Mugasa

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Bairrada is a region in the center of Portugal known for its refreshing sparkling wine and its “leitão” (roasted suckling pig). The best leitão in Bairrada comes from a restaurant called Mugasa located in the middle of nowhere in a small village called Fogueira.

The restaurant’s owner, Álvaro Nogueira, retired from a desk job and opened a small café in 1981. He wanted to learn the art of roasting piglets to turn his café into a restaurant. But the learning curve was steep until one of his cousins, a master roaster, offered to teach him.

After this jump start, Álvaro kept perfecting his art. In 1991, he entered a competition organized by a gastronomic society and won first prize.

“Why is roasting so difficult?” we asked Álvaro. ” Every pig is different, with a different size and fat content. We use six wood-fired ovens and every oven is different. We have to make constant adjustments to guarantee perfection. That is why we only roast four piglets per oven, to have time to make all the necessary adjustments.”

“In the first 20 minutes, the oven has to be very hot, between 280 and 300 degree Celsius to make the outside crunchy. Then we cover the wood with ashes to bring down the temperature. There are many details so we have to pay close attention. The traditional seasoning made with garlic, lard, white pepper, and salt is important but you cannot use it to cover up mistakes.”

We sat at the table to try Mugasa’s leitão. It is indeed remarkable, crunchy on the outside, succulent on the inside, with just enough seasoning to accentuate the taste of the meat.

Álvaro is very proud of the celebrities that drive to Fogueira just to eat at his restaurant. But he is even more proud of his son Ricardo. “My son is the best master roaster in Portugal,” Álvaro said smiling. “He learned my secrets and discovered new ones.”

Many Bairrada wine makers eat regularly at Mugasa, so you often overhear discussions about weather conditions and grape maturation. The restaurant offers some of the best wines from these producers at very attractive prices.

The formula for Mugasa’s success is easy to write down but hard to replicate: amazing leitão plus great Bairrada wine = unforgettable meals.

Mugasa is located at Largo da Feira, Fogueira, Aveiro, tel. 234 741 061

 

The last harbor

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The existence of one of Lisbon’s best fish restaurants has been a closely guarded secret for more than half a century. Its name is “Último Porto” (the last harbor). Now that the secret is out, we might as well confess everything.

The restaurant is tucked away in the corner of one of Lisbon’s harbors (Rocha do Conde de Óbidos). It is not a glamorous place. But for fish lovers it is heaven.

There are tables inside and an esplanade surrounded by containers that is very pleasant when the weather is warm. It is easy to park and the walk to the restaurant is beautiful with the river in front of us and the city on our back.

“Último Porto” opens only for lunch and it is always full of locals. Grilled fish is the main event and the stars of the show are the “salmonetes” (mullets). Their skins are colored with yellow and orange hues, their flavors as bold as their colors. But, there are many other great choices, from sea bass to codfish.

Many restaurants showcase their fish in a refrigerated display. Others bring a fish platter to the table so that customers can choose what they want. At Último Porto, the fish is treated like a work of art—shielded from light and protected from the elements. It only leaves the refrigerator to go to the grill where it is cooked to perfection. It is this care that makes the last harbor our first choice for grilled fish in Lisbon.

Último Porto is located in the Estação Marítima Da Rocha Conde d’Óbidos, tel. 21 397 9498. It only serves lunch and reservations are a must. 

 

 

 

A faithful friend

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Portugal’s favorite fish does not swim in Portuguese waters. Since the 16th century, Portuguese fishermen have sailed to Newfoundland in search of gadus morhua, more commonly known as codfish. The French call the bland-tasting fresh cod “cabillaud” and the more appetizing salted cod “morue.” In Portugal this distinction is superfluous because only the salted variety is appreciated. So, one word suffices: “bacalhau.”

Since cod has very little fat, once it is cured in salt it keeps for a long time without becoming rancid. For this reason, dried codfish was often consumed by those who lived far from the coast in days of religious abstinence from meat like Christmas Eve.

The quality of the cod depends on the size of the fish (the larger the better) and the type of cure. To produce the best cod, the cure must begin on the boat, shortly after the fish is captured. This cure continues on land, usually in open-air pavilions. Lesser cod is stored frozen in the boat and cured only on land. Much of the codfish consumed in Portugal is cured in Ílhavo, a region with abundant sea salt.

Two popular sources of cod are Norway and Canada, but the best cod is caught in Iceland by Portuguese fishermen.

Before cooking, salted cod is soaked in water for two or three days to re-hydrate and remove most of the salt. The fish is then ready to be combined with symbiotic ingredients such as garlic, potatoes and olive oil.

The commerce of “bacalhau” is so important that there’s a whole street in Lisbon, Rua dos Bacalhoeiros, that was once reserved for codfish vendors.

In good times and bad, the Portuguese gather at the table to share this fish we call “fiel amigo” (faithful friend). It is a delicacy that comes from afar but has the taste of home.

A cheese revolution

Composit Queijaria 2016

Queijaria, our favorite cheese store in Lisbon, keeps getting better. It is a place where the ordinary is banned to make room for extraordinary artisanal cheeses made in small batches by traditional producers.

On our last visit Pedro Cardoso, one of the owners, invited us to taste two unique cheeses. The first was from São Jorge, an island in the Azores archipelago. It is made with the milk of happy cows that roam free on the island. São Jorge cheese is always delicious but this one was the best we ever had–sharp, peppery and full of flavor. “This cheese is aged for 30 months which makes all the difference. It is very hard to find because the production is tiny and almost all consumed locally,” said Pedro.

The second cheese was from Serra da Estrela. It melted in our mouths leaving an amazing buttery after taste. It is made with milk from “bordalesa” sheep. This breed is being replaced with sheep whose milk is less flavorful but more abundant. “Eating this cheese is an act of defiance. It is saying that we don’t want this wonderful taste to disappear; that quality trumps quantity.”

Pedro speaks with revolutionary zeal. He wants to preserve and enrich Portugal’s wonderful cheese heritage. Will you support his cause?

Queijaria is in the Principe Real neighborhood at Rua do Monte Olivete, 40, tel. 21 346 0474. Click here for their web site.

 

Memorable pastries from Vila Real

Crista de GaloMore than a century ago, a baker from Vila Real was given four secret recipes from the local Santa Clara convent. The pastries she made with these recipes were so extraordinary that she decided to turn her bakery into a pastry store.

Today, her great grandchildren continue to use the same prized recipes at Casa Lapão, a pastry store in Vila Real. Their most popular pastry is called “Crista de Galo,” which means rooster comb.  We recommend that you try them with your eyes closed so you can better appreciate the heavenly combination of the flaky dough with the egg and almond filling.

If you’re near Vila Real, a stop at Casa Lapão can turn an ordinary day into a memorable one.

Casa Lapão is located at Rua da Misericórdia 53/55, Vila Real, tel 259 324 146, email casalapao@gmail.com. Click here for their website. 

Our favorite tasca in Lisbon

Das FloresTascas are modest, inexpensive restaurants that offer a small, seasonal menu. They are often family affairs; the parents cook and the kids wait the tables. The quality of tascas is highly variable, some are good, a few are great, many are just passable.

When tascas become popular, they often have trouble coping with success, and their quality suffers. That is why people who find a great tasca usually like to keep it secret.

We’ll break with these social norms and tell you the name of our favorite tasca in Lisbon: Das Flores in Rua das Flores. This establishment is not to be confused with the more posh (and also very good) Taverna da Rua das Flores located on the same street.

You could write a dissertation about the eating habits of Lisbon residents by studying Das Flores’ menu. It includes items like poached grouper, grilled sole, codfish cakes with tomato rice, pork and clams Alentejo, and grilled lamb chops. All perfectly prepared with pristine ingredients. Many items on the menu cost less than 10 euros, which is why the small dining room is always crowded. The restaurant caters to its regular customers, so it can be difficult to get a table.

Das Flores is not a place for a romantic date. But it is a great choice if you want to experience traditional Portuguese food on a budget. Just don’t tell anyone else, ok?

Das Flores is located on Rua das Flores 76, Lisbon, tel. 21 342 8828. If you do go to Das Flores on a date, skip dessert and go to Landeau on the same street for chocolate cake. It will make the whole experience more glamorous.

We hope it rains in August

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When friends who visit Portugal tell us they tasted some amazing mushrooms, we always worry they are mistaken. During hard times, Portuguese cooks found ways to make tasty dishes out of many animal parts to make sure nothing went to waste. So those delicious “mushrooms” were probably pig ears in coriander sauce or sautéed veal kidneys.

But Portugal does have amazing wild mushrooms. They’re called “míscaros” (pronounced “meescaros”) and grow in the pine forests of the Beira region.  You can stew them, cook them with meat, or combine them with rice. Míscaros are one of the crown jewels of Portuguese cuisine.

One of our grandfathers loved eating míscaros. He was always happy when it rained in August because that meant that míscaros would be abundant in the Fall. We remember him very fondly for many things, big and small. And we always like it when it rains in August.

You can often find míscaros in the Fall at Salsa & Coentros, one of our favorite restaurants in Lisbon. Click here for more information about the restaurant.