The Correio-mor palace

We visited the Correio-mor palace in Loures on a sunny winter morning. The building was the country house of the family that, for two centuries, had a monopoly on mail distribution in the Portuguese empire. When the 1755 earthquake destroyed their Lisbon home, the family relocated to Loures and made this palace their permanent residence.

The ornate gates opened with ease as if they were expecting us. We stepped into a spacious courtyard that overlooks the Baroque building. Our first stop was the kitchen. White and blue tiles reflect the bright light that pours through the windows. The tiles depict the delicacies served at the palace: fish, game, vegetables, and fruits. A lonely marble table sits in the middle of the room, longing for the days when armies of cooks crowded around it to prepare sumptuous banquets. Across from the kitchen, we see vast wine cellars that once stored the fruits of many harvests.

An elegant staircase takes us to the noble floor. The limestone steps show the gentle wear that only shoes made of silk and soft leather can produce. At the top of the stairs, a hallway overlooks the expansive garden. We admire the ancient pine trees that have seen all the parties and heard all the gossip. Impassive, they sway in the wind, revealing nothing.

It is easy to get lost inside the palace. There are many elegant rooms with lavishly decorated ceilings and walls covered with tiles depicting naval scenes, hunting expeditions, and garden parties. 

At the Correio-mor palace we do not feel the stress of the modern world, only the gilded ease of aristocratic life. 

You can rent the Correio-mor palace for movies, weddings, and other special events. Click here for the palace’s website.

A convent in Alentejo

It is hard to believe that there’s a monastery larger than Lisbon’s Rossio plaza in the middle of Alentejo. Driving on the winding roads of the d’Ossa mountain, we almost lost faith. But we were climbing, and that is always a good omen. Convents often occupy mountain tops so that monks can be closer to heaven.

The first glimpse of the building is easy to miss. The sprawling monastery hides behind 600 hectares of olive trees, pines, oaks, ashes, and oleanders. After a few more twists and turns, we arrived at the Convent of São Paulo.

Marília Nanitas came out to greet us. She works for the foundation that manages the hotel. “Can you tell us the story of this place?” we asked with curiosity.  “I can tell you a good lie, which is better than a half-truth,” she replied teasingly. Then, she lent us a book about the history of the convent. 

What we learned from this tome is that it took centuries to build this monastery. The first edifice was a hermitage erected in the year 315. In 446, an earthquake partially destroyed the structure. When in 715 the Arabs invaded the region, the hermits abandoned the sanctuary.

The second king of Portugal, Sancho I, decided in 1182 to rebuild the hermitage as a monastery. In 1372, Dona Brites, the daughter of King Dom Pedro I and Inês de Castro, donated her lands near the convent to the monks. The royal family provided steady support, financing the glorious collection of cobalt blue tiles installed between 1710 and 1725. 

After the state abolished religious orders in 1834, the convent was disputed for 37 years by two municipalities, Estremoz and Redondo. Before leaving the monastery, the monks protected the tiles with plaster walls. It is thanks to their ingenuity that more than 50,000 tiles have survived to this day.

When the government auctioned the convent and the surrounding lands, Henriqueta Leotte Tavares purchased it with her dowery. It was a dream to own a place like this. But also a burden, a responsibility to history. Over the next two centuries, Henriquetta’s family used their income from agriculture to restore the convent. The first generation built a factory that made tiles to repair the roof. The second generation hired carpenters to rebuild the doors and windows. 

Henrique Lotte Tavares, a chemical engineer, belongs to the third generation. He has no descendants, so he decided to turn the convent into a hotel to preserve it for posterity. Between 1989 and 2009, Henrique oversaw countless renovations.  In 1993, he created a foundation to manage the hotel and continue the restoration work.

How was life in the monastery? The Latin word “silentio” inscribed in the tiles reminded the monks of their vow of silence. There are many fountains, perhaps because the sound of flowing water makes silences feel less awkward. The monks could talk only on their way to lunch or dinner. To make the most out of these convivial moments, the friars walked slowly through the corridor that leads to the dining room, which became known as “passos perdidos” (lost steps).

We too walked slowly on the long corridors of the convent to savor the moments spent in this beautiful place so far from the hurries of modern life, so close to the tranquility of heaven.

The Convento de São Paulo is located at Aldeia da Serra d’Ossa in Redondo, Évora. Click here for the hotel’s website.

An oyster feast

After his masterclass on olive oil, Edgardo Pacheco left behind some tasting glasses. When we asked him for the easiest way to return them, he answered with an invitation: “Do you want to join me for an oyster tasting?” How could we say no?

We met at JNcQuoi, an elegant restaurant in Lisbon’s Avenida da Liberdade. Edgardo introduced us to Rui Moreira, the president of the Portuguese aquaculture association, and two oyster producers, Hugo Castillo from Aquanostra and Pedro Ferreira from Exporsado. They are part of a small group of entrepreneurs who are passionate about oysters. Their mission is to take advantage of Portugal’s unique maritime terroir to produce exquisite oysters. Most of their production is exported to France, but their oysters are increasingly popular in Portuguese bars and restaurants.

We learned that Portugal has an oyster variety called Gryphoea Angulate that, by happenstance, became popular in France. In 1868, a French ship called the Morlaisien departed from Setúbal loaded with Portuguese oysters. The ship was caught in a storm and sought refuge in Gironde, a port in Bordeaux. By the time the storm cleared, the oysters had spoiled and were thrown overboard. Some of the oysters were still alive and propagated in French waters. When, in the 1920s, an epidemic decimated the oyster variety cultivated in France (Ostrea Edu­lis), local oyster farmers and merchants embraced the Portuguese oysters. Known as “les Portugaises,” they were both produced in France and imported from Portugal. Unfortunately, in the 1970s, an epidemic infection combined with environmental pressures increased the mortality rate of the Gryphoea Angulate. For this reason, most Portuguese producers currently grow an oyster variety from Japan called Crassostrea Giga.

The oysters consumed in restaurants around the world come from oyster farms. Wild oysters are generally scrawny and insipid. The French call them “rabbit ears” because of their large elongated shells. 

Oysters are raised in ocean water inside bags. They live on the microscopic algae in seawater, so no feeding is required. Still, oyster farming is a lot of work. Just like champagne bottles undergoing remuage, oyster bags need to be turned daily. This turning creates small fractures in the edges of the shells that result in rounder shells. It also produces better-tasting oysters, perhaps because the mollusk gets fatter when it does not grow a large shell. 

A waiter interrupted our conversation by announcing the arrival of two large trays of oysters seemingly floating on crushed ice. “We will first taste the oysters with water,” instructed Edgardo, “and then pair them with a couple of wines.” 

We picked up one of the shells and held it for a moment to admire its sculptural beauty. Then, we tasted the delicate mollusk. It has the exhilarating taste of the sea! But, unlike sea water, oysters sate our appetite leaving us deeply satisfied.

There were oysters from seven producers and four regions: Aveiro (António Sá and Ilha dos Puxadoiros), Sado (Aquanostra and Exporsado), Alvor (Alvostral and Ostraselect), and Ria Formosa (Francisco Frazão).

These oysters vary in fatness, texture, iodine content, sweetness, and saltiness. Larger oysters are sweeter because they have a bigger muscle, which is the sweetest part of the mollusk.  Some oysters have more iodine than others because of differences in the terroir where they are raised.

Jonathan Swift famously wrote that “It was a brave man who first ate an oyster.” It was also a desperate man. Oysters are notoriously difficult to open. Hugo Castillo gave us small knives that made us feel like pirates and taught us how to open an oyster without using a power drill. It does get easier with practice. 

Once our oyster was open, Hugo told us to clean it, discarding the water that is mixed with debris. Then, we cut the nerve and flip the mollusk to improve its appearance on the shell. A couple of minutes later, the oyster magically replenishes the shell with water. It can do this trick up to seven times, which is one of the reasons why oysters survive for about ten days in a cold environment outside the ocean. 

José de Brito, a Portuguese oyster merchant, discussed the best way to eat oysters in his 1957 book “Oysters, Culinary and Health” (As Ostras na Saúde e na Cozinha). His advice is as relevant today as when it was written: “Oysters are best eaten raw so that their nutrients and delicate seafood taste remains intact. A little lemon juice, a dash of pepper, and, for those who like it, a little butter and we have a delicious dish. Accompanied by a cold, dry white wine, it is a culinary treat that can satisfy even the most refined palates.” 

But which white wine should we choose? Luckily, Diogo Yebra was there to help us. Diogo is the sommelier at JNcQUOI, as well as the producer of some interesting garage wines called Vinhos à Parte. Diogo explained that, with their salty, strong umami taste, oysters overpower most wines. It is difficult to find a harmonious marriage where neither the wine nor the oysters are dominant in the palate. Champagne and chardonnay are standard choices. 

Instead of a chardonnay, Diogo served Druida, a white wine made in the Dão region with a local varietal called encruzado. Produced with grapes grown in granite soils, it has a minerality and acidity that complement the flavors of the oysters. It was an inspired choice. 

Next, we tried Sílica, a sparkling blanc de noir from Bairrada made with baga, a red varietal.  It is full of freshness, with citrus aromas that accentuate the taste of the oysters and cleanse the palate. Another terrific choice. 

We learned many lessons from this oyster tasting orchestrated by Edgardo. But, the most important takeaway is that Portugal is a paradise for oyster lovers. The quality of the oysters is exceptional and the price is modest. Pair them with a suitable white Portuguese wine and you have a ready-made culinary feast!

Edgardo Pacheco wrote some great articles about oysters in the August 28, 2021 edition of Fugas, a magazine about food, wine, and travel published as part of Público, a daily newspaper. If you read Portuguese, click here to access the articles.  

The chalet of the Countess of Edla

We stood outside the charming house hesitating. Should we go in? What gives us the right to see this royal love nest? But it was a cold, windy morning. With this feeble excuse, we stepped inside the cozy chalet where king Ferdinand II lived with his second wife, the opera singer Elise Hensler.

The king’s first wife was queen Dona Maria II. When they married, he was a dashing young man with an impressive mustache and a regal name: prince Ferdinand Georg August of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. The couple enjoyed a blissful marriage. Together, they had 11 children.

Ferdinand avoided interfering in state affairs, devoting his time to various artistic interests. His most important project was planning and building the fairy-tale Pena Palace and turning the barren surroundings into the lush landscape we enjoy today. When the queen died of childbirth in 1853, Ferdinand was devastated. He was offered the throne of Spain but preferred to stay in Portugal, living in peace in his beloved Pena Palace.

A night out at the opera in 1860 changed his life. The king saw Elise Hensler on stage at the São Carlos Opera in Lisbon and fell in love. They started a passionate love affair that culminated with their marriage in 1869. Elise received the title of the Countess of Edla.

The prince and the countess built this lovely chalet on the grounds of the Pena palace. Inspired by alpine architecture, it is meticulously decorated with references to nature. Cork is used as both insulation and decoration. The exterior walls are painted to simulate wood.

The Pena and National Sintra palaces project power and wealth. At the chalet everything is intimate and private, the power of the state surrendered to the power of love.

Click here to book a visit to the chalet of the Countess of Edla.

Josefinas

“Pede dextro,” advised the Romans. In Ancient Rome, you could curry favor with the gods by entering a house or a temple with the right foot. 

The importance of putting the best foot forward was not lost on architect Filipa Júlio. In 2013, she created a luxury line of footwear called Josefinas inspired by the shoes worn by classical ballerinas. Each shoe is handcrafted with exquisite materials by talented Portuguese artisans. 

The company strives to make the experience of receiving and wearing their shoes unforgettable. Each pair arrives with a handwritten message by the team that produced it. A “chief officer of customer delight” dreams up festive packaging, customizations, and surprise deliveries.

In a world where elegance is often associated with uncomfortable high heels, Josefinas combine grace with comfort. As these flat shoes gained cult status among fashionistas, the company felt external pressure to adopt industrial production processes that would support fast growth. But Josefinas’ managers resisted. They reinforced their commitment to unhurried, meticulous manufacturing methods. They cultivated their brand ethos: shoes designed by women for women. And they used some of the fruits of the brand’s success to support women-rights causes. For all these reasons, we’re certain that Roman goddesses favor Josefinas. 

Click here for Josefina’s website and here for their Instagram page.

The Douro historical train

Our journey begins with the clatter of a steam engine pulling five rickety wooden carriages into the Régua train station. Trains like this one have trod on the steel tracks that connect Régua to Pinhão since 1879. In 1883, the line was extended all the way to Foz do Tua.

Once all passengers get on board, the chimney blows a cloud of black smoke and we see Régua recede in the distance. The train moves slowly and yet there is not enough time to take in all that there is to admire, from the myriad colors of the river to the wondrous vine terraces sculpted into the mountain sides. 

A group of folk musicians walks through the carriages singing traditional tunes accompanied by accordion, triangle, “cavaquinho” (a small stringed instrument), and a drum made out of goat skin and wood. The musicians’ faces are weathered by a lifetime of work in the fields. But they sing with joy the tunes that lift the spirits of the laborers during the harvest. 

We arrive at the Tua station and the train stops for a well-deserved rest. As our journey resumes, we marvel at the feat of 19th-century engineering that allows the train to go back without turning around. The locomotive’s engine simply goes into reverse, pushing the carriages towards Régua. We travel on the same tracks as before, but the landscape looks different. The light has changed and the blues and greens are now mixed with yellows and oranges. 

The train crew serves us a glass of port wine and some traditional candy. We stop at the picturesque Pinhão train station to admire the 1937 tile panels that depict in blue hues the inimitable colors of the Douro landscape. Then, it is time to return to Régua. The locomotive screeches and puffs as it reaches the place where our journey ends.

It is a privilege to travel in this relic of the industrial revolution that saw the world change and the beauty of the Douro endure. 

Click here for more information about the Douro Historical Train. You can buy tickets online. The best seats are on the right side of the train since you can see the Douro valley from your window both on the way to Tua and on the return.

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.

A master miller

Miguel Nobre

It’s not every day we meet a miller. It was once a common profession when every elevation had its windmill. Serra de Montejunto, a mountain that crosses the Cadaval and Alenquer counties, used to have the largest concentration of windmills in the Iberian peninsula. Today, only one working mill remains—Moínho de Avis. It was there that we met our miller, Miguel Nobre.

Miguel speaks with a cadence that makes everything he says sound like poetry. He has a lot of wisdom to share. “I am fascinated by the idea of bringing back the ancient grains, the old ways of making flour. It is my way of traveling back in time,” he told us.

His windmill dates back to 1810 but lingered in ruins for many years until he restored it in 2008. Miguel was a carpenter until he fell in love with windmills. He started restoring them, first as a hobby and later as a full-time occupation. He has restored windmills all over Portugal but takes special pride in Moínho de Avis. It is a beautiful windmill. Miguel shows us the ingenious gears that rotate the sails towards the wind. The small windows offer expansive views of the mountain and the sea.

With his son Luís, Miguel is bringing back the old wheats that are full of nutrition and flavor: barbela, nabão and preto amarelo. “These stones have never milled modern grains so they have no trace of pesticides. My wheats are certified as biological, not by the government but by nature, come see.” He places a handful of barbela grains at the entrance of the mill. Soon, an army of ants arrives to cart away this loot. “The ants avoid grains that have pesticides, but they love these ancient wheats,” Miguel says. “I am also starting to find more and more lady bugs on the wheat fields, they had vanished from this region but they are coming back to my fields.” Miguel likes to plant his wheat in southern-facing slopes protected from northern winds that are likely to be tainted with pesticides.

We stepped outside to hear the sound of the clay pots attached to the sails. Each is tuned to a note in the key of C major. “These pots are our weather report system,” says Miguel. “They sound different when the air is humid, so they warn us when it is going to rain. We also need to be aware of time. Millers do not use a watch to tell time. The sun is our clock. When it touches the horizon, it is time to stow away the sails.”

We bought a couple of bags of barbela wheat and promised to send Miguel some photos of the breads we were planning to make. We didn’t imagine that we would keep coming back throughout the summer, to get more flour and wisdom from Miguel Nobre, the master miller.

You can hear the sound of the windmill beautifully recorded by Pedro Rebelo. Pedro is a Portuguese composer, sound artist and performer, working primarily in chamber music, improvisation and installation with new technologies. To learn more about his wonderfully original work click here.

Provesende, a fairy tale village

ProvesendeIn the first half of the 18th century the production of port wine was in dire straits. Inferior wines were often mixed with sugar, spices and elderberry juice to be sold off as port wine. In 1756, the Marquis of Pombal, the autocratic prime minister of King Dom José, created the Royal Company to regulate the production of port wine in order to protect its authenticity.

Pombal sent officials to define the boundaries of the Douro region and classify all its vineyards, creating one of the world’s oldest demarcated wine regions. Vineyards classified as “vinho de ramo” could only produce wine for domestic consumption. Vineyards classified as “vinho de feitoria” could export their wine. These classifications had an enormous impact on property values.

The officials charged with classifying the vineyards and regulating the port-wine trade settled in a small village called Provesende. Over the following decades, the village experienced a construction boom. Large land owners built imposing manor houses so they could spend time in Provesende and rub shoulders with government officials.

The memories of the parties hosted in these mansions have faded in time. What we have left is a charming village that belongs in a fairy tale.

The Marquis of Pombal and his dessert wine

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Almost everyone who visits Lisbon runs into the statue of Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the Marquis of Pombal. It stands on top of a giant pedestal facing the downtown neighborhood that the Marquis helped rebuild after the 1755 earthquake.

The Marquis had a profound influence on the production of port wine.  In 1757, he ordered the first classification of port-producing vineyards, making the Douro one of the world’s oldest demarcated wine regions. He also founded the Royal Company which controlled the exports of port to England and Brazil. These measures were unpopular, but they greatly improved the quality of the port produced.

We wonder whether, after doing what he thought was right for the Douro region, the Marquis had second thoughts. He owned a large wine estate in Oeiras, in the outskirts of Lisbon, that produced an excellent fortified wine. But according to the rules he helped create, he couldn’t call it port wine. Instead, the wine was known as Carcavelos, after one of the region’s seaside villages.

An early coup for Carcavelos wines came in 1752. King Dom José gathered a collection of luxurious gifs chosen to impress the emperor of China. One of these gifts was a red velvet box with two bottles of Carcavelos wine.

Half a century later, the winds of history interceded in favor of the Carcavelos wine. When Napoleon’s troops invaded the north of Portugal, it became difficult to export port wine to England. Carcavelos wine emerged as an excellent alternative, gaining fame and prestige among British wine connoisseurs.

In the 1930s, the Carcavelos vines started to be uprooted to make space for suburban homes. As a result, wine production dwindled. In 1997, the Oeiras city council decided to invest in the preservation of the vineyards that were left, saving this historical wine from oblivion. The city also restored the palace that belonged to the Marquis of Pombal.

If you’re looking for an outing near Lisbon, a visit to this palace is a great choice. You can stroll through elegant salons and manicured gardens. And you can try a glass of Carcavelos wine. Drier than port, it has enticing aromas and exquisite flavors that enchant the senses. A sip of this nectar is a trip back in time, a taste of the wine enjoyed by a Chinese emperor and served at the lavish parties staged by the Marquis of Pombal . 

The Palace of the Marquis of Pombal is located at Largo Marquês de Pombal, in Oeiras, tel. 214.430.799. You can reach Oeiras by taking the Lisbon/Cascais train.