The shark’s beach

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Roger Sobreiro, an American wine merchant of Portuguese descent, recommended a small restaurant called A Praia do Tubarão (the shark’s beach) that is his safe harbor when he visits Portugal. We drove to the picturesque town of Costa Nova to try it out.

The restaurant’s facade is painted with the traditional red and white stripes used to decorate fishermen houses. The same red and white palette dominates the cosy interior where Adriano Ferreira, the owner, was waiting for us. He has worked in Costa Nova for 50 years, first as a waiter and then, in the last three decades, together with his wife at A Praia do Tubarão.

“I hunt and fish and all hunters and fishermen are liars,” he said as a way of introduction. Despite this forewarning, we asked Adriano to choose our lunch menu.  “Most of our food is served in the pots where it is cooked: caldeiradas (boulliabaisses) , “ensopados,” and seafood rices. We follow two simple rules: everything is fresh and everything is cooked to order,” he explained.

Adriano went into the kitchen and returned with a plate of petinga (small sardines) and tiny fried balls of berbigão rice. Then, he poured two generous glasses of the wonderful Duas Quintas white from Ramos Pinto. The petinga was crisp, hot, luxuriously fresh and perfectly fried. The rice balls were flavorful and deeply satisfying.

We ate an “ensopado,” a plate made with fish, potatoes, onions, garlic, and olive oil. It is seasoned with “sal d’unto,” a salt and lard combination. It comes with a sauce called “alhada,” made from garlic, lemon and piri piri. The flavors blend to create a unique taste and aroma. The quality of the ingredients and the cooking is superb.

Dessert was a small bowl of the traditional “ovos moles,” a convent sweet made with egg yolks and sugar. The meal ended with a vibrant espresso made with Delta’s famous diamond blend.

We said goodbye to Adriano and promised to be back soon to this welcoming place that serves delicious traditional food.

A Praia do Tubarão is located at Rua José Estevão, 136, Costa Nova Prado, Ilhavo, tel. 234 369 602.

The enchanting Costa Nova

Composit Costa Nova

In the days before refrigeration, salting was commonly used to preserve fish for future consumption. Codfish has a low fat content, so it does not become rancid when salted. This trait enticed Portuguese fishermen to venture as far as Newfoundland in search of cod. Most of these adventurous fishermen came from a small town in the Aveiro region called Ilhavo.

The captains of the fishing boats moved to Lisbon, the place from where the boats departed. But they kept a vacation home on the banks of the Ria de Aveiro, the waterway  where fresh and sea water mix. These homes are refurbished “palheiros,” the shacks painted with bright stripes where the fisherman used to store their equipment.

Other villages like Mira and Barra once had beautiful rows of palheiros. But these were gradually demolished to build modern homes. In Costa Nova, the traditional architecture was preserved. Large parts of the water-facing Marginal avenue have remained almost unchanged for the past 150 years. It is this postcard view of a time gone by that makes Costa Nova so enchanting.

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. 

Sweet secrets

Ovos Moles

“I’ll take you there,” our friend promised. He dialed a number on his cell phone and asked “Can you show us what we want to see?” The answer was positive so we got into his car and he drove us to the outskirts of Aveiro.

We stopped outside an ordinary building, walked to the back door and rang twice.  Rosa Líria Soares opened the door. She greeted us with a welcoming smile, even though it was Sunday and she had been working since 6:00 am. Rosa is a legendary producer of “ovos moles,” an Aveiro delicacy.

It all started thirty years ago when a pastry store closed and the owners offered Rosa their equipment and recipes. She began making “ovos moles” and soon it became her full-time occupation.

We asked whether she would show us the secretive production process. She said yes, she would show us everything except how to combine fresh egg yolks, sugar and water to make the filling. “I won’t share that secret with anyone,” she said. “What if we promise not to tell?” we insisted. “The answer is still no,” she replied.

Rosa buys molded sheets with shells, whelks, sardines, and other designs from one of two producers in Aveiro. The sheets are made with the same wafers used for holy communion. Rosa fills two identical molds with her prized egg filling and moists the edges with water. The wafers are then placed inside a wooden mold and pressed together until the two pieces are glued.

Rosa’s husband, Henrique Carmona, arrived from their shop, Moliceiro dos Sabores, in downtown Aveiro. He told us with pride about all the awards that Rosa has won over the years.

Rosa offered us some freshly made “ovos moles.” “They keep for two weeks but they taste best in the first five days. And if you can try then like this, freshly made, they are even better.”

The crunchy wafer and the soft filling combined in our mouth and we stood there in silence savoring this lavish moment. “You didn’t like them?” Rosa asked. We explained that we couldn’t find words to describe these “ovos moles,” the very best we ever had.

“We dream about coming for a couple of weeks to apprentice with you, because something as sublime as these sweets needs to be passed on to future generations. Will you consider it?” Rosa took time to answer. And then she said “maybe.” We left with our palates full of sweetness and our hearts full of hope.

You can try the divine ovos moles made by Rosa Líria Soares at her store Moliceiro dos Sabores located on Rua dos Mercadores 4, Aveiro, tel. 234 421 776.

 

Eels from Murtosa

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When we were young, every September our family ate fried eels that came from Murtosa, a small town in the estuary of the Vouga river. The eels were marinated in “escabeche,” a sauce made with olive oil, white wine, onions, paprika, laurel, and vinegar.  These ingredients were combined according to ancient rules of alchemy so that when the eels, the sauce and boiled potatoes were placed on the plate, they transformed into culinary gold.

Eels are mysterious creatures. They spend their early years in fresh river waters. After reaching maturity, they swim to the middle of the Atlantic ocean to lay their eggs in the Sargasso Sea. The baby eels swim back in search of fresh river water and the cycle of life restarts.

How do the infant eels know where to go? And why do the best tasting eels end up in Murtosa? These are inscrutable mysteries.

Before refrigeration was available, the Murtosa eels were a local delicacy. The fisherman ate them fried or in a “caldeirada” that combines the fish with potatoes, tomato, onion, garlic, olive oil, lard, herbs, and spices.

In the first half of the 20th century, some local cooks started marinating fried eels in escabeche sauce. First they packed them in wooden barrels and later in tin cans. These marinated eels gained great fame and popularity in the center of Portugal.

Over time, eels became scarce, the number of fisherman declined, canning factories closed, and it became hard to find marinated eels. So imagine our surprise when, strolling in downtown Lisbon, we found a store called 1942 that specializes in marinated eels from Murtosa! The cans come from a factory that has been processing eels since 1942.

We took this precious find home and opened the can slowly, preparing to be disappointed. But, when we placed the eels, the sauce and boiled potatoes on a plate, the old magic flavors came to life and we felt young again.

The 1942 store  is located on the corner of Rua da Conceição and Rua da Prata in Lisbon (tel. 21-599-9890).

Deluxe eels in Aveiro

 

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Eels were highly-prized culinary delicacies in ancient Greece. The eels from Lake Copais, a lake near Athens that is now extinct, were famous in the ancient world and sold for exorbitant prices. In the plays of Aristophanes these eels are the symbol of a luxurious life.

In Portugal, the most famous eels come from Murtosa, a town near Aveiro. They taste great fried, accompanied by escabeche sauce (a combination of olive oil, garlic, laurel, and vinegar).

A great place to try this delicacy is a neighborhood restaurant in Aveiro called Marinhas. The eels come perfectly fried accompanied by a delicious seafood rice and the indispensable escabeche sauce.

At Marinhas you can, for a modest price, enjoy a meal that would have cost a fortune in ancient Greece!

The Marinhas restaurant is located on Rua Cavalaria Cinco, 4, Aveiro, tel. 234197679..

Divine sweets from Aveiro

Doce d_ovos Pastelaria Versailles

Aveiro is a picturesque town in the center of Portugal, known for its canals on the delta of the Vouga river. In ancient times, Aveiro lived from the production of salt and the gathering of seaweed that was used to fertilize the land.

Aveiro’s claim to fame is its “ovos moles” (soft eggs). To make this dessert, pastry chefs separate the yolks from the whites. The yolks are combined with sugar to make the filling. The whites are used to make the same wafers that, once blessed, are served in holly communion. The filling is placed inside two wafers, which are then molded into various shapes. And that is how the profane yolk reunites with the sacred white to make divine “ovos moles.”