We have for years admired chef Miguel Castro e Silva from the distance. We dined at his restaurants, read his cookbooks, tried his recipes (his marinated sardine preparation is a staple at our table). So it was a great privilege to have dinner with him at Quinta de Ventozelo.
We met at Cantina, the restaurant that occupies the place where the old farm canteen used to be. Miguel arrived with a bottle of wine. “Do you want to try the wines I make at Ventozelo?” he asked as a way of introduction. Soon our glasses were filled with a white Viosinho from 2017 that is fresh and vibrant. It went perfectly with our first course, river fish “escabeche.”
We told Miguel how much we had enjoyed the food we had for lunch in the picturesque esplanade of Cantina: wild boar covilhetes (a version of the small pies popular in nearby Vila Real), a warm soup made with beets and apple, grilled octopus, and a peach tart that celebrated the natural sweetness of the peaches. We asked how does he manage to achieve such high standards in all his restaurants. Miguel told us that he inherited both his organization skills and creativity from his German mother. He writes meticulous recipes and coaches his cooks in their preparation until they meet his exacting standards.
Miguel started cooking professionally only at age 31. Born into a family of doctors in Porto, he was expected to study medicine. He studied biology in Germany but lost interest and became a musician. To earn a bit of money on the side, he started cooking. When he returned to Portugal, his friend Dirk Niepoort asked him to prepare food for his wine tastings. Dirk would describe the wines he planned to serve and Miguel had to come up with food that paired well with the wines. It was an experience that allowed him to perfect his cooking skills and learn a lot about wine.
This enological knowledge is evident in the next wine we tried, a remarkable white that combines Viosinho with a blend of red varietals. It was a perfect complement to our second starter: a sausage called “alheira” topped with a fried quail egg.
Miguel tells us that he is reviving and refining the cooking traditions of the Douro valley. Every Sunday, the cooks at Cantina prepare a roast in an oven fired with vine wood. The soup is made in old iron-cast pots on a large outdoor fire. All the ingredients come from the farm. The animals are naturally raised and everything from nose to tail is used in the kitchen.
Our main course, a suculent stewed rooster, was a perfect example of the refined, satisfying rustic food that Miguel is devising. It combined well with a delicate red wine aged in oak barrels previously used to make white wines.
Several fruit-based desserts arrived. Once again, we admired the sparse use of sugar that gives the fruits their chance to shine. As the dinner came to an end, we made a few toasts with some old Dalva tawnies.
But there was one more thing. Miguel ordered a pot of tea. Ventozelo produces a wonderful gin with the aromatics that grow on the farm. Miguel had the idea of making an herbal tea with the same aromatics: lavender, lemon thyme, Portuguese thyme, and globe amaranth. It makes a fragrant infusion that was the perfect ending to a perfect meal. Thanks to chef Miguel Castro e Silva the food at Cantina is as spectacular as the view.