Memories of a lost cheese

Marcel Proust could vividly recall the taste and smell of his aunt’s madeleines. Those memories inspired his masterpiece, Remembrance of Things Past.

Joana Garcia remembered the taste and smell of the cheese she ate as a child with her grandmother in Alentejo. Those memories inspired her to recreate that long-lost flavor. She quit her job as a lawyer, moved to Alentejo and bought 500 sheep. After trying endless combinations of milk, salt and cardoon, she found the taste of her youth. Garcia’s masterpiece is called Queijo Monte da Vinha. It is a delicious, soft, buttery cheese with the precious taste of a distant past.

You can try Queijo Monte da Vinha at the wonderful Tasca da Esquina restaurant in Lisbon. You can buy it at Mercearia Creativa, a gourmet grocery store where you’ll find many other great Portuguese products (Av. Guerra Junqueiro, 4A, Lisbon, tel. 218-485-198). Click here for the Monte da Vinha website.

Cataplana

A cataplana is a copper pan made of two clam shells that can be sealed with a clamp. The origins of this cooking contraption are lost in time. In the early 20th century Portuguese hunters carried cataplanas loaded with onions and tomatoes, so they could cook game on a wood fire. Later, in the 1960s, the cataplana became a popular way to cook fish and shellfish in the Algarve. Since then, it has become a hallmark of Portuguese cooking.

There is something magical about the moment when the waiter brings a cataplana to the table. And it is not hard to imagine that, as he opens the pan, he murmurs the same secret incantation used in the banquets of the Arabian Nights to make the meal unforgettable.

You can buy a cataplana at Loja Pollux Hotelaria, Rua da Madalena, 263, Lisboa, tel. 218-811-291, email: hotelaria@pollux.pt or at A Vida Portuguesa, Rua Anchieta 11 in Chiado, Lisboa, tel. 213 465 073.

The perfect espresso cups

Coffee lovers are on a constant search for aromatic coffee beans, roasted to perfection. They get up early on weekends to study Italian, hoping to uncover the nuances lost in the translation of their espresso-machine manual. They mumble incantations like “ruotare la manopola in senso antiorario per aprire il rubinetto di erogazione vapore” with a passion normally reserved for the poetry of Dante. They listen in rapture to the machine’s rumbles as the water rushes through the coffee at the ideal pressure.

But, after all this effort, they pour their brew into bulky, thick porcelain cups. European cafés use these cups, they tell you with pride. True, but cafés only use them because they rarely break. The coffee tastes so much better in thin coffee cups!

Vista Alegre, the great Portuguese porcelain maker, produces the best espresso cups we have ever tried.  They have the perfect shape and come in bright, joyful colors. These cups are hard to find outside of Portugal. So, if you are visiting Portugal, here’s your chance to bring something unique to your java friends.

Here is a link to the Vista Alegre website.

Reverso’s jewels

“Verso” means rhyme. “Reverso” means the other side. Portugal has a long jewelry tradition. At Reverso you see the other side: the work of contemporary jewelers, not just from Portugal but from all over the world. Many of these pieces are quite affordable. Their value is not measured in ounces and carats but in originality and creativity. Paula Crespo, Reverso’s owner, loves to show her work and that of other artists. And she makes Reverso rhyme with elegance.

Galeria Reverso, Rua da Esperança, nº 59/61, 1200 – 655 Lisboa, Tel. 213 951 407, mail@reversodasbernardas.com, click here for website.

Timeless tiles

Portugal has produced tiles (“azulejos”) since the 15th century. This production reached its golden age in the 18th century, when beautiful tiles were used to decorate grand palaces and elegant manor houses.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could travel back in time and order tiles from an 18th century master craftsman? Well, you can. Bicesse, a tile factory near Lisbon, makes tiles of pure clay, painted and glazed by hand, just like in the 18th century.

These tiles have the exquisite color nuances of a Rothko painting and the irregular reflections of an ancient mirror. Like fingerprints, no two tiles are exactly alike. Each is a unique work of art.

Cerâmica de Bicesse, Rua da Chapaneira, 81, Bicesse2645-325 Alcabideche (Cascais), Tel. 214 690 528, email geral@ceramicabicesse.com, click here for website.

Millenary honey


Archaeologists discovered 2,000 year-old Egyptian honey that is still in good condition. This longevity stems from the honey’s remarkable purity.

There are a number of Portuguese beekeepers that strive for this purity. They spurn the industrialized processes that sacrifice the bees to extract the honey. They shun the additives used to keep the honey from crystalizing during Winter.  Some produce honey from the nectar and pollen of a single flower species, such as eucalyptus, lavender, or rosemary. Others produce multifloral honey, extracted only after the bees feasted on flowers from all seasons, from the wild flowers that bloom after the Winter rains to the fleeting pumpkin flowers that bloom only for a day.

It takes a little effort to find this superior artisan honey. It is mostly sold in farmers markets (one of our favorite producers, Miguel Evaristo, sells his honey at the Lourinhã fair on the last Saturday of each month). But, once you buy it, you can take your time enjoying it. It is good for 2,000 years.

Portuguese cutlery

The Portuguese are obsessed with cutlery. They use a bewildering array of specialized tools to eat their food. Serving snails? You need a snail fork. Eating oysters? You need an oyster fork. The soup is a consomée? A normal soup spoon won’t do. You need a consomée spoon. Cake for dessert? Don’t even think of using a desert fork! You need a cake fork. And, of course, you can only eat fish with proper fish forks and knifes. You can see all this cutlery bravado on display at a Cutipol store. It’s more fun than many museums.