Dining with Miguel Castro e Silva at Quinta de Ventozelo

We have for years admired chef Miguel Castro e Silva from the distance. We dined at his restaurants, read his cookbooks, tried his recipes (his marinated sardine preparation is a staple at our table). So it was a great privilege to have dinner with him at Quinta de Ventozelo

We met at Cantina, the restaurant that occupies the place where the old farm canteen used to be. Miguel arrived with a bottle of wine. “Do you want to try the wines I make at Ventozelo?” he asked as a way of introduction. Soon our glasses were filled with a white Viosinho from 2017 that is fresh and vibrant. It went perfectly with our first course, river fish “escabeche.” 

We told Miguel how much we had enjoyed the food we had for lunch in the picturesque esplanade of Cantina:  wild boar covilhetes (a version of the small pies popular in nearby Vila Real), a warm soup made with beets and apple, grilled octopus, and a peach tart that celebrated the natural sweetness of the peaches. We asked how does he manage to achieve such high standards in all his restaurants. Miguel told us that he inherited both his organization skills and creativity from his German mother. He writes meticulous recipes and coaches his cooks in their preparation until they meet his exacting standards.

Miguel started cooking professionally only at age 31. Born into a family of doctors in Porto, he was expected to study medicine. He studied biology in Germany but lost interest and became a musician. To earn a bit of money on the side, he started cooking. When he returned to Portugal, his friend Dirk Niepoort asked him to prepare food for his wine tastings. Dirk would describe the wines he planned to serve and Miguel had to come up with food that paired well with the wines. It was an experience that allowed him to perfect his cooking skills and learn a lot about wine. 

This enological knowledge is evident in the next wine we tried, a remarkable white that combines Viosinho with a blend of red varietals. It was a perfect complement to our second starter: a sausage called “alheira” topped with a fried quail egg. 

Miguel tells us that he is reviving and refining the cooking traditions of the Douro valley. Every Sunday, the cooks at Cantina prepare a roast in an oven fired with vine wood. The soup is made in old iron-cast pots on a large outdoor fire. All the ingredients come from the farm. The animals are naturally raised and everything from nose to tail is used in the kitchen.

Our main course, a suculent stewed rooster, was a perfect example of the refined, satisfying rustic food that Miguel is devising. It combined well with a delicate red wine aged in oak barrels previously used to make white wines.  

Several fruit-based desserts arrived. Once again, we admired the sparse use of sugar that gives the fruits their chance to shine. As the dinner came to an end, we made a few toasts with some old Dalva tawnies.

But there was one more thing. Miguel ordered a pot of tea. Ventozelo produces a wonderful gin with the aromatics that grow on the farm. Miguel had the idea of making an herbal tea with the same aromatics: lavender, lemon thyme, Portuguese thyme, and globe amaranth. It makes a fragrant infusion that was the perfect ending to a perfect meal. Thanks to chef Miguel Castro e Silva the food at Cantina is as spectacular as the view.

Click here for the web site of Cantina, the restaurant at Quinta de Ventozelo and here for Miguel Castro e Silva’s website.

A rested pudding

One of our favorite destinations in the Douro valley is a charming village called Ervedosa do Douro. Its main attraction is Toca da Raposa, a restaurant that prepares the traditional food served in local aristocratic homes. 

The ingredients are immaculate and the cooking is sublime. The preparations look deceptively simple, but they require knowledge of all the small details that make the difference between good and exceptional.

Dona Graça, a cook who worked for Douro families before opening Toca da Raposa with her children, has a large repertoire of recipes from the time when food was prepared in wood-fired ovens and cast-iron pans. We’ve been trying to convince her to collect these recipes in a cookbook. But codifying all her experience is a huge task and she has no time–the restaurant is always full.

Recently, Dona Graça started writing down some recipes. She shared one of these recipes with us. It is called Pudim de Laranja Descansado (rested orange pudding) because it takes time to prepare. You should try it only when you’re not in a hurry. We hope this recipe is the first of many pages that preserve Dona Graças’s culinary artistry.

Rested Orange Pudding

Pudding ingredients

7 eggs

300 grams of sugar

250 ml of freshly squeezed orange juice

Port-wine caramel

150 grams of sugar

50 ml of port wine

Mix the pudding ingredients at night and let the mixture rest. Cook the pudding in the morning.

To prepare the mixture, combine the eggs and sugar in a mixer. Three seconds after you start the mixer at medium speed, slowly pour the orange juice into the mixture. Once all the juice has been added, keep the mixer on for an extra 30 seconds or so, until you see foam made from small bubbles. Stop the mixer and use a wooden spoon to the pudding ingredients with a movement from top to bottom until you no longer feel any sugar at the bottom of the bowl.

Once the mixture has rested, make the port-wine caramel and use it to coat the pudding mold. Pour the mixture into the mold and place the mold inside a pan filled with two fingers of water surrounding the pan. Cook on the stove on a small burner at medium heat for 40 minutes. Take it out of the mold and let it cool. Enjoy!

Toca da Raposa is located at Rua da Praça in Ervedosa do Douro, tel. 254 423 466.

Quinta de Ventozelo

There is a new jewel in the Douro valley called Quinta de Ventozelo. The setting is not new, the estate has produced wine since the beginning of the 16th century. But there are 29 new gems–luxurious rooms with magnificent vistas located in various houses throughout the quinta. Some houses have old roofs built with the same schist used to brace the terraces that hold the vines. Others are built out of giant balloons that once stored 80,000 liters of port wine. 

The sprawling estate is the perfect place to create wonderful memories. Of the rolling hills descending towards the river to bade in its green waters. Of the breeze caressing the silvery leaves of the olive trees. Of the restful silence punctuated only by the sounds of nature. Of the joy of sitting outdoors at sunset savoring a glass of wine in the company of friends. 

You can drive to the quinta, but it is much more spectacular to take the boat from Pinhão and arrive at the dock by the river. Arriving is the easy part. Leaving is hard to do. 

Quinta de Ventozelo is located in Ervedosa do Douro, S. João da Pesqueira. Click here for the quinta’s website.

The Douro historical train

Our journey begins with the clatter of a steam engine pulling five rickety wooden carriages into the Régua train station. Trains like this one have trod on the steel tracks that connect Régua to Pinhão since 1879. In 1883, the line was extended all the way to Foz do Tua.

Once all passengers get on board, the chimney blows a cloud of black smoke and we see Régua recede in the distance. The train moves slowly and yet there is not enough time to take in all that there is to admire, from the myriad colors of the river to the wondrous vine terraces sculpted into the mountain sides. 

A group of folk musicians walks through the carriages singing traditional tunes accompanied by accordion, triangle, “cavaquinho” (a small stringed instrument), and a drum made out of goat skin and wood. The musicians’ faces are weathered by a lifetime of work in the fields. But they sing with joy the tunes that lift the spirits of the laborers during the harvest. 

We arrive at the Tua station and the train stops for a well-deserved rest. As our journey resumes, we marvel at the feat of 19th-century engineering that allows the train to go back without turning around. The locomotive’s engine simply goes into reverse, pushing the carriages towards Régua. We travel on the same tracks as before, but the landscape looks different. The light has changed and the blues and greens are now mixed with yellows and oranges. 

The train crew serves us a glass of port wine and some traditional candy. We stop at the picturesque Pinhão train station to admire the 1937 tile panels that depict in blue hues the inimitable colors of the Douro landscape. Then, it is time to return to Régua. The locomotive screeches and puffs as it reaches the place where our journey ends.

It is a privilege to travel in this relic of the industrial revolution that saw the world change and the beauty of the Douro endure. 

Click here for more information about the Douro Historical Train. You can buy tickets online. The best seats are on the right side of the train since you can see the Douro valley from your window both on the way to Tua and on the return.