We’ve nailed it
An inspiring gastronomic adventure
[Warning: this despatch contains dangerous content which could cause inadvertent flight bookings]
Two years after taking the plunge into a crazy new life of sustainable, off-grid living we think we’ve nailed it.
I may still be rubbish at DIY and we have a thousand things we still haven’t done, but we have developed what is perhaps our perfect itinerary.
Like everything in Vale das Estrelas it’s a work in progress, but over the last ten days we have been to the very best beaches, eaten our way through Alentejo’s traditional dishes, gorged ourselves on seafood and wine-tasted our way through some gorgeous garrafas.
Our old friends Michael and Dominique arrived in the valley from New York with a blank canvas wanting it all...and more...and so we cleared the diary and put everything into it.
Mike and I first met in Afghanistan in the 2000s, we all lived in Bangkok together for a while where Ana and I met, and focussed on human rights he’s currently writing a book about how food culture has been affected by war, and so there was a natural bias towards eating and drinking.
Many of those kilogrammes I so proudly and carefully shed weed-whacking my way through brambles have no doubt returned in the pursuit of the best food and drink our little orbit of Portugal has to offer.
So today, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you – a work two years in the making – our top attractions from the wild coast of Portugal, through inland Alentejo, to 48 hours in Lisbon and back.
What’s below can be treated like a guide for you to come back to, a list of some of the highlights here and hopefully something which at the very least will make your mouth water!
But first, some breaking news.
Another form of work, even longer in the making, is finally underway after we safely navigated the choppy waters of local bureaucracy to be awarded the ultimate prize: an Alvará para Obras.
It may not sound much, but the license to build means our tourism project is now officially underway more than three years after we decided to follow a dream...now we just have to build it and (hopefully) they’ll (you’ll) come...especially once you know what you’re missing!
Mike and Dominique arrived on a sunny Alentejo afternoon.
The perfect antidote to an overnight flight and a five hour time difference is beers on the beach accompanying a clutch of Ana’s amazing sandwiches.
Bad knees currently exclude scrambling down to our Secret Beach, so we started at Almograve – a stunning beach which bounces between giving you a high tide battering and a low tide treat of rock pools to explore...and has perhaps the best beach bar on this coast.
A dinner of Ana’s Bacalhau Gomes de Sá (a lighter summer version of her dried cod casserole with potatoes and olives) accompanied Dorina Lindemann’s Arinto white wine and also made an excellent bacalhau pataniscas fried leftovers breakfast.
Day two, beach two was Odeceixe with its wide sands and narrow river estuary overlooked by steep cliffs just over the Algarve border and providing a choice of river or ocean sands – great for kids.
The little beach town is scattered with bars and restaurants, so we introduced Mike & Dominique to their first dose of Amêijoas à Bulhão Pato – clams in a sauce favoured by a poet whose name is more famously associated with the bivalve molluscs than with his poetry.
We hauled ourselves off the beach to buy some porco preto (black pork) and deliver a New York fridge magnet to Sr António Costa, the butcher at our local Talho Simpatia.
We grilled the tender pork cuts and ate it with some lightly chilled Howard’s Folly Sonhador red wine as we readied ourselves for Dominique’s birthday the following day
Morning mimosas blended neatly into fresh oysters mother-shucked by Michael with a sharp and salty Vicentino Sauvignon Blanc and then the choice of semi-secret Praia dos Machados beach rewarded us with broad golden sand, few people and warm(er) oceans.
Once we’d stopped off at Vicentino – our nearest vineyard – to sample their chilled Naked Pinot Noir and new Naked Pinot Noir White Unfiltered wines, the birthday meal was at our old favourite O Sacas.
It was a feast of percebes (goose-neck barnacles), more amêijoas, perfectly fried Peixe Aranha (Weever Fish) with migas (bread-based mash with tomato), and desserts of chocolate mousse and leite creme (a Portuguese equivalent of crème bruleé) and enough room left over for Ana’s lemon cake with cream and raspberries.
We marked international ice cream day with Mabi gelato in touristy Vila Nova de Milfontes, dressed our own crabs and grilled our own sardines, then marked the arrival of friends from Johannesburg Patricia and Kate on Carvalhal beach ahead of grilled octopus and Michael’s clam fettuccine.
One of the best stories we’ve come across on our Big Portuguese Wine Adventure is that of talha wines – made in the giant clay amphorae introduced by the Ancient Romans.
One town where the combination of Roman history and Roman Catholic influence has allowed talha wines to be produced unbroken for two thousand years is Vila de Frades in inland Alentejo.
Missing Iain Richardson at Mouchão winery due to his bout of COVID (hope you’re feeling better Iain), we had already met and interviewed Teresa Caeiro at Geraçoēs da Talha and knew hers was a great place to head.
I’ll write up a wine blog on this soon, as Teresa’s is a fantastic story of growing up in a winery, leaving the village to study engineering, but then falling in love and coming home to make wine with her grandfather.
We had Silarcas com ovos (a type of mushroom served in Alentejo scrambled eggs), Bochechas de porco preto (black pork cheeks) and a stunningly tender special pork dish of the day, followed by wonderfully dense and almondy Bolo de noiva (bride’s cake).
Although gradually reducing the size of meals, and sharing fewer plates on this marathon through Portuguese cuisine, we were still full as we headed to Lisbon for part two of the trip.
Taberna da Esperança, sister restaurant to Petiscaria Ideal in Santos provided the day’s second dose of black pork pig cheeks, grilled shrimps and more small plates at an outdoor table with a Lacrau Douro Sauvignon Blanc.
What’s your favourite place in Lisbon? Please share it with us – we have reclaimed our flat from long-term tenants and so if you’d like to stay in Lisbon let us know directly and we’ll give you a good discount!
The Lisbon riverside has been improved and you can now walk all along the river from the main praça in Chiado to Belém to see the Jerónimos Monastery and have Pasteis de Belém – the best custard tarts in town.
We checked out the Padrão dos Descobrimentos monument to the 14th/15th century Portuguese discoverers of global sea routes first built in 1940 for the Portuguese World Exhibition then reconstructed in 1960 to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator.
The Time Out Market is a fantastic food hall featuring some of Portugal’s best chefs, but it’s a busy tourist trap and after a round of white and pink port and tonics, we sampled an artichoke salad & chicken & mushroom empada (small pie) before continuing the adventure
We had cocktails at marvellously eccentric Pavilhão Chinês (Chinese Pavilion) and Mike went from hating the electric scooters which litter Lisbon, to loving them, and then to quite suddenly hating them again, meaning the hipster LX Factory evaded us.
His interest in food from former Portuguese colonies and how they have blended into modern cuisine took us to Segredos de Goa in Campo de Ourique for curries including pork vindaloo and chamuças (samosas).
Having dropped Dominique off at the airport we headed back home via the car ferry from Setúbal to Troia and to show off the new A-list hotspots of Comporta and Melides where we enjoyed a few sardines with Açorda (a simple soup with coriander and bread and garlic and egg) and traditional Feijão com chouriço (fava beans with pork and pork chorizo in a mint and olive oil sauce).
We rounded off the week with a some of Michael’s home-cooked Filipino/Portuguese chicken, percebes and a wonderful cliff-top cataplana fish stew overlooking the ocean at Café Palhinhas at Azenha do Mar.
Michael told us the sauce was so good it almost made him cry, but that may have just been the emotional after effects of over consumption.
I think it’s safe to say our guests enjoyed their stay, will be back soon and want to move here.
We left a few things for them to see next time, including Medronho Jorge’s newly refurbished distillery. Now we’re back to one meal a day and perhaps a little time off the wine. But wow, it was worth it!