A fish club

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Casa Janeiro is an unusual restaurant. Located in the small village of Brejos de Azeitão, 30 km south of Lisbon, it functions as a club for the appreciation of fine grilled fish. To be considered as a member, you need to be patient and love eating fish. Patience is a must because the restaurant does not take reservations and there’s always a long line

Most customers are regulars. Some are locals, others are hard-core fans that drive to Brejos de Azeitão just to eat at Casa Janeiro. Over the years, the customers get to know each other, so the restaurant feels like a club.

While we waited in line, a group of regulars came to chat with us, eager to talk about their favorite restaurant: “You’re going to love it!” “We no longer grill fish at home, this quality is impossible to replicate,” “No one grills fish like Mr. António.”  “And the prices, unbeatable!”

Ana Cristina overseas the dining room and her husband, António Janeiro is in charge of the colossal grill.  António was working as a car mechanic when he became fascinated by the art of grilling fish. He started hanging out with fishermen and cooks so he could learn their secrets. When his repair shop closed, he took the plunge and, together with his wife, opened Casa Janeiro.

His day starts with a trip to the fish market in the port of Setúbal. He comes back to the restaurant to make the “brasas,” the layers of red-hot charcoal that produce intense heat. He compresses these layers, reducing the airflow to make the charcoal last longer. Then, he covers the charcoal with ash to reduce the heat. “I stir the charcoal when I want more heat and apply more ash when I want less,” he explained to us.

We watched Janeiro prepare the fish with speed and precision and then pause for a brief moment, perhaps to give thanks for the bounty of the sea. Janeiro salted the fish and placed it on the grill. He didn’t take his eyes of the grill, constantly adjusting the coals to make sure the fish was perfectly cooked.

“Which fish do you recommend?”  we asked Ana Cristina. “Chicharro,” she answered without hesitation. We expressed surprise. After all, this is an unglamorous fish, the cheapest on the modestly priced menu. “But it is the best fish on the menu,” she insisted. “This month the chicharro is fat and delicious. If you don’t like it, you don’t need to pay.”  “Ok,” we said accepting the bargain.

As soon as we sat at the table, we regretted our decision—we saw amazing sea bass and grouper go by our table. But, when our chicharro arrived, succulent and delicious, we realized we had made the right choice. “What else should we try?” we asked Ana Cristina. She recommended the squid, which was the best we have ever had, tender and full of flavor.

When we returned the next day for more grilled chicharro and squid, Ana Cristina gave us a big smile. And that’s when we knew that we had been accepted as members of the club.

 

Casa Janeiro is located on Rua da Serração 57, Brejos de Azeitão, tel. 21 218 8124. If you don’t like to wait, you need to arrive at around 11:30 am for lunch and 6:30 pm for dinner. At lunch, the restaurant serves grilled fish. At dinner, it serves light seafood such as clams, crab and shrimp. 

 

The best cheese in Azeitão

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In the beginning of the 19th century, a farmer called Gaspar Henriques de Paiva moved from the Beira region to Azeitão, near Lisbon. He liked his new home, but craved the taste of the famous cheese made in Beira’s Estrela mountain. In 1830, Gaspar brought some “bordalesa” sheep from the Estrela mountain to Azeitão and arranged for a shepherd to come once a year to help him make cheese.

Gaspar owned only a few sheep, so his cheeses were small in size and his production low in volume. But the cheese was so great that it quickly gathered fame. Gaspar taught his neighbors how he made cheese with only three ingredients: sheep milk, cardoon and salt. Soon there were several cheese producers in Azeitão.

We traveled to Azeitão to try the cheeses made by the current generation of producers. When we asked the locals about their favorite cheese, they we unwilling to take sides. Finally, someone agreed to talk under condition of anonymity: “the best cheese in Azeitão is made in the village of Quinta do Anjo (Angel’s farm) and the best producer in Quinta do Anjo is Rui Simões,” he whispered, making sure he was not overheard.

We were lucky to get this tip because Rui Simões’ cheese is sold in only a few places, so we might have missed it.

We liked all the cheeses we tried in Azeitão, but there was indeed something special about the ones made by Rui Simões. They have an addictive creamy, salty, satisfying taste. Now that we are no longer near Azeitão, we crave them. Maybe we’ll buy some “bordalesa” sheep…

Click here for the web site of Queijaria Simões. 

Tasting moscatel in Setúbal

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No one knows for sure how moscatel, a white grape from Egypt, arrived in the Setúbal peninsula, near Lisbon. What we know is that moscatel took to the region, producing wines that are perfect to start or end a meal. Over the years, the grape mutated into a new varietal—purple moscatel—that only exists in Setúbal. It is sweeter and more aromatic than its white cousin.

Moscatel wines are produced in the same way as port wine. The grapes are fermented for 4 or 5 days. The fermentation is then arrested before the yeast turns all the sugar into alcohol by adding “aguardente vínica” (brandy) to kill the yeast. The result is a fortified wine that is sweet and has 17 to 18 degrees of alcohol.

A great way to learn about moscatel is to visit José Maria da Fonseca’s winery in Azeitão. Founded in 1834 by a mathematician turned wine maker, it is one of the oldest wine companies in Portugal.

After one of his moscatel wines won a prestigious prize in Paris in 1855, Fonseca decided to export his wines to Brazil. A ship loaded with barrels of moscatel crossed the Atlantic. But the wine did not sell in Brazil and the ship returned with most of its original cargo. The sea voyage did wonders for the wine: in nine months the wine seemed to have aged 15 years, gaining complexity and depth. This moscatel, known as “torna viagem” (round trip), continues to be produced today with barrels carried by Sagres, a beautiful sailboat owned by the Portuguese navy.

José Maria da Fonseca ’s moscatel cellar contains bottles from every vintage since 1880 except for 1936-37 and 1939-40 when production was disrupted by the Spanish civil war and the Second World War, respectively.

It is great fun to do a blind tasting of moscatel wines at José Maria da Fonseca’s. Everybody has preconceptions about which wine will be their favorite. Some are sure they will favor the rarer purple moscatel or the older vintages. Others think that they will prefer the newer wines. Surprises abound. You will learn a lot about moscatel and a little about yourself.

Click here for information about visits to José Maria da Fonseca’s winery.