Silver honey

There’s a village in the middle of Ribatejo called Maçussa that was destined to be forgotten. Its population dwindled because people left to seek better opportunities elsewhere. But one man stayed. His name is Adolfo Henriques. He is a farmer, a cook and a philosopher. And he makes a magical goat cheese that placed Maçussa on Portugal’s culinary map.

The mark of a great philosopher is the quality of his disciples, those who learn from the master and preserve and improve that knowledge to pass it on to future generations. Plato was the teacher of Aristotle and Aristotle taught Alexander the Great who went on to conquer the world.

When we heard that a young man who apprenticed with Adolfo was starting to produce his own goat cheese, we got on the road to Maçussa to meet him.  João Prata received us in the house he shares with his wife Ana, his parents Maria and José, and his boisterous dog, Collie. 

João started producing honey in 2014, placing his beehives in the valley of the Montejunto mountain so that the bees could feast on a variety of wild plants. But this production was a side occupation. He had a good, steady job working as a maintenance technician for a large corporation. A meeting with Adolfo changed his life. João started to come by Adolfo’s cheese workshop more and more frequently until one day he quit his day job to go work with the master. For one year, João did every chore there is to do in the cheese workshop. Inspired by this experience, he joined forces with his wife Ana and the two started producing their own goat cheese. Their company is called Prata de Mel (silver honey).

We sat at a large pine table to try their cheese and honey. João tells us that the winter and summer honeys are completely different. In the winter, the bees live off eucalyptus, arbutus and heather. In the summer, they feed on oregano, thistle and brambles. Ana and João do not pasteurize the honey to preserve its texture and taste. The result is extraordinary. Instead of being syrupy, the honey has a delicate granular texture. And instead of having a sugary taste, the honey is vibrant and flavorful.

Next, João opened a jar of pollen. The grains come in a rainbow of colors produced by the different plants that the bees feed on. In order to preserve the freshness of the taste, the pollen is not dried. The result is an ambrosia that enchants the palate.

João brings out some cheese for us to try. It is made with milk from goats that live on the rugged hills of the Montejunto mountain.  We couldn’t help thinking that the qualities of the cheese mirror the personalities of their producers. João is intense; Ana exudes serenity. These cheeses combine an intense flavor with a certain quietness that comes from their velvety texture. We did notice a major flaw in the cheese we tried: once we started eating it, it was impossible to stop. 

“You have to sample the wine we are about to bottle,” says João. He fills glasses with a bright red wine that is naturally fermented and treated with a minimum amount of sulfites. It is a pleasurable wine with a bold tantalizing taste that reflects both the summer heat and freshness lent by the proximity to the ocean. 

Our visit ends with a tour of the chicken coup. João’s new project is to produce high-quality eggs from chicken of the pedrês breed. The birds are small and wear an elegant grey and white plumage. We see them happily roaming around the large yard eating all sorts of fresh vegetables. 

We have great admiration for what Ana and João are doing. And now that Adolfo Henriques has disciples, we’re certain that Maçussa will continue to thrive.

You can contact Prata de Mel via email (pratademel@gmail.com), phone (914 976 148) or through their Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/pratademel

Ancient wheat, dancing in the wind

Adolfo Henriques

Another wondrous lunch with Adolfo Henriques at Maçussa. A taste of another recipe that almost got lost: “manja,” a combination of bread, potatoes, garlic and olive oil that goes great with grilled sardines.

The meal started with Adolfo’s legendary goat cheeses served with bread made from barbela wheat and a baked mixture of cornbread and olive oil called gaspiada. “I call this one cabrabert,” says Afonso, pointing to a round cheese, proud of his play on the Portuguese word for goat (cabra) and the word camembert. The cheese was followed by a variety of wonderful sausages, codfish liver, gravlax, and figs.

After lunch, Adolfo took us to a field planted with barbela wheat. Barbela is an ancient Egyptian variety abandoned after World War I in favor of wheats that offer larger yields in exchange for less taste and nutrition. “People often choose quantity over quality,” laments Adolfo.  It took him several years to harvest enough wheat to make bread. He grinds his crop in windmills that only process traditional grains, like Valentim da Silva’s Moinho do Boneco at Moita dos Ferreiros and Miguel Nobre’s Moinho de Avis in the Montejunto mountain. The result is the type of flour used a century ago. It that makes a rustic, delicious, nutritious bread.

Adolfo does not use fertilizers or pesticides. After each crop, he lets the field rest for a year so that the soil can recover. Standing in the middle of a field planted with his prized crop, Adolfo smiles and says: “Look at how the wheat dances in the wind.”

Adolfo Henriques’ company, Granja dos Moinhos, is located on Rua do Moinhos 3, Maçussa, Azambuja, tel 919 474 476, email granjadosmoinhos@sapo.pt. 

 

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 919 474 476, email granjadosmoinhos@sapo.pt.