Guerra
Campo Maior, Portalegre, tel. 351-965-421-326.

A dinner in grape country

País das Uvas

Paulo Laureano recommended that we try O País das Uvas for dinner. “Sopa de Cardo (thistle soup) is one of their specialties,” he said.

The name of the restaurant, which means The Grape Country, is a literary reference. It is the title of a book by Fialho de Almeida, a writer born in 1857 in Vila De Frades, the Vidigueira village where the restaurant is located.

The restaurant is full of ancient amphoras inscribed with messages left by patrons praising the food and the hospitality. António Honrado told us that this place has been a tavern for more than a century. He bought it 17 years ago with his wife Jacinta to turn it into a restaurant.

In the early days, Jacinta’s mother was in charge of the cooking. But she was advanced in age and the work was hard. One day, Jacinta told her mother that they had hired a new cook who had come during the night to prepare the most popular dishes on the menu. Jacinta’s mother worried that hiring a new chef would worsen the quality of the food. But upon trying the different dishes she exclaimed: “They taste exactly like my cooking! Who prepared them?” “I did,” confessed Jacinta. Since that day, Jacinta has been the chef at O País das Uvas.

We ordered the famous Thistle Soup and Cozido de Grão, a traditional chickpea stew made with cabbage, carrots, potatoes, meats, and sausages. Both dishes have bold, satisfying flavors that made our taste buds fall in love with the simple ways of Alentejo.

After dinner, António and Jacinta invited us to see their discovery. When they did some construction on the restaurant, they uncovered a cellar that is many centuries old. It has a well-preserved clay-tile floor, graceful arches and a water well. They restored the cellar and devoted it to producing amphorae wine with the help of Paulo Laureano.

We bid farewell to António and Jacinta, promising to return. Then we went out into the warm Summer night, enchanted by the honesty of the food and the warmth of the people of Alentejo.

O País das Uvas is located at Rua General Humberto Delgado, nº19, Vila De Frades, Alentejo, tel. 284 441 023.

Paulo Laureano

Paulo Lauriano

Now we know how it feels to go from purgatory to heaven. After many hours of delays in Newark, we arrived in Lisbon and drove to Vidigueira to meet with Paulo Laureano, a famous Portuguese enologist. The encounter was five years in the making because he is a busy man and our schedules never intersected.

Paul greeted us at the door of his winery with the easy smile of a man who has found his place in the world. Many harvests ago he graduated in enology in Évora. After an internship in Australia, he was invited to teach at the university. But soon he became involved with so many wineries that he left academia to practice enology full time. He bottled the first wines under his name in 1999. Since then, he has produced a steady stream of remarkable nectars.

Our visit started with a tour of the winery. “There is no technology here,” he says proudly. “Our work is all done in the vineyards. We use old vines and we harvest the grapes by hand, that is our secret.”

Paulo is passionate about the terroir of Vidigueira. He explains to us how the hard schist soils give minerality and freshness to the wines. How the winds travel from the sea to Vidigueira to bring humidity. How the slopes of the terrain create different exposures to the sun. How the varietals change when planted in this soil. And how the indigenous varietal Tinta Grossa creates wines like no others.

Since wines cannot be understood without drinking them, Paulo took us to a tasting room that overlooks the vineyards. We started with a white wine produced from old vines made from Antão Vaz, Arinto and Fernão Pires. We would have been happy continuing drinking it, but there were more wines to taste.

Paulo showed us two wonderful wines he makes for the U.S. market. When his long-time U.S. distributor visited with his little daughter, Ema, the girl asked whether she could have her own vineyard. Remembering this endearing moment, Paulo called the white and red blends Ema’s vineyard.

Next. our glasses filled with an Old Vines Private Selection white. It showcases the brilliance of the Antão Vaz from Vidigueira. “Antão Vaz can be heavy and boring but here in Vidigueira it is always interesting and elegant,” says Paulo.

It is time for two more reds. The Old Vines Private Selection is smooth and refined, an harmonious combination of Aragonês, Trincadeira, Alicante Bouchet and Touriga Nacional.  Our tasting ended with fireworks: we tried one of the 5,000 bottles of Tinta Grossa produced in 2015. It is a remarkable wine full of depth and character.

Wherever you are, if you see a bottle of Paulo Laureano’s wine grab it without hesitation. And then you too can have a taste of these heavenly wines made in the unique terroir of Vidigueira.

Paulo Laureano’s winery is located in Monte Novo da Lisboa, Vidigueira, tel. 284-437-060.

 

 

Leopoldo Calhau’s tavern in Mouraria

Taberna do Calhau

Leopoldo Calhau, a gourmet architect who became a chef, opened a restaurant in Mouraria, an old Lisbon neighborhood.  The courtyard outside the restaurant offers a classic view of Lisbon: the walls of St. Jorge’s caste against a cerulean blue sky. But once you step inside the restaurant, you are in Alentejo. All the furniture and decor came from an old tavern in Beja. The menu offers a creative interpretation of the rustic food of Alentejo that is deliciously fun.

Our dinner started with an unusual combination of flavors that worked well together: eggs and peppers served in a bouillabaisse sauce. We then had a bowl of shrimp with minced lupini beans and garlic dressed with olive oil. This preparation is inspired by an old saying that lupini beans are the seafood of those who are broke. Another inventive dish followed: grilled vegetables and codfish confit served with a magical combination of coriander, olive oil and garlic traditionally used to cook clams Bulhão Pato style. Next, we had pork cheeks with an amazing sauce. Leopoldo would not reveal its ingredients other than saying that it is an Alentejo version of the sauce used in the francesinha, a popular sandwich in Oporto. Dessert was simply delicious: pears roasted in olive oil and sugar served in a wine made from pears poached in wine.

The tavern serves small plates meant for sharing that cost between 5 and 10 euros and offers interesting wines and olive oils from Alentejo. At Taberna do Calhau every meal is a party.

Taberna do Calhau is located on Largo das Olarias 23, tel. 21 585 1937.

The delights of Alkazar

Alcacer - @mariarebelophotography.com

Helena Silva was born and raised in Alcácer do Sal. As a kid, she was fascinated by the history of this ancient city and wanted to become an archeologist to find out more about its past.

Instead, Helena opened a gourmet store called Alkazar (the Arab name for Alcácer do Sal) on the city’s main street, overlooking the Sado river. With the patience of an archeologist, she gathered the best products from the region.

Alcácer is known for the production of salt, pine nuts and rice, so these products have pride of place in Helena’s store. But there are also interesting wines, artisanal honey, appetizing canned fish, regional sweets, and much more.

Our favorite discovery was “pinhoada,” a highly-addictive nougat made with local pine nuts and honey. There’re many good reasons to visit the wonderful town of Alcacer do Sal. But the taste of the pinhoada alone justifies a visit.

Helena Silva’s store, Alkazar Gourmet is located on Rua Machado dos Santos n º4, 7580-162 Alcácer do Sal, Tel. 265088739.

Cooking pork and clams on the trail of Jamie Oliver

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We asked Dália Soromenho, the chef/owner of Porto Santana in Alcácer do Sal,  what alchemy made her pork and clams so magical. “I don’t give out my recipes,” she said sternly. “But I have to confess that I taught the recipe to Jamie Oliver when he came to the restaurant,” she continued with pride. “That is like telling everybody!” we argued. Dália relented and shared her recipe with us. So, here it is dear reader, the recipe for the best pork and clams we ever tasted.

Dália Soromenho’s Pork and Clams Recipe

Dália likes to cook this recipe with two cuts of pork: either “pá” (shoulder) of black pork or “cachaço” (neck) of white pork. The quality of the ingredients is essential.

First, marinate the pork cut into cubes with minced garlic and “pimentão,” a paste made of red peppers and salt. Then, slowly simmer the pork in lard until it becomes deliciously tender. The cooked pork can be refrigerated at this point. When you are ready to serve, fry the pork in lard in a frying pan over high heat. Place the clams on top of the pork and cover until the clams open. Cut the potatoes into small pieces and fry them separately. Add the potatoes to the pork-and-clams combination, season with chopped coriander and serve your lucky guests

“You’re welcome to come back to cook the recipe with me,” Dália offered as we said goodbye. We surely will!

Porto Santana is located at Senhora Santana, Alcacer do Sal, tel. 969 020 740.

 

Quinta Dona Maria

Quinta D. Maria Winery

Estremoz is a town in Alentejo famous for its white marble. The same geological conditions that fashioned its pristine stones created limestone soils perfect for wine production. So it’s no wonder that there are so many wineries around Estremoz.

The prettiest of them all is Quinta Dona Maria. The estate, which dates back to 1718, was purchased by King João V and offered to Dona Maria, a courtesan with whom he fell in love. In the 19th century, the estate was bought by the Reynolds, a family of British merchants who came to Portugal to produce cork and wine. The current owner, Julio Bastos, inherited the estate from an aunt who married into the Reynolds family.

Bastos got his passion for wine from his father. Every year, father and son came to the harvest so that young Julio could be initiated into the mysteries of wine making. Bastos is particularly fond of Alicante Bouchet, a varietal brought to Alentejo by his family in the 19th century.

Eager to produce extraordinary wines, Bastos entered into a partnership with Lafite Rothschild. But when the Rothschild team started uprooting his old family vines to plant French varietals, Basto decided to go his own way.

He nurtured the old vines and used 17th century marble tanks to tread the grapes. The result are wines with a unique personality: rich and earthy with elegant aromas and a smooth finish.

Production volumes are low, so these wines are hard to find. If you’re traveling in Alentejo, stop by Quinta Dona Maria and take home these exquisite wines made in soils nourished by the love of the land and blessed by the richness of marble.

Click here for the website of Quinta Dona Maria.