Making Alenquer a food destination

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In the 19th century, Alenquer was one of Portugal’s premier wine regions. Its fortunes waned for much of the 20th century. But the tide turned and Alenquer rightly regained its status as a prized wine destination. A young chef called João Simões wants to help Alenquer become a food destination as well.

João apprenticed at the Ritz and worked in many posh hotels and restaurants. Three years ago, he decided to return to his roots to recover and renew the culinary traditions of the region where he was born. He uses local products like quails and Rocha pears and works with farmers on projects like producing goat cheese in the Montejunto mountain. His restaurant is called Casta 85. Casta means varietal, a reference to the region’s wine tradition. The number 85 refers to the chef’s birth year.

The dining room is decorated with furniture procured in the chef’s village. It is a pleasant space that overlooks the Alenquer river. This tributary of the Tagus flows proudly through town, reveling from the praise it received in Luis Vaz de Camões’ epic poem, the Lusíadas.

Casta 85’s service is relaxed and attentive. Ana Santana, our genial server, met the chef when they both played in a brass band. The chef’s old instrument is now part of the decoration and some of the band’s brashness inspires the intense, harmonious food.

We tried appetizing alheira croquettes with apple sauce and crisp green bean tempura with garlic mayonnaise. Next, came a delicious quail Brás style served with a quail egg, fried onion and cassava chips. Our meal ended with a luscious duck leg served over a risotto of mushrooms and asparagus.

We returned from Alenquer through a scenic road that took us though countless vineyards. We can’t wait to go back to visit the wine quintas and have another great lunch at Casta 85!

Casta 85 is located at Largo do Espírito Santo, 31 in Alenquer, tel. 915 761 911.

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Extraordinary food in Estremoz

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As soon as we entered, we felt that there was something special about Gadanha, a small restaurant in downtown Estremoz. The back wall is decorated with a chocolate cake recipe hand written by Michele Marques, the Brazilian chef who runs the restaurant. The dining room is furnished with old chairs and tables that give the place a cozy feeling.

We asked our waitress whether it was possible to sample a few items from the menu. Our culinary feast began with a plate of goat cheese, pears, walnuts and honey, accompanied by a thyme ice cream. This ethereal combination of flavors from Greece made us feel like gods dining on Mount Olympus.

A plate of delicious lamb croquettes paired with a roasted garlic aioli brought us back to earth. They were followed by one of the restaurant’s signature dishes: an ingenious “mille feuilles” constructed with thin slices of Alentejo bread, codfish and black pork prosciutto. The flavors of Alentejo shined on the next plate: a sausage called “farinheira” toped with fried quail eggs and accompanied by apple purée. The savory part of the meal ended with another signature dish: a delicious slow-cooked codfish topped with a crust made from cornbread, rosemary and thyme.

An extravagant combination of hazelnut and chocolate brought us to the realm of sweetness. It was followed by graceful “îles flottantes” covered with an orange crust, served with strawberries and a basil-infused crème anglaise.

We asked our waitress whether we could compliment the chef on our extraordinary meal. Michele came to our table with a radiant smile. We asked her an indiscreet question: “How does a Brazilian chef open a restaurant in the middle of Alentejo? “I fell in love with someone from Alentejo,” she told us. “That love waned but I liked Alentejo so much that I stayed.” We asked Michele where she gets her inspiration. “I did not grow up with the traditional recipes of Alentejo, I have a different culinary background.” she answered. “But I am inspired by the amazing products that the region has to offer.”

Michele introduced us to her business partner, Mário Vieira, her close collaborators, sous chef Alberto Muralha and pastry chef Gonçalo Carvalho, and all the dining room staff. “The restaurant is a team effort,” she stressed. “We’re all essential to the quality of the food and service. I have to pick the right people to make sure that everything we do, we do with love.“

It is clear that someday soon stars will shine on this restaurant in Alentejo. But we don’t need official accolades to know that Gadanha serves extraordinary food prepared with love.

Gadanha is located at Largo Dragões de Olivença, 84 A in Estremoz, tel. 268 333 262. Click here for their website.

 

Eating with the best people in Vila Real

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“I’m sorry, but we cannot accommodate you. We won’t have a free table any time soon,” said Eleutério Lameirão in a serious tone that agrees with his solemn name. His small restaurant, located in a residential area of Vila Real, was full of regular customers.

Before we left, we took a glance at the menu and found a quote by Julia Child: “People who love to eat are always the best people.” Inspired by this quote, we decided to wait. Eleutério gave us a puzzled look, but fifteen minutes later he had a table for us.

We ordered rissois, fried breaded dough shaped like a half moon with a shrimp or meat filling. Eleutério brought them to the table and waited around to see our reaction. They were crispy on the outside and full of flavor on the inside.  When we said “wow, these are amazing!” Eleutétio abandoned his shy demeanor and smiled, pleased by our reaction. He went back into the kitchen and brought us a plate of codfish cakes. These were also extraordinary: light, airy and slightly crunchy, a four-part harmony of cod, parsley, egg, and potato.

Finally, we had small sardines called “petingas,” incredibly fresh, fried and seasoned to perfection. They came with an hearty bean rice that melted in the mouth and blended with the salty sardines.

The restaurant was still very busy but Eleutério came to chat with us. He told us that the menu is always small, three or four items made with the best fresh ingredients and modestly priced. The recipes have been refined over many years and require great attention to detail. “It is hard work because there’s no room for distractions. Everything has to be right, the timing, the temperature, the seasoning. But it is worth it because when everything is right the taste is amazing,” he said. If you ever have the privilege of eating at O Lameirão, we think you’ll agree.

The restaurant O Lameirão is located on Rua da Cruz, Vila Real, tel. 259 346 881.

A food tour of Lisbon

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Pedro Rebelo has collaborated with our blog from the beginning, suggesting restaurants to try and ideas for posts. He is a fabulous cook. We’re lucky to have been invited to many of his culinary feasts and we love the recipes he shares on his blog, Pasto. Pedro’s food is not just delicious—it surprises and delights.

After researching food tours in Italy and France, Pedro teamed up with Franziska Shroeder to organize their own food tour of Lisbon, Portugal on a Plate. They invited us to go on their tour and we gladly accepted.

We met in an elegant esplanade in Praça São Paulo. Sipping an espresso accompanied by a crunchy pastel de nata, we asked Pedro and Franziska what was the plan. “We cannot spoil the element of surprise,” Pedro answered smiling. “All we’ll say is that the heart of the tour is Madragoa, a neighborhood full of character seldom visited by tourists.”

We don’t want to give away their secrets, but we can tell you that the tour is a feast for all senses. We learned about Portuguese food, history and culture surrounded by the sounds of Lisbon: the river Tagus splashing its waves on the shore, the old trams gliding on their tracks, the church bells marking the passage of time.

There was so much to see: pristine fish and colorful produce in the farmers market, salted cod and other delicacies in traditional grocery stores, ancient buildings and quaint streets.

We experienced the scents of the herbs and spices used in local cooking and the aroma of coffee beans roasted by the last artisanal producer in Portugal.

Every few minutes there was a new culinary sensation, from the classics of the Portuguese repertoire to the cuisine of places like Goa, which were once part of the Portuguese empire. There were finger foods like “tremoços” and interesting wines made with passion by small producers.

The tour includes an initiation into the art of drinking tea. It was great fun to try the different teas brought from China by Portuguese navigators and introduced to the British court by a Portuguese princess, Catarina de Bragança.

You can sample the cuisine of Lisbon on your own. But it is a much richer experience to have insiders guide you to the flavors and aromas of a great culinary tradition waiting to be discovered.

Click here for more information about the Portugal on a Plate food tours.

 

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).

Ambrosia from Azores

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The ancient gods of Greece and Rome satiated their hunger with ambrosia, a food with exuberant colors, an elegant aroma and a taste that has the perfect combination of sweetness and acidity.

No one knows what this divine food looks like except the people from the island of São Miguel in Azores.  It is an open secret that ambrosia grows in the island in the form of a small pineapple.

While other places produce ordinary pineapples meant for human consumption, São Miguel produces extraordinary pineapples meant for the gods.

If you visit the island, don’t miss the chance to try this transcendent food. Just make sure the gods are not looking.

 

 

A tavern called Wednesday

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André Freire, the manager of the beautiful Évora pousada, urged us to try a tavern called Quarta Feira (the Portuguese word for Wednesday). “It’s a special place,” André said with a smile. “There’s no menu; you have to trust Zé Dias, the owner, and go with the flow.”

As soon as we entered the restaurant, we became friends with Zé Dias. He moved to Évora from a village in Beira Alta called Quarta Feira, the name he used for the restaurant. Dias worked as a typographer until he opened this tavern 25 years ago with Luisa Batista, a great local cook.

Dias’ enthusiasm for food, wine and life in Alentejo is infectious. Everything he serves comes from people he knows well, from the producers of cheese and sausages to the maker of the clay pots that are integral to Luisa Batista’s cooking. When we asked Dias how he managed to convince Paulo Laureano, a renowned Portuguese enologist, to make the house wine for Quarta Feira, Dias replied “Of course he said yes; we’ve been friends for a long time.”

Our dinner started with slices of local sausages and prosciutto made with black pork from Alentejo. Then a warm sheep cheese seasoned with oreganos arrived, busting with flavor. Next, we had some wonderful mushrooms cooked in mushroom water, seasoned with olive oil, garlic and coriander. “The secret is all in the timing,” Dias tells us and we believe him because at this point we believe everything he says.

The meal’s main event was the house specialty: black iberian pork shoulder marinated in wine cooked slowly in a clay pot. It was so delicious that our taste buds scintillated with delight. The dessert was composed of dried figs, walnuts, cooked quince, and samplings of two conventual desserts.

The meal ended with a glass of licoroso from Herdade do Mouchão. This sweet wine with notes of fruits and spices was a perfectly simple ending to a simply perfect meal.

Zé Dias is a philosopher king who disguises as a tavern owner so that he can share with his guests the joy of living in Alentejo.

Taberna Típica Quarta Feira is on Rua do Inverno 18, Évora, tel. 266 707 530.