The professor’s partridges

The best partridges we ever tasted were cooked by a professor. His name is Emídio Gomes. He is the rector of the UTAD, the university that trained many of the star enologists who work in the Douro valley. 

Emídio learned to cook while studying in France on a meager scholarship. He asked his grandmother to teach him some of her recipes so that he could eat at home. Cooking was so relaxing that he continued to cook regularly after returning to Portugal.

Emídio’s stewed partridges are renowned throughout the Douro valley. The professor generously gave us his grandmother’s recipe and allowed us to share it with our readers. 

The recipe starts with an admonition: “If the partridges are good, make sure you don’t ruin them.” Here’s the rest. 

Remove the feathers and the tripes of the wild partridges and cut them into pieces. Marinate them for twelve hours in a small amount of white wine, laurel, parsley, and a little thyme.

Heat a cast iron pot. Pour a generous amount of olive oil. The quality of the olive oil is paramount. Choose an olive oil with low acidity, ideally from the Douro valley. Slice enough onions to cover the bottom 2 inches of the pot. Slowly sweat the onions. Remove the thyme, laurel, and parsley, and place the partridges in the pot. Add a small amount of water to prevent the stew from drying.

Cover the pot with the lid and slowly stew the partridges for four to five hours. Monitor periodically to ensure the stew does not dry; add small amounts of water as necessary. Season with salt towards the end of the cooking period. After the first four hours, regularly pierce the meat with a fork. The partridge is ready when the meat offers no resistance. Serve with white rice and toasts.

Like a top scientific paper, the recipe requires high-quality content and flawless execution. And in the end, the results look deceptively simple.

Casa da Volta

A close friend called us with a lunch invitation. “Meet me at my house, and we’ll drive together to the restaurant,” he said. “Where are we going?” we asked. “A place in Cascais that is worth getting to know,” our friend answered. That is how, on a warm winter Saturday, we visited a small village near Cascais called Areia. 

The restaurant occupies the first floor of a spacious house. It is managed by a charming young Iberian couple, Vera Rente from Portugal and Javier Marquez from Spain. They met in Barcelona, where Javier apprenticed as a chef. 

Vera told us that when she brought Javier to visit Sintra, he started dreaming about having a restaurant in this region. In late 2019 they opened Casa da Volta

Our meal started with an elegant “Ajo Blanco,” a white gazpacho made with almonds that came with green grapes and delicate shrimp from the coast of the Algarve. Large slices of rustic bread allowed us to scoop up every ounce of the delicious soup. 

Soon we were tasting another delight: lightly grilled slices of a fish called Sarda dressed with a green piriñaca sauce that perfectly harmonized with the fish. 

The service, orchestrated by Vera, is seamless. Much thought and care go into crafting every detail of the dining experience.  

Our culinary journey continued with brioche and shrimp served in American sauce. It is lovely to see this traditional sauce, invented by the French chef Pierre Fraysse em 1860, come back into use. 

We were trying to elect our favorite dish when the choice became harder with the arrival of a majestic blue lobster cooked with mushrooms and spinach.  

And there were more marvels: a perfectly cooked mullet, so fresh we could taste the sea. And then hearty slices of deer paired with parsnip. 

The meal ended on a sweet note with a warm almond cake with a soft inside and a crumble made from banana and passion fruit.

We asked Javier how they endured the Covid period. “We were lucky because we could cook with amazing produce and live in this region that is paradise,” he replied. That sentiment sums up what Casa da Volta is: a place where a young couple is cooking the food of paradise.

Casa da Volta is located at Rua São José, Areia, Cascais, Click here for their website.

Fire and rain

On the last day of the year, there were fireworks on the beach. People enjoyed the impressive pyrotechnics. But the ocean did not stand still to stare at the sky; its waves kept rolling on the sand. 

On the first day of the new year, there was copious rain. The ocean, created by millions of years of precipitaton, rejoiced like a child who sees her mother after a long absence. The waves danced, and we watched in awe how a coastline known for its sunny days could be so beautiful in the rain.

We wish you a joyous New Year and hope you come to see the beauty of the Portuguese coastline, rain or shine.

Dining by candlelight at Quinta Dona Maria

We arrived late in the afternoon and waited outside the imposing marble gate. Before we could say ‘abracadabra’ or some other incantation, the gate opened, welcoming us to Quinta Dona Maria, a magnificent wine estate in Alentejo. 

Isabel Bastos came to greet us. We walked with her to the palace’s chapel and sat down to hear her recount the story of Quinta Dona Maria. The estate was a gift from King John V to Dona Maria, a lady of the court with whom the king fell in love. Dona Maria left no descendants, so the property was sold in a public auction upon her death. The Reynolds, a family of merchants from southern England, purchased it. They renamed the estate Quinta do Carmo in honor of an image of the Lady of Carmo they bought for the chapel in 1752. The estate currently belongs to Júlio Bastos, Isabel’s husband, who descends from the Reynolds family. 

Júlio’s grandfather started producing fine wines on the estate. The project was so successful that in a blind tasting with the Rothschilds held in the late 1980s, the wines from Quinta do Carmo tied with Lafitte Rothschild. Impressed by this feat, the Rothschilds proposed Júlio Bastos a partnership. But the two winemakers had different objectives and approaches. Júlio is passionate about the old vines planted with the traditional varietals of Alentejo, most of all Alicante Bouschet, a varietal brought by the Reynolds from France to Alentejo. The Rothschilds wanted to replant the vineyards with French varietals that could appeal to the international market. Eventually, the two parties separated. In this process, the Rothschilds kept the brand Quinta do Carmo, so Júlio renamed his wines and estate Quinta Dona Maria. 

We walked to the wine cellar to see the 18th-century marble tanks where the grapes are still crushed by foot treading. The tanks were brimming with grapes that were starting the fermentation process that transmutes earthly grape juice into heavenly wine. Isabel served us an enticing rosé with pleasing fruit notes and refreshing acidity. Next, we tried a delightful white Viognier that shows how much this French grape shines in the soils of Alentejo. The tasting ended with pomp and circumstance provided by two sumptuous Dona Maria red reserves from 2005 and 2008.

It was time to go to the palace. The large door creaked as it slowly opened to show us rooms lit by candlelight that made us feel like we were back in the 18th century. Júlio joined us for dinner. His love for the land, food, and wine of Alentejo were evident throughout the meal. 

The dinner, prepared by Filipe Ramalho from Páteo Real and Beatriz Tobinha, the palace’s resident chef, was a memorable feast. It started with Filipe’s famous tart made from chestnut-flower sausage, pears cooked in wine, quince marmalade, and chard. Then there was a slew of appetizers: tomato and watermelon salad, roasted peppers with bacon, slices of the brilliant sausages made at Salsicharia Canense, plates with savory Alentejo cheeses, and chickpeas with pickled codfish salad. A rich white Dona Maria reserve delicately aged in oak was an enthralling gastronomical companion.

Next came the main dishes: cação (a fish popular in Alentejo) in coriander sauce, pheasant in escabeche sauce and marinated carrots, and duck croquettes with black garlic mayonnaise. A splendid Dona Maria red reserve from 2017 made from old vines complemented the food with its festive taste of berries and hints of spices. 

The dessert was an almond and pumpkin tart paired with the famed Júlio B. Bastos Alicante Bouschet, named after Júlio’s father. The wine’s acidity, tannins, and fruit sing to the palate in perfect harmony.

Glancing at the watch, we saw the two hands pointing to midnight. We knew from fairy tales that it was time to leave. We thanked Isabel and Júlio for their warm hospitality and drove back to our hotel. We slept peacefully but woke up wondering: was the dinner at Quinta Dona Maria a dream? 

Click here for the website of Quinta Dona Maria.

What’s your favorite Madeira?

If you’re looking for a fun holiday activity for your grown-up friends, we have just the thing: a Madeira wine tasting. We suggest starting with the four classic styles, each named after the white grape varietal used in its production: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malmsey. 

These wines have a combination of sweetness and acidity that enchants the palate. But each style is distinct. Sommeliers often serve the dry Sercial and medium-dry Verdelho as aperitifs and the medium-sweet Bual and sweet Malmsey as dessert wines. 

Madeiras are fortified wines. Winemakers add neutral vinic alcohol at 96 degrees to stop the fermentation process through which yeast converts grape fructose into alcohol. As a result, not all fructose is converted into alcohol and the wine retains some residual sugar. Fortification has been used since the mid-18th century to give Madeiras the endurance they needed to survive long sea voyages.  

Francisco Albuquerque, Blandy’s winemaker, says he generally stops the Sercial fermentation after ten days. For Malmsey, he suspends the fermentation after two days, so there’s a lot more sweetness left in the wine. Perhaps that is why, according to Shakespeare, the Duke of Clarence, condemned to death for treason against his brother King Edward IV, asked to be drowned in a cask of Malmsey. 

Shippers discovered that Madeiras improve when they cross the equator in the hulls of sailboats. To mimic this effect, producers expose Madeiras to heat. For superior Madeiras this exposure happens in warm cellars, where the wines age for several years in old American oak casks before they’re ready for our enjoyment. The longer they stay in oak barrels, the more complex they become. 

So, which Madeira do you favor? And which do your friends prefer? It’s great fun to find out! 

The leader of the Barbela tribe

Barbela is a nutritious wheat that, until the 1930s, accounted for the bulk of Portuguese wheat consumption. It came from the fertile crescent and thrived in Portugal because it is hardy and can grow anywhere. Its long roots allow it to survive droughts and flourish in poor soils.

Hybrid wheats arrived in Portugal in the 1930s. They are low in nutrition but have high production yields boosted by chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Gradually, barbela lost ground to these flashy newcomers until only one barbela field remained. It is located on the foot of the Montejunto mountain and belongs to João Vieira. We drove to this place, far from the commotion of urban life, to meet with him.  

At 83 years of age, João speaks with the passion of youth and the wisdom earned over the course of a life well lived. Everything he says comes from a well of deep reflection. 

João worked in France during his youth, but when manufacturing jobs started to disappear, he returned to the land of his ancestors. He realized that barbela, once ubiquitous on the sandy soils of Montejunto, was vanishing. The seed stock was dwindling, and so was the cultivation knowledge. João started planting barbela seeds that came from his father and grandfather. He loved seeing this tall wheat sway again with the wind, making waves like the sea. 

What started as a one-person campaign against oblivion mobilizes today a small army. João calls it the barbela tribe. It is a loose network of farmers who plant barbela and share their experiences. João inducts new members by giving them seeds on the condition that they later provide other people with seeds and bring them into the tribe. 

Barbela is a soft wheat that produces flour suitable for breads, tarts, and cakes. Every day, João makes bread with his barbela flour. After harvesting, threshing, and milling, the sieve has the last word, choosing what makes it into the flour. João likes his bread with a coarse texture, so he occasionally overrules the sieve and lets a few larger grains into the mix. 

He went into the kitchen and returned with a basket of bread to share with us. We sat with him for quite a while, trying this exquisite bread and listening to his precious words. It was a very fine use of time. 

A codfish restaurant

If you’re yearning for codfish, we know a restaurant that will satisfy your lust. Called Sal na Adega, it is part of Adega Mãe, a winery in Torres Vedras that belongs to Ribeiralves, a company famous for its salted cod. 

Sal na Adega has a spacious dining room that overlooks serene vineyards. A large round window gives us a glimpse of the kitchen’s hustle and bustle. 

You can accompany the meal with any wine from the winery’s shop by paying a modest cork fee. The menu lists many meat and fresh fish preparations, but the star offering is salted cod. Codfish usually pairs with red wine, but if you’re feeling adventurous, we suggest a white wine made from Vital. There are only a few wineries making wine with this grape varietal. The results are exciting, and the wine is a great companion for the fish.

Our meal started with codfish cakes, a litmus test passed with flying colors–the cakes were crispy, rich, and flavorful. Then we tried a trio of cod preparations. First, a codfish loin topped with crunchy prosciutto and onion in a vinegar sauce called escabeche. Second, grilled codfish neck, the most succulent part of the fish because of its abundance of collagen. It is an epic preparation, up there in the pantheon of best codfish we have ever tried. Third, a delicious codfish in coriander rice.

The dessert menu includes many temptations and one irresistible choice: the famous bean pastries from Serra da Vila in Torres Vedras. 

The meal ends with a pleasant surprise: a 10 percent discount on the wines purchased at the wine shop. We went to Sal na Adega for the codfish, and came back with some great wine.

Sal na Adega is located at Estrada Municipal 554, Torres Vedras, tel. 261-950-105.

Susana Esteban’s thrilling wines

Susana Esteban agreed to present her wines at the Arraiolos Pousada in September. It was an act of generosity because the harvest was in full motion, and she’s a perfectionist. Like the photographer Cartier-Bresson, she’s always looking for the decisive moment. The moment when the grapes are perfectly ripe to be gently harvested by hand, when the fermentation has run its course and worked its magic, when the oak barrels have refined the wine without changing its temperament.

As soon as Susana started talking, the sun set as if sensing that another star had arrived. Her Portuguese is seasoned with a charming accent–she was born in a Spanish region called Galicia. After graduating in enology, she decided to do an internship in the Douro valley, a place that was then remote and isolated. She stayed and worked in the Douro during her formative years. Then, like the swallows, she went south in search of something new– vineyards where she could develop her style and make wines that can age and evolve for many decades.

She made her first wine in 2011. It is called Procura, the Portuguese word for search. Susana found what she was searching for in the hills of São Mamede in Portalegre–centenarian vines full of character. They needed a lot of care, but Susana nursed them back to health with patience and affection.

Susana is cloning the old vineyards to preserve their genetic material and pass it onto the new vineyards that she is planting. None of her vineyards, new or old, are irrigated. The thirsty vines produce low quantity but high quality. 

We first tried a rosé made from Aragonês and purple muscatel that is pleasantly aromatic and light in alcohol–a perfect summer drink. 

Then, we tasted an exquisite white wine made in amphoras called Tira o Véu (removing the veil). The first time Susana made it, in 2019, she witnessed a rare phenomenon: a veil formed on top of the amphora. It is a film created by yeast highly prized in the production of sherries. No one knows what makes it occur, but every year the veil returns to make this wine more seductive and mysterious.

Next, we drank an alluring red wine made with Touriga Nacional and Aragonês. For Susana producing wine is an adventure, so she calls it Aventura. We’re lucky to be part of this thrilling experience that results in a wine full of freshness and minerality.

Finally, we tried the wonderfully harmonious 2016 red Procura. It combines a field blend with Alicante Bouschet from ancient vines aged in oak to round the tannins. It is a “vinho de guarda,” a wine with great longevity that will improve and surprise with the passage of time. We’re so lucky that Susana found the vineyards she was looking for!

A sublime pumpkin tart

Edgardo Pacheco is a Portuguese journalist who writes with eloquence and grace about gastronomy. He knows so many people in the food world that he managed to surprise us on our home turf. He arrived at our house with an irresistible sweet tart. When we asked him about the provenance of this delight, he revealed it came from the town nearby!

The tart was created in 2018 for the local pumpkin festival by a young chef called Sílvia Batista. It has a flour, butter, and sugar base, a pumpkin-pulp filling, and a topping made with pumpkin seeds, sugar, and butter. The combination is sublime.

Silvia makes the tart with her mother, Diná, and sells it in Lourinhã, where it is quickly gathering fame. The chef didn’t name the tart after herself. She called it “Dona Isabel” in honor of Isabel Mateus, who, with her husband, discovered a nest of dinosaur eggs in a local beach. 

Creating a brand-new recipe requires skill. But the naming of the tart reveals another important ingredient: generosity. Sílvia has both talent and generosity in abundance. We can’t wait to taste what else she’ll make!

Click here for Sílvia Batista’s web site. You can buy or order her tart at O Casco, Rua Dr. Francisco de Sá Carneiro, Lt 22 R/Ch Dto. Lourinhã, tel. 910 121 280.

Alentejo’s star wine grape

In the middle of the 19th century, Henri Bouschet crossed Petit Bouschet, a combination of Aramon and Teinturier de Cher conceived by his father, with Grenache. The new varietal, Alicante Bouschet, produces wines with a beautiful dark-red color. 

Over time, the French lost interest in Alicante Bouschet. But the grape found its home in Alentejo, where it flourished and transformed, becoming one the region’s most emblematic varietals. 

Alicante Bouschet was first planted in Alentejo at the end of the 19th century by the Reynolds, a British family that purchased Herdade de Mouchão. It is the star of the wines made by Julio Bastos, an heir to the Reynolds family, at Quinta Dona Maria

The photo shows some beautiful Petit Verdot (on the right) and Alicante Bouschet (on the left) grapes picked at Monte da Ravasqueira. Like Petit Verdot, most red grapes have white pulp. That is why we can make white wine from red grapes (“blanc de noirs”). If we extract the red-grape juice and avoid contact with the skins, the result is a white wine. If we allow for some skin contact, we get a rosé.  

Both the skin and pulp of Alicante Bouschet grapes are red. This type of grape is called tintoreira (dyeing) because it gives color to the wine. But it has much more to offer: enticing aromas, structure, concentration, and aging ability. Open up a bottle of Alentejo wine, and you’ll see!