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.

A convent in Alentejo

It is hard to believe that there’s a monastery larger than Lisbon’s Rossio plaza in the middle of Alentejo. Driving on the winding roads of the d’Ossa mountain, we almost lost faith. But we were climbing, and that is always a good omen. Convents often occupy mountain tops so that monks can be closer to heaven.

The first glimpse of the building is easy to miss. The sprawling monastery hides behind 600 hectares of olive trees, pines, oaks, ashes, and oleanders. After a few more twists and turns, we arrived at the Convent of São Paulo.

Marília Nanitas came out to greet us. She works for the foundation that manages the hotel. “Can you tell us the story of this place?” we asked with curiosity.  “I can tell you a good lie, which is better than a half-truth,” she replied teasingly. Then, she lent us a book about the history of the convent. 

What we learned from this tome is that it took centuries to build this monastery. The first edifice was a hermitage erected in the year 315. In 446, an earthquake partially destroyed the structure. When in 715 the Arabs invaded the region, the hermits abandoned the sanctuary.

The second king of Portugal, Sancho I, decided in 1182 to rebuild the hermitage as a monastery. In 1372, Dona Brites, the daughter of King Dom Pedro I and Inês de Castro, donated her lands near the convent to the monks. The royal family provided steady support, financing the glorious collection of cobalt blue tiles installed between 1710 and 1725. 

After the state abolished religious orders in 1834, the convent was disputed for 37 years by two municipalities, Estremoz and Redondo. Before leaving the monastery, the monks protected the tiles with plaster walls. It is thanks to their ingenuity that more than 50,000 tiles have survived to this day.

When the government auctioned the convent and the surrounding lands, Henriqueta Leotte Tavares purchased it with her dowery. It was a dream to own a place like this. But also a burden, a responsibility to history. Over the next two centuries, Henriquetta’s family used their income from agriculture to restore the convent. The first generation built a factory that made tiles to repair the roof. The second generation hired carpenters to rebuild the doors and windows. 

Henrique Lotte Tavares, a chemical engineer, belongs to the third generation. He has no descendants, so he decided to turn the convent into a hotel to preserve it for posterity. Between 1989 and 2009, Henrique oversaw countless renovations.  In 1993, he created a foundation to manage the hotel and continue the restoration work.

How was life in the monastery? The Latin word “silentio” inscribed in the tiles reminded the monks of their vow of silence. There are many fountains, perhaps because the sound of flowing water makes silences feel less awkward. The monks could talk only on their way to lunch or dinner. To make the most out of these convivial moments, the friars walked slowly through the corridor that leads to the dining room, which became known as “passos perdidos” (lost steps).

We too walked slowly on the long corridors of the convent to savor the moments spent in this beautiful place so far from the hurries of modern life, so close to the tranquility of heaven.

The Convento de São Paulo is located at Aldeia da Serra d’Ossa in Redondo, Évora. Click here for the hotel’s website.

Zun Zum

It is so much fun to eat at Zun Zum! The restaurant, headed by chef Marlene Vieira, has a great location, with the Tagus river on one side and the Pantheon on the other. The food is as wonderful as the location.

We sat for lunch in the esplanade under a large red umbrella on one of those perfect sunny days that Lisbon residents take for granted. The simpatico waiter suggested a rosé made from bastardo at Quinta de Arcossó in Tràs os Montes. It has nice acidity and flavors of cherry and tropical fruit. “Do you want to choose from the menu or be surprised by the chef?” the waiter asked. Surprised, we chose without hesitation.

The “couvert,” a set of delightful little bites that start the meal included codfish tempura (“pataniscas de bacalhau”) and a sourdough brioche. 

The first appetizer was a luscious ceviche made with unusual ingredients: popcorn, red onion, and passion fruit. It was followed by tasty mini pizzas topped with trout eggs, a spider crab called sapateira, and avocado. The pizzas were coated with a traditional spider-crab filling.

Then came “filhoses de berbigão.” They are a feast, the cockles large and juicy floating on a star-shaped bed made from fried dough filled with a cream of cockle broth, coriander, and lemon. 

The fish entrée was a bowl of creamy, savory rice made with clams, cockles, razor clams, and mussels. The rice, a carolino variety from Bom Sucesso, has large grains that soak the appetizing sauce made by the seafood. 

The meat entrée was a slice of delicious black pork accompanied by fried corn and pickles made from cauliflower and celery.

Our first dessert was a yogurt parfait on a bed of strawberry jam. The fatness of the yogurt and the sweetness of the jam are a perfect yin and yang. The second dessert was “toucinho do céu” (bacon from heaven) a pudding made with egg yolks and bacon. It is so tasty that it could, indeed, be served in heaven.

We left Zun Zum deeply satisfied and certain that if Robinson Crusoe could eat Marlene Vieira’s food on his desert island, he would never want to leave.

Zun Zum is located ar Av. Infante D. Henrique, Doca Jardim do Tabaco in Lisbon, email hello@zunzum.pt, tel. 915 507 870. Click here for the restaurant’s website.