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. 

 

Mercearia Prado

Prado (loja) Composit

António Galapito, the chef of Prado, a new restaurant in Lisbon, had a problem. Despite his large ensemble of proficient waiters, service was at times slow. The reason was that customers asked many questions about the provenance of the ingredients used in the restaurant.

Galapito took an unusual step to solve this problem: he opened Mercearia Prado, a grocery store that stocks the products he cooks with. So now his waiters can say: you find our ingredients in the grocery store around the corner.

Mercearia Prado is the perfect place to enjoy a light lunch or to shop for a gourmet picnic. Its shelfs are brimming with wines, cheese, prosciutto, canned fish, bread, vegetables, gourmet sandwiches, jams, and desserts. The products are so carefully curated that you can shop blindfolded and be certain that everything you choose tastes great!

Mercearia Prado is located at Rua das Pedras Negras, 37, Lisbon, tel. 960 280 492. 

A restaurant called Romando

Rest. Romando

Call us old fashioned, but we don’t like to outsource our choice of restaurants to trip advisor. So, we contacted a friend who’s a bon vivant to ask whether he could recommend a good place for lunch near Vila do Conde. “Make reservations at Romando,” he said without hesitating. “It’s been around forever, serving great traditional food.” We duly called the restaurant and drove to the address they gave us. We arrived at a brand-new building decorated with modern furniture. Could this be the right place?

As soon as the first course arrived–robalo (sea bass) with shrimp rice–we knew that we were indeed at the right place. The fish had been filleted and cooked in the oven seasoned only with salt and olive oil. It is a simple preparation, but the timing has to be precise in order for the freshness of the fish to sing. And sing it did, joined by a choir of shrimps wrapped in sea aromas and rice grains dressed in tomato robes.

Next, our waiter brought us codfish cooked with red pepper, onion, and diced prosciutto. It was deeply satisfying with all the great ingredients pulling together to make the overall taste much more than the sum of the individual flavors. Finally, we tried some tender, succulent grilled meats accompanied by crispy French fries and flavorful beans.

As far as dessert is concerned, it suffices to say that Romando’s puddings, tarts and cakes tempt the most virtuous souls to indulge in gluttony.

Rosa and Armando Pena opened the restaurant soon after they got married, more than a quarter of century ago. Rosa was in charge of the kitchen and Armando managed the dining room. They combined their names and called the place Romando.

The restaurant quickly gathered fame. But the secret of their success is that they never rested on their laurels. They kept evolving, searching for better ingredients, upgrading the quality of the service and, more recently, renovating the restaurant premises. At the same time, the cooking stayed grounded in the techniques of Portuguese cuisine and in the love and commitment that inspired Rosa and Armando to combine their names.

Romando is located at Rua da Fonte, nº221 in Árvore near Vila do Conde, tel. 252 641 075. Click here for the restaurant’s web site.

The delights of Vale da Estrela

Composit Queijaria Vale da Serra

Our grandfather loved cheese from Serra da Estrela, the highest mountain in continental Portugal. He used to buy most of the cheese made by a small producer. Half of this cache he offered to friends. The other half was consumed in our house, either fresh or cured with olive oil and paprika. Every day of the year there was cheese on the table.

We were delighted when Maria João Coelho invited us to visit Queijaria Vale da Estrela, her father’s new artisanal cheese workshop in Mangualde near Viseu. The first thing we noticed when we entered the workshop were the wonderful cheese aromas, so familiar from our childhood.

Jorge Coelho, Maria João’s father, showed us around. He inherited his love for cheese from his grandfather Raul, an “affineur” who procured the best Estrela cheese to sell to gourmet stores in Lisbon.

Serra cheese is made with only three ingredients: sheep milk, thistle flower, and salt. Vale da Estrela only uses milk from Bordaleira ewes, which are indigenous to Serra da Estrela. The precious milk is collected at night and processed immediately to guarantee the best results.

All the cheese is made by hand with rhythmic gestures that transform humble ingredientes into something transcendent. The whey left over from the production process is heated to make “requeijão,” a soft, ricotta-style cheese.

“We make very good cheese but our requeijão is the best in the world,” said Jorge Coelho with pride. We first admired the cheese with its firm texture and delicate taste. Then, we tried the requeijão. As professional requeijão eaters we sampled many wonderful specimens over the years. But nothing as sublime as the requeijão from Vale da Estrela with its silky texture, depth of flavor, and exceptional freshness.

You can generally find the cheese and requeijão from Vale de Serra in supermarkets throughout the country. But when there’s a special occasion in heaven these products disappear from the shelfs because angels come in disguise to get them for the tables of paradise.

Queijaria Vale da Estrela is located in Mangualde on Estrada Nacional 16, n.º 43 São Cosmado. Click here for the queijaria’s website. 

 

 

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.

 

 

The best cheese in Azeitão

composit-queijo-azeitao

In the beginning of the 19th century, a farmer called Gaspar Henriques de Paiva moved from the Beira region to Azeitão, near Lisbon. He liked his new home, but craved the taste of the famous cheese made in Beira’s Estrela mountain. In 1830, Gaspar brought some “bordalesa” sheep from the Estrela mountain to Azeitão and arranged for a shepherd to come once a year to help him make cheese.

Gaspar owned only a few sheep, so his cheeses were small in size and his production low in volume. But the cheese was so great that it quickly gathered fame. Gaspar taught his neighbors how he made cheese with only three ingredients: sheep milk, cardoon and salt. Soon there were several cheese producers in Azeitão.

We traveled to Azeitão to try the cheeses made by the current generation of producers. When we asked the locals about their favorite cheese, they we unwilling to take sides. Finally, someone agreed to talk under condition of anonymity: “the best cheese in Azeitão is made in the village of Quinta do Anjo (Angel’s farm) and the best producer in Quinta do Anjo is Rui Simões,” he whispered, making sure he was not overheard.

We were lucky to get this tip because Rui Simões’ cheese is sold in only a few places, so we might have missed it.

We liked all the cheeses we tried in Azeitão, but there was indeed something special about the ones made by Rui Simões. They have an addictive creamy, salty, satisfying taste. Now that we are no longer near Azeitão, we crave them. Maybe we’ll buy some “bordalesa” sheep…

Click here for the web site of Queijaria Simões. 

The best grilled sardines in Lisbon

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The best place to eat grilled sardines in Lisbon is Casa do Peixe, a modest restaurant on the second floor of the Saldanha food market. This eatery dates back to the first part of the 20th century, when a cook from Galicia came to Lisbon and set up a few tables in the market to serve poached fish. The restaurant quickly became a destination for food lovers.

The current owner, Aníbal Sousa, bought the restaurant 30 years ago. When the Saldanha market moved from its graceful old building to its current unremarkable location, he added a charcoal grill and started to grill sardines and other fish.

The restaurant is noisy and there is no ambience. But it is always full of locals who love to eat fresh fish, everyone from clerks and shopkeepers to government officials and business executives.

Three cooks work nonstop to produce a constant flow of perfectly cooked treasures from the sea. All the fish is great but the sardines are extraordinary; moist and flavorful, grilled to perfection. We asked Aníbal Sousa what makes his sardines so exceptional. He smiled and said: we have been grilling them for many years and we only serve sardines when they are at the peak of their quality.

If you’re a foodie in search of the perfect grilled sardine, Casa do Peixe is the place for you.

Casa do Peixe is located on Mercado 31 de Janeiro, Rua Engenheiro Vieira da Silva, 135, Saldanha, Lisboa, tel. 213544233.