Sweet Baby Cheeses

One thing I am definitely going to miss about living in Portugal is the cheese. It is so good I decided it needs its very own blog post as a dedication of my love. I’ve tasted many cheeses but this one is by far the best. It’s a semi-hard goats cheese from the Serra da Estrela region of Portugal, near Filipa’s village. I have had to restrain myself from eating it every day on toast for breakfast (like Filipa does). It’s been hard but with 9 days to go until we leave Portugal for a while, I’m not holding back!

The flavour of this cheese is strong but not overpowering or too tangy like some goats cheeses can be. It’s a semi-hard cheese yet it’s so deliciously creamy at the same time.

Better still is the discovery of the combination of strong black coffee with cheese. O.M.G. When Filipa first mentioned it, I baulked and thought that it didn’t really sound that appealing but after tasting this combination, it really is a match made in heaven. You have to try it. The coffee and the cheese flavours compliment each other perfectly. Forget red wine – cheese and coffee were meant to be together. Am I the last person on earth to know about this?

I can’t end this post without mentioning the breads here either. Of course, bread or pão is a staple food of Portugal. It is the heart of Portuguese cuisine. One type of bread is broa or corn bread. It has a thick crunchy crust with a dense but moist interior and obviously is made from corn. I also love the soft, light and airy breads with their crunchy crusts. I also love the small vans that drive around the villages every day selling their warm loaves from the back of the van. Nothing beats warm bread.

Corn bread on the left

In Seia, near Filipa’s village, there is a large museum devoted entirely to pão. Inside the museum you will discover how the different breads are made, the cycle of bread from the land to the oven, information about the milling process, the history of bread in Portugal and bakeries from the old times. For bread lovers, this place is a must see!

Ahhh Portugal, I love you and I’m going to miss you….but for the sake of my waistline I must leave you….but only for a while.

Deck the Halls

Christmas in Portugal is not too different than ours in Australia, but obviously it’s a lot colder, being winter in the northern hemisphere. There are some slight differences but above all Christmas here is about family, friends, food, religion, giving and receiving.

In every household, in the streets, schools and shopping malls are very elaborate presépio’s (nativity scenes). Some of them are even life-size. My favourite little presépio that I saw in the lead up to Christmas was in a town in the Algarve inside an Italian restaurant. This presépio also had its own pizzeria, which the three wise men were just leaving from!

You also see a lot of climbing Santa’s throughout Portugal. These little red and white guys can be spotted hanging out windows, chimney’s, off rooftops, restaurant signs – I swear they are everywhere! But in contrast, Santa is not the star of the show here and children are brought up to believe that the baby Jesus brought the presents (not literally but figuratively in the story of Christmas). Santa is treated more in good humour. Children in Portugal generally do not think that a fat guy in a red and white suit bought them a stack of presents…which makes sense in this country where Catholics make up 85% of the population.

Traditionally, the most important get-together is Christmas eve. We spent most of the afternoon helping Filipa’s aunty prepare for the feast that night; preparing the table, chopping vegetables, peeling chestnuts and doing last minute things. The gathering was slightly smaller this year due to some of the family spending Christmas with their husbands/wives families but nonetheless we still had around 24 people for dinner that night. Traditionally, codfish (bacalhau) is always eaten with cabbage on Christmas eve. There was also a dish of beef with chestnuts as well, plus cheeses, chouriços and don’t forget the home made wines and a whole table-load of desserts.

After the meal, we headed to the centre of the village where every year there is a huge bonfire. It was very welcome as temperatures were down to about -1 degree that night. We stood around the bonfire for a while and then we headed back to the house for the giving of gifts at midnight.

The Christmas tree was overflowing with a sea of presents underneath. Filipa’s cousin Pedro played ‘Santa’ with the help of two other little cousins, Clarisse (10) and Joana (8) as helpful elves, delivering the presents as they were called out. But Joana really wanted to be Santa (see below).

     

This was an unwrapping, hugging and kissing frenzy which went on for about an hour, leaving everyone with smiles and mountains of wrapping paper. After this, it’s tradition for Zé, one of Filipa’s unclesto cook his prawns. Trays and trays of prawns came out and Christmas wrapped up around 2.00am. Well, we kind of rolled home.

Half of the family went to Mass on Christmas morning (we were still sleeping…guilty!) and then we all met for Christmas lunch – a big roast turkey, with stuffing inside and also a roasted goat with potatoes, garlic, herbs and chilli. More wine, more desserts! I must confess I am a huge fan of goat after living here for almost 6 months. And the turkey was divine too, always served with orange.

We spent the days after Christmas just hanging out in the village and doing some small trips to places nearby. Not far from Barriosa is the cutest traditional village I have ever seen called Piódão. Just over 200 people live there. Forty years ago, this little village was only reachable on horseback or foot! It is unique in that all the houses are still made traditionally from a beautiful grey stone and slate.

First view of Piódão village

Filipa lived here when she was about 6 years old as her mother taught at the school for a year. She had to walk almost to where I took this photo from, sometimes twice a day (home for lunch) in rain, snow, mud or sunshine.

I loved it. We walked through the tiny streets and admired the stonework and gorgeous doorways. The village clings to the beautiful remote ridge and there is a rushing river that passes alongside the town with the perfect swimming hole for summer. Crosses above some of the doors are said to protect the occupants from curses and thunderstorms.

            

Another one!!

Filipa’s village is also about 45 minutes drive away from Portugal’s highest mountain (on the mainland) called Torre. It’s 1,993 metres high but the highest mountain in Portugal is actually on the island of Azores called Pico, at 2,351 metres. There is a small ski field on the top of Torre with three lifts and some modest beginners slopes. We went right to the top and only lasted about 10 minutes outside the car due to the windchill. Usually at this time of year though the mountain is covered in snow but this year there was just a spattering, only enough for some very enthusiastic beginners and tobogganists.

The top!

The two towers on top of Torre round up the mountain to 2,000 metres.

Apart from missing my own family, it was a brilliant festive season with Filipa’s family. It was everything that Christmas should be about – LOVE!

The Beautiful South

Before I blog about Christmas and New Year, I just want to tell you about a 5-day road trip we did just a few weeks before the festive season – a little Christmas present to ourselves. We decided to head south to the Algarve on Portugal’s south coast. To get there we traveled through the Alentejo region, renowned for some of Portugal’s best wines. Alentejo is also regularly called the ‘Tuscany of Portugal’. It is Portugal’s largest region – think rolling hills, grapevines, cork trees, rugged coastlines, traditional villages and farming. The maps shows the regions of Portugal and the arrows shows our overnight stays – one night in Alentejo and then three nights in the Algarve in Portimão, Albufeira then Tavira then we drove back up through Alentejo on the eastern side, along the border of Spain and back to Lisbon. It felt like we were away more than 5 days as we did so much and I took just over 800 photos in 5 days! It was a fantastic trip.

From Lisbon we drove a few hours to a small village called Vila Nova de Santo AndreThis was a good base for us to do some smaller trips to Troia and the nature reserves nearby and ocean beaches. That night we stumbled across an old primary school that had been turned in to a restaurant. It was so quaint and gorgeous. The Alentejo region is renowned for it’s traditional food – black pork (the pigs are black in colour and the meat is more tasty), game dishes, bread, cheese, wines and seafood. We ordered the most spectacular dish of wild rabbit empada – the rabbit is wrapped in pastry with delicious spices and served with pilau rice and salad. One of many of my favourite meals so far in Portugal and we highly recommend this restaurant for it’s fantastic service, local organic food and large selection of local wines. If you’re ever around Cachopos, near Sines in Alentejo, go to Restaurante A Escola. Maravilhosa!

Wild rabbit empada for two

The following day we ventured off along the spectacular coastline of Alentejo to some of  the most beautiful beaches I have seen. First stop was one of my favourite places, a little seaside town called Porto Covo. It’s an old fishing village still blessed with cobblestoned streets with the gorgeous cottages in blues, reds and whites.

           

Porto Covo harbour

As we drove further south we made stops at Vila Nova de Milfontes, Zambujeria do Mar, Odeceixe and we just made it to Praia do Amado for sunset. The coastline became more rugged and wild and I was starting to wish we had more than just five days. Part of me was also wishing it was summer, but then again, summer brings hoards of people and turns the whole south of Portugal in to a totally different place. The peace and the solitude along the beaches and in the villages was perfect – as long as we were sufficiently rugged up!

Vila Nova de Milfontes

                   

Odeceixe
Praia do Amado and local canine taking in the view too
Praia do Amado – the Algarve west coast

We sped along a dirt track to just get to Praia do Amado in time for the sunset. It was the most amazing orange colour against the sandstone rocks. We were the only people there apart from a little dog who whimsically stared out to the sea, enjoying the sunset, the peace and the sounds of the ocean as much as we did.

That night we slept in a funky little boutique hotel in Portimão, after navigating the labyrinth of one way streets. It’s the Algarve’s second largest city. It used to be a major fishing port and once had a large cannery, which is now part of an excellent exhibition in the local museum. I loved the harbour area of this city. You could feel the maritime history and its trading connections to the rest of Europe. The south of Portugal is also home to thousands of storks. Anywhere you see a large electric pylon or old chimney stack, just cast your eyes upwards and you will see some. About 10 years ago these birds were in serious decline in Portugal but they are now off the endangered list due to concerted efforts by the power companies to make the electrical pylons safer for nesting. The stork nest can be over 2 metres in diameter and there are now over 4,000 storks year-round in southern Portugal. Another factor has been the introduction of the Louisiana crayfish which reproduce very quickly and has given them an extra food source. They are amazing birds and I love seeing them up there, knowing the two of them have a little baby in their midst.

Portimão harbour

                  

The hooks from the old cannery

The next stop, heading east along the south coast, was Albufeira. The old fishing port has unfortunately been replaced by an ultra modern marina filled with flashy million dollar boats. It’s a town dedicated to tourism and in summer the cheap package deals and cheap food and booze bring hoards of Europeans. I loved it but still wondered how different it would be in the summer. It has beautiful white washed buildings and many many beautiful beaches and we enjoyed another fantastic sunset at beer o’clock, at Praia Grande. After dinner, we wandered the deserted streets, walking down to the main beach for a sangria or two at Filipa’s friends restaurant. Many of the bars and restaurants were closed for the winter season.

Albufeira
The white washed apartments waiting for the summer influx
The beautiful beach of San Rafael in Albufeira
Praia Grande – Albufeira

Traveling further eastward the following day we stopped at Cavoeiro to an interesting place set in the cliffs called Algar Seco which had pounding seas and dramatic rock formations. It was fun exploring all the caves, blowholes and watching the waves crash against the cliffs.

Algar Seco at Carvoeiro
Algar Seco

Another stop was made at Praia da Falésia, a beautiful golden sandy beach which holds precious childhood summer memories for Filipa and then to the glitzy and glamourous marina of Vilamoura for lunch. This marina can berth over 1,000 vessels and in summer it’s the place to spot the rich and famous of Portugal and Europe. Cristiano Ronaldo is often seen here as he owns a bar with Luís Figo, another famous Portuguese football player.

The next two nights we stayed in a self-contained cottage in Tavira which was just gorgeous. I’d heard lots of great things about Tavira, so I had high expectations and I was not disappointed. It’s a very charming little town, still rather untouched and unspoilt by tourism. The old town is a maze of little cobblestoned streets with gorgeous shops, cafés and restaurants. Ponte Romana is a beautiful 17th century arched bridge crossing the river which runs through the town and out to sea.

Sunset upon Ponte Romana

                  

We saw many beautiful places – a haunting beach in the winter called Praia do Barril which has a graveyard of anchors. To get there you catch a small train across to another little island. We also caught the boat over to Ilha de Tavira one day and walked around the deserted islands resort and beach.

We also had two amazing meals whilst we were staying here, the first at a restaurant called ‘O Pedro’ in Cabanas (a short drive from Tavira) where we ate Conquilhas (tiny cockles in a white wine, garlic and herb sauce which are amazingly sweet and so delicious). This was first course. For second course we shared a Cataplana de Peixe. A cataplana is a large clam-like cooking vessel which in this instance contained four types of steamed fish, red peppers, garlic, prawns, potatoes and onions. A-maz-ing flavours! All washed down with a bottle of wine from the region. Heaven! The second meal was at a gorgeous little restaurant called ‘Aquasul’ in the heart of Tavira old town. Very cute, great service, delicious organic food – tuna and prawn skewers with cous cous and roasted vegetables and a to-die-for wood-fired pizza. Someone call Greenpeace and roll me back in to the ocean!

Our last day and we visited a beautiful local waterfall ‘Poço do Inferno‘ (Hell’s Well) surrounded by beautiful orange and olive groves and where a broken pale in the fence meant that we had the sweetest oranges I’ve ever tasted for the trip back. Another treasure was the teeny tiny village of Cacela Velha with it’s colourful houses, scruffy looking dogs and gorgeous ocean views.

View from Cacela Velha

                

A cottage in Cacela Velha

Reluctantly we headed inland traveling north towards Mértola in Alentejo. To cheer ourselves up, we bought some local chouriço, cheese and bread for a picnic overlooking an old mining crater in São Domingos. Sounds strange I know but the mine closed in the 60’s and whats left is a deserted, eerie yet interesting place to explore old crumbling buildings and rusty machinery. The mine is over 150 years old but I read that mining has taken place here since Roman times. The colours were amazing.

We really weren’t ready to go back home but we made one final stop in the beautiful town of Evora, one of Portugal’s most beautiful medieval towns. The town sits inside a 14th century stone wall with beautiful narrow lanes and striking architecture.

We only had time to see the Templo Romano – the remains of a Roman temple dating back to the 2nd or early 3rd century and one of Portugal’s best preserved Roman monuments. It’s 14 Corinthian columns have survived so well as the temple was covered up by a wall in the Middle Ages to form a fortress and it wasn’t uncovered until the late 19th century.

A long blog post I know, but I felt like I didn’t want to leave anything out because it was all so beautiful. Just consider yourself lucky I didn’t post the entire 800 photos!

Sweet Temptations

After spending a few days in the village we headed due west to the central coast. On the way we stopped off in the beautiful city of Coimbra. This is the ‘Oxford’ of Portugal, being a very old and distinguished university city. It has one of the oldest universities in Europe, the University of Coimbra, as well as it being the oldest in the Portuguese-speaking world, dating back to 1290.

We spent the day just wandering through the streets and along the river Mondego. It was a crisp winters day and the sun was out and Portugal is the most wonderful place to just wander and enjoy the architecture and café culture.

I was privileged to see some traditional calçada guys at work fixing up some broken pavement and some gorgeous Portuguese men sitting on a bench sharing a moment and a laugh. I would love to have known what they were talking about.

We hung around to see sunset across the river and then meet Filipa’s cousin who is studying at the University of Coimbra for a coffee, before we drove on westward to the small coastal town of Figueira da Foz. We were suitably hungry by the time we got there so Filipa took me to the renowned local Forte Santa Catarina restaurant…..renowned because of it’s Rodizio de Marisco, or ‘Never-ending, all-you-can-eat platter of Seafood’ all for 18 Euro ($24) per person.

On the platter were heaps of these strange things called Perceves, otherwise known as Goose Barnacles, thanks to Wikipedia. They basically live on rocks, like most barnacles do, but only really exposed coastal areas as the perceves depend on water motion for feeding. They are widely consumed here and in Spain and considered a delicacy. You squeeze the leathery tube near the shell-like claw and then twist to suck out the flesh. Up close they look rather weird and scary and daunting to eat. Lucky Filipa was with me. The taste was like the sea, very briny, and the texture like a mussel or clam.

The funny thing is the name perceves is very close to another Portuguese word, percebes. Translate the first word to English and it means ‘barnacles’ but translate the second word to English and it means ‘understands’. In some places the locals try and translate their menu into English. If traveling through Portugal, you may just see some “understands” on the menu.

Understands

Figuiera da Foz is a gorgeous town and has a giant sandy beach which reminded me a lot of Santa Monica in L.A. but so much more beautiful with no people on it (in winter). In summer, the town turns in to a holiday mecca and surfing destination. The beach here is the largest in Portugal at 3 km in length. It’s also very wide and takes about 5 minutes to reach the water.

Figueira da Foz coastline

We only stayed here one night and one day but I loved it, a beautiful place to visit and we will definitely be back.

Of course, on the way home, more pit-stops for food and coffee. This time at a very famous pastry shop in a very small village, Tentúgal, called A Pousadinha. There are a few famous desserts here, one being the Queijadas de Tentúgal and also the Pastel de Tentúgal. Both use copious amounts of sugar and egg and pastry. Oh my. God.

The amazing and interesting thing about this place is that the recipes date back to the 16th century when these sweet temptations were first made behind the walls of the local convent, Convento do Nosso Senhora do Carmo. The place got the name doce conventuaís, ‘sweet convent’. What do you call a nun with a sweet tooth? A Carmel-like. Sorry!

And because it is coming up to Christmas you also see many Bolo do Rei, or King Cake, throughout Portugal. It is eaten up until the 6 January (the day of Kings – a biblical reference to the Three Kings) and it resembles a crown covered in crystallised dried fruit.  Just like the Australian plum pudding, the King Cake used to contain a small ‘prize’ but has now been forbidden due to safety reasons. It also used to contain a ‘bean’ and whoever had the slice with the bean in it had to buy the cake the following year.

Bolo do Rei

Merry Christmas everyone!

The Art of Eating Slowly

A few weeks ago we ventured back to the village for Filipa’s brothers’ 30th birthday. Going back to the village for a family party means one thing – food! And lots of it. It takes serious preparation – mental and physical. This being my third time to the village, I started to realise that there is a fine art to enduring a Portuguese family festa and surviving unscathed with your waistline where it was when you first arrived. It’s not easy, because in Portugal, there are many courses and they get you every time and suck you in. The table is always covered in a selection of cured meats, cheeses, breads, olives, seafood (entradas) when you sit down. Rule #1 is to go easy here.  This is a major trap for new (gluttonous) players, one which can easily lead to an early downfall. After this, out comes Round 2, still part of the entradas, which can be a soup or a seafood or meat dish, sometimes presunto (cured ham).

You can be easily fooled here to think this is main course. If you finish quickly and everyone is still eating around you, beware because an aunty will come and top your plate or bowl up again and will not take não obrigada for an answer. So rule number #2, eat slowly and always remember there is still a long way to go.  At Toze’s birthday dinner, the entradas dish was so delicious that I just couldn’t help myself and ate it up in flash. It was a dish called Fritada and it consisted of pork meat with many different types of chorizo made with onion, flour, bread. It’s up there as one of my favourite dishes. So tasty. Porky goodness!

Fritada

Following the entradas is the prato principal (main course) and this is usually always a meat dish too, with rice as well. At Toze’s party we ate Arroz de Míscaros com Borrego (Rice of Mushrooms with Lamb). The mushrooms were organic local hand picked and so different to any mushrooms I’d ever tasted or seen before. Even two plates of Fritada didn’t slow me down here. So good.

The míscaros (mushrooms) cooking

Then of course comes the sobremesas and not just one, but usually two, sometimes three, different kinds – arroz doce (sweet rice), a cake of some sort, leite creme (cream caramel) – and people really look at you weird if you turn down dessert.

There is no escape.

A bedful of desserts (the kitchen was full!)
Leite creme

Just when you think it’s all over, then comes the birthday cake, and of course, there is definitely no way you can say no to the birthday cake.

Now, that would just be rude.

As I was recovering that night in the starfish position, I was told that we were going to another family festa the following day, another family birthday. Oh my god. Images of Mr Creosote in the scene from Monty Python’s ‘The Meaning of Life’ came flashing back to me.

Indeed, the next day, I had finally learnt my lesson and enjoyed a small bowl of fish soup followed by a small plate of duck rice, devoured ever so slowly. No bread. No cheese (okay, just a little cured meat because it looked so good). A minuscule serving of leite creme and one piece of birthday cake. Stomach explosion averted. Just.

My small plate of duck rice with chorizo

One way of getting me to eat less in Portugal is to serve more dishes like this.

Goat brain soup

Filipa tucked in to this goat brain soup just after devouring the entire braised head of a baby goat (apologies to any vegetarians reading this). I was so stunned but also intrigued that I couldn’t even bring myself to photograph the goat head. It was whole! I am not kidding you. (sorry for the bad pun!)

Bucho

Here is also another traditional dish of stuffed goat stomach filled with goat meat, rice and blood and other offal, called bucho, the Portuguese version of haggis.

I cannot stomach offal (sorry again) so I refrained, although I did try the goat brain, just one bite, to get Filipa off my back. It was as I had expected, a weird texture, and not my kind of thing.

So, two weeks until Christmas and I’m preparing like a boxer going in for a championship fight. I’ve even been jogging in my preparation.

But right now, as it stands, it’s Portugal 1, Me 0.

Tram 28

My good friends from London, Jenni and Karen, came to visit us this weekend for two nights. It was their first visit to Lisbon. We did a lot of walking and sightseeing but also much eating and drinking and minimal sleeping.

We took them on a tour of Lisbon by tram or eléctrico. The yellow tram is synonymous with Lisbon. It’s a Lisbon icon. The first electric tram commenced operations in 1901. Today, they still use the beautiful old yellow vintage carriages that rattle and trundle their way around the narrow streets but there are only three traditional lines today.

The most famous route is tram number 28. This winds through Lisbon’s old quarter beginning in Graça, then down through the gorgeous and narrow streets of Alfama, past Lisbon’s Cathedral and then down to Baixa and then up through Chiado to Bairro Alto.

Lisbon Cathedral Sé

It is always jam-packed full of tourists and is an excellent way to get a feel for the city if you haven’t got a lot of time.  It’s a ‘hop-on hop-off’ service with over 30 stops at many famous and interesting sites of monuments, churches and gardens. The trip is very hilly in places, it’s noisy and hectic and you get some great glimpses of the city and a feel for the flavour of each neighbourhood.

The view from one of the stops – Largo das Portas do Sol
View from Largo das Portas do Sol   (Filipa B. Santos)

Here is a video of part of tram route 28. Forgive the unsteady camera work. It was difficult standing up, holding on and filming at the same time. The music is by one of Portugal’s most popular fado singers today. Her name is Mariza and she is singing a beautiful song called ‘Maria Lisboa’.

I hope you enjoy the ride.

A Perfect Combination

Autumn is here and it’s time for hot roasted chestnuts, or castanhas. On a recent trip to the village, Filipa’s brother bought 10 kilograms of chestnuts. We have been eating a lot of chestnuts, late at night after dinner. It’s easy to do at home. You place the chestnuts on a baking tray and throw over a generous handful of sea salt. Make sure you make a small slit in each chestnut shell before roasting or they will explode in the oven. You then roast them for about 20 minutes at 200 degrees and then a further 10 minutes under the grill. Take them out of the oven and peel and eat them while still warm. Delicious!

As we were leaving the village with chestnuts in hand, Filipa’s great-uncle Pedro saw us and took off back home to grab us a bottle of his home-made wine called Jeropiga. This is the traditional drink to have when eating castanhas. Jeropiga  is a sweet alcoholic drink made from fresh grape juice. Decant some juice from your already fermenting wine around day 2. At this stage it’s still sweet and has taken on some red colour. So add to this some aguardente (see previous post). Three parts juice, 1 part aguardente. Then you cork it and leave it in a cool dark place to settle for a few days or up to a few years. The aguardente inhibits the fermentation process and stops it spoiling.

Autumn is the season when Portuguese wine makers open up their barrels to taste the seasons vintage. Some of the wine is decanted and turned in to jeropiga to drink with the castanhas. It’s rarely found commercially and usually only produced locally by the likes of great-uncle Pedro. It’s the perfect combination on a chilly autumn night.

Up in Filipa’s village I saw many chestnut trees which had been ‘de-nuded’ of their nuts. Two or three nuts grow inside these prickly burrs.

While we were up in the village Filipa’s mum made a fantastic dinner of roast pork in her traditional wood fire oven (left). Along side the pork in the roasting dish she had added chestnuts which were so delicious. The nutty flavour had permeated throughout the meat and was so good.

A few days ago (11 November) it was St Martin’s Day here in Portugal and across most of Europe. St Martin started out as a Roman soldier and he apparently cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar during a blizzard to save the beggars life. That night he dreamt that Jesus was wearing the half-cloak that he had given to the beggar and Jesus said to some angels, “Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptised. He has clothed me.” He was later baptised as an adult and became a monk. Around Europe it is known as the Feast of St Martin.  In Portugal the focus is more on the maturation of the years wine.

On the streets of Portugal you see many vendors selling their hot roasted chestnuts at this time of year, especially on St Martin’s Day. The smoke from all the carts can be seen in the night air across the city.

A typical saying in Portugal is;

É dia de São Martinho; comem-se castanhas, prova-se o vinho.

It’s Saint Martin’s Day; we’ll eat chestnuts, we’ll taste the wine.

Yes……let’s!