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.

Vinum acer from Bairrada

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Most vinegar consumed around the world is made through industrial processes that work fast but generally produce insipid results. Luckily, there is an increasing number of producers making delicious artisanal vinegars.

“It is easy to make fine vinegar, all you need is good wine and patience,” says Mário Sérgio, the winemaker of Quinta das Bageiras in Bairrada. “Fill about two-thirds of an oak barrel with good-quality wine and forget about it for 10 years. Sure enough, the wine will turn into vinegar.” The Romans seem to have followed a similar recipe–the Latin word for vinegar, vinum acer, means sour wine.

We took a bottle of Mário Sérgio’s artisanal vinegar home and were amazed at the difference it made. Its tangy taste transforms salads from good to great. Cooking with this vinegar enhances the food we prepare in ways that are subtle but profound.

 

Caldo verde

Caldo Verde

Caldo verde (green broth) is the most Portuguese of soups. It comes in different versions but Maria de Lurdes Modesto, the doyenne of traditional Portuguese cooking, recommends a simple preparation used in the village of Marco de Canaveses.  Here’s the recipe.

Gently boil 500 grams of potatoes, 3 garlic cloves, one sliced chouriço (meat sausage) and some olive oil.  Crush the potatoes with a masher. Add the shredded Galician cabbage for just a couple of minutes (avoid overcooking the cabbage). Dress the soup with olive oil. Serve, preferably in a clay bowl, and accompany with broa, a Portuguese corn bread.

The soup has the colors of the Portuguese flag: green from the cabbage, red from the sausage, and yellow from the olive oil. You find caldo verde everywhere: in homes and restaurants, in places where fado singers gather, and in festivals and fairs. The soup is so popular that vendors in farmers’ markets have a special shredder to make the distinctive strips of Galician cabbage that are the hallmark of caldo verde.

As with many traditional recipes, the origin of this soup is lost in time. There’s no recipe for caldo verde in the cookbooks written by Domingos Rodrigues in 1680 or by Lucas Rigaud in 1780. But these chefs worked for the royal family, so they probably shunned peasant cooking. The soup is mentioned in several 19th century literary works and it is the first recipe in Culinária, an influential cookbook published in 1928 by António Maria de Oliveira Bello.

Caldo verde is often served at midnight on New Year’s eve. Its comforting taste helps everyone feel warm and optimistic about the New Year!

 

Stone soup at Quinta do Arneiro

Quinta do Arneiro Composit (cropped)

Once upon a time, there was a poor friar was too shy to ask for food. Famished, he knocked on the door of a farm house and solicited a pot and some water to cook a stone soup. The farmer and his wife were intrigued by this request. The friar took a stone from his bag, placed it in the pot and put the pot on the fireplace.

“How is the soup?” the farmer asked. “Delicious,” answered the friar “and when you put some lard, it tastes even better.” The farmer gave the friar a piece of lard. The friar tasted the boiling broth and said “this stone makes an excellent soup, especially when it is seasoned with a little salt.” The farmer’s wife promptly offered the friar some salt. The farmer commented that it was starting to smell good. “If I added some leftover beans, cabbage, and potatoes, the aroma would be divine.” Curious, the farmer gave the friar the vegetables he mentioned. “Is it ready?” the farmer ’s wife asked. “Almost done, if we added some slices of sausage, even the angels would eat it.” The farmer’s wife gave the friar a sausage. He sliced it into the broth and a few minutes later declared the soup ready. He shared it with his hosts who agreed that the stone had produced a remarkable  soup.

Every year on December 8, Quinta do Arneiro, a biological farm near Lisbon, uses its pristine vegetables and sausages to cook a monumental stone soup. The meal starts with hot country bread baked in a wood-fired oven accompanied by plates of freshly made hummus, olive oil and garlic. Then, the hearty soup is served with mulled wine. A delicious dessert composed of oranges, pomegranate, pumpkin jam, and roasted sweet potatoes brings the meal to a satisfying end.

Luisa Almeida, the owner of Quinta do Arneiro inherited the farm from her father. When Luisa was a teenager, she wanted nothing to do with agriculture, But, Luisa went to live on the farm after she married and it was there that her children were born and raised. In 2007, worried about the detrimental health effects of the chemicals used in conventional agriculture, Luisa ventured into organic farming. “It is arduous work but every day we treat nature with the respect it deserves,” she says proudly. The quinta delivers regular baskets of organic produce to lucky subscribers and opens its restaurant  for lunch from Wednesday to Sunday. A meal at the restaurant is a unique opportunity to eat nutritious, delicious seasonal products, freshly picked and cooked with love.

We greatly enjoyed our meal outdoors warmed by the bright sun that joined the feast. And the soup?  Even the angels would eat it!

Quinta do Arneiro is located in Azueira, Mafra. Click here for the farm’s website. To have lunch at the restaurant, email restaurantedaquinta@quintadoarneiro.com  or call 918740906 for reservations.

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.

 

Finding happiness in Sintra

Market products

There’s a farmer’s market in São Pedro de Sintra since the 12th century. Nowadays it runs every second and fourth Sundays of each month. It is a great place to buy local fruits and vegetables, artisanal sausages, olives and cheese. Wood-fired ovens bake chouriço bread, filing the air with appetizing aromas.

We saw a farmer selling a small capsicum frutescens tree loaded with little red peppers.  Five centuries ago, Portuguese navigators brought this plant from South America to Africa, where the Bantu people called its fiery pepper “piri piri.” From Africa, the Portuguese took the plant to India where it changed the course of Indian cuisine.

How could we resist bringing home this symbol of the first age of globalization? “Trim the tree in March and you’ll have piri piri peppers between August to January,” advised the genial farmer. We got into the car feeling ecstatic at this unexpected find. Who knew that happiness is a piri piri tree?

The São Pedro market is located on Largo D. Fernando II, São Pedro de Sintra.

A noble crab soup

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Almost three decades ago, a friend took us to a new restaurant called Nobre in the Ajuda neighborhood. The name, which means noble, came from the surname of the chef, Justa Nobre. We recall with fondness the meals we enjoyed there. After a successful run, Nobre closed so that the chef could pursue other projects,

Last week, the same friend invited us for lunch. We were delighted to discover that we were going to a new restaurant that marks Justa Nobre’s return to Ajuda. It is called “À Justa,” an expression based on the chef’s first name that means “just right.”

The menu offers a cuisine without foreign accents that has the satisfying taste of authenticity. The recipes are grounded in the cooking of Justa’s grandmothers. But they are not a copy of the past. They reflect years of refinements shaped by the personality and creativity of this self-taught chef.

The restaurant was full. The Portuguese like to flirt with contemporary food trends but they always come back to their one true love, which is the traditional cooking of Portugal.

We had a great meal that included bright green fava beans, chickpeas with codfish, codfish “pataniscas,” and fried cuttlefish. These delights were preceded by a classic of Justa Nobre’s repertoire: the spider crab soup. Its aristocratic taste makes all other seafood soups in Lisbon look common by comparison.

Many chefs keep their secrets, but Justa generously shared some of her recipes in a book titled Passion for Cooking. We translate her recipe for spider crab soup below. But you must try the original at À Justa where they make it just right.

 

Justa Nobre’s spider crab soup

Ingredients: 2 large spider crabs weighing about 1 kg. each, 3 liters of water, 3 tablespoons of sea salt, 150 grams of margarine, a large onion, 2 cloves of garlic, a parsley bunch, a sliced fennel head, 4 tablespoons of tomato paste, half liter of cream, 0.1 liter of dry white port, one teaspoon of powdered ginger, one teaspoon of saffron, 2 tablespoons of potato starch.

Preparation: Boil the crabs in the salted water for 8 minutes. Remove them, let then cool off and extract all the meat. Return the shells to the pan. Add some shrimp shells and let them boil for 10 minutes. In a large pot, melt the margarine and add the sliced onion, fennel and garlic. Let these ingredients cook briefly and then add the white port, the cream, the tomato paste, the spices, and two liters of the crab broth. Mix the potato starch with some cold water and add it to the soup. Check the seasoning and strain the soup. Add the crab meat and serve the soup it in the shell of the spider crab.

À Justa is located at Calçada Ajuda 107, in Lisbon. The restaurant seats only 36 people, so reservations are a must. Call 21 363 0993 or email reservas@ajusta.pt. Click here for Justa Nobre’s web site.