Convento do Espinheiro

Convento do Espinheiro composit-2

The origins of Convento do Espinheiro (the convent of the thorn bush) remount to the 12th century when a shepherd reported seeing the Virgin Mary on top of a burning thorn bush. Inspired by this vision, the shepherd sold his flock to build a modest chapel where he lived as a hermit. Two centuries later, king Dom Afonso built a convent for the order of Saint Jerome in the place where the chapel stood. The convent’s white walls reach towards the blue skies of Alentejo with an exuberance of forms and decorative details.

According to legend, in 1490 the convent was the site of a romantic encounter between Afonso, a Portuguese prince, and his wife-to-be, Isabel of Castile, a few days before their wedding. The bolt of lightning that destroyed a convent tower during the night, was interpreted by he monks as a sign of heavenly displeasure with the pre-marital affair.

The convent was converted into a luxury hotel in 2005. The spaces once used by the monks, from the courtyard to the dining room, were carefully restored. An ancient water deposit was turned into an elegant wine shop where guests can enjoy daily wine tastings.

Surrounded by vineyards, Convento do Espinheiro exudes peace and tranquility. Over the centuries, many Portuguese kings spent time in this convent. Perhaps that is why a stay inside these ancient walls feels like a royal privilege.

Convento do Espinheiro is located five kilometers outside of Évora. Click here for the hotel’s website.

 

 

Ilda Vinagre shares a recipe

Ilda Vinagre

Ilda Vinagre is a legendary chef. In the 1980s, she opened a restaurant called Bolota (acorn) in Terrugem, a small town in Alentejo. The restaurant earned her two Michelin stars, attracting gourmets from Portugal and beyond. After this feat, she traveled the world cooking, heading restaurants in the United States and Brazil, and preparing banquets that showcased the cuisine of Alentejo in lands as far away as China.

The good news is that Ilda is back in Alentejo. We met with her at the restaurant of Herdade dos Adeans where she oversees the kitchen. Ilda told us about her life and her love of cooking. That these days she enjoys decorating her plates with edible flowers. And that there are four herbs no Alentejo chef can do without: mint, coriander, oregano and “poejo” (pennyroyal). In the end of our conversation, she generously gave us one of her favorite octopus recipes so we could share it with our readers. Here it is!

Country-style Octopus

Cook “al dente” the octopus in water with salt, onion, coriander, pepper and oregano. Cut it in pieces and grill the pieces in a hot griddle with bacon and a little olive oil. Dress with lemon juice, lemon rind and oregano. Accompany with a sweet potato puree. To make the puree, roast the sweet potato with the peel on. Take the peel, mash the pulp and mix it with butter.

 

The donkey’s shelter

Cozido no Pão

When we visited Moínho de Avis at Serra de Montejunto, Miguel Nobre showed us his new venture–a small restaurant sheltered from the wind with sprawling mountain views. It is called Curral do Burro (the donkey’s shelter) because it occupies the place where the donkey used to lodge. “Donkeys were a miller’s prized possession because they carted the bags of grain and flour back and forth, so they had to be well fed and protected from the elements,” Miguel explained.

Miguel used his skills as a carpenter to build the restaurant’s furniture. The menu offers simple, delicious food: mussels, clams, cockles, eggs with farinheira (a type of sausage), and grilled black pork.

The specialty is “cozido no pão” a combination of meats, sausages, potatoes, cabbage and carrots cooked in the oven inside bread. The vegetables have a glorious taste imparted by the sausages and the meat. It is a privilege to enjoy these deeply satisfying flavors on a mountain top, sheltered from the wind, away from it all.

Eating at Curral do Burro requires making reservations in advance by sending a Facebook message to Moínho de Avis, click here for the link.

 

 

Our daily bread

Pão de Barbela

We came home from Moínho de Avis with a precious bag of barbela wheat flour milled by Miguel Nobre. This type of flour was widely used until the 1930s, when it was replaced by the bland white flours we all know.

Barbela wheat, brought to Portugal by the Arabs in the 7th century, almost vanished from our soils. It was saved from extinction by João Vieira, a farmer from Cadaval who spent 15 years multiplying the seeds so he could share them with other farmers.

The barbela flour from Moínho de Avis blended easily with our sourdough starter to form a mixture called the levain. We left it resting and then added salt, water and more flour. Then came the time for the ancient rituals of bread making: kneading, stretching and folding. The bread went into the oven and soon its aroma filled our kitchen.

One hour later, the loaf was ready. Its taste was intense–this bread shines on its own without any butter or cheese. We gave some slices to our favorite vegetables vendor in the farmer market. Her eyes filled with tears. “It tastes like my mother’s bread,” she explained. “It brings back memories of my childhood when all the neighbors baked bread at home with their own sourdough starter. Each starter had a different personality, so each family’s bread had a distinct taste.”

We kept making barbela bread throughout the Summer for it was hard to resist loafs that are so full of taste, nutrition and personality.

A master miller

Miguel Nobre

It’s not every day we meet a miller. It was once a common profession when every elevation had its windmill. Serra de Montejunto, a mountain that crosses the Cadaval and Alenquer counties, used to have the largest concentration of windmills in the Iberian peninsula. Today, only one working mill remains—Moínho de Avis. It was there that we met our miller, Miguel Nobre.

Miguel speaks with a cadence that makes everything he says sound like poetry. He has a lot of wisdom to share. “I am fascinated by the idea of bringing back the ancient grains, the old ways of making flour. It is my way of traveling back in time,” he told us.

His windmill dates back to 1810 but lingered in ruins for many years until he restored it in 2008. Miguel was a carpenter until he fell in love with windmills. He started restoring them, first as a hobby and later as a full-time occupation. He has restored windmills all over Portugal but takes special pride in Moínho de Avis. It is a beautiful windmill. Miguel shows us the ingenious gears that rotate the sails towards the wind. The small windows offer expansive views of the mountain and the sea.

With his son Luís, Miguel is bringing back the old wheats that are full of nutrition and flavor: barbela, nabão and preto amarelo. “These stones have never milled modern grains so they have no trace of pesticides. My wheats are certified as biological, not by the government but by nature, come see.” He places a handful of barbela grains at the entrance of the mill. Soon, an army of ants arrives to cart away this loot. “The ants avoid grains that have pesticides, but they love these ancient wheats,” Miguel says. “I am also starting to find more and more lady bugs on the wheat fields, they had vanished from this region but they are coming back to my fields.” Miguel likes to plant his wheat in southern-facing slopes protected from northern winds that are likely to be tainted with pesticides.

We stepped outside to hear the sound of the clay pots attached to the sails. Each is tuned to a note in the key of C major. “These pots are our weather report system,” says Miguel. “They sound different when the air is humid, so they warn us when it is going to rain. We also need to be aware of time. Millers do not use a watch to tell time. The sun is our clock. When it touches the horizon, it is time to stow away the sails.”

We bought a couple of bags of barbela wheat and promised to send Miguel some photos of the breads we were planning to make. We didn’t imagine that we would keep coming back throughout the Summer, to get more flour and wisdom from Miguel Nobre, the master miller.

You can hear the sound of the windmill beautifully recorded by Pedro Rebelo. Pedro is a Portuguese composer, sound artist and performer, working primarily in chamber music, improvisation and installation with new technologies. To learn more about his wonderfully original work click here.

 

The Dão wine region

Dão

The Dão river lends its name to one of the most important wine regions in Portugal. Demarcated in 1908, it has granitic soils and remarkable indigenous varietals like the red Touriga Nacional and the white Encruzado.

Dão wines are full of character, much like the people who live in this area. They can be brash when they’re young, but they age beautifully, acquiring elegance and complexity.

It is not unusual to find Dão wines that keep improving for several decades. The legendary 1964 vintage is a great example of this longevity.

Some say that the least happy people in heaven come from the Dão region. For they regret having left behind a few great bottles of wine.

Dining with the minister at Campo Maior

Taberna O Ministro

We strolled around in Campo Maior, a small town in Alentejo close to the border with Spain, looking for a place for lunch. We noticed a tavern called O Ministro (the minister) which was full of locals. There was a bottle of Caiado–the wonderful entry wine from Adega Mayor—on every table. Encouraged by these favorable omens, we decided to enter.

Traditional music played in the background, mostly fado tunes about the travails of love and the fickleness of life. Every now and then, a folk song from Alentejo came on and the locals raised their voices to sing along.

A plate with codfish cakes, slices of sausage, and green olives arrived at the table. We ordered “migas” made with bread and turnips and fried cação, a small shark that somehow manages to swim from the coast to the menus of Alentejo. We also ordered “carne do alguidar,” marinated pork loin. We were astonished by the quality of everything that came to the table. It was delicious and deeply satisfying food, with a perfect sense of time and place.

João Paulo Borrega, the chef and owner of this magical restaurant came out of the kitchen, and stoped by each table to ask whether people liked his food. “The food is fantastic,” we told him. “Can we make reservations for dinner and arrive a little early to talk to you?” Sure, he said with a bemused smile.

Late in the afternoon, he sat down to talk with us. Like most Alentejo cooks, he learned cooking from his mother and grandmother. His restaurant opened in 1989 and has changed location over the years. It is named after João Paulo’s father, a man whose role in the revolutionary days after April 1974 earned him the nickname “the minister.”

João Paulo tells us that the current restaurant location is ideal. “I want to cook by myself, and this space has the maximum number of tables I can comfortably handle.” He talks enthusiastically about his favorite recipes: fried rabbit, toasted chicken, chickpea soup, and ensopado de borrego (lamb stew).

“Why does your food taste so good?,” we asked. “I am going to show you my secret,” he said, inviting us into the small kitchen. He pointed to an old, tiny refrigerator. “Everything I use I buy fresh every day. That is why I have no freezer, just this small refrigerator. At the end of the day I give away any leftovers to my friends. The next day I start everything from scratch. Meats, fish, vegetables, herbs, sauces, everything has to be fresh.”

All his products are local and seasonal, produced by people he knows. He rattled off the names of the friends who supply him: the olive-oil maker, the farmer who plants the potatoes and onions, the person who chooses ripe melons for his table; the list goes on. The quality of his sourcing would make many three-star chefs envious.

João Paulo talks with great knowledge about the details of the different recipes and the properties of various herbs and spices. “People often use too much laurel. That is a mistake,” he says. “Laurel is very powerful and can overwhelm other ingredients.” “The cuisine of Alentejo does not require much fussing around,” he explains. “But the ingredients need to be first rate and the last flourishes before the dish is brought to the table have to be perfect. Some dishes are finished with white wine, others with vinegar, herbs play a key role.”

We sat down for a wonderful dinner. It started with toasted chicken perfumed with vinegar and prepared with olive oil, garlic and parsley. Then came a steaming chickpea soup with Alentejo sausages, Savoy cabbage, carrots, and mint. Next, we tried the fried rabbit. The meat had been  marinated with rosemary, thyme, pepper, white and red wine. Then it was stewed to perfection in a large iron-cast pan with olive oil, garlic, and some more wine. Delicious slices of ripe melon brought this memorable meal to a sweet finale.

No matter how much you travel, it is hard to find food that is as simply satisfying as the one served in this little tavern in Alentejo. If you have a chance, come to Campo Maior to dine with the minister.

Taberna O Ministro is located at Travessa dos Combatentes da Grande Guerra
Campo Maior, Portalegre, tel. 351-965-421-326.