Three lessons at Quinta de Vargellas

Quinta de Vagellas

It is easy to arrive at Quinta de Vargellas because this heavenly wine estate in the Douro valley has its own train station. The old carriages stop there with a screech, huffing exhausted from racing with the river waters. It is then up to the guests to walk up the granite steps that lead to the manor house.

We sat in the porch, mesmerized by the schist terraces built by generations of workers to create the perfect environment for the exuberant vines. It was here that we learned our first lesson: that the greatest beauty is created by man in harmony with nature.

Our second lesson, was about the importance of generosity. David Guimaraens, the head winemaker of Taylor’s Fladgate, Fonseca and Croft has a very busy schedule. But he takes time to share the magic of Vargellas with his guests. He explained to us the uniqueness of the terroir and described the vines as if they were his children. We drank his words and saw the brilliance of the vineyards through his eyes, green like the Douro river.

The grapes from the quinta are used to make the famed Quinta de Vargellas Vintage and form the base of the great Taylor Vintage Ports. We walked down to the cellar to sample the port made in 2018, which is still full of vigor but promises to age gracefully.

David discussed some of the intricacies of port-wine making and told us about the new vines he is planting so that his children can continue to produce great ports.  It takes 10 years for new vines to produce usable grapes. Between ages 10 and 20, the vines are adolescents, they have some good years but are moody and inconsistent. From ages 20 to 40, they mature and acquire consistency. From ages 40 to 60, the yields are low but the quality is great. Beyond 60 years, production dwindles but the few grapes that grow are drenched with wisdom.

A lifetime is too short to plant the vines and gather the knowledge required to produce great port. And so, we learned our third lesson: life is a relay race. We have to learn  from our ancestors and add to that learning to sow the seeds of the future.

It was hard to leave Quinta de Vargellas. But the memories of our visit stay with us. And from now on, every sip of the quinta’s holly wines will take us back to this paradise in the Douro valley.

Click here to see the Quinta de Vargellas web page.

Repentina

repentina Composit

Several people recommended that we try Repentina, a humble tasca in Poiares famous for its baby goat roasted in a wood-fired oven. Its name is a twist on the word “repente” which means in a flash. We first visited the restaurant last year. When the waiter brought the menu, we said we didn’t need it, we wanted to try their famous roasted goat. Incredulous, the waiter explained that “If you want to eat baby goat, you have to call us a day ahead and reserve the order. We only roast enough meat for the people who reserved it.” Well, no wonder the locals like say that nothing is easy in the Douro valley. Disappointed, we ordered a large beef cutlet that arrived perfectly grilled accompanied by salad and a delicious tomato rice.

This year, we made sure to call ahead to secure our roasted goat servings. We were told that the best time to show up is at 1:00 pm, just as the roast comes out of the wood ovens.

We arrived at the appointed hour and sat in the dining room overlooking the Douro valley. The air was filled with enticing aromas that heralded the arrival of the roast to the table. The taste is indeed exceptional, which explains why this place in the middle of nowhere attracts so many customers.

The restaurant is run by the Cunha family. Fernando who is 82, still operates the ovens. His wife Soledade runs the kitchen together with her daughter Ana Paula. Their son Fernando junior runs the restaurant.

I asked Fernando Cunha what is the alchemy that produces such satisfying flavors. He told us that “You have to get the best ingredients, the goats have to be small and tender, the wood for the fire has to produce the right temperature, the seasoning has to be harmonious and fresh. All the details are important. Our name may be Repentina but we do not cook in a flash. We do everything slowly so we get it right.”

Hotel Convento do Salvador

Convento do Salvador Composit-2

One of the best-kept secrets in Lisbon is a hotel called Convento do Salvador. It is run by a non-profit association that charges modest prices for 43 very comfortable rooms. The location is fantastic, right in the middle of Alfama, the neighborhood around St. Jorge’s castle.

The hotel occupies the site of one of the oldest convents in Lisbon, Convento do Salvador, built in 1392. We know a lot about the convent thanks to a book published by one of its abbesses, Maria Batista, in 1618.

Maria describes the convent as a place where you can “flee from the dangers and labyrinths of the world,” and live a simple life. She tells us with pride that it was here that a princess came to find peace. In 1460, princess Dona Catarina, the daughter of queen Dona Leonor, came to live in the convent after the prince to whom she was engaged died prematurely.

Much has changed about this place, but it is still offers peace and simplicity. The hotel is decorated with minimalist furniture and contemporary art. The spacious patio offers a great place to relax when the weather is warm. Most rooms overlook the patio but some offer the only luxury that the nuns enjoyed: a view of the orange rooftops framing the blue waters of the Tagus river.

Hotel Convento do Salvador is located at Rua do Salvador, 2B in Lisbon, tel. 218 872 565, email hotel@conventosalvador.pt. Click here for the hotel’s website.

A glass of Jampal wine?

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André Manz, a Brazilian soccer player turned entrepreneur, was searching for a place to build offices on the outskirts of Lisbon. He liked a small village near Mafra called Cheleiros. There, he bought the Orchard of the Holy Spirit (Pomar do Espírito Santo), named for its proximity to the Holy Spirit chapel. His wife Margarida fell in love with the orchard and convinced André to use it to build their home and locate the offices elsewhere.

When they moved to Cheleiros, an elderly lady called Dona Celeste told André that in the old days everybody in the village made their own wine. There were 43 wine presses in a village with only 800 people. André said that it would be cool to produce wine and Dona Celeste seized the opportunity to sell him her abandoned vineyard.

When enologists came to study the old vines, they concluded that the red grapes were “castelão” but they couldn’t identify the white grapes. André told Dona Celeste about their difficulties and she replied “Young people don’t know anything! Those grapes are jampal.” This is a grape varietal that was considered extinct. It produces small grapes so, in years gone by when quantity trumped quality, farmers replaced it with higher-yielding varietals. The wine institute sent technicians to certify that the grapes are indeed jampal and André became the world’s sole producer of jampal wine.

In the first few years, André bottled the wine in plain bottles. He gave a few to his friends and consumed the rest in his household. On the occasion of an important lunch, André decided to put some labels on the wine. He called it Dona Fátima, the name of his mother in law. When the bottles arrived at the table, Dona Fátima was delighted. “Why did you name the wine after me?” she asked André with curiosity. “Because of its acidity,” quipped André.

When Julia Harding and Jancis Robinson were working on their book, The World of Grapes, they contacted André to see if they could get a bottle of jampal wine. They liked it so much that they included it in their selection of the 50 best Portuguese wines.

Since then, it has become very hard to buy one of the 6,000 bottles of Dona Fátima produced every year.  If you see one in a wine store make sure you get it. If not, drive to the village of Cheleiros, to try one of the world’s most unique wines.

Click here for Manzwine’s web site.

 

Eating well for less in Portugal

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We get asked so often about the dos and don’ts of eating in Portuguese restaurants that we decided to compile a few tips. Here they are.

When you seat at a table, the waiter brings a basket of bread, butter and olives. These items are called the “couvert.” Simple couverts usually cost a couple of euros. Some restaurants bring more elaborate (and more expensive) couverts,  including items such as cheese, prosciutto, and codfish cakes. If you try one of these items, you’ll often pay for the whole couvert. You can always send the couvert back if you don’t want to pay for it.

The markup on wine in Portuguese restaurants is generally lower than in the U.S. or France. So, it is often affordable to choose a great wine to complement the meal. If you describe the style of wine you enjoy, the waiters can generally make good suggestions. House wines are typically inexpensive, ranging from drinkable to surprisingly good. You can ask to sample the house wine before ordering it.

It is a great idea to share main courses. Portions in traditional restaurants are generally large. Some restaurants prepare half portions, but even these halfs can be sizable. We prefer a multicolored meal to a single monochromatic dish, so we often choose a few main courses to share and ask the waiter to bring them out sequentially. It makes for a much more interesting meal.

Portuguese restaurants don’t serve tap water, only bottled spring water. The good news is that spring-water quality is high and prices are low. You can choose room temperature or cold but ice cubes are not normally used with water.

Fish is served on the bone with the head included. If the fish is large, you might be able to ask the waiter to fillet it for you. If you don’t see the price of a fish dish on the menu, it means that the fish is sold by weight. You can choose a fish that suits your preferences and ask the waiter to weigh it so you know its cost before ordering it.

The Portuguese use different forks and knifes for fish and meat. It is an elegant custom and fish does taste better when eaten with the proper utensils.

If you’re a strict vegetarian, always ask whether the food was prepared with meat products. Vegetable soups are seldom good vegetarian choices because they are often made with chicken stock, sausage or lard. The best bets are salads and vegetable sides.

Espresso is good and cheap. The Portuguese are addicted to high-quality espresso, so  restaurants with lousy coffee are ostracized.

Restaurant waiters earn a fixed salary, so Portuguese leave very modest tips: two or three euros for a normal meal, five euros for exceptional service or for a meal in a fancy restaurant.

If you don’t know what to choose, it is a good idea to ask waiters for advice. If you ask for  the best dishes on the menu, you’re likely to hear that everything on the menu is good. A better way to gather information is to ask what are the waiter’s favorite dishes or which menu offerings are most popular.

That’s it, just bring an appetite, the willingness to try something new, and a great time is guaranteed for all.

DOC

DOC Composit

DOC is a restaurant sited on a dock on the Douro river. With chef Rui Paula at the helm, DOC takes us on a culinary journey of aromas and flavors that harmonize with the wines of the Douro valley.

The menu has a lot of fun starters, ranging from an intense oxtail with carrot to a delicate octopus carpaccio with pomegranate. Main courses include appetizing fish and seafood rices and classics of Portuguese cuisine like codfish with corn bread, a fish stew called caldeirada, and roasted baby goat.

The dessert list offers a sampling of many miniature desserts. Our favorite is a crispy crêpe filled with crème brûlée.

The presentations are beautiful and the food is prepared with great technical skill. The role of modern cooking techniques is not to surprise or shock but to refine and enhance the traditional flavors of Portuguese gastronomy. It is this approach that makes the cuisine of Rui Paula so deliciously unique.

A trip to the Douro valley is not complete without a pilgrimage to DOC, a temple of Portuguese food on the shores of the Douro river.

DOC is located on Estrada Nacional 222, Armamar, tel. 254 858 123. Click here for the restaurant’s web site.

Mindful coffee from Flor da Selva

Flor da Selva Composit

Most cups of coffee are drank in a hurry. They’re just a flash of bitterness and a shot of caffeine. Flor da Selva (jungle flower), the coffee produced by the last traditional roaster in Lisbon, is a gateway to a very different experience. This is coffee made to be savored mindfully.

We spent a delightful afternoon with Francisco Monteiro at Flor da Selva’s roasting workshop in the Madragoa neighborhood. His family’s company, founded in 1950, has preserved the secrets of the traditional roasting processes abandoned by most producers. They source green coffee beans directly from the best plantations around the world and roast them gently with oak fire wood. The coffee acquires a round, harmonious taste that contrasts with the metallic tang often associated with gas roasting. Our visit helped us rediscover the taste, aroma, and mystery of coffee.

We took several Flor da Selva blends of Arábica and Robusta beans to try at home. Preparing the coffee is a ritual that deepens the appreciation for this fine beverage. We like to brew Flor da Selva with the pour-over method, using a filter that ensures that the water is in contact with the coffee for the time necessary to soak up all the flavor from the beans.

First, we weight 29 grams for two cups. Then, we grind it finely, but not as finely as if we were making espresso, otherwise the water takes too long to pour through. We heat  filtered water at 205 Fahrenheit and pour it slowly over the grinds. The air fills with delicate aromas. Then a thick, golden foam develops (if the foam is thin and white, the coffee is too weak). Finally, we heat the cups with hot water, discard the water and pour the coffee. We drink it slowly, enjoying its lush, exotic taste. And we smile.

Flor da Selva is located at Travessa do Pasteleiro, 32 Lisbon, tel. 213 967 166, email info@florselva.com. Click here for their website.