Making Alenquer a food destination

Casta 85.jpg

In the 19th century, Alenquer was one of Portugal’s premier wine regions. Its fortunes waned for much of the 20th century. But the tide turned and Alenquer rightly regained its status as a prized wine destination. A young chef called João Simões wants to help Alenquer become a food destination as well.

João apprenticed at the Ritz and worked in many posh hotels and restaurants. Three years ago, he decided to return to his roots to recover and renew the culinary traditions of the region where he was born. He uses local products like quails and Rocha pears and works with farmers on projects like producing goat cheese in the Montejunto mountain. His restaurant is called Casta 85. Casta means varietal, a reference to the region’s wine tradition. The number 85 refers to the chef’s birth year.

The dining room is decorated with furniture procured in the chef’s village. It is a pleasant space that overlooks the Alenquer river. This tributary of the Tagus flows proudly through town, reveling from the praise it received in Luis Vaz de Camões’ epic poem, the Lusíadas.

Casta 85’s service is relaxed and attentive. Ana Santana, our genial server, met the chef when they both played in a brass band. The chef’s old instrument is now part of the decoration and some of the band’s brashness inspires the intense, harmonious food.

We tried appetizing alheira croquettes with apple sauce and crisp green bean tempura with garlic mayonnaise. Next, came a delicious quail Brás style served with a quail egg, fried onion and cassava chips. Our meal ended with a luscious duck leg served over a risotto of mushrooms and asparagus.

We returned from Alenquer through a scenic road that took us though countless vineyards. We can’t wait to go back to visit the wine quintas and have another great lunch at Casta 85!

Casta 85 is located at Largo do Espírito Santo, 31 in Alenquer, tel. 915 761 911.

Two geniuses

Fernando Pessoa

We often celebrate rulers and conquerers, but a country without artists is just a mount of dust. Artists are the tellers of tales, the architects of meaning. During the 20th century, Portugal was recreated by the writing of Fernando Pessoa and reshaped by the painting of José de Almada Negreiros. They left us a country with a richer identity and a deeper imagination.

The paintings in the photo bring together these two great Portuguese artists. The first painting (on the left) was commissioned in 1954 by the owner of a restaurant where Orpheus, a modernist group that included Almada and Pessoa, used to gather. The second painting (on the right), commissioned by the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in 1964, is a mirror image of the original.

Pessoa visited Almada’s first exhibition and declared that the painter was not a genius. Out of respect, Almada did not paint Pessoa while the poet was alive. Because the exuberant portrait that the painter carried in his mind and later transferred to canvas shows that Almada was a genius.

If you’re in Lisbon, do not miss the exhibition of the works of Almada Negreiros on display at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum until June 7, 2017.

 

 

The rain in Portugal

rainy-day

Billy Collins, a former U.S. poet laureate, has a new book called The Rain in Portugal. He says that the title is an admission of his difficulties in constructing rhymes.

The rhyming possibilities of “Portugal” are much more limited than those of “Spain.” Yet, Collins finds a way capture the poetry of life in Portugal. Here’s an excerpt of the poem that contains the title of the book.

On Rhyme

“[…] instead of recalling today where it pours mostly in Spain I’m going to picture the rain in Portugal.

How it falls on the hillside vineyards, on the surface of the deep harbors where fishing boats are swaying.

And in the narrow alleys of the cities where three boys in t-shirts are kicking a soccer ball in the rain ignoring the window cries of their mothers.”

 

 

Sophia’s cookbook

We spent a memorable afternoon with Maria Azevedo Coutinho Vasconcelos e Souza, an aristocratic octogenarian who was a close friend of the great poet Sophia de Mello Breyner Andersen.

Sophia liked to eat well and was a great cook. One day, she gave Maria a handwritten cookbook with her favorite recipes. This little book shows Sophia’s attention to detail and joie de vivre.

In the first page, Sophia lays out some general advice:

1 – smell everything before cooking;

2 – use small amounts of salt and pepper; they mask the natural taste of the ingredients;

3 – salt the fish just before cooking;

4 – be faithful to the nature and the truth of every flavor.

“This book is a proof of her friendship,” Maria told us, “and friendships like ours are becoming rare because they require something that is increasingly scarce: time.”

The third island

Açores 47 - cropedThis year we visited Terceira, an island in Azores. After Madeira and the Canary islands, Azores was the third group of islands discovered by Portuguese navigators. Initially, the Portuguese called the whole archipelago Terceiras (the Portuguese word for thirds), but later they renamed it Azores and reserved the name Terceira for the largest island.

Terceira is a perfect destination for a relaxing vacation. There are many beaches to enjoy and hiking trails to explore. Restaurants serve great food for modest prices. And the traditional architecture makes us feel as if we are in a time gone by, when life was simpler and time was not a luxury.

Vitorino Nemésio, a great poet from Terceira, wrote that here you are “at the very bosom and infinitude of the sea, like the medusas and the fish.”

The green valleys of Terceira compete with the beauty of the sea. For Nemésio, this competition is futile because “The islands are ephemeral and dispensable. Only the sea is eternal and essential.”

Codfish poetry

Pastéis de BacalhauJune 10 is a holiday dedicated to the great 15th century poet Luis de Camões, whose epic poem Lusíadas helped forge the identity of Portugal as a nation.

One of Portugal’s most revered contemporary writers, António Lobo Antunes, said that “To know how to make codfish cakes is as important as to have read the Lusíadas.”

Lobo Antunes meant his words as a compliment to the genius of Camões. Try codfish cakes accompanied with tomato rice and a great glass of red wine and you’ll see that they are pure poetry!

Lisbon’s most famous café

If you are near Chiado, don’t miss the chance to have an espresso in Lisbon’s most famous café, A Brasileira. The poet Fernando Pessoa spent here many golden hours, writing words that became immortal. If you want to pay homage to his genius, do not take a photo with the awkward Pessoa statue resting in the esplanade. Sit instead at a table and write a poem.

The blank page can be intimidating, so it might help you to know that Pessoa’s first poem was a modest effort. When he was seven, his widowed mother decided to remarry and start a new life in South Africa. Pessoa, worried that she might leave him behind in Lisbon, gave her this poem :

Here I am in Portugal
In the land where I was born
As much as I adore it
I love you even more

These simple words were Pessoa’s ticket to South Africa. So, summon the muses and write their whispers on your blank page. Who knows where those words might take you!