The Douro historical train

Our journey begins with the clatter of a steam engine pulling five rickety wooden carriages into the Régua train station. Trains like this one have trod on the steel tracks that connect Régua to Pinhão since 1879. In 1883, the line was extended all the way to Foz do Tua.

Once all passengers get on board, the chimney blows a cloud of black smoke and we see Régua recede in the distance. The train moves slowly and yet there is not enough time to take in all that there is to admire, from the myriad colors of the river to the wondrous vine terraces sculpted into the mountain sides. 

A group of folk musicians walks through the carriages singing traditional tunes accompanied by accordion, triangle, “cavaquinho” (a small stringed instrument), and a drum made out of goat skin and wood. The musicians’ faces are weathered by a lifetime of work in the fields. But they sing with joy the tunes that lift the spirits of the laborers during the harvest. 

We arrive at the Tua station and the train stops for a well-deserved rest. As our journey resumes, we marvel at the feat of 19th-century engineering that allows the train to go back without turning around. The locomotive’s engine simply goes into reverse, pushing the carriages towards Régua. We travel on the same tracks as before, but the landscape looks different. The light has changed and the blues and greens are now mixed with yellows and oranges. 

The train crew serves us a glass of port wine and some traditional candy. We stop at the picturesque Pinhão train station to admire the 1937 tile panels that depict in blue hues the inimitable colors of the Douro landscape. Then, it is time to return to Régua. The locomotive screeches and puffs as it reaches the place where our journey ends.

It is a privilege to travel in this relic of the industrial revolution that saw the world change and the beauty of the Douro endure. 

Click here for more information about the Douro Historical Train. You can buy tickets online. The best seats are on the right side of the train since you can see the Douro valley from your window both on the way to Tua and on the return.

The incomparable wines from Colares

One of the coolest places you can find during the Portuguese Summer is the cellar of the wine cooperative of Colares, a bucolic town near Sintra. It is a place where large barrels fashioned out of exotic woods from Brazil rest, protected by thick walls that keep the temperature cool.  

The wines these barrels store are cool in attitude. They come from a unique “terroir” near the ocean where two varietals, Malvasia and Ramisco, grow on sandy soils. The roots of the vines have to stretch deep into the sand to find the moisture necessary to stay alive. 

All this toil paid off in the 19th century when phylloxera decimated European vines. Protected by sand, the vines of Colares escaped the bug’s voracity. 

These hard-working vines produce wines with exuberant tannins that need to be tamed. The reds age in barrels for almost a decade before bottling. Once bottled, both reds and whites continue to age beautifully, enjoying remarkable longevity.

Francisco Fezas, the resident enologist, told us that Adega Regional de Colares is the oldest wine cooperative in Portugal. The local wine makers got together in 1931 to buy the 19th-century cellar owned by a famous wine merchant, José Maria da Fonseca. In 1938, the government gave the cooperative the monopoly of production in order to guarantee the quality of the wine produced in Colares. The cooperative sold the wine to different distributors who bottled it under brands like Chitas, Adega Beira Mar and Viúva Gomes

In the 1960s, Colares had more than one million hectares of vines that produced more than one million liters of wine. Then, the vines were attacked by a foe more formidable than the phylloxera: urban sprawl. Many farmers succumbed to the temptation of selling their land to property developers who wanted to build houses near the ocean. As a result, the cultivation area dwindled to a paltry 23 hectares which produces a mere 18 thousand bottles, making Colares one of the world’s rarest historical wines. 

Francisco’s first harvest in Colares was in 1999, at a time when the cooperative was struggling financially and the future looked dim. Since then, there has been a remarkable renewal that preserves the future of the incomparable wines from Colares.

Adega Regional de Colares is located at Alameda Coronel Linhares de Lima, nº 32 in Colares, tel. 219 291 210, email geral@arcolares.com.. Click here for the adega’s website.

Making pasteis de nata

Do not try this recipe at home unless you’re desperate! Which is how we feel. Far from a purveyor of “pasteis de nata,” how else can we satiate our craving for these divine custard tarts?

We opened with trepidation “Cozinha Tradicional Portuguesa” (Portuguese Traditional Cooking), the imposing tome of vernacular recipes compiled by the legendary Maria de Lurdes Modesto. The old pages creaked, surprised to be turned with such urgency.

Modesto’s instructions assume we know what we’re doing. They’re more like jazz lead sheets than classical music scores. She tells us the key elements of the recipe and expects us to improvise the rest.

The ingredients are humble:  flour, butter, cream, eggs, sugar, water, and lemon. We started by making a version of rough puff pastry, folding the dough to create delicate layers of butter and flour.  After a few hours of work, we were rewarded with two dozen delicious pasteis de nata. 

All the effort that went into making these pastries made us appreciate Portugal even more. It is a place where it is ordinary to find the extraordinary: heavenly pasteis de nata sold for a modest price in every street corner. 

Here’s the recipe.

Ingredients for the puff pastry: 500 grams of flour, 500 grams of butter, 2 to 3 deciliters of water, and salt. 

Ingredients for the filling: 5 deciliters of cream, 8 egg yolks, 3 tablespoons of flour, 200 grams of sugar, and one lemon peel.

Melt the salt in warm water and divide the butter into three equal portions. Place the flour on a stone table and make a hole in the middle of the flour to pour the water. Kneed the mixture until it becomes homogeneous and let it rest for 20 minutes.

Next, stretch the dough into a square form.  Knead some of the butter until it has the same consistency as the dough. Spread one third of the butter over the dough, leaving a strip of one inch at the edges of the square. Fold the dough from bottom to top and from left to right, making sure that the fold fits perfectly at edges and on the sides. Stretch the dough again forming a square. Repeat the operation twice, first using the second third and then the last third of the butter.

Stretch the dough as thinly as possible. Cut it in stripes and fold into long rolls. Cut the rolls into pieces of 2 to 3 centimeters. Place the dough at the center of a small mold. Moist your thumb in water and spread the dough to the edges of the mold. 

To prepare the filling, mix all the ingredients and bring them to a boil. Remove from the heat and wait until the mixture cools down. Fill the molds with the cream. Place the molds in a very hot oven (250 to 300 degrees centigrade). Once the custards come out of the oven and cool, you can sprinkle them with icing sugar and cinnamon.

Armchair travel

Sunset Areia Branca

In the 1920s, the writer Raul Proença started editing a collection of Guides to Portugal. Published between 1924 and 1970, eight thick volumes compile texts from some of our country’s most eloquent writers. These erudite travel guides describe in detail the landscape, architecture, history, and culture of Portugal.

One of the essays by Raul Proença included in the first volume is about the Portuguese sky. Proença writes that “There are days with a splendorous light in which under a very clear sky all is golden: the earth, the trees, the waters, even the smiles of people and things are golden. It is a prodigious dazzle that cannot be described.  We are all but surprised at how a sapphire blue dome emanates such golden light.”

Most of the guides were published when traveling was arduous and expensive. So one of their purposes was to serve as a substitute for travel. If you could not visit the cities and villages these books describe, the evocative prose of Raul Proença and his collaborators would take you there.

In these days we’re spending at home, we can seat in an armchair, open the pages of these tattered tomes and travel to Portugal.

Café Majestic

Magestic Café

Nothing fuels creativity like coffee. Voltaire made sure his inspiration never faltered by sipping 40 cups of coffee a day. Balzac conceived plots for his novels by staying up all night drinking coffee.

One of our favorite places for a stimulating cup of brew is the Majestic Cafe in Oporto. Inaugurated in 1921, it has elegant proportions and exquisite Art Nouveau interiors. The café charges premium prices so it attracts few locals. Drinking a good espresso will set you back 5 euros. It is a price well worth paying for all the creative ideas that a visit to the glamour of the Belle Époque can spark.

Café Majestic is located at Rua Santa Catarina 112, Porto. Click here for the café’s website.

Taberna Albricoque

Taberna Albricoque

Albricoque, a quaint word for apricot used in the Algarve, is a great name for a Lisbon restaurant that blends the old with the new. The space is old; it opened in 1905 as a tavern for travelers from the nearby Santa Apolónia train station. The food is rooted in the traditional culinary vocabulary of the Algarve, the birth place of Albricoque’s chef, Bertílio Gomes. But the approach to food and service is new. Every recipe has been refined to make it more appealing. The character of the restaurant, imparted by features such as the original floor paved with hydraulic tiles, was preserved. But modern amenities, unthinkable in 1905, have been added.

Everything on the menu is delicious. Our meal began with a plate of olives that tasted like sausage because of the way in which they were fermented. There was also a salad made with the purple carrots that were common in the Algarve in old times. Then, the feast continued: savory muxama (cured tuna), plump oysters from Ria Formosa, crispy rissois de berbigão (cockle turnovers), silky alhada de raia (manta ray with garlic), extraordinary marinated carapau (horse mackerel) combined with figs and toasted almonds and served on shinzo leafs.

Chef Bertílio likes to explore the methods for preserving food used in the Algarve before refrigerators became common. He salts a fish called abrótea then hangs it in the cold for a couple of days to drain its liquid. The result is an intense, satisfying taste reminiscent of that of salted codfish.

We didn’t order the fried moreia (moray), because it is usually greasy and chewy, but the chef brought a plate to the table for us to try. It was very thinly sliced and perfectly fried, a revelation of flavor, texture and aroma. The meal ended on a sweet note with almere, a dessert made with the liquid that is left from the making of requeijão, flavored with thyme and pine nuts.

If you’re near Santa Apolónia, stop by Taberna Albricoque to try its delicacies. If you’re far, come to Santa Apolónia for the privilege of dining at Taberna de Albricoque.

Taberna Albricoque is located at Rua Caminhos de Ferro nº98, Lisboa, tel. 21 886 1182, email reservas@albricoque.pt.

Four generations of Ramilo wines

Ramilo

After serving as a soldier in Africa, Manuel Ramilo returned to Portugal in 1895 severely ill. His godfather arranged for him to spend his final days in a tranquil village near Mafra called Alqueidão. Against all odds, Manuel recovered and married a wealthy woman he met in the village.

In 1937, Manuel started producing wine to sell to local taverns. His son, Manuel junior, and his grandson Belmiro expanded the business, buying grapes from local producers to make blends to sell to restaurants.

One day, Belmiro and his sons, Pedro and Nuno, had lunch with a friend who inquired  about the future of the family business. Belmiro replied that the future was uncertain because his kids were not interested in wine making. Shortly after this conversation, Nuno decided to study enology. Soon his passion for wine flourished to the point where he abandoned his job as a bridge engineer to work full time at Ramilo wines.

Nuno focused on the 10 hectares of vineyards owned by his family. Two hectares are planted in the sandy soils of Colares. Eight are planted in the clay, rocky soils surrounding Alqueidão, the place where it all started. It was there that we met with Nuno.

The day was foggy and humid, conditions that are normal in this region because of the proximity of the Sintra mountain and the Atlantic Ocean.  In the old days, everybody in Alqueidão made wine. The best vineyards are planted on steep slopes that face south and are sheltered from the ocean winds so grapes can reach the ideal level of maturation.

Enologists Virgílio Loureiro and Manuel Malfeito worked with Nuno to create wines that preserve the character of this unique terroir. The results are outstanding. We tried a wonderful white wine made from vital, a grape that was once overlooked because it is not very aromatic. It has a minerality that is deeply satisfying. Next, we sampled a wonderful red made from old Castelão vines that is full of salinity and vigor. Both wines come from vines planted in Alqueidão.

Nuno went to the cellar and brought back a bottle with a painted label. It was a 2017 white Malvasia from Colares. Few plants grow on sand because the soil does not retain enough moisture, explained Nuno. But farmers in Colares discovered that they could grow vines on the dunes near the ocean if they dug the sand until they found clay soil where they could plant the roots. Planting and caring for these vines is hard work. But hiding the roots three meters below the surface had a big payoff: when phylloxera devastated the European vineyards in the 19th century, the vines of Colares survived unscathed.

After breaking the wax capsule of the old-fashioned bottle, Nuno gently coaxed the cork out of the bottleneck. As soon as the yellow wine colored our glasses, we fell under the spell of its delicate aroma. The character and complexity of this Colares left us speechless. Since it was released, Nuno’s phone has not stopped ringing. He quickly sold most of the 1,200 bottles produced. Revista dos Vinhos, an influential Portuguese wine magazine, included it in its list of the top-ten Portuguese wines.

It was a privileged to try this rare nectar, the perfect wine to make a toast to the four generations of Ramilos who made it possible.

Ramilo wines is located in Alqueidão, tel. 219 611 453, email info@ramilowines.com. Click here for Ramilo’s web site.

A short guide to the cuisine of Portugal

Cozinha Portuguesa Book

In one of the letters collected in the volume Lettres Provinciales, published in 1657, the philosopher Blaise Pascal writes that “I have made this letter longer than usual because I did not have time to make it shorter.” Brevity is a virtue that requires time, skill and effort. This is the reason why we appreciate so much a small volume titled “Portuguese Cuisine: a Brief Look” recently published by the Portuguese Academy of Gastronomy.

Summarizing the astonishing diversity of ingredients and preparation methods of the Portuguese cuisine is a herculean task. But with 11 recipes carefully written and beautiful illustrated, this book succeeds in this difficult endeavor.

The collection opens with Portuguese meat pies with collard-greens rice. It is an inspired choice because this staple of home-cooked meals is a test of a cook’s skill. Different  people following the same recipe can produce results that vary from adequate to sublime.

The second recipe, Setúbal-style grilled red mullet, is a simple preparation that starts you off on a journey to master the fine art of grilling fish. The freshness of the fish, the amount of salt used to season it, the hotness of the coals, the distance from the coals to the fish, and the timing of the grilling all determine the final results.

Brás-style codfish is a brilliant recipe: an implausible combination of thin, fried potatos, eggs and codfish that surprises and delights. The preparation is quite forgiving, so even a novice can produce great results.

Making Algarve-style fish requires a cataplana, an oval pot that traps the steam to keep the fish moist. This device also collects the delicious juices and reduces them to enhance their flavor. The result is pure magic.

Marinated partridge uses a vinegar-based sauce called “escabeche.” The idea of marinating with acids is thought to come from Persia. It produces a wonderful dish that you can prepare in advance and serve at a dinner party.

Chicken with “cabidela” rice is a traditional recipe that uses the blood of the chicken to make the sauce for the rice. Combine it with a great red wine and you create a symphony of bold flavors that is deeply satisfying.

Roast kid goat is often served at family lunches on Easter Sunday. It is great comfort food that always creates harmony at the table.

Sweet angel hair pasta and honey cake are two easy-to-make, crowd-pleasing desserts.

Pudim Abade de Priscos is an unusual mixture of eggs, sugar, port wine, bacon, and spices invented by an abbot who was an exceptional cook.

The book ends with pasteis de nata (custard tarts). It is a time-consuming, difficult recipe. But if you take the time and effort to master it, you will earn the unending admiration of your dinner guests.

This precious little book can set you off on a culinary journey through the flavors of Portugal with recipes that you can enjoy right away and that you can perfect and refine every time you gather friends and family around the table.

The enchanting Costa Nova

Composit Costa Nova

In the days before refrigeration, salting was commonly used to preserve fish for future consumption. Codfish has a low fat content, so it does not become rancid when salted. This trait enticed Portuguese fishermen to venture as far as Newfoundland in search of cod. Most of these adventurous fishermen came from a small town in the Aveiro region called Ilhavo.

The captains of the fishing boats moved to Lisbon, the place from where the boats departed. But they kept a vacation home on the banks of the Ria de Aveiro, the waterway  where fresh and sea water mix. These homes are refurbished “palheiros,” the shacks painted with bright stripes where the fisherman used to store their equipment.

Other villages like Mira and Barra once had beautiful rows of palheiros. But these were gradually demolished to build modern homes. In Costa Nova, the traditional architecture was preserved. Large parts of the water-facing Marginal avenue have remained almost unchanged for the past 150 years. It is this postcard view of a time gone by that makes Costa Nova so enchanting.

Bel canto wines at Herdade da Calada

Herdade da Calada

Herdade da Calada is a sprawling estate near Évora, owned by a French couple, Marie and André Jean-Claude Penauille. Founded in 1854 by the descendants of the Duke of Lancaster, the estate is planted with vineyards, olive trees, cork oaks, and pasture fields nurtured by a network of lakes that save the increasingly precious rain water.

The wines are made by Eduardo Cardeal, an enologist born into a family of winegrowers from the Douro valley. He brought to Alentejo a gentle style of wine making that seeks to preserve the aromas and character of the fruit. It produces elegant wines with relatively low alcoholic content and round tannins. To achieve these results, the quality of the grapes is key. The yields need to be low and the maturation has to be perfect. Eduardo spends much of his time in the vineyard examining the evolution of the grapes. He harvests in the middle of the night to ensure that the grapes are cool before they enter the winery through the roof, ushered by gravity.

The results are exceptional. In a region known for operatic wines, Herdade da Calada offers wines that sing with the elegance of bel canto.

Herdade da Calada is located at Estrada de Évora-Estremoz km 12 (EN 18), Évora, tel. 266-470-030, email geral@herdadecalada.com. Click here for the wineries web site.