The wonders of Maçussa

Composite Maçussa

Francisco Magalhães, one of our favorite chefs, recommended the lunches that Adolfo Henriques prepares in Maçussa, a small town lost in the middle of Ribatejo. We called Adolfo to see if he could accommodate us and we were told to come the following Saturday at 1:30 pm to Rua do Moinho, number three.

We arrived late because we got lost. Maçussa is ignored by most GPS maps, so we had to resort to the ancient art of asking for directions. We parked underneath an oak tree and walked to a small green door marked with the number there. Inside, next to an old grandfather’s clock, there was a table set with plates of mouthwatering artisanal chèvre, camembert, and prosciutto.

Adolfo came to greet us. He looks like Ernest Hemmingway and speaks in short, crisp sentences much like the characters in Hemmingway’s novels. We asked many questions and this flood of curiosity made him clearly uneasy. “My usual conversation pals are two mules. They’re the only ones who truly understand me,” he tells us.

A server arrives with glasses of orange wine, made by leaving the juice of white grapes in contact with the skins. It has a wonderful acidity and evanescent aromas of fruit, herbs and flowers. “This type of wine was common in the old days when there were 226 wineries in Maçussa,” says Adolfo.

He brings us a basket with two types of bread. “I make this bread with yeast inherited from my grandfather. We kept it alive all these years. One of our breads is made with barbela wheat, an ancient gluten-free variety that is almost extinct. I started with a small bag of seeds. It took years to produce enough wheat to bake bread,” he explains.

Next, Adolfo offers us a tray of “gaspiada,” yellow pieces of baked polenta soaked in fragrant olive oil. He makes cornbread in a clay bowl that is more than a century old, a wedding present received by his grandmother. Some dough leftovers stay attached to the recipient. He mixes them with olive oil, bakes them, and serves them in cabbage leaves. “The elders say it is a recipe left by the French troops who trampled on Ribatejo during the peninsular wars.” says Adolfo.

A server keeps bringing more delights: mushrooms stuffed with goat cheese, an amazing blood sausage, a plate of flavorful smoked codfish liver. We use up all the synonyms for delicious in our vocabulary.  Adolfo rewards these accolades by offering us slices of a small aged cheese. “I don’t understand magic, but sometimes it happens,” he tells us. The cheese thrills all the senses in our palates. “A few years ago a French food journalist and a cheese producer came to visit. I offered them a cheese similar to this one. They refused to believe that it was not French. I had to show them my artisanal workshop to convince them that the cheese was made in Maçussa.”

Adolfo went to Lisbon to study sociology but interrupted his studies because he was drafted. When his army stint finished, he decided to return to his father’s farm. But his father didn’t want him back. “You are from the first generation that can leave and find a better life. There’s nothing for you here. Go back to your studies.” Adolfo stayed. He attended a workshop about making goat cheese with two biologists who had apprenticed in France. Then, he bought some goats and started making chèvre and camembert. “I’ve been surrounded by goats ever since,” he says, smiling.

We sat at the table for lunch. The meal started with sumptuous pied de mouton mushrooms served with scrambled farm eggs and arugula. “I have a friend who has devoted his life to studying mushrooms. He has identified and analyzed 140 varieties. For many years, he lived in a tent because he could not afford a house. I started buying mushrooms from him several years ago.”

Next, Adolfo brings roasted baby goat with mushrooms, new potatoes and onions. We ask him what is the secret to the delectable flavors on our plates. He shrugs his shoulders in silence and we realize that we asked him to explain the unexplainable. Adolfo feels bad about letting the question hang in the air, so he offers a partial answer: “the meat is seasoned with white wine, thyme, marjoram, and wild cumin.”

Dessert is a luscious chocolate cake, “the best in Ribatejo,” says Adolfo, mocking the self-proclaimed world’s best chocolate cake.  There are also amazing coscorões, paper-thin slivers of fried orange-flavored dough that are crunchy and sweet. The grandfather’s clock strikes six; we apologize for staying so long. “You’re not the first,” Adolfo replies. “A couple of years ago, a group of international chefs came to spend two hours and stayed for two days. I had to find places for them to sleep.”

We bought bread and cheese and drove back home, regretting all the years we spent without knowing about the wonders produced by Adolfo Henriques in Maçussa. But now we know. And so do you.

Adolfo Henriques’ company, Granja dos Moinhos, is located on Rua do Moinhos 3, Maçussa, Azambuja, tel 243-719-620, email granjadosmoinhos@sapo.pt. 

 

An unforgettable supper at Ceia

ceia composit 1

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If food was just fuel for the body, how come there are meals that linger in our memory as incandescent moments? One of these moments was a lunch amid the vineyards of Herdade do Esporão prepared by a young chef called Pedro Pena Bastos. Another such moment was a recent dinner at a new Lisbon restaurant called Ceia, the Portuguese word for supper. The setting was different but the chef was the same.

We were received in the spacious courtyard outside the Ceia dining room by sommelier Mário Marques. He offered us a choice of two welcome drinks: cherry kombucha or a natural sparkling wine from Quinta da Serradinha. The drinks came with plates of beet beignets served with smoked codfish eggs. Like everything else in this enchanted evening, these choices seemed unusual until we tried them and perfect once we tried them.

Mário invited us into the serene dining room where a long wooden table awaited 14 lucky guests. Pedro welcomed us with three tantalizing bites: Jerusalem artichokes, French toast with seaweed and cockles, and venison from Alentejo served with fermented walnuts and black olives. They were followed by a precious taco made with rose prawns from Algarve, beetroot pearls and yuzu.

A Japanese-inspired tomato broth with mackerel and broccoli showcased Pedro’s ability to create unusual combinations that work perfectly. Then, a large oyster shell from Alvor was placed on the table surrounded by bowls with sweet oysters, fermented asparagus and lima caviar. We were still savoring this intense taste from the sea when flavors from the woods arrived: grilled Hokkaido pumpkin, mushrooms, and a beurre blanc made with Indian cress.

The service progressed with the pace of a sacred ritual that has been perfected throughout the ages. Alexandre Coelho, our amiable server, invited us to visit the adjacent room where chefs place final touches on their next offerings. It is fascinating to observe the choreographed precision that produces such refined food.

Each guest received a bowl of pasta, only it was not pasta—it was the freshest squid, delicately cooked, cut like tagliatelle and served with a sauce made with bergamot zest, hazelnuts and pickled onions. The flavors of the sea continued with a line-caught robalo (sea bass) dressed with chanterelle mushrooms, marjoram and fennel cooked in parsley oil.

A beautiful loaf of sourdough bread smoked with tomato and thyme created an intermission that separated the fish from the meat courses. It came with aged butter seasoned with salt from Castro Marim and a bright-green, spicy olive oil from Pedro’s family estate.

These rustic flavors prepared out palates for the next dish, a rectangular prism of slow-cooked bísaro pork jowl that melted in our mouths. The other meat course was a cylinder of beef from Simental cows, grilled on charcoal and adorned by collard greens and buckwheat.

Next, came a plate of lovage with compote, ganache and sorbet made from a huge Buddha’s hand lemon cultivated in Alentejo. The pungent citrus notes readied our palates for a trio of desserts made with enoki mushrooms, cocoa and quince.

Coffee, brewed in a double-globe glass coffee maker, was served with gum made from dehydrated beets and coriander, raspberry bonbons, and spicy cookies coated with a cream of turmeric and sweet potatoes.

Throughout the meal, Pedro Pena Bastos combines tastes, aromas, textures, and temperatures with the skill of a master orchestrator. His deep understanding of the subtle qualities of different ingredients allows him to create brilliant flavors and invent bold harmonies. The result is a culinary symphony that is unforgettable.

Ceia is located at Campo de Santa Clara, 128. Lisbon. Click here for the restaurant’s website.

 

Reading Anna Karenina in Sagres

Composite Restaurant Os Arcos Algarve

Adega dos Arcos (the cellar of the arches) is named after its many arches. It is an old “tasca,” a humble establishment that serves traditional fare. The restaurant changed owners over the years but the recipe for success has remained the same: fresh fish and grilled meats served with no frills at very modest prices.

We recommend the local fish species with names no one can translate into English. We had sargos, bicas, and liça. The sargo has a buttery taste and a wonderful consistency. Bicas have a more complex flavor reminiscent of the posh mullets. The liça has large white filets with a firm texture and delicate taste.

Everything comes with potatoes, boiled or fried and a traditional salad with lettuce, onion and tomato. The choice of wines is very limited and dominated by Caiado, a great inexpensive wine produced by Adega Mayor.

Even in the Winter, Adega dos Arcos is busy with locals and visitors. “In the Summer forget it,” says the waiter, “the lines are huge.” But the food is worth it. You can take a long Russian novel like Anna Karenina to read while you’re waiting. The novel might end badly, but we guarantee that your wait will have a happy ending.

Adega dos Arcos is located on Rua Roca da Veiga, Sagres, tel. 960 294 290.

Belcanto

Composit Bel Canto

Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Belcanto, the most celebrated restaurant in Lisbon, is close to the São Carlos opera house. Decorated with whimsical porcelain plates, the restaurant looks like a stage and its meals are as thrilling as a great opera performance.

Our lunch’s overture was composed of small bites often included in the couvert of traditional restaurants:  tremoços (lupini beans), olives, and a carrot and garlic salad. The presentation was unusual–they were served on top of Portuguese cobblestones. But the real surprise was that they all turned liquid once we bit into them, filling our mouth with explosions of flavor. This culinary prelude was accompanied by Vicentino, a wine from Zambujeira do Mar that left our paletes refreshed with hints of green pepper.

There were more surprises. First, a fake edible stone covered with salmon caviar. Then, crispy chicken skin with corn coriander and liver, a combination that tastes like roasted chicken. Next, a delicious algae cornet filled with tuna served inside a flower pot.

A genial waiter introduced a chorus of breads made from corn, buckwheat, quinoa, and puff pastry. Next came a duet for clams and “lingueirão” (razor clams) accompanied by a 1979 Porta dos Cavaleiros, a velvety red wine from the Dão region produced in the birth year of chef Avillez.

Then the arias started. The first was a Golden Egg–an egg cooked at a low temperature, covered with gold leaf and adorned with threads of fried leek. It arrived with a lively Arinto white wine made by António Maçanita in Pico, a volcanic island in the Azores archipelago.

The second aria was called Ocean Dive: a pristine sea bass (robalo) cooked in sea water with seaweed, “salicórnia” (samphire), razor clams, and mussels. We were still savoring the final chords of this crowd pleaser when a new theme was introduced: a flavorful remake of the bucolic “cozido” that the chef’s grandmother used to prepare with boiled meats and cabbage. It came with a vigorous 2012 Bruto from the Douro region.

The performance reached its climax with another traditional recipe reinvented: the roasted piglet from Bairrada. We don’t know what culinary sorcery was used to produce this perfect combination of crispy skin and juicy roasted meat. All we can tell you is that the result is magical.

A new theme was introduced by a duo of pre-desserts: a raspberry sorbet and an “abade de priscos” pudding. They were followed by a tangerine dream made from frozen juice and filed with tangerine sorbet. Vila Oeira, a rare dessert wine from Carcavelos harmonized with these sweet delights. Coffee and mignardises brought our meal to a blissful finale.

You have to be patient to dine at Belcanto. The restaurant is booked for weeks in advance. But it’s worth the wait to experience such an unforgettable culinary performance.

Belcanto is located at Largo do São Carlos in Lisbon, tel. 21-342-0607.