King John II, who reigned in Portugal in the late 15th century, liked to say that “a nation is like an ocean. There are many types of fish in the ocean. The sardine tastes good and it is abundant, so it is cheap. The mullet also tastes good, but it is rare, so it is expensive. I prefer the sardine.”
Historians debate whether this aphorism, in which the mullet represents the nobility and the sardine the people, was good court politics. But it is good advice to those going to the fish market.
If you’re a wine lover traveling in Alentejo, don’t miss the chance to visit a wonderful winery called Adega Mayor. It is located in Campo Maior, a region on Portugal’s border with Spain that was once the stage of fierce battles between the two countries.
Adega Mayor was designed by Álvaro Siza Vieira, a Portuguese architect who received the Pritzker prize. He is famous for his ability to create buildings that are in harmony with their surroundings. At Adega Mayor, he succeeded brilliantly. The winery is a subtle white accent on the Alentejo landscape, toped by a terrace with amazing vistas. It is extraordinary to sit on the terrace at sunset and watch the Alentejo sky painted with colors others skies can only dream of.
The wines of Adega Mayor are produced with immense skill and care. But they offer much more than technical perfection. They carry in them the soul of Alentejo.
We left Adega Mayor with a warm feeling of optimism. We saw ancient battle fields turned into peaceful vineyards that produce extraordinary wines.
One of the pleasures of the Portuguese Summer is eating melon. But melons are like lottery tickets. You can win the grand prize, a perfectly ripe melon bursting with sweetness, or strike out and get a tasteless specimen. There’s a coloquial expression that reflects this uncertainty. We say “que melão,” which means “what a melon,” when we suffer a minor disappointment.
Melon sellers have some curious idiosyncrasies. They like to boast that their melons come from Almeirim, a region that is famous for its melon but has a small production volume. They also take pride in being able to pick a ripe melon, even though their track record is often spotty.
Restaurant waiters talk about melon with great diplomacy. When they say: “The melon is usually great but I didn’t try it today,” it means that the melon is a dud.
There are restaurants that always serve good melon. No one seems to know how they do it. Perhaps they buy many melons and throw away the bad ones.
According to an old proverb, “por cima de melão, vinho de tostão,” which means “after melon, drink wine that costs a penny.” Since a penny was a lot of money in old times, the proverb recommends drinking good wine after eating melon.
So, here’s our advice. Ask a melon seller to pick a ripe melon from Almeirim for you. If the melon is lousy, just say “que melão” and move on. If the melon is great, celebrate with a great bottle of wine!
The name of this wine estate near Lisbon means golden hill farm. It is a fitting designation because this is a place where grapes are treated like gold and wines are made with a jeweler’s precision.
The soil of the farm is similar to that of Côtes du Rhône, so José Bento dos Santos, the farm’s owner, planted the same grape varieties that thrive in that French region: Syrah and Viognier.
Graça Gonçalves, the estate’s enologist, talks about each parcel of the farm as if they are old friends. She knows their qualities and shortcomings and choses cultivation methods that help each of them thrive. We ask which is her favorite parcel and quickly realize it is an impolite question. Graça does not answer, but when she talks about parcel 24 her eyes shine more than usual. This parcel is planted with Syrah grapes that came from old vines in Côtes du Rhône. Each plant is different and it is this variety that creates the quinta’s top wines, such as the aptly named Syrah 24.
When harvest time approaches, Graça walks through the vines, taking samples to analyze in the lab, tasting the grapes, imagining the wines that will be produced. When the time is right, the grapes are picked by hand and carefully selected. There are then numerous decision to make, such as how to press the grapes and whether to stage the wine in French oak barrels or stainless steel vats. Why such meticulous care? Graça explains: “Wine is roughly 14 percent alcohol and 85 percent water, so there is only one percent for the fruits of the vine to create emotion.” It is impossible not to feel this emotion when you open a bottle of Quinta do Monte d’Oiro wine.
Click here for the Quinta do Monte d’Oiro website.
When you go to the market buy black figs, recommends the Portuguese writer Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen in her poem The Morning Walk: “but figs are not black, they are blue on the outside and pink on the inside and they all shed a tear made of honey.”
Older people often complain that food doesn’t taste as good as it once did. Are they right or it is just that everything tastes better when we’re young? We can answer this question thanks to Herdade do Freixo do Meio, an Alentejo estate.
In 2001, the Herdade adopted organic production methods and planted old varieties of fruits and vegetables that were left behind by the industrialization of agriculture. They also started to raise black pigs, Barrosa cows, Alentejo turkeys, and other animals, letting them roam free. You can see and taste the amazing results by visiting their store in Lisbon’s Ribeira market.
When you try their products, you quickly realize that older people are right: food used to taste much better. The good news is that Herdade do Freixo is bringing that taste back!
Click here for the Herdade do Freixo do Meio web site.
The Earl of Sandwich is credited with the idea of placing food inside two slices of bread. But it was Portuguese peasants who turned this aristocratic whim into something sublime.
In ancient times, peasants in Mealhada, a town in the Bairrada region, used to offer their largest pigs to the nobles who owned the land. The peasants were left with small pigs called “leitão” (“laytaoum”). They roasted them in wood ovens, seasoned with garlic, bay leaves, olive oil, and plenty of white pepper. The meat, cut into slices and served inside country bread, produced amazing sandwiches.
One of our favorite side trips from Lisbon is to drive the 90 km to Mealhada to enjoy a freshly-made “leitão” sandwich, accompanied with local sparkling wine. On the way there, we visit the beautiful Batalha monastery. On the return, we stop by the enchanting Bussaco Palace for coffee and pastry. The delicious food and beautiful scenery always make for memorable trips.
There are many good restaurants in Mealhada serving “leitão à moda da Bairrada” (leitão Bairrada style). Two of our favorites are Meta dos Leitões (IC2, Estrada Nacional 1, Sernadelo, Mealhada, tel. 231 209 540, email: firstname.lastname@example.org) and Pedro dos Leitões (Rua Alvaro Pedro no 1 Sernadelo, Mealhada, tel. 231 209 950).