Holiday cheer

The farmers market was bustling. The baker ran out of cornbread; the vegetable stalls were out of Christmas cabbages. At home, thick slices of salt codfish were soaked to be cooked and doused with fragrant olive oil. In a country with so many splendid wines, it’s hard to elect one to grace the table. But the choice was made. Pumpkin fritters and other delights are ready to be served. And most of all, there are friends and family coming to enjoy each others’ company in this beautiful corner of the world called Portugal.

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!

Dinning with Marlene

When we dined at Marlene Vieira’s new restaurant, appropriately called Marlene, the place was packed. But, like a star performer, Marlene made us feel like she was cooking just for us, often coming to our table to chat about the food she served. 

The meal started with a variation on one of her classic themes, the “filhós de berbigão” that she serves at Zun Zum, her more casual restaurant. This time, the filhós, a star-shaped shell made from fried dough, was gloriously stuffed with foie gras, reineta apple, and a Madeira-wine gel. 

Next, came a trompe l’oeil preparation. It looked like cheese topped with prosciutto. But the cheese turned out to be an egg cooked at low temperature that, mixed with the prosciutto, created a festival of umami sensations.

We were taken to the sea by a delicate combination of violet shrimp from the Algarve accompanied by a gazpacho made with the shrimp’s head, topped with a percebes tartlet. 

Then, we returned to land with two crusty loaves of bread, one made with wheat and rye and the other with white corn. They came with fragrant olive oil made in Trás-os-Montes at Quinta de São Miguel do Seixo. 

The next menu entry was a delicate part of the codfish called cocochas seasoned with parsley and pine nuts. We reached the mid-point of our culinary journey with tasty white truffles and morel mushrooms stuffed with requeijão

They were followed by a ravishing sole dressed in an asparagus sauce, butter, and caviar. We reached the climax with a savory pudding made with an eel broth seasoned with saffron and topped with the eel’s skin. It is sublime!

Dessert was a delightful pine nut mousse with apple granita and pineapple from the Azores. The petit fours were lovely: merengue with a strawberry cream, tangerine leaves, and macaroons stuffed with almonds and eggs.

We’re lucky to have a chef like Marlene Vieira, who studied the past to invent the future of our culinary tradition!

Marlene is located at Av. Infante D. Henrique, Doca do Jardim do Tabaco, Lisboa, tel. 351 912 626 761, email marlene@marlene.pt.

The Correio-mor palace

We visited the Correio-mor palace in Loures on a sunny winter morning. The building was the country house of the family that, for two centuries, had a monopoly on mail distribution in the Portuguese empire. When the 1755 earthquake destroyed their Lisbon home, the family relocated to Loures and made this palace their permanent residence.

The ornate gates opened with ease as if they were expecting us. We stepped into a spacious courtyard that overlooks the Baroque building. Our first stop was the kitchen. White and blue tiles reflect the bright light that pours through the windows. The tiles depict the delicacies served at the palace: fish, game, vegetables, and fruits. A lonely marble table sits in the middle of the room, longing for the days when armies of cooks crowded around it to prepare sumptuous banquets. Across from the kitchen, we see vast wine cellars that once stored the fruits of many harvests.

An elegant staircase takes us to the noble floor. The limestone steps show the gentle wear that only shoes made of silk and soft leather can produce. At the top of the stairs, a hallway overlooks the expansive garden. We admire the ancient pine trees that have seen all the parties and heard all the gossip. Impassive, they sway in the wind, revealing nothing.

It is easy to get lost inside the palace. There are many elegant rooms with lavishly decorated ceilings and walls covered with tiles depicting naval scenes, hunting expeditions, and garden parties. 

At the Correio-mor palace we do not feel the stress of the modern world, only the gilded ease of aristocratic life. 

You can rent the Correio-mor palace for movies, weddings, and other special events. Click here for the palace’s website.

The sublime wines of the Madeira island

Novice wine drinkers like slightly sweet wines, while wine connoisseurs favor wines with acidity. Madeira wines have the best of both worlds, a pleasant sweetness and a refined acidity. 

These wines are named after their terroir—a volcanic archipelago of captivating beauty. When Portuguese navigators discovered it in 1419, it had lush woods, so they called it Madeira, the Portuguese word for wood.

Like Ports, Madeiras are fortified wines. The process by which yeast turns fructose into alcohol is interrupted by adding neutral, vinic alcohol. As a result, some fructose remains, giving the wine its sweetness.

Producers begin the aging process by gently heating the wine. Winemakers developed this technique after discovering that wines improved significantly when subject to tropical temperatures during sea voyages. 

Entry-level wines are heated in large tanks for at least three months, a process called “estufagem.” More noble wines are stored in hot, humid attics for at least two years, a process known as “canteiro.” Heat ruins most wines. But not Madeiras—their acidity gives them the fortitude to survive the heat and age beautifully.

There are five main grape varietals used in Madeira production. Sercial makes dry wines, Verdelho medium-dry, Bual semi-sweet, and Malmsey sweet. Tinta Negra is perhaps the most versatile of all the Madeira varietals, capable of producing a range of styles, from nutty dry to luscious rich.

The drier wines are generally served as aperitifs and the sweeter wines as dessert wines. But Madeiras are very versatile. For example, Sercial is an excellent pairing for oysters and sashimi. 

We had the privilege of tasting Madeiras with Chris Blandy, the CEO of Blandy’s, a company that has produced Madeira wine since 1811. We compared wines made from Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malmsey with “raw” versions of these wines. The raw wines have just been fortified but have not been heated or aged. This tasting showed us the enormous impact of heating and aging on wine quality. Water evaporates, concentrating and refining flavors. In some 20-year-old Madeiras, only 8 percent of the original wine remains, but what is left is sublime. 

Chris refilled our tasting glasses. “These wines are moreish,” he says, using a quaint British expression that refers to food or drink that make us ask for more. No wonder that in Shakespeare’s play Henry IV, Sir John Falstaff sells his soul to the devil for a glass of Madeira. We’re so lucky to drink these extraordinary wines without losing our souls!

Click here for the Blandy’s website.

The Saint Hubert tavern

We were in Alentejo with Manuel Malfeito, a professor of enology,  when he suggested that we visit one of his former students, Joaquim Saragga Leal. Joaquim used to run Taberna Sal Grosso in Lisbon but moved to Évora to be closer to his roots. 

We arrived late because we got lost. Evora is a labyrinthine Roman city with narrow streets that hide its secrets from global positioning systems. But, eventually, we found the Taberna de Santo Humberto. Joaquim tells us that it was once a tavern called O Berto that served wine and simple food. Then, some well-to-do women took it over, serving elegant food that became one of Évora’s culinary references. They turned O Berto into Hubert. For good luck they canonized him, so the place became the Saint Hubert Restaurant. Joaquim kept the saint but brought back the tavern, both in name and attitude.

He studied mechanical engineering in London and worked as an engineer but, on the side, he always cooked for friends. One day, he returned to Alentejo to help his grandmother run a famous wine estate, Herdade dos Coelheiros. He joined a wine program in Bordeaux and then went to culinary school. When he finished, he enrolled in a master of gastronomic sciences program, taking classes with professor Malfeito. 

Joaquim tells us that he wants to cook more rustic, more affectionate food, recover old, forgotten recipes, cook what his grandmother used to make, and what Alentejo taverns used to serve. “A meal at my restaurant consists of many small plates meant to be shared because the art of sharing is close to the art of conversation,” he says. 

After this long introduction, he asked: “what would you like to eat?” Manuel answered without hesitation: “the choice is up to you.” Joaquim grimaced and replied, “this sounds like another exam.” “Indeed!” agreed Manuel.  

We ran out of culinary adjectives during the meal. Cornish hens in escabeche sauce were mouthwatering, the liver duck was amazing, the bacon and garlic marvelous, the codfish tongs outstanding, and the frog legs Bulhão Pato style fantastic. 

After a brief interlude, Joaquim brought two delicious salads, one with watercress and orange and the other with tomato, figs, and hydrated prosciutto. Then, there were incredible croquettes made from beef tongue and Osso Bucco, crispy codfish cakes, and exquisite stewed bone marrow.

The dessert was a cake made from cheese, the traditional Abade de Priscos pudding, a local cake called padinha, and a chocolate mousse seasoned with salt.

After this culinary marathon, Joaquim arrived holding a tray with coffee cups and glasses of pennyroyal liqueur. Then he asked, “What grade did I get?” “A+!” we shouted.

Taberna de Santo Humberto is located at Rua da Moeda, 39, Évora, tel. 913 198 215.

A master bladesmith

Have you ever met a bladesmith? We hadn’t until we visited Paulo Tuna’s atelier in Caldas da Rainha. We knocked on a large blue door and Paulo came out. He looks like a revolutionary–someone who can bend the world to his will.

Paulo trained as an artist at the local art school. For many years, he built large sculptures that questioned our notions of weight, scale, and balance. But he was always interested in knives. His grandfather gave him a pocket knife for his 7th birthday. Later, he took him to a blacksmith so that Paulo could make his first knife. 

Knife drawings inspired by old art books fill the walls of the atelier. “Drawing is easy. Forging is hard,” says Paulo. He switched from sculpture to knife making after a friend placed an order for two knives. Paulo enjoyed the production process and started learning all he could about bladesmithing, even working in cutlery factories for a while. In 2012, he began making knives full time. An order of 50 knives from René Redzepi, Noma’s famous chef, confirmed that he was on the right track.

“Do you want me to make a knife?” Paulo asked. He takes a steel blade and places it inside a red-hot oven, heated to almost 1,000 degrees Celsius. The steel seems to resist at first, but, little by little, it becomes as red as planet Mars. Then the alchemy starts. Paulo brushes the anvil with a steel brush, takes the blade from the oven, and hammers it to thin the metal. Sparks fly. When the steel becomes crimson, he puts it back into the oven until it regains a fiery-red color. Paulo repeats the process, using different hammers to bend the steel to his designs. Then, he places the blade in a bed of ashes to cool it off. The next step is to sand the knife. He leaves some of the hammer marks as a record of the forging process. 

Paulo likes to rescue holly or olive wood pieces destined to the fireplace and turn them into elegant knife handles. He also uses Bakelite from old domino sets. Currently, his favorite handles come from the wood of a 300-year-old tree from the Bussaco forest. 

He urged us to try his knives. They are well balanced, perfectly proportioned, surprisingly light, and frighteningly sharp. Paulo Tuna makes knives that are works of art.

Click here for Paul Tuna’s website.

The thrill of Loco

Dining at Loco is like attending a jazz concert–there’s a feeling of excitement in the air. The restaurant lighting is soft, but the tables are lit like a stage, ready for chef Alexandre Silva’s performance. 

We sat down and studied the interesting wine list curated by Mário Marques, an old acquaintance from Ceia and Cura.

The performance started with a series of delicious food riffs presented on a wide variety of backgrounds: stones, coal, shells, and much more. The tempo was fast, like John Coltrane playing Giant Steps. We recognized culinary motifs inspired by the classics of Portuguese cuisine. For example, there were disks of crispy chicken skin that tasted like the traditional roasted chicken with piri-piri sauce. 

Then, the rhythm slowed down to a ballad tempo, like Thelonious Monk playing ‘Round about Midnight. A basket of artisan bread came with rich butters and a bowl with sauce from the traditional clams Bulhão Pato. There was also delicately cooked, perfectly seasoned black pork, pumpkin dumplings, and pristine fish dressed with colorful sauces. 

The desserts were playful, pomegranate granita and supple ice cream topped with hibiscus crystals. Finally, there were some encores–miniature sweets that please the eye and charm the palate. It is a thrill to dine at Loco!

Loco is located at Rua dos Navegantes nº53-B, Lisbon, tel. 21 395 1861. Click here for the restaurant’s website.

The poetic sea

“Sea, half of my soul is made from sea breeze,” says Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen in her poem Atlantic. In The Beginning of a Prayer, Filipa Leal writes, “Lord, fill my room with the high seas.”  These poets express with eloquence what all Portuguese feel–that the sea is vital to our life. 

We hope that the New Year is healthy and bright and that you can travel with ease to come experience the poetic radiance of the Portuguese sea.

An Altar wine

Vinha do Altar is a poem without words. Its authors, Jorge Serôdio Borges and Sandra Tavares da Silva, are two enologists known for masterpieces like the unforgettable white Guru and the iconic red Pintas. 

Their new wine is elegant and fresh, delightful to drink now, and sure to improve with age. Its grapes come from vines planted in a north-facing plateau that overlooks the Douro valley. Jorge’s great grand uncle purchased the land in 1939, and it became part of Casa Quintães, an estate where Jorge spent stretches of his youth. The land produced wine until the 1990s, but then the vineyard was abandoned. 

Jorge’s uncle dreamed of replanting the vineyard, but he died, and the land remained fallow. A few years ago, his widow, Márcia, asked Jorge and Sandra whether they could make the dream come true. The couple meticulously prepared the land and planted a new vineyard, called Altar, with a virtuoso trio of white grapes: Arinto, Gouveio, and Viosinho. 

The first harvest was in 2019, and now we can drink this wine that speaks without words about ties of family, memories of youth, and the magic of winemaking. 

Click here to visit Wine & Soul’s website.