Making Alenquer a food destination

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In the 19th century, Alenquer was one of Portugal’s premier wine regions. Its fortunes waned for much of the 20th century. But the tide turned and Alenquer rightly regained its status as a prized wine destination. A young chef called João Simões wants to help Alenquer become a food destination as well.

João apprenticed at the Ritz and worked in many posh hotels and restaurants. Three years ago, he decided to return to his roots to recover and renew the culinary traditions of the region where he was born. He uses local products like quails and Rocha pears and works with farmers on projects like producing goat cheese in the Montejunto mountain. His restaurant is called Casta 85. Casta means varietal, a reference to the region’s wine tradition. The number 85 refers to the chef’s birth year.

The dining room is decorated with furniture procured in the chef’s village. It is a pleasant space that overlooks the Alenquer river. This tributary of the Tagus flows proudly through town, reveling from the praise it received in Luis Vaz de Camões’ epic poem, the Lusíadas.

Casta 85’s service is relaxed and attentive. Ana Santana, our genial server, met the chef when they both played in a brass band. The chef’s old instrument is now part of the decoration and some of the band’s brashness inspires the intense, harmonious food.

We tried appetizing alheira croquettes with apple sauce and crisp green bean tempura with garlic mayonnaise. Next, came a delicious quail Brás style served with a quail egg, fried onion and cassava chips. Our meal ended with a luscious duck leg served over a risotto of mushrooms and asparagus.

We returned from Alenquer through a scenic road that took us though countless vineyards. We can’t wait to go back to visit the wine quintas and have another great lunch at Casta 85!

Casta 85 is located at Largo do Espírito Santo, 31 in Alenquer, tel. 915 761 911.

A joyous view

Vista Alegre-Montebelo

In the early 19th century, Portugal’s royal family and nobility served their meals on expensive porcelain imported from China. José Pinto Bastos, an entrepreneur,  saw in this fashion a business opportunity: he decided to produce porcelain in Portugal. It was a risky venture because the process for porcelain production was a closely guarded secret. So, Pinto Bastos started by making glass and crystal to finance his porcelain experiments.

He found the name of his brand and the perfect location for his factory on a hill near Ilhavo that overlooks the “ria,” an elongated body of water where fresh water mixes with salty water. On top of the hill there’s a beautiful church built in 1696 by a bishop who liked the location because of its “vista alegre” (joyous view).

In 1824, Pinto Bastos built a house adjacent to the chapel and a factory called Vista Alegre. There, he started to unravel the secrets of porcelain making. A team of workers labored day and night to feed large ovens with coal or wood so they could burn at 1,400 degrees Celsius for 40 hours in a row.

After much trial and error, a few pieces of porcelain were finally produced. But these pieces had a light gray color which was much less attractive than the pure white of Chinese porcelain.  Out of desperation, Pinto Bastos sent his son to Sèvres, the famous French porcelain factory, to ask for technical assistance. The young man came back with bad news: porcelain production requires a rare mineral rock called kaolin. Pinto Bastos was not deterred, he searched all over Portugal for this precious rock. Eventually, he found a large deposit a mere 20 km from his factory.

By 1835 Vista Alegre was producing excellent porcelain. Over the years, it became one of Portugal’s most cherished brands and a very successful business.

When, after a long sleep, China woke up to the world in the late 20th century, it flooded the market with cheap porcelain. Vista Alegre had trouble competing and for a while it looked like Portugal would, once again, buy all its porcelain from China. But Vista Alegre found new owners who modernized its factories. They also built a new hotel around the original Pinto Bastos family home, an interesting museum that traces the history of Vista Alegre, and stores where visitors can buy the company’s products.

The new wing of the hotel overlooks the “ria” and the old Pinto Bastos house was converted into elegant suites. It is a thrill to stay in this porcelain palace and enjoy its joyous view.

Click here for the website of the Montebelo Vista Alegre hotel. 

Mugasa

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Bairrada is a region in the center of Portugal known for its refreshing sparkling wine and its “leitão” (roasted piglet). The best leitão in Bairrada comes from a restaurant called Mugasa located in the middle of nowhere in a small village called Fogueira.

The restaurant’s owner, Álvaro Nogueira, retired from a desk job and opened a small café in 1981. He wanted to learn the art of roasting piglets to turn his café into a restaurant. But the learning curve was steep until one of his cousins, a master roaster, offered to teach him.

After this jump start, Álvaro kept perfecting his art. In 1991, he entered a competition organized by a gastronomic society and won first prize.

“Why is roasting so difficult?” we asked Álvaro. ” Every pig is different, with a different size and fat content. We use six wood-fired ovens and every oven is different. We have to make constant adjustments to guarantee perfection. That is why we only roast four piglets per oven, to have time to make all the necessary adjustments.”

“In the first 20 minutes, the oven has to be very hot, between 280 and 300 degree Celsius to make the outside crunchy. Then we cover the wood with ashes to bring down the temperature. There are many details so we have to pay close attention. The traditional seasoning made with garlic, lard, white pepper, and salt is important but you cannot use it to cover up mistakes.”

We sat at the table to try Mugasa’s leitão. It is indeed remarkable, crunchy on the outside, succulent on the inside, with just enough seasoning to accentuate the taste of the meat.

Álvaro is very proud of the celebrities that drive to Fogueira just to eat at his restaurant. But he is even more proud of his son Ricardo. “My son is the best master roaster in Portugal,” Álvaro said smiling. “He learned my secrets and discovered new ones.”

Many Bairrada wine makers eat regularly at Mugasa, so you often overhear discussions about weather conditions and grape maturation. The restaurant offers some of the best wines from these producers at very attractive prices.

The formula for Mugasa’s success is easy to write down but hard to replicate: amazing leitão plus great Bairrada wine = unforgettable meals.

Mugasa is located at Largo da Feira, Fogueira, Aveiro, tel. 234 741 061

 

A bread revolution

Composit GlebaDiogo Amorim was working as a chef at the famous Fat Duck when Heston Blumenthal, the restaurant’s head chef, decided to improve the bread they serve. Diogo liked the project so much that he decided to return to Portugal to research Portuguese bread. He traveled from north to south in search of old grains that have low yields and no gluten but are rich in flavor and nutrients. He studied how old windmills used to process these grains to make superior flours.

In a small village, he found a pair of extraordinary mill stones from La Ferté-sous-Jouarre, a region of France renowned for the quality of its mill stones. Diogo brought the stones to Lisbon, so that he could mill the grains only a few hours before baking to obtain more flavor and freshness. He convinced a few farmers to supply him with old grains and opened a bakery called Gleba.

Diogo bakes four times a day two sourdough breads (barbela wheat and rye) and a white corn bread called “broa”. Every day, he makes special editions, like wheat bread with dried figs and cinnamon or rye with galega olive paste from Alentejo.

There’s a steady stream of customers coming into the bakery. Diogo takes time to talk to all of them and smiles with pride when they praise his creations: “your bread is a revelation,” “your “broa” tastes like the one my grandmother used to make,” “I haven’t tasted bread this good since my childhood.”

Diogo Amorim is starting a bread revolution and the people of Lisbon are rising to support him.

Gleba is located on Rua Prior Crato, nº 16 in Lisbon, tel. 966 064 697. Click here for the bakery’s web site,

 

 

 

Wine & Soul

Wine & SoulJorge Serôdio is an enologist who belongs to the 5th generation of a family of Douro wine makers. In 2001, he married Sandra Tavares da Silva, a fellow enologist. The new couple decided to celebrate their wedding by making a wine together. They called their project Wine & Soul.

Jorge and Sandra found the perfect vineyard in the Douro valley. Its vines were planted about 85 years ago on a steep incline at high altitude in schist soil that makes the vines struggle to produce small grapes full of flavor. The owner of the vineyard used to sell his grapes to port wine producers, but he was charmed by the young couple and agreed to sell the grapes to them.

The two enologists watched carefully every step of the production process from harvest to bottle. They made the wine with traditional methods, treading the grapes by foot in granite tanks to avoid breaking the pits.

Jorge and Sandra liked their wine so much that they decided to make a purchase offer to the vineyard owner. Perhaps thinking that the offer price was inflated by the couple’s youthful enthusiasm, the owner accepted it.

In a gesture of irreverence, the two enologists named the wine after their dog, Pintas. Soon after it was released in 2003, Pintas became a symbol of a new era for the Douro valley. An era in which young wine makers produce superb table wines from grapes traditionally reserved for port production.

Another dog, Guru, provided the name for a brilliant white wine first released in 2004.  It is inspired by the great whites of Burgundy. But, like Pintas, it is made only with indigenous varietals (Códega do Larinho, Gouveio, Rabigato, and Viosinho) that give the wine a distinct flavor and aroma.

In 2008, Jorge inherited Quinta da Manoella, a wine estate established in 1838. It has been hard work to improve the quality of these old vines. The steep terrain makes mechanization impossible so, like in Roman times, the work is manual and the land is tilled by horse-drawn ploughs. But the results are extraordinary, every time these wines grace our table, our meals turn into a celebration.

In 2014, Wine Spectator awarded Pintas’ 2011 vintage 98 points. It is a score rarely given, the highest ever awarded by the magazine to a Portuguese table wine. This success doesn’t surprise us because Jorge and Sandra make their wines with two unique ingredients: love and the grapes of the Douro valley.

A visit to Wine & Soul is a wonderful way to experience the beauty of the Douro Valley. Click here for more information about how to book a visit.

 

Sweet secrets

Ovos Moles

“I’ll take you there,” our friend promised. He dialed a number on his cell phone and asked “Can you show us what we want to see?” The answer was positive so we got into his car and he drove us to the outskirts of Aveiro.

We stopped outside an ordinary building, walked to the back door and rang twice.  Rosa Líria Soares opened the door. She greeted us with a welcoming smile, even though it was Sunday and she had been working since 6:00 am. Rosa is a legendary producer of “ovos moles,” an Aveiro delicacy.

It all started thirty years ago when a pastry store closed and the owners offered Rosa their equipment and recipes. She began making “ovos moles” and soon it became her full-time occupation.

We asked whether she would show us the secretive production process. She said yes, she would show us everything except how to combine fresh egg yolks, sugar and water to make the filling. “I won’t share that secret with anyone,” she said. “What if we promise not to tell?” we insisted. “The answer is still no,” she replied.

Rosa buys molded sheets with shells, whelks, sardines, and other designs from one of two producers in Aveiro. The sheets are made with the same wafers used for holy communion. Rosa fills two identical molds with her prized egg filling and moists the edges with water. The wafers are then placed inside a wooden mold and pressed together until the two pieces are glued.

Rosa’s husband, Henrique Carmona, arrived from their shop, Moliceiro dos Sabores, in downtown Aveiro. He told us with pride about all the awards that Rosa has won over the years.

Rosa offered us some freshly made “ovos moles.” “They keep for two weeks but they taste best in the first five days. And if you can try then like this, freshly made, they are even better.”

The crunchy wafer and the soft filling combined in our mouth and we stood there in silence savoring this lavish moment. “You didn’t like them?” Rosa asked. We explained that we couldn’t find words to describe these “ovos moles,” the very best we ever had.

“We dream about coming for a couple of weeks to apprentice with you, because something as sublime as these sweets needs to be passed on to future generations. Will you consider it?” Rosa took time to answer. And then she said “maybe.” We left with our palates full of sweetness and our hearts full of hope.

You can try the divine ovos moles made by Rosa Líria Soares at her store Moliceiro dos Sabores located on Rua dos Mercadores 4, Aveiro, tel. 234 421 776.

 

Belcanto

Composit Bel Canto

Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Belcanto, the most celebrated restaurant in Lisbon, is close to the São Carlos opera house. Decorated with whimsical porcelain plates, the restaurant looks like a stage and its meals are as thrilling as a great opera performance.

Our lunch’s overture was composed of small bites often included in the couvert of traditional restaurants:  tremoços (lupini beans), olives, and a carrot and garlic salad. The presentation was unusual–they were served on top of Portuguese cobblestones. But the real surprise was that they all turned liquid once we bit into them, filling our mouth with explosions of flavor. This culinary prelude was accompanied by Vicentino, a wine from Zambujeira do Mar that left our paletes refreshed with hints of green pepper.

There were more surprises. First, a fake edible stone covered with salmon caviar. Then, crispy chicken skin with corn coriander and liver, a combination that tastes like roasted chicken. Next, a delicious algae cornet filled with tuna served inside a flower pot.

A genial waiter introduced a chorus of breads made from corn, buckwheat, quinoa, and puff pastry. Next came a duet for clams and “lingueirão” (razor clams) accompanied by a 1979 Porta dos Cavaleiros, a velvety red wine from the Dão region produced in the birth year of chef Avillez.

Then the arias started. The first was a Golden Egg–an egg cooked at a low temperature, covered with gold leaf and adorned with threads of fried leek. It arrived with a lively Arinto white wine made by António Maçanita in Pico, a volcanic island in the Azores archipelago.

The second aria was called Ocean Dive: a pristine sea bass (robalo) cooked in sea water with seaweed, “salicórnia” (samphire), razor clams, and mussels. We were still savoring the final chords of this crowd pleaser when a new theme was introduced: a flavorful remake of the bucolic “cozido” that the chef’s grandmother used to prepare with boiled meats and cabbage. It came with a vigorous 2012 Bruto from the Douro region.

The performance reached its climax with another traditional recipe reinvented: the roasted piglet from Bairrada. We don’t know what culinary sorcery was used to produce this perfect combination of crispy skin and juicy roasted meat. All we can tell you is that the result is magical.

A new theme was introduced by a duo of pre-desserts: a raspberry sorbet and an “abade de priscos” pudding. They were followed by a tangerine dream made from frozen juice and filed with tangerine sorbet. Vila Oeira, a rare dessert wine from Carcavelos harmonized with these sweet delights. Coffee and mignardises brought our meal to a blissful finale.

You have to be patient to dine at Belcanto. The restaurant is booked for weeks in advance. But it’s worth the wait to experience such an unforgettable culinary performance.

Belcanto is located at Largo do São Carlos in Lisbon, tel. 21-342-0607.