The river of forgetfulness

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The bar of the Viana do Castelo Pousada has a beautiful tapestry designed by the great artist Almada Negreiros and produced by the Portalegre Tapestry Manufacture in 1957.

The tapestry depicts the arrival of roman armies, commanded by Decius Junos Brutus, to  the left bank of the Lima river in 135 BC. The beauty of the place convinced the romans that they had found Lethes, the mythical river of forgetfulness that erased all the memories of those who crossed it.

The army stood still, no soldier dared to cross the river. Holding the roman banner in his hand, Brutus crossed the river. Once he reached the right margin, he called each soldier by his name to prove that his memory was intact. Reassured, the rest of the army crossed the river.

The Viana do Castelo pousada

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We arrived to find the Pousada of Viana do Castelo shrouded in fog. The staff apologized profusely, as if it was their duty to control the weather to please the guests. The fog won’t last long and the view is wonderful, they guaranteed.

It was a warm winter night, so we slept with the balcony doors open. The first few rays of orange light woke us up to see the magnificent view of the temple of Santa Luzia, framed by the Lima river and the deep blue sea.

The hotel was conceived by Domingos José de Morais, a successful entrepreneur who dreamed of turning Viana do Castelo into a beach resort like Biarritz. The project was awarded to architect Miguel Ventura Terra, a disciple of the Beaux Arts movement who also designed the temple of Santa Luzia. Sadly, José de Morais didn’t live to see the hotel inaugurated in 1921. In 1946, the state purchased the hotel which later became part of the pousadas, a network of historical hotels in unique locations.

The Viana do Castelo Pousada offers heavenly views, impeccable service and wonderful tranquility. Domingos José de Morais would be very proud.

Here’s a link to the pousadas’ website. You can find a large collection of photos of the pousadas at www.mariarebelophotography.com.

An unforgettable supper at Ceia

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If food was just fuel for the body, how come there are meals that linger in our memory as incandescent moments? One of these moments was a lunch amid the vineyards of Herdade do Esporão prepared by a young chef called Pedro Pena Bastos. Another such moment was a recent dinner at a new Lisbon restaurant called Ceia, the Portuguese word for supper. The setting was different but the chef was the same.

We were received in the spacious courtyard outside the Ceia dining room by sommelier Mário Marques. He offered us a choice of two welcome drinks: cherry kombucha or a natural sparkling wine from Quinta da Serradinha. The drinks came with plates of beet beignets served with smoked codfish eggs. Like everything else in this enchanted evening, these choices seemed unusual until we tried them and perfect once we tried them.

Mário invited us into the serene dining room where a long wooden table awaited 14 lucky guests. Pedro welcomed us with three tantalizing bites: Jerusalem artichokes, French toast with seaweed and cockles, and venison from Alentejo served with fermented walnuts and black olives. They were followed by a precious taco made with rose prawns from Algarve, beetroot pearls and yuzu.

A Japanese-inspired tomato broth with mackerel and broccoli showcased Pedro’s ability to create unusual combinations that work perfectly. Then, a large oyster shell from Alvor was placed on the table surrounded by bowls with sweet oysters, fermented asparagus and lima caviar. We were still savoring this intense taste from the sea when flavors from the woods arrived: grilled Hokkaido pumpkin, mushrooms, and a beurre blanc made with Indian cress.

The service progressed with the pace of a sacred ritual that has been perfected throughout the ages. Alexandre Coelho, our amiable server, invited us to visit the adjacent room where chefs place final touches on their next offerings. It is fascinating to observe the choreographed precision that produces such refined food.

Each guest received a bowl of pasta, only it was not pasta—it was the freshest squid, delicately cooked, cut like tagliatelle and served with a sauce made with bergamot zest, hazelnuts and pickled onions. The flavors of the sea continued with a line-caught robalo (sea bass) dressed with chanterelle mushrooms, marjoram and fennel cooked in parsley oil.

A beautiful loaf of sourdough bread smoked with tomato and thyme created an intermission that separated the fish from the meat courses. It came with aged butter seasoned with salt from Castro Marim and a bright-green, spicy olive oil from Pedro’s family estate.

These rustic flavors prepared out palates for the next dish, a rectangular prism of slow-cooked bísaro pork jowl that melted in our mouths. The other meat course was a cylinder of beef from Simental cows, grilled on charcoal and adorned by collard greens and buckwheat.

Next, came a plate of lovage with compote, ganache and sorbet made from a huge Buddha’s hand lemon cultivated in Alentejo. The pungent citrus notes readied our palates for a trio of desserts made with enoki mushrooms, cocoa and quince.

Coffee, brewed in a double-globe glass coffee maker, was served with gum made from dehydrated beets and coriander, raspberry bonbons, and spicy cookies coated with a cream of turmeric and sweet potatoes.

Throughout the meal, Pedro Pena Bastos combines tastes, aromas, textures, and temperatures with the skill of a master orchestrator. His deep understanding of the subtle qualities of different ingredients allows him to create brilliant flavors and invent bold harmonies. The result is a culinary symphony that is unforgettable.

Ceia is located at Campo de Santa Clara, 128. Lisbon. Click here for the restaurant’s website.

 

Six Senses Douro Valley

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One of the most enchanting places in the Douro region is called Vale de Abraão (the valley of Abraham). It got its name from Abraão Farah, a Jew from nearby Lamego who rented the estate from João Lourenço de Seara, a squire of the king. No one knows for sure what Abraão did. Some say he was a physician, others that he was a scientist. But he must have been a remarkable person for the people of the Douro named the valley after him.

Five centuries later, the estate belonged to a descendent of the king’s squire called Laura Leitão. At the time, the Douro was remote and isolated. But Laura and her husband fell in love with Vale de Abraão and decided to make it their home. Together, they built a house and a chapel surrounded by serene gardens, graceful fountains and woods planted with exotic trees. They brought the first electrical generator to the Douro and at night their lightbulbs shined like new stars in the sky.

In the 20th century, the estate was owned by an aristocratic family from Oporto called Serpa Pimentel who lived there until the 1980s. On the other side of the valley, in the village of Godim, lived a young girl who grew up to become a writer called Agustina Bessa-Luis. Her childhood in the valley inspired “Vale de Abraão,” one of her novels.

A fire destroyed the manor house in the 1990s and the place became a romantic ruin. But the house and the surrounding gardens have since been reborn as an extraordinary hotel called Six Senses Douro Valley. It is the perfect place to connect with nature, relax and recharge.

The quality of the service offered by the 180 people on staff matches the exuberant beauty of the location. Each guest has a “gem” who serves as a guide to all the leisure opportunities available. There is much to do, from wine tastings, to helicopter tours, from cooking classes, to radical sports. But some of the best activities are the simplest: a walk in the woods, a picnic in a cabin by the river, or a lunch by the expansive pool.

Every staff member we met is terrific. Our waitress is an engineer who traded her job as a manager to work in the tranquil environment of the hotel. She spoke with enthusiasm about the excellence of the produce from the Douro valley. The head of the wine shop talks about wines with the erudition of an enologist. We asked him a few questions and soon our table was full of glasses with interesting wines for us to sample. The young chef in charge of the restaurant produces healthy, delicious food cooked with local ingredients using techniques that combine the best of tradition and modernity.

How lucky is this valley whose beauty and serenity keeps attracting such remarkable people.

The Six Senses Douro Valley is located at Quinta de Vale de Abraão, Samodães, Lamego, tel. 254-660-600. Click here for the hotel’s website. 

 

Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?

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According to an old British tradition, vintage port wine is served in a decanter passed at the end of the meal from right to left. When someone forgets to pass the decanter, instead of saying. “Would you mind passing the port,” the British like to ask: “do you know the Bishop of Norwich?”  They will then explain that the bishop was a very nice fellow except for his annoying proclivity to forget to pass the port decanter. Henry Bathurst, the Bishop of Norwich from 1805 to 1837, often fell asleep at the table, interrupting the flow of port that fueled the conversation.

The British port-wine merchants and producers gather every Wednesday for lunch at the Feitoria Inglesa, an elegant 18th century building in Oporto. It is a place where the slightest hesitation about passing the port results in a lecture about the Bishop of Norwich.

One day, two members of the Feitoria Inglesa conspired to invite the current bishop of Norwich to lunch. The bishop arrived incognito. One of the conspirators failed to pass the port and was promptly asked by his neighbor, “do you know the Bishop of Norwich?” He responded “I do, in fact I can introduce you to him because he is sitting at the table!” The bishop rose and told the guests that he was indeed the Bishop of Norwich and that he always passed the port.

Inspired beer at Musa

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Nuno Melo and Bruno Carrilho enjoyed so much the craft beers they tried in their travels abroad that they started gathering information about the art and science of beer production. Beer is made with only four ingredientes. You can buy the first three–yeast, malts and hops–all over the world. But the fourth ingredient—high-quality water–has to be locally available. When Nuno and Bruno discovered that Lisbon’s water is perfect for beer making, they bought a warehouse in an industrial suburb called Marvila and set to work.

They hired an accomplished British engineer to design and set up their factory and located suppliers of premium yeast, malts and hops. Then, they persuaded a talented American artisanal beer maker to create some unique beer recipes. Finally, they hired a dedicated crew willing to share the toil and joy of making great beer.

Nuno and Bruno called their project Musa, the Portuguese word for muse, to acknowledge the flashes of inspiration that kept the spirit of fun and irreverence alive.  This spirit is reflected in the rock-tinted names of their brews: Red Zeppelin, Mick Lager, Twist and Stout, Saison O’Connor, Born in the IPA, and Frank Apa.

The back of the Musa warehouse houses the factory. The front is a bar with beer on tap that provides immediate customer feedback about the new beers that are launched. Some of these new beers result from collaborations with restaurants, artists and gourmet-food producers like chocolate mavens Bettina and Niccolo Corallo.

Musa uses the bar to organize Sunday lunches prepared by well-known chefs and to throw awesome parties featuring singers, bands and DJs. One of the year’s biggest events, Ouro, Incenso e Birra (Gold, Incense and Byrrh), jointly organized with fellow craft-beer makers Dois Corvos and Lince, is coming up on January 12. If you’re in Lisbon this Saturday, it will be hard to find a better party!

Musa is located at Rua do Açúcar 83, in Lisbon. Click here for their website.

Caldo verde

Caldo Verde

Caldo verde (green broth) is the most Portuguese of soups. It comes in different versions but Maria de Lurdes Modesto, the doyenne of traditional Portuguese cooking, recommends a simple preparation used in the village of Marco de Canaveses.  Here’s the recipe.

Gently boil 500 grams of potatoes, 3 garlic cloves, one sliced chouriço (meat sausage) and some olive oil.  Crush the potatoes with a masher. Add the shredded Galician cabbage for just a couple of minutes (avoid overcooking the cabbage). Dress the soup with olive oil. Serve, preferably in a clay bowl, and accompany with broa, a Portuguese corn bread.

The soup has the colors of the Portuguese flag: green from the cabbage, red from the sausage, and yellow from the olive oil. You find caldo verde everywhere: in homes and restaurants, in places where fado singers gather, and in festivals and fairs. The soup is so popular that vendors in farmers’ markets have a special shredder to make the distinctive strips of Galician cabbage that are the hallmark of caldo verde.

As with many traditional recipes, the origin of this soup is lost in time. There’s no recipe for caldo verde in the cookbooks written by Domingos Rodrigues in 1680 or by Lucas Rigaud in 1780. But these chefs worked for the royal family, so they probably shunned peasant cooking. The soup is mentioned in several 19th century literary works and it is the first recipe in Culinária, an influential cookbook published in 1928 by António Maria de Oliveira Bello.

Caldo verde is often served at midnight on New Year’s eve. Its comforting taste helps everyone feel warm and optimistic about the New Year!