The joys of a thin slice of Serra cheese

One of our grandfathers often wished there were more days in the year so he would have more opportunities to eat cheese.  His favorite was a Serra da Estrela cheese doused with paprika and olive oil and aged for three months. The paprika gives the cheese a bright orange color on the outside and a golden hue on the inside. During the three-month-long cure, the cheese hardens and its flavor intensifies.  

When our grandfather was young and money was tight, he asked a local tavern to cure a cheese for him so that he could come by every day and buy a small slice. He justified this humble luxury by explaining that “Serra cheese is inexpensive. All you need to delight your palate is a thin slice. Thick slices are a waste. I like the slices to be so thin you can see the moon through them.” 

We follow his wise advice, using our sharpest knife to cut the thinnest slices of Serra cheese. They are little pieces of heaven!

Tasting olive oils with Edgardo Pacheco

Edgardo’s name came up during a lunch with wine maker Abílio Tavares da Silva at the wonderful Toca da Raposa in Ervedosa do Douro. Abílio opened a bottle of the olive oil he produces at Foz Torto, drizzled the golden liquid on a plate and urged us to taste it.  “Wow, what makes this olive oil so good?,” we asked. “You have to meet Edgardo Pacheco,” responded Abílio, “he can tell you everything you need to know about olive oil.”

Edgardo is a famous food writer who has deep knowledge of a wide array of culinary topics. He has an engaging colloquial style, an ability to describe a person’s character in just a few words, and a great ear for amusing anecdotes or telling details.

Years went by and our interest in olive oil continued to grow. The Buddhists say that when the student is ready, the teacher arrives. And so, by happenstance, Edgardo came over to our house for dinner. When we started asking him questions about olive oil, he offered to organize a tasting. 

A few days later, Edgardo returned armed with olive oil bottles and a box of purple glasses. These glasses, used in professional tastings, hide the color of the oil so that we focus on taste and aroma. 

“Olive oil is just olive juice,” says Edgardo. “To produce great oil, the olives have to be in excellent sanitary condition, freshly picked, without mold or rot. As soon as the oil is pressed, it starts deteriorating, so the younger the olive oil the better. Ideally, we should only consume olive oil from the most recent crop.” “In Portugal, there are three types of olive oil,” continues Edgardo. “Extra virgin oil has no defects. It should be used raw to season salads or give food a finishing touch. Virgin oil can have some slight blemishes. It is suitable for cooking but it should not be used raw. Plain olive oil is refined to remove impurities and then blended with some virgin oil to improve the overall color and aroma. It is generally used for frying in commercial food preparation. Good olive oils cannot be cheap. Making a liter of olive oil requires between 8 and 13 kg. of olives. In contrast, it takes only about 1.5 kg. of grapes to make one liter of wine.”

In the last two decades, the quality of Portuguese olive oils grew by leaps and bounds. Every year, domestic producers return from international competitions with their bags full of prizes. This success was achieved by replacing traditional production methods with modern techniques. But many Portuguese still nurture a certain nostalgia for the traditional ways of making olive oil.

“People often think that that their cousin from the countryside makes better olive oil than modern producers, but those traditional oils are almost always defective. Olives are often harvested too late and they are not pressed right after the harvest. In addition, the oil is usually extracted by adding hot water to the olive paste, destroying the delicate flavors and aromas of the fruit,” explains Edgardo.

Another myth that Edgardo likes to dispel is the idea that the lower the acidity the better the oil. Refined oils, which are of lower quality, are often engineered to have very low acidity.

We tasted three oils. The first was a Rosmaninho made in Trás-os-Montes with cobrançosa olives. It has an intense, spicy taste and aromas of apple and green banana. The second was an Ethos made in Beira Alta with galega olives. It smells like fresh cut grass and it has a slightly bitter taste that reminds us of apples or almonds. The third was an olive oil made by a traditional producer. Compared to the other oils, it has a musty smell and a turbid taste.

Throughout dinner, we kept on discussing the fascinating differences between the three oils. When a chocolate mousse arrived for dessert, Edgardo suggested we season it with a few drops of the Rosmaninho olive oil. Surprisingly, the olive oil perfumed the mousse, accentuating its flavor.

“What else are you interested in?” asked Edgardo as he was leaving. “We would like to know more about Portuguese oysters,” we replied. “I will be in touch,” Edgardo said as he walked into the warm summer night.

Edgardo Pacheco is the author of “Portugal’s 100 Best Olive Oils,” published in 2016. If you read Portuguese and are interested in olive oil, this book is indispensable.

The grandfather’s flour

We called Miguel Nobre to see if we could come by his windmill, Moinho de Avis, to buy some flour. Miguel mills a wonderful ancient wheat called barbela that he grows on the hills of the Montejunto mountain. 

“I have something new to show you,” Miguel said, his voice crackling with excitement. “I reproduced the flour mix that my grandfather used; it makes wonderful bread!” “Didn’t your grandfather make bread from barbela wheat?” we asked, confused. “Barbela is highly nutritious, but its germ and bran are heavy, resulting in flat, dense breads,” explained Miguel. “For this reason, barbela was often mixed with a wheat called preto amarelo (black and yellow). I have been using this misture for a while, but something was still missing. One day, I remembered that my grandfather used to go in an ox cart to the train station to get rye. The first time I mixed rye with the other wheats, I noticed a very special aroma coming out of the oven. It is the aroma of the bread my grandfather used to make!”

Miguel’s new flour mix has 40 percent barbela, 40 percent preto amarelo, and 20 percent rye. He calls it, appropriately, the grandfather’s flour.  

We drove up the long and winding road to Montejunto to meet with Miguel. He was waiting for us on the ground floor of the windmill. We sat there, on an old wooden bench, listening to him without noticing the passage of time. His poetic words and his encyclopedic knowledge of agricultural traditions are enthralling. 

As soon as we got back home, we combined the grandfather’s flour, water and the sourdough starter and let the mixture rest for a few hours. We then added more flour, water and salt and let it rest again. Next, we kneaded, stretched and folded the mixture until the bread took shape. Finally, we placed it in the oven. Our feeling of anticipation grew as we noticed a savory aroma perfuming the air. We tried the bread while it was still warm. It is deeply satisfying, with a soft texture, a crispy crust, and an intense flavor. 

Thanks to master Miguel Nobre, we have at our table a bread from the past that deserves to be preserved for the future.

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.

Finding a culinary treasure in Viseu

The heart of Viseu, our home town, is the “four corners,” the intersection of Rua Direita (straight street) and Rua Formosa (pretty street). One of these corners was once occupied by Pastelaria Santos, a legendary pastry store. Its service was impeccable. Attentive waiters dispensed a wide variety of pastries and beverages in plates and cups made from porcelain. Coffee and tea pots, forks, spoons and knives were all made of silver. 

The pastries were culinary gold. The queen of the savories was a chicken “empada,” a small pie shaped like a crown with a crisp dough and a luscious filling. The king of the sweets was the “pastel de feijão,” a traditional convent confection made with light puff pastry filled with a delicate mixture of white beans, eggs and sugar. 

Santos’ pastry chef was called Adelino. He selected the best ingredients and was meticulous about their preparation. When Adelino became too old for the kitchen grind, he taught a young chef called António all his secrets.  When times were busy, an industrious 16-year-old waiter called João volunteered in the kitchen. He had an eye for detail and, little by little, he too learned the secrets of chef Adelino.

In 1985, Pastelaria Santos was replaced by a lottery store and the city lost a culinary fortune. Luckily, António and João were hired by a new coffee shop. It offered quicker service and less variety, but the famous chicken pies and bean pastries continued to delight the city’s gourmands. After a few years, the coffee shop was sold. The new owner demanded faster production methods and cheaper ingredients. António and João tried to adapt but, eventually, they left, disenchanted. Other pastry stores offered chicken pies and bean pastries. But these were mere imitations. The culinary treasures of Pastelaria Santos seemed forever lost.

We recently heard that a small shop called Flor da Ponte was selling pastries made according to the original Santos recipes. The store is owned by João Mendes Marques, the waiter who started working at Pastelaria Santos when he was 16. We talked to him on the phone and he invited us to his kitchen. His directions resembled the instructions of a treasure map. “Find a house that looks like a castle and then take a narrow road that seems to lead nowhere. You’ll find me at the end of the road.”

He was indeed there waiting for us with two trays of chicken pies ready to be baked. João covered the pies with a generous egg wash and tucked them in the oven. He then returned to the granite table in the middle of the kitchen to show us how to make the crown. While his fingers worked the dough, he told us about the many details that contribute to the final product, from the quality and composition of the flour to the time it takes for the dough to rest. Even the chicken filling requires an elaborate process that involves an ice bath to cool the meat right after it is cooked.

Next, João showed us how he makes the bean pastries. The puff pastry is made by hand. The sugar point needs to be exact, the consistency of the eggs and beans mixture needs to be perfect. We tried some freshly-made pastries. They are heavenly; light and full of flavor.

João peaked into the oven and announced that the chicken pies were ready. He took the trays out and let them cool a bit. As soon as we tried them, their extraordinary taste took us back to our childhood.

We thanked João for preserving these wonderful recipes. He tells us he is planning for the future. His two sons work with him and they will carry on once he retires.

And this is how, in the last few days of spring, at the end of a road that seemed to lead nowhere, we found a culinary treasure. 

Flor da Ponte is located at Travessa do Forno 13, 3510-799 Viseu, tel. 964 186 043.

Was Christopher Columbus born in Cuba, Alentejo?

Adega Monte Pedral

Last Summer, we visited Cuba, a small town in Alentejo. We were attracted by the legend that this hamlet of white-washed houses is the true birth place of Christopher Columbus. The navigator called Cuba the large Caribbean island he discovered in 1492. Why did he choose such an unusual name? Was it to honor his hometown?

We asked a local where to go for lunch. He smiled and pointed to a building on the other side of the road. A large sign read “Adega da Casa de Monte Pedral.”

As soon as we entered the restaurant, we heard voices singing in harmony. A group of locals was sharing a glass of amphora wine and singing traditional Alentejo songs called “cante.”

We sat at a corner table in the spacious dining room full of old wine amphoras. Our waiter asked whether we would like to try the wine that the singers were drinking. Of course we did! It came with a bowl of terrific olives and a plate of splendid prosciutto made from black pigs raised in Alentejo on a diet of acorns. The white wine was deliciously refreshing and devoid of affectation.

Our meal started with a soup made from beans, sausages, black pork, and “tengarrinhas,” a wild thistle abundant in the region. The flavors blended perfectly, to create a deeply satisfying taste and aroma. Our main course was culinary perfection: grilled black pork with a lettuce and mint salad and olive “migas,” a bread-based accompaniment.

José Soudo, the restaurant owner, said farewell to the singers and started making the rounds. He stopped at every table to talk to the diners, using a small glass to try the wine they were drinking. José told us that the building used to be the home of a wealthy family. He bought it four decades ago and turned it into a restaurant that quickly became part of the community. It is a place where the locals stop before lunch and dinner to drink a glass of wine and sing a few songs. His son is the cook. “You have to come back to try his other specialties, tomato soup, purslane soup, lamb stew, and much more,” said José.

The house came with six large amphoras which José used to make 3,500 liters of wine to drink with his friends. Over time, he accumulated 28 amphoras, so now he has enough amphora wine to serve in the restaurant.

We left confident that Cuba is not Christopher Columbus’ hometown. After all, if he was born in a place with such enticing wine, satisfying food and harmonious singing why would he ever leave?

Adega da Casa de Monte Pedral is located at Rua da Fonte dos Leões, Cuba, tel. 936 520 036, email geral@casamontepedral.pt. Click here for the restaurant’s website.

Pristine fish at Taberna do Valentim

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We met Valentim, the chef and owner of Taberna Valentim in Viana do Castelo, as soon as we entered the restaurant. He was working hard at the grill but took time to show us the superb mullets that had just been delivered. “The seas are often rough during Winter so at times we have to close the restaurant because we can’t find fresh fish of the quality we seek. These mullets came from Póvoa do Varzim. The sea was rough yet the fishermen still went out. Their fish is gorgeous but the they take too much risk to catch it.”

Taberna do Valentim has offered the same small menu for 40 years: pristine seasonal fish perfectly grilled, fish rice, “ensopado de peixe,” a fish stew prepared with white pepper and served on bread toasts, and caldeirada (bouillabaisse). The quality is high and prices are modest so the place is always packed.

After a very satisfying lunch, we resumed our conversation with Valentim.  “I started working when I was 8, serving glasses of wine and codfish cakes in my mother’s tavern,” he told us. “Then, I began to cook, so I’ve been cooking for a long time. But time is not what’s important. Passion is. Unless you have passion for what you do you’ll never be great at it.” This passion is evident in everything that comes to the table at Taberna Valentim.

Taberna Valentim is located at Avenida Campo do Castelo nº45 in Viana do Castelo, tel. 258-827-505.

The donkey’s shelter

Cozido no Pão

When we visited Moínho de Avis at Serra de Montejunto, Miguel Nobre showed us his new venture–a small restaurant sheltered from the wind with sprawling mountain views. It is called Curral do Burro (the donkey’s shelter) because it occupies the place where the donkey used to lodge. “Donkeys were a miller’s prized possession because they carted the bags of grain and flour back and forth, so they had to be well fed and protected from the elements,” Miguel explained.

Miguel used his skills as a carpenter to build the restaurant’s furniture. The menu offers simple, delicious food: mussels, clams, cockles, eggs with farinheira (a type of sausage), and grilled black pork.

The specialty is “cozido no pão” a combination of meats, sausages, potatoes, cabbage and carrots cooked in the oven inside bread. The vegetables have a glorious taste imparted by the sausages and the meat. It is a privilege to enjoy these deeply satisfying flavors on a mountain top, sheltered from the wind, away from it all.

Eating at Curral do Burro requires making reservations in advance by sending a Facebook message to Moínho de Avis, click here for the link.

 

 

Taberna Salmoura

IMG_1484-Edit Taberna Salmoura

After failing to get a table at Taberna Sal Grosso, we walked the narrow, winding streets of Alfama towards Taberna Salmoura. The name of the restaurant appealed to us.  Salmoura is the Portuguese word for brine, a mixture of water and salt traditionally used to tenderize meat and enhance its flavor.

Taberna Salmoura is owned by Joaquim Saragga, the chef of Taberna Sal Grosso, together with Filipe Ramalho, an interior designer turned restaurateur. The concept of the two taverns is similar—traditional recipes cooked with local, seasonal ingredients–but Taberna Salmoura is more spacious and offers a different menu.

The restaurant was full but we found some seats in a large communal table by the kitchen. Filipe suggested we order a few dishes to share. We tried two xeréms (a version of polenta popular in the Algarve) one with duck and the other with a cockle called berbigão. Next, came rissóis stuffed with a manta ray filling, a salad made with snap peas, fava beans, turnip and peanuts. The grand finale was an oxtail pie. Everything was tasty and satisfying.

It is wonderful to find a restaurant with modest prices that does not compromise on the quality of the food it serves. When we congratulated Filipe, he told us that his dream was to create the kind of restaurant where he would like to eat regularly. At Taberna Salmoura he made this dream came true.

Taberna Salmoura is located at Rua dos Remédios 98 Alfama, Lisboa, Portugal, tel. 968711094.

 

 

Taberna Sal Grosso

Taberna Sal Grosso

When we arrived at number 22, Calçada do Forte in Lisbon’s old Alfama neighborhood, there was a group of people congregated around the door. They were all trying to get a table in a small restaurant called Taberna do Sal Grosso (Coarse Salt Tavern). An exasperated waiter explained that he could not bend the laws of physics to accommodate more guests. No one was happy with the news that miracles could not be made. We too walked away disappointed. But we were so intrigued by the tavern’s atmosphere that we made reservations for lunch two days later.

As soon as we sat for lunch, it became obvious why the place is so popular. It serves delicious food with a happy vibe at modest prices. This trio of qualities is rare. It is hard to keep the quality of the food consistent and feel happy about serving inexpensive meals. Joaquim Saragga, the chef and owner, manages to do it because because he views his restaurant as more than just a business.

Joaquim lost his job, so he decided to change his life. When he was a student in London,  he used to cook for his roommates. He remembered feeling happy in the kitchen, so he enrolled in culinary school and went on to complete a Masters in gastronomy.

When he opened the tavern in 2015, he shunned the tricks that most eateries use to become more profitable. There are no couvert charges. He serves only two inexpensive but very drinkable house wines and a few artisanal beers. Desserts are modestly priced.

“I’m not trying to innovate, only to serve my favorite traditional recipes prepared with local, seasonal ingredients. I cook the food I like to eat.” he told us. Everything we tried was perfect: a watercress and orange salad, codfish cakes, manta ray and garlic, oxtail with quince, codfish and chickpeas.  “I needed to create my own job,” he explained, “but I also wanted to create a place where people feel at home.”

We proposed to take a photo of the staff at the door of the restaurant but then another wave of guests came in. Joaquim asked one of the chefs and the waiters to pose for us but he stayed inside the restaurant, clearing the tables and welcoming people. It is this dedication to serving others that make Taberna do Sal Grosso such a special place.

Taberna do Sal Grosso is located at Calçada do Forte, 22. Reservations are a must. They do not accept phone reservations. Reservations can only be made by sending a message through Facebook. You need to receive a confirmation in order for the reservation to be valid.