Madeira rediscovered

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In 1418, on All Saints’ Day, Portuguese navigators discovered the island of Porto Santo off the coast of Africa. After more exploration, they realized that Porto Santo is part of a lush subtropical archipelago. The largest island in the archipelago was covered by dense forests so the sailors named it “ilha da Madeira,” the wooded island.

Madeira was planted early in the 15th century with vines from many varietals, including verdelho, sercial, and malvasia. The style of wine making evolved until producers learned to make fortified wines that could survive long sea voyages. The fermentation process is interrupted by adding alcohol so that the yeast does not consume all the grape sugar. The wines are then aged for at least a decade in bottles or wood barrels. Madeira producers discovered that the wine stored in barrels that returned from sea voyages in hot climates had improved in quality. So, they started refining some of their wines by exposing them to heat.

In the 17th and 18th century, Madeira wine became a major export. From East to  West, aristocrats demanded this wine full of complexity and allure.

Six centuries after Madeira was discovered, we can taste a remarkable vinegar made with Madeira wine by a great olive-oil producer called Gallo. The acidity and sweetness are perfectly balanced to create a seductive vinegar like no other. Try it while you can, for soon gourmets from East to West will demand their salads dressed with this star vinegar.

Sleeping in a medieval castle by the Sado river

Composite Alcácer

One hour away from Lisbon, you can stay in an historical hotel that occupies a medieval castle with wonderful views of the Sado river and the rice fields of Alcácer of Sal. It is a place where people have gathered since the Iron Age to worship the gods above.

For more than 2,000 years, people came to Alcácer do Sal to farm the land, tend to herds of sheep and goats and produce salt on the marshes of the Sado river. The Sado made it all possible, its waters bestowed fertility on the land and carried boats loaded with agricultural products to far away lands. Underneath the pousada there are remnants of Greek pottery and Egyptian jewelry, foreign luxuries purchased with the fruits of the Sado river.

In the 2nd century BC, Alcácer was conquered by the Romans who made it a center for the production of wool and salt. With their penchant for grandiose names, the Romans named the city Salacia Urbs Imperatoria.

In the 6th century AC, the Visigoths conquered the territory that is now Portugal. But life did not change in Alcácer until the moorish conquered the city in the middle of the 8th century AC. They built the caste and made the town an important trading outpost.

The first king of Portugal, D. Afonso Henriques, conquered Alcácer in 1160. But the moors fought back and it was only in 1217 that Alcácer became a permanent part of the Portuguese territory. The castle was then converted into a monastery occupied by the order of Saint James.

In the 17th century, the old monastery was adapted to welcome the nuns of Saint Claire of Assisi. The new building was called the Convent of Her Lady of Aracaeli.

The Pousada is a magical place. Every window frames a beautiful landscape. Every step reminds us that we are on hallowed ground. But hard decisions have to be made: should we stay by the spacious hotel pool relaxing or go see the gorgeous beaches of the coast of Alentejo?

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

Our Portuguese music playlist

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What gives national music its distinct character?  The great Leonard Bernstein answered this question in one of his Young People’s Concerts:

“[…] folk songs reflect the rhythms and accents and speeds of the way a particular people talks: in other words, their language — especially the language of their poetry — sort of grows into musical sounds. And those speaking rhythms and accents finally pass from folk-music into what we call the art-music, or opera or concert-music of a particular people; and that is what makes Tchaikovsky sound Russian or what makes Verdi sound Italian, or what makes Gershwin sound American.”

Portuguese is a language with closed vowels and shh sounds that can come across as Slavic. Our theory is that these traits emerged over time as a defense strategy against Spanish invasions. When the Spaniards, used to the open vowels and crisp enunciation inherited from the Latin, came to Portugal, they couldn’t understand the local language. As a result, they went back to Spain and left us alone since 1640.

If you’re traveling in Portugal, we invite you to use our Spotify playlist of local music as your soundtrack:

https://buff.ly/2Jfwz98

It is an eclectic list that includes classic fados from the great Amália Rodrigues but also the work of a wonderful new generation of fado singers that includes Ana Moura, Carminho, and Mariza. It features folk-inspired music by Trovante and instrumental music ranging from an elegant sonata by the 18th-century composer Carlos Seixas to a joyous rendition of dance music on accordion.

We hope this music, infused with the rhythms and accents of the Portuguese language, will enrich your journey through Portugal.

Reading Anna Karenina in Sagres

Composite Restaurant Os Arcos Algarve

Adega dos Arcos (the cellar of the arches) is named after its many arches. It is an old “tasca,” a humble establishment that serves traditional fare. The restaurant changed owners over the years but the recipe for success has remained the same: fresh fish and grilled meats served with no frills at very modest prices.

We recommend the local fish species with names no one can translate into English. We had sargos, bicas, and liça. The sargo has a buttery taste and a wonderful consistency. Bicas have a more complex flavor reminiscent of the posh mullets. The liça has large white filets with a firm texture and delicate taste.

Everything comes with potatoes, boiled or fried and a traditional salad with lettuce, onion and tomato. The choice of wines is very limited and dominated by Caiado, a great inexpensive wine produced by Adega Mayor.

Even in the Winter, Adega dos Arcos is busy with locals and visitors. “In the Summer forget it,” says the waiter, “the lines are huge.” But the food is worth it. You can take a long Russian novel like Anna Karenina to read while you’re waiting. The novel might end badly, but we guarantee that your wait will have a happy ending.

Adega dos Arcos is located on Rua Roca da Veiga, Sagres, tel. 960 294 290.

Aladdin’s cave in Bairrada

Composite Caves S. João

Three brothers, José, Manuel and Albano Costa, built in 1920 wine cellars called Caves São João. They used the cellars to store the wine from Bairrada that they sold to taverns throughout Portugal.

In the 1930s, the Costa brothers ventured into wine production. They dreamed about producing wines that future generations could drink with pride. With the help of French enologist Gaston Mainousson, they learned the secrets of champagne production and started making sparkling wine in Bairrada.

In the 1950s they started producing two iconic wines: Frei João in Bairrada and Porta dos Cavaleiros in the Dão region. Made with great care, these wines were stored so that time could tame their tannins and leave only the smooth taste of the fruit.

As their wines gathered fame, the three brothers increased production and expanded storage capacity. Today the cellar holds 2.5 million bottles that preserve the rhythms of the seasons and the fruits of the toil of generations of farmers. These irreplaceable time capsules are guarded by the great-great grandchildren of the original owners.

We tried two white wines produced at Quinta do Poço dos Lobos. The first, a reserve wine from 2013 had a pale, yellow color, and a smooth taste that left our palate refreshed with notes of citrus. The second was a Poço dos Lobos colheita from 1995. What a difference three decades make! The older wine had an intense yellow color. The citrus notes were now singing with a choir of harmonious flavors orchestrated by time.

We sampled two vintages of Frei João. A red from 1980 that was rich and smooth and a white from 1986 that was still full of youth and vigor.

Our tasting ended with a brandy from 1966 that was suave and sophisticated. It is a nectar that has seen it all from the breakup of the Beatles to the fall of the Berlin wall.

Caves São João look like Aladdin’s cave, full of treasures stored away from the sun and immersed in sultry air. If a genie offers you three wishes during your visit to the cellars don’t hesitate: ask for a white Poço dos Lobos, a red Frei João or Porta dos Cavaleiros, and a bottle of 1966 brandy.

Caves São João are located at São João de Azenha in Anadia, tel. 234743118, email geral@cavessaojoao.com. Click here for their web site.

 

The bells of Mafra

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The Mafra Convent, Rui Barreiros Duarte, ink on paper, December 2016.

In 1711, king Dom João V vowed that if he was blessed with a son, he would construct a convent in Mafra. When a son was born in 1714, Dom João V spared no expense to fulfil his promise. By one count, the building has 880 rooms and 4,500 doors and windows. The convent includes a magnificent palace for the royal family and a basilica made of the purest marble, with intricate altars lavishly decorated with gold leaf.

To top it all, the king commissioned a 200-ton carillon. According to legend, when the craftsmen quoted the price of the carillon, they remarked that the cost seemed too dear for a small country like Portugal. Offended, the king replied: “I didn’t realize the bells were so cheap! I would like two sets.”   And so, two sets were made. Nicholas Levach made 57 bells for the North tower in Liége.  Willem Witlockx made 49 bells for the South tower in Antwerp.

The convent has many other bells: liturgical bells used in religious ceremonies, lecture bells that signaled the beginning and end of study periods, agony bells that rang when a monk was dying, refectory bells that reminded monks of their meal times, and the codfish bell that sounded in days when people should abstain from eating meat.

The carillon and some of the other bells were used to mark the passage of time with minuets and other compositions. In a world where musical sounds were rare, the bells of Mafra filled the village with harmony and grace.

Scarfs inspired by Portugal

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VIDA combines the best of the old–beautiful textiles produced in developing countries–and the best of the new–digital fabric printing technology. Founded by Umaimah Mendhro, the company allows artists to turn their art into fashion articles. The platform has allowed artists from all over the world to collaborate with textile workers in ways that were previously impossible. Some of the company’s proceeds fund literacy and education programs in the factories where the products are made.

When VIDA invited our photographer, Maria Rebelo, to design a collection, she used the beautiful tiles of Portugal as inspiration. The result is a set of scarfs produced in a soft botanic silk fabric called modal with the shapes and colors that grace the facades of old Portuguese buildings. Click here to see the collection.