Pearly plates from Estremoz

Ela Pedra

During a delightful lunch at Gadanha in Estremoz, we praised the marble serving pieces used at the restaurant. Chef Michele Marques offered to introduce us to Filipa André, the person who makes them.

Filipa owns a gallery in Largo Dom Dinis, right by the royal palace of Estremoz. She told us how in school she longed to get into the marble sculpting classes that were open only to boys. Many years later, Filipa fulfilled her dream of learning how to work with the pearly marble of Estremoz.

Her pieces have an understated elegance that makes the food served on them shine. Every time her plates and bowls grace our dinner table people ask us: where did you get them? Now you know.

Filipa André’s gallery, Elapedra is located at Largo D. Dinis n. 13 in Estremoz, email elapedra.etz@gmail.com, tel.963273440.

Culinary bliss at Essencial

Restaurant Essencial_

If the cobblestones of Bairro Alto were not so slippery, we would tell you to run to Essencial, a new restaurant in Bairro Alto. Walk instead as fast as you can because this dinning room that seats only 25 guest will soon be impossible to get into.

The restaurant is headed by André Cordeiro, a chef with impeccable knowledge of French technique. He studied for five years with Alain Ducasse in Paris and then worked with three chefs who earned the coveted title of Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (best craftsmen in France). André came back to Lisbon to combine fine-dining ingredients such as truffles and foie gras with the amazing fresh produce available in Portugal. The results are stunning–elegant food that is a joyful symphony of tastes, textures and aromas.

While we were chatting with chef André, a plate of bread arrived. It came with a blend of butter from Pico in Azores, lard and rosemary. It was the one of several unexpected  combinations that delighted our palates throughout the meal.

The first appetizer was a crowd pleaser: delicate slices of marinated salmon with radishes, crème fraiche and tarragon oil, served with the luscious crêpes vonnassiennes made famous by chef George Blanc. The second appetizer was a sea urchin shell filled with beef tartare, sea urchin and nori seaweed. These dissonant ingredients created a pleasing harmony that made our taste buds sing.

It is customary to serve the fish entrée before the meat but here the latter came first. It was a paté en croute made with duck, pork and foie gras served with smoked carrot purée and beets. How could the fish compete with these gratifying earthy flavors? The answer came in the form of a plate of sole. The freshness of the fish was a canvas that made the truffle stuffing and the Champagne sauce stand out.

The last entrée was a lush journey to the flavors of the woods: hare with foie gras, trumpet mushrooms and Jerusalem artichokes in a reduction of red wine, port wine and chocolate.

A vanilla mille feuilles with salted caramel produced a happy ending to a blissful meal. But our culinary experience was not over. There were still fireworks provided by a buttery French toast with vanilla mouse and a rich choux with praline.

Essencial’s minimalist space, impeccable service and interesting French and Portuguese boutique wines perfectly complement the food. We do not need the Michelin guide to tell us that the culinary stars shine brightly on Essencial’s dinner table.

Essencial is located at Rua da Rosa, 176, tel. 211573713, email info@essencialrestaurant.pt. Click here for the restaurants website. 

The wines of Wine & Soul

Quinta da Manoella

We spent a bright Winter morning with Jorge Serôdio Borges in Vale de Mendiz. He met us at Wine & Soul, the winery where, together with his wife Sandra Tavares da Silva, he is making some of the Douro’s most iconic wines. Jorge showed us the granite tanks where the hand-picked grapes are treaded by foot, just like in the old days. Then he asked with boyish excitement “Would you like to see the vines?” Of course we did.

He drove us through the winding road that leads to the old vineyard that produces the grapes for the famous Pintas. The vines are planted on a steep incline. We wondered why these grapes are so special–is it the constant vertigo sensation they probably feel? Jorge explained that the high altitude and the cool nights help balance the intense sun exposure to produce grapes that are consistently great. Before we left, he showed us how the ground between the vines is planted with cloves that help retain the nitrogen in the soil.

Next, we went to Quinta da Manoella. Jorge seems to know every tree and every creek. He talked about the numerous fruit trees they planted, the mushrooms that grow in the forest, and the olive groves that make tangy olive oil. In his view, biodiversity is key for the sustainability of the region and the quality of the wines. Finally, he showed us the cellars which are full of old oak barrels beautifully restored, ready to receive precious vintage ports.

Visiting the two Wine & Soul estates gave us a new appreciation for the wines they produce. It is amazing how much knowledge, work and passion it takes to produce great wine.

Click here for information about how to visit Wine & Soul.

Breakfast at Six Senses in the Douro valley

Sixsenses Breackfast

Breakfasts come in many different forms. Some are quick, others leisurely. Some are frugal, others abundant. But most are quickly forgotten. A breakfast at Six Senses in the Douro valley is different because it lingers in our memory as a moment of relaxation and gastronomic pleasure.

The breakfast is served in an expansive room with a granite floor. In the back, a rectangular window frames the views of the Douro valley. There’s a large wooden table set with all sorts of culinary delights, from fruits, seeds and nuts, to milks, yogurts, juices, kombuchas, kefirs, jams, and compotes. Behind it, another table offers a dazzling array of breads and pastries. In the back, there’s an open kitchen where chefs prepare made-to-order dishes, from omelets to waffles. Many herbs, fruits and vegetables come from the hotel’s garden to the table. This freshness is integral to the quality of the food that is served.

Next to the dining room, there’s a place with cheeses and charcuteries. You can travel from the north to the south of Portugal through the taste of these products.

The meal is orchestrated with great care, from the seamless service to the skill with which the ingredients are curated and prepared. The result is an unforgettable breakfast.

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. 

Kasutera

Kasutera

One of the most popular desserts in Portugal is a golden sponge cake called Pão de Ló. Pão means bread and, according to culinary lore, Ló is the nickname of a cook famous for her version of this cake.

In the 16th century, the cake was known as Castile bread, after the name of the Spanish kingdom where the recipe originated. Castile bread keeps for a long time, so sailors used to carry it to enjoy during long sea voyages.

When the Portuguese navigators reached the port of Nagasaki in Japan, they took with them the recipe for Castile bread. It quickly became popular under the Japanese name Kasutera. The recipe was included in the first book about Japanese sweets, published in 1718 under the title “Secret Writings on Famous Japanese Confectionery New and Old.”

Over time, the recipe evolved to adapt to Japanese tastes. Wouldn’t it be interesting to compare the Portuguese and Japanese versions of this ancient cake?  Thanks to a small Lisbon store appropriately called Kasutera, we can make this comparison without traveling to Nagasaki.

Kasutera’s cakes are perfect rectangles that are beautifully wrapped. You can buy the original version as well as variants with chocolate, green tea and earl grey. They’re all delicious examples of a recipe that has traveled around the world, from Portugal to Japan and back.

Kasutera is located at Rua do Poço dos Negros, 51 in Lisbon, tel. 213-951-596, email info@uke-mochi.pt. Click here for Kasutera’s website.

 

 

 

The Joy of Codfish on Christmas Eve

Bacalhau 2019

The Vikings used to dry codfish to take on their sea voyages. The Basques improved upon this practice by salting the fish before drying it. But it was the Portuguese who recognized codfish’s culinary potential. Auguste Escoffier, the chef who helped codify French cuisine in the beginning of the 20th century, wrote that “We must recognize that the Portuguese were the first to introduce in our eating habits, this precious fish, universally known and appreciated.”

Today, on Christmas Eve, codfish is enjoyed all over Portugal. It is usually simply prepared. After being soaked for two or three days to remove most of the salt, the fish is boiled. It is accompanied by Portuguese cabbage and potatoes that are also boiled. Everything is generously dressed with olive oil and garlic that transform this simple meal into culinary joy.

Pristine fish at Taberna do Valentim

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We met Valentim, the chef and owner of Taberna Valentim in Viana do Castelo, as soon as we entered the restaurant. He was working hard at the grill but took time to show us the superb mullets that had just been delivered. “The seas are often rough during Winter so at times we have to close the restaurant because we can’t find fresh fish of the quality we seek. These mullets came from Póvoa do Varzim. The sea was rough yet the fishermen still went out. Their fish is gorgeous but the they take too much risk to catch it.”

Taberna do Valentim has offered the same small menu for 40 years: pristine seasonal fish perfectly grilled, fish rice, “ensopado de peixe,” a fish stew prepared with white pepper and served on bread toasts, and caldeirada (bouillabaisse). The quality is high and prices are modest so the place is always packed.

After a very satisfying lunch, we resumed our conversation with Valentim.  “I started working when I was 8, serving glasses of wine and codfish cakes in my mother’s tavern,” he told us. “Then, I began to cook, so I’ve been cooking for a long time. But time is not what’s important. Passion is. Unless you have passion for what you do you’ll never be great at it.” This passion is evident in everything that comes to the table at Taberna Valentim.

Taberna Valentim is located at Avenida Campo do Castelo nº45 in Viana do Castelo, tel. 258-827-505.