Ilda Vinagre is a legendary chef. In the 1980s, she opened a restaurant called Bolota (acorn) in Terrugem, a small town in Alentejo. The restaurant earned her two Michelin stars, attracting gourmets from Portugal and beyond. After this feat, she traveled the world cooking, heading restaurants in the United States and Brazil, and preparing banquets that showcased the cuisine of Alentejo in lands as far away as China.
The good news is that Ilda is back in Alentejo. We met with her at the restaurant of Herdade dos Adeans where she oversees the kitchen. Ilda told us about her life and her love of cooking. That these days she enjoys decorating her plates with edible flowers. And that there are four herbs no Alentejo chef can do without: mint, coriander, oregano and “poejo” (pennyroyal). In the end of our conversation, she generously gave us one of her favorite octopus recipes so we could share it with our readers. Here it is!
Cook “al dente” the octopus in water with salt, onion, coriander, pepper and oregano. Cut it in pieces and grill the pieces in a hot griddle with bacon and a little olive oil. Dress with lemon juice, lemon rind and oregano. Accompany with a sweet potato puree. To make the puree, roast the sweet potato with the peel on. Take the peel, mash the pulp and mix it with butter.
When we visited Moínho de Avis at Serra de Montejunto, Miguel Nobre showed us his new venture–a small restaurant sheltered from the wind with sprawling mountain views. It is called Curral do Burro (the donkey’s shelter) because it occupies the place where the donkey used to lodge. “Donkeys were a miller’s prized possession because they carted the bags of grain and flour back and forth, so they had to be well fed and protected from the elements,” Miguel explained.
Miguel used his skills as a carpenter to build the restaurant’s furniture. The menu offers simple, delicious food: mussels, clams, cockles, eggs with farinheira (a type of sausage), and grilled black pork.
The specialty is “cozido no pão” a combination of meats, sausages, potatoes, cabbage and carrots cooked in the oven inside bread. The vegetables have a glorious taste imparted by the sausages and the meat. It is a privilege to enjoy these deeply satisfying flavors on a mountain top, sheltered from the wind, away from it all.
Eating at Curral do Burro requires making reservations in advance by sending a Facebook message to Moínho de Avis, click here for the link.
We came home from Moínho de Avis with a precious bag of barbela wheat flour milled by Miguel Nobre. This type of flour was widely used until the 1930s, when it was replaced by the bland white flours we all know.
Barbela wheat, brought to Portugal by the Arabs in the 7th century, almost vanished from our soils. It was saved from extinction by João Vieira, a farmer from Cadaval who spent 15 years multiplying the seeds so he could share them with other farmers.
The barbela flour from Moínho de Avis blended easily with our sourdough starter to form a mixture called the levain. We left it resting and then added salt, water and more flour. Then came the time for the ancient rituals of bread making: kneading, stretching and folding. The bread went into the oven and soon its aroma filled our kitchen.
One hour later, the loaf was ready. Its taste was intense–this bread shines on its own without any butter or cheese. We gave some slices to our favorite vegetables vendor in the farmer market. Her eyes filled with tears. “It tastes like my mother’s bread,” she explained. “It brings back memories of my childhood when all the neighbors baked bread at home with their own sourdough starter. Each starter had a different personality, so each family’s bread had a distinct taste.”
We kept making barbela bread throughout the Summer for it was hard to resist loafs that are so full of taste, nutrition and personality.
Americans discovered France, Italy, and more recently,
Spain, as vacation destinations. But Portugal has remained terra incognita. That is changing. The New York Times has written a steady stream of articles about Portugal. Most are about Lisbon; about the places to go, the culinary renaissance, the new restaurants, the new museums, the relaxed atmosphere, and the art scene. But the Times has also discovered Cascais and Évora. The Wall Street Journal tells its readers that “In Portugal you can pack seven days worth of castles, clubbing, seafood, shopping and luxury hotels into one perfectly affordable long weekend.” Now, perhaps Woody Allen will consider directing a movie about a writer who comes to Lisbon and discovers that the secret to eternal youth is a daily bath of piri-piri sauce.
When we walk on the beach on foggy days we always have a sense that something special is about to happen. In the XVI century Portugal had a young king, D. Sebastião, who tried to conquer the north of Africa. He failed with terrible consequences. Much of the country’s elite died in battle or in Moroccan prisons. The king vanished and Portugal lost its independence to Spain. But the Portuguese did not loose hope. They believed that D. Sebastião would return on a foggy day to restore the glory of Portugal. So, if you are walking on the beach on a foggy day, keep an eye on the horizon. This could be the day.
During beach vacations life follows the rhythm of the tides. Low tide is the best time to walk on the hard, moist sea sand. The sun and the moon regulate the tides with designs that only physicists understand. Luckily, Portugal’s Ocean Institute publishes tide tables, so we don’t have to study physics to know the perfect time to walk on the beach.
Click here to see the tide tables.
It means welcome in Portuguese. Welcome to our blog about places to see, food to eat, wine to drink, poetry to read, and whatever else comes to mind. The Portuguese navigators discovered much of the world four hundred years ago. But the world has yet to discover Portugal. So the country remains the last secret of Europe. A place of castles and palaces, of mountains and valleys, of sand and sea. All bathed in warm light, all cooled by the breeze that carries the ocean’s salt, the salt of Portugal.