Portugal will always hold a special place in my heart as my first European destination over 30 years ago. With my base in Lisbon, I traveled the west coast from Oporto to Faro in the Algarve, drinking in the splendor of this extraordinarily beautiful country.
Memories of the small fishing villages of Cascais and Estoril bring back visions of fisherman returning with their catches of the day, locals gathering to view the catch, black draped widows along the sea wall waiting for their share and fisherman with lined faces repairing their nets. A "bucket brigade" would form from the large vessels to small boats to men in waist level water handing flats from one to another until reaching the shoreline carrying the fish directly to the markets along the sea wall. When Dick and I visited Portugal in 1997 for a wonderful holiday, I was surprised to find these small villages are now large towns with wall to wall resort hotels and the beaches are filled with tourists rather than fishermen and their families. To find the Portugal of my memories, we had to explore a bit more in depth.
When I was contacted by Sofia Vieira, owner of the Refugio da Vila in the city of Portel within the Alentejo region; I jumped at the chance to explore another area of the country I so love. Dick and I made the journey discovering a historical delight not yet taken over by tourists.
Sofia was born and raised in Lisbon where her parents owned a small hotel in which she helped, learning both the hotel and restaurant aspects. As a young adult, Sofia studied languages, mastering French, Spanish and English as well as her native Portuguese. She studied tourism in Lisbon for five years before working 6 years as a tour guide. Sofia realized her passion for history and culture and found she had a gift for storytelling and sharing her knowledge.
Sofia's dream was to own a hotel that would be run like a home. The result of her search was the Refugio da Vila, a private home left in ruins that she bought in 1993. Built in the 1830's, the house originally belonged to the important and well-respected Amaral family. Lady Margarita Amaral, the mother of 9 children, was a very wealthy, willful woman with great strength of character. She left strong marks on the village with her use of agricultural techniques and as an employer of many local people. The self-sufficient property produced its own wine and olive oil, raised horses, pigs, rabbits and cattle and grew a variety of vegetables in the garden. Travelers were always welcomed to share in the plenty.
The long process of renovation began and she opened in 1997 with 12 beautifully appointed rooms each equipped with air conditioning, direct dial phones, satellite TV and mini-bars. A restaurant was built in the original horse barn. Sofia chose the horse head as her symbol as horses were very important during the time of the Amaral family. Renovations were completed in 1999 with the opening of an additional 18 rooms. The rooms are all elegantly decorated with luxurious appointments yet the Refugio still retains the atmosphere of a home. When the gardens are complete, Sofia will add several species of chickens, ducks and peacocks to bring it back to its original state.
Sophia loves food and cooking. She studied with the locals using their traditional family recipes, some over 400 years old. She has also researched menus of historical Portuguese royalty. Nearly every meal taught in the classes and served in the restaurant has a connection to history.
Upon our arrival in Lisbon, we dined at Espaco Lisboa, a converted iron factory, on sea bream baked with vegetables. After lunch, thirty minutes out of the city we were in the Alentejo region, abundant with rolling green hills, vineyards and forests of cork trees unique to the area. In less than two hours, we arrived in Portel, a small agricultural village of 5,000 surrounded by large farms going back for centuries. The hilltop castle towers over the labyrinth of narrow streets and white washed buildings. Still retaining a feeling of innocence, children play freely in the streets and men gather in the center for gossip sessions.
Refugio da Vila is exactly what it sounds like - a beautiful refuge in the center of a small lazy village. White washed walls trimmed with golden yellow soothed our travel weary spirits. Inside, darkly stained oak floors, beamed ceilings and brilliant white walls provided the perfect palate for the tasteful artwork and comfortable chairs.
Sofia led us up a wrought iron staircase to the second floor where frescoes adorned the walls. Suites are found on this floor; large lovely rooms with decorated ceilings as well as a pool room and rooms for watching TV, reading, or lounging comfortably before a roaring fire. Doors lead out to a terrace overlooking the gardens and pool, a perfect setting for sipping afternoon tea. Other rooms are on the remaining floors, each furnished with robes and slippers and comfy tubs for bubble baths - my favorite occupation. From our bedroom window, we could see the castle high atop the hill. Relais & Chateau is missing a good bet. Before long this luxurious hotel will soon be discovered and the waiting list to get in will be very long.
Sofia took us on a stroll through the village of Portel. We walked to the 13th century castle built by the order of D. Joao Peres Aboim, a member of the 13th century high nobility, counselor and favorite of the King Alfonso III. History is apparent in the many churches of Portel including the baroque style church of the Misericordia attached to the castle walls built in 1630 on the orders of the Duke of Braganca and future King K. Joao IV. We also visited Santa Maria da Logoa founded in 1766 and the Church of the Espirito Santo built in the 16th century, a wonderful example of renaissance art with its ionic columns and marble staircase. Just outside of town we walked in the countryside full of olive groves and fields covered in yellow, white, purple flowers interspersed with huge red poppies and white rockroses. Just a few kilometers outside of town, forests of eucalyptus and cork trees change the landscape to rocky hills, perfect for hiking, walking and biking.
At last, what we had traveled all the way to Portugal to do, our first cooking class was ready to begin. Sofia introduced us to Chef Victor Mates who learned to cook standing at the feet of his grandmother. He was born and raised in Lisbon where he began his studies of the culinary arts at the age of 18. Victor was chosen to be on the Portuguese Culinary Olympic Team and has cooked at Pano, a restaurant in New York City where he practiced his English as well as his culinary skills. This gregarious and friendly young chef loves imparting his knowledge with students in the kitchen where he cooks with love. Enlarging upon the recipe, he delights in telling the history and suggesting variations of each one.
Before class began, we ventured into the lush gardens to pick the herbs to be used during class. Victor then escorted us into the newly constructed teaching kitchen with doors opening out onto the terrace; a light breeze with softly falling raindrops outside. Much to our surprise, Victor disappeared up inside the large fireplace, emerging with links of sausages draped over his arms. After making sausages, Victor hangs them to smoke above the corkwood used in cooking. We began by tasting a variety of sausages, local goat cheeses and a marvelous local red wine: D'Avillez 1996 from Portalegra in Alentejo. The sausages were scored and then flamed with Portuguese vodka to enhance the flavor. Victor flavored olives with oregano, rosemary, sliced garlic and covered with olive oil. These were accompanied by the most fabulous bread I have ever eaten. Zefa, Victor's third hand in the kitchen made all of the breads that were free formed into rolls or large loaves, some containing bits of sausage. Dipped in olive oil, these were to die for!
Now our work began as Victor encouraged us to participate in the preparation of the meal. For a starter, as if we needed anything else all day after indulging in the appetizers, we cleaned, floured and fried small sardines in olive oil. These we covered with a preparation of sliced onions and garlic and sauted until translucent, then added a julienne of carrots and bay leaves and cooked until tender. After sprinkling with vinegar and tossing with cilantro, these were served at room temperature. In the days before refrigeration, this starter could be held several days in a cool room on top of a cool marble table. As it is nearly impossible to get fresh sardines at home, Victor allowed that this same method could be used with any small whole fish. We also prepared Cilarca, a seasonal fresh mushroom similar to Porcini, by chopping, sauting in a little oil, cooking with stirred eggs until soft and sprinkled with fresh thyme.
The main course consisted of a fabulous leg of baby lamb, one for each of us! We made a paste of garlic, olive oil, rosemary, paprika and bay leaf in a mortar and pestle and brushed it on to the leg of lamb. A processor could be substituted, but the texture and flavor would not be the same. The lamb was placed on a bed of sliced carrots, onions, egg plant, zucchini, mushrooms and several stalks of asparagus, in a terra cotta baking dish I would love to own, and drizzled with ample olive oil. After placing a bouquet of fresh parsley, rosemary and sage on top and sprinkling liberally with chopped cilantro, Victor placed the dish in the oak wood fire for approximately 1 hour until tender (at home we would use a 350-degree oven). Half way through the baking, Victor poured on white wine, nearly enough to cover. When ready to serve, we dove into it with gusto, plenty of bread and a fabulous local red wine.
As in all cooking classes, dessert is the crowning glory. For this, we made Sere Caia, a 17th century dessert for weddings of the royalty as a sign of peace. With a quick flick of the wrist, Victor mixed together several slightly beaten egg yolks, sugar, milk and flour into which he gently folded in beaten egg whites. We buttered a baking dish, poured in the mixture, sprinkled with cinnamon on top and baked for 10-15 minutes until it became the texture of a souffle. This was served with preserved plums in a honey-sugar syrup. For me, small tastings of Moscatel de Setabal and Pousada Porta, aged for 20 years in wood was the perfect ending to the meal. Dick enjoyed Adega Velha da Casa d'Alvelleda, a nice flavored grappa. I will take his word for it. The entire meal was a sample of the wonderful week ahead and an ending to a most fabulous day.
We couldn't wait for the remaining classes centered on the regional produce and cuisine of the Alentejo and the Algarve and to make our own fabulous loaf of bread. But first there was much more exploring to do. Sofia took us to the Esporao Wine Estate for a tasting of Portuguese varietals and to Monsaraz, a Renaissance village with a 13th century castle all set inside a massive wall built in the 17th century. In Redondo we saw a beautiful 16th century church and spent all our cash in the small stores selling the famous ceramics of the region. Estremoz, surrounded by 17th century ramparts, overlooked a vast plain of gnarled olive trees and wheat fields. Here we found unglazed ceramic water jars of unusual shapes and other ceramic pieces.
My favorite excursion was to Evora, a beautiful town known as a kind of Portuguese Florence, a UNESCO world treasure. Evora thrived in Roman times and even coined its own money. During the 14th to 16th centuries, royalty spent as much time here as in Lisbon, making it a city filled with palaces, churches and art. When the Spanish took over Portugal in 1579, Evora was left forgotten, keeping it intact for us to enjoy today. During the last week of June, the Fair of Sao Joao is held featuring folk dancing, local foods and crafts. The 12th century Cathedral is a must to see, along with the Templo de Diana built in the 2nd century. It is was a treat to walk the streets immersed in a gentler time. Here we sampled sheep milk cheeses, figs, almonds and sausages sold in the local stores.
Sofia also took us to an ancient roman ruin now being restored, Ruinas di Cucafate, named for a saint slaughtered in Barcelona. We stood beside a 2000-year-old olive tree contemplating what might have been. The road in back linked cities in the 1st century to Rome. Among the ruins was a large house, pool, spa and a temple. For lunch we stopped at Taverna do Tome, filled with old wine barrels brought by the Romans. Here farmers and old men gather in the bar for drinks. We dined on a selection of local red wine, olives, bread and fresh goat cheese. In the winter fried sardines are served. The locals spend many pleasurable hours here, often with the accompaniment of live music.
Each morning for breakfast we gathered in the dining room where we were greeted with a huge baskets of fabulous breads, ham, cheese, fruits, freshly squeezed juices, cereals, plates of bacon, freshly scrambled eggs and latte in huge white cups; Just what we needed to gather energy for our next class! Dinner is served in the understated elegance of the dining room. The bi-level dining room boasts domed ceilings quietly meeting the white washed walls, beautiful granite block floors all reflected in large mirrors framed with dark oak. Simplicity was accentuated with white table linens, huge urns of greenery, and green filled centerpieces of wrought iron and glass vases. As I sat enjoying watching the diners enter, I was afforded a view onto the patio with gleaming white walls in the sun light, a huge fig tree just in front. The patio was set for dining al fresco, the same patio from which the teaching kitchen is entered.
Beginning with a fabulous 1993 Monte da Ferra red wine from the Alentejo, Victor served our dinner. The first coarse was a trio of salads: tuna with black eyed peas, garbanzos with codfish and roasted peppers, each typical of the region. Grilled Cilarca mushrooms drizzled with local olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt followed. We had enjoyed these same mushrooms in the eggs during class, but this preparation was heavenly. The mushrooms are found only in the spring growing under 2 species of cork oak trees. I could have ended the meal with these delicious morsels, but Victor had much more to share.
Cod fish, typical of Portugal, was served on top of sliced potatoes and garnished with fried fresh garlic, carrot and beet slices. A delectable olive butter spread was served with bread freshly baked that morning by Zefa. The main course was a stuffed duck breast and a miga of day old bread stuffing garnished with rosemary, paprika, and dried orange slices atop a sauce made of the reduction of the duck juices. If dieting is your thing, you will have to forgo this absolutely fabulous but terribly rich dish.
Dessert was another trio of choices: a baked simple concoction of eggs, milk, sugar and cinnamon served with strawberries, apple cake and a nut cake full of almonds and hazelnuts. Of course we had to sample all three.