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.

Optimism is the best recipe

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There’s an elegant 17th century palace in Bairro Alto that once belonged to the grandfather of the Marquis of Pombal. The palace, which remains beautiful despite its decadence, was converted into an art center called Carpe Diem in 2009. Hidden inside the center was a cafeteria that served delicious food designed in collaboration with artists. The couple who managed the cafeteria, Rita Andringa and Filipe Rocha, also organized magical banquets in the rooms of the Pombal palace.

In July 2017, the Lisbon municipality decided to give the palace a different use and the cafeteria had to close. To continue their food adventures, Rita and Filipe hired two talented young chefs (Pedro Correia and André Andrade) and opened a restaurant. Decorated with a white unicorn and pieces of art from their favorite artists, it continues the tradition of combining art with delicious food that is original and thought provoking. Aware of the fact that food service is a risky venture, Rita and Filipe named their restaurant “The Optimist.” The couple felt encouraged when a friend remarked that “optimism is the best recipe.”

Our meal got off to a good start with bread that came with a delicious Bulhão Pato sauce, the traditional sauce that accompanies clams. A mushroom butter competed with the brilliant sauce for the bread’s attention.

Next, came the fava ceviche that had been recommended by Rita. It was a revelation: full of flavor and with a firm texture that is lost with traditional preparations. The meal continued with moist and rich oxtail croquettes that were accompanied by an appetizing rice made with fresh and dried tomato. Then a splendid codfish arrived topped by a poached egg and soaked in a flavorful broth made with garlic, herbs and seaweed.  Finally, a collection of pork cuts that had been marinated for 24 hours and slow cooked for 7 hours arrived at our table. Every minute of preparation was well spent to produce the resulting complex, satisfying flavors.

The restaurant was full but Rita made everyone feel at home while waves of beautiful plates with delicious food keep coming from the kitchen. We’re optimistic about this place!

The Optimista is located on Rua da Boavista 86 in Lisbon, tel. 21 346 0629. Click here for the restaurant’s web site. 

Café Garrett

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Every day, thousands of tourists go by the iconic Rossio train station and the Dona Maria II theater. In the lobby of the theater, hiding in plain sight, is Café Garret, one of the most interesting restaurants in Lisbon.

The owner, Leopoldo Calhau, is an architect who became a chef. The restaurant reflects his personality: it offers delicious food and gracious service in an elegant setting. The menu is seasonal and the wine list features small, original producers.

Leopold knows where to find great products and how to showcase them in his cooking. His fillets of sardine with grilled peppers on toast are succulent. The “cabidela,” a chicken rice prepared according to an old family recipe is unforgettable. The soup of bouillabaisse with a river fish called “achegã” is a revelation. The ice cream made with Serra cheese is a sweet surprise.

We like asking Leopoldo to choose what he’s going to serve us. We then seat back and relax, ready to enjoy a culinary feast.

Café Garrett is located inside the Dona Maria II theater at Praça D. João da Câmara, Lisbon, tel. 21 193 3532.

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.

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.