The largest city in the Alentejo region of Portugal, Évora, is one of those places that I love to visit in any season. We’ve spent many nights here on our way to the Costa Vicentina in the summer months or on our way to Lisbon during the winter holidays. It’s beauty and charm stands strong regardless of the harsh weather. The 1st Century Roman Temple here never ceases to leave me in awe as I walk up to the Convent dos Lóios where I stay with my groups. Centuries of history always rush through my mind and leave me a bit speechless.
Alentejo is known for its wine, excellent food, olive trees, cork and very relaxed way of living. That is just to name a few things. We have probably covered every inch of it throughout our travels in Portugal. Beautiful wineries, small towns with excellent food, and fascinating history is to be found everywhere. Being here during the grape harvest is extra special. At some wineries the grapes are still crushed by foot. The local food varies throughout the Alentejo from hearty meat dishes and soups in the interior to excellent seafood along the coast. One thing you must try while in the area near Évora is the black Iberian pork. These black pigs are raised happily, grazing on acorns from the local oak trees.
There is a restaurant in Évora that I have been wanting to try for an eternity. Tucked away in the old Moorish neighborhood you will find Botequim da Mouraria with seating for 9 people, no reservations accepted. It is owned by a lovely man named Domingos, who runs the front of the house and his wife Florbela, who is the miracle worker in the kitchen. I could only order one item off the menu since I was alone. But, I enviously watched my dining neighbors enjoyed grilled mushrooms, prawns drenched in garlic and butter, ham and melon, and grilled fish. My heart told me to go for the grilled filet of black pork and it was divine. There is no other word to describe this dish. It was served with a green salad tossed in front of me and homemade potato chips. Domingos was slightly annoyed that I didn’t eat the potatoes but the pork and salad were perfect together. If you go, you should really eat their fresh chips!!
I love the set up of the restaurant. Everyone is seated around the “bar” like a family. You can see all the fresh products they have on display along with the gorgeous wine selection. Domingos is kind and honest about how much you should order. It feels like a fine dining experience in an incredibly relaxed atmosphere. By the end of my meal I had taken up pleasant conversation with the Japanese couple to my right and the Irish Thelma and Louise to my left. Everyone was obviously as thrilled as I was to have gotten one of the lucky seats for lunch that day!
When Domingos served my beautiful pork I kindly asked him for some “piri piri” or spicy sauce. One of my favorite things about good Portuguese restaurants. He brought out this jar of fiery oil made with the spicy malagueta peppers used in Portugal, Brazil and Africa. Within 2 minutes the jar was being passed about the bar to the other guests. There is nothing like a piri piri made with love.
Domingos forced me to have dessert since I did not eat my potatoes. There are moments in life when you just can’t say no, like with my Nana Lena. She would have been appalled if we said no to any homemade dessert of hers! Siricaia is an egg custard traditionally served with candied plums that come from the beautiful town of Elvas right on the Spanish/Portuguese border. The perfect end to a perfect meal!
Yesterday I was just thinking about a new blog post to catch up on the last couple of years. As I flipped through photos and memories I couldn’t quite decide where to begin; Naples, Portugal, Switzerland or Granada. In the evening my new roommate/adopted daughter was talking about the dishes she misses most from Portugal and mentioned this wonderful traditional cod. It was quite random that I had this blog post saved as a draft with this photo. So, here is one of my favorites as well from a lovely little restaurant near my old hotel in Lisbon. Bacalhau com grao. Boiled salt cod with garbanzo beans, boiled potato and served with chopped raw onion and parsley. I like it with piri piri but I usually break all food rules when it comes to hot sauce. More to come and Happy Sunday!!!
After leaving the Douro Valley we drove north towards the Minho river which is the natural border between Portugal and Spain. This area of the country is absolutely gorgeous. One of those places where you just want to unpack and stay for a very, very long while. Lush green landscape is the backdrop for this river that is almost 2 kilometers wide where it flows into the Atlantic Ocean..
We drove to the town of Caminha one day for lunch. Caminha is a small but very classy town located only a couple of kilometers away from the Ocean. We sat down for lunch at a cafe in the in the main square which is surrounded by beautiful Renaissance and Gothic houses. This area of Portugal is known for a type of wine called Vinho Verde. It literally means “young wine”. Vinho Verde should be consumed within a year of bottling and is produced in red, white and rosè varieties. Some people think it is difficult to drink due to the rich color but we love it!
The wine went perfect with our ¨light¨lunch of salad, a hamburger and a ¨bifana¨. The Bifana is a sandwich of slowly simmered pork served with a mustard sauce on an excellent roll. In retrospect we should have ordered two Bifanas and vetoed the burger. It was absolutely perfect with a bit of ¨piri piri¨ and the vinho verde. ¨Piri Piri¨is one of my favorite things about Portugal. HOT SAUCE. Always a few different varieties and always available.
After our very long lunch we ran, literally, to catch the sunset right where the Minho River meets the Atlantic. It was definitely the perfect end to a perfect day.
My dear friend Alex and I spent a few days kicking around Madrid this summer. We have spent loads of time together in Madrid in the past 10 years but normally we are trailing around with group of 13 year olds. This time we were alone and free to do as we liked. Needless to say this involved quite a bit of wine and some great food to go along. I think the first time that Aex and I met I took him and the other teachers to one of my favorite places in the center of Madrid, La Casa Del Abuelo. I have been there with many people and it is also a favorite of my Mom and Sisters when they visit.
La Casa Del Abuelo opened in 1906 and began to offer wine and “bocadillos” or small baguette sandwiches to clients. During the Civil War and after there was a shortage of flour in Spain and bread became worth more than gold so El Abuelo began to offer shrimp with wine. To this day generation after generation have been enjoying their special house wine and shrimp and prawns served grilled, in garlic sauce or fried and served on a stick with a spicy dipping sauce. The latter is my personal favorite. Paired with a “chato” of their sweet house wine is a bit of heaven. A couple of the other “Abuelo” restaurants have a more extensive menu (with the same delicious wine) but I prefer the original spot, standing up and tossing the shrimp tails on the floor.
I’ve expressed before my obsession with spicy food and the lack there of it in Spain. I am eternally searching for the exceptions. After 20 years of searching I get extra excited when I find a good spicy dish in a typical place. Because finding spicy food in an Indian or Mexican joint is pretty much a given. The other day we stopped into one of our favorite local bars in our old neighborhood. If you don’t get here by 1:30 in the afternoon you can find yourself with your face plastered against the window as you scream out to the bartender for another beer. Well, the other day we were pleasantly surprised by a new tapa on their list. PAPAS EN MOJO PICÓN!! I’ve talked about Patatas Bravas before. These are not the same. The flavor is completely different. Mojo Picón is a spicy sauce from the Canary Islands that is made with garlic, cayenne peppers, cumin, vinegar, olive oil and salt. Or any other variation on the theme. The name comes from the Portuguese word Molho (sauce). And these potatoes were particularly delicious with their homemade Mojo Picón!! Thank you Granada for the mojo!
I have to admit that for many years I could not comprehend why so many people got all worked up about visiting Gibraltar. Was it the stamp in the passport (that you don’t get anymore), the view of North Africa, or the monkeys stealing their potato chips??? I’m truly passionate about the places that I visit on tour, but it took me years to warm up to Gibraltar. My first memories involve a temperature as hot as hell with humidity, being crammed into taxis and shuttled up to the top of the rock to have a Chevy Chase like view of Africa, a quick stumble through a cave and then hassled by some monkeys before heading down to Casemates Square for lunch. I always spent the entire visit dreaming about the next stop on tour, the beach, where I could recharge my batteries a bit and have a swim in the water instead of just looking at it from a rock. And the Costa del Sol is definitely not lacking in fish n chips if someone really had a hankering.
Many many years have passed since those first visits to the rock. And at some point my perception changed and I began to appreciate this quirky and unusual bit of the peninsula. The people from Gibraltar are known as Juanitos. They are laid back, interesting and always open to a nice chat. I’ve had some great taxi drivers who were like walking history books. They have shared their family history with me along with some great anecdotes about Gibraltar. I’ve enjoyed some amazing conversations with more than a few Juanitos in their mixture of Spanish and English, not that different from my own way of speaking. The monkeys are adorable. It is pretty difficult to dislike a monkey butt.
My friend Todd shared a gastronomical secret spot with me many years ago. It is now one of my favorite places to eat on the entire peninsula. Really. I love Spanish food but I truly suffer at times without spice and hot peppers. My body needs it, craves it and basically cannot live without it. Introducing Mumtaz!! Mumtaz is a tiny, hole in the wall take-away Indian restaurant tucked away off of Main Street. It has two plastic tables, a few chairs and the best damn Indian food I’ve had in a long time. I eat here every time I go to the Rock and enjoy every bite. The sad part, is that I’m always alone which means I have to be limited to one dish with a bread. I’ve slowly been eating my way through the menu. Tour by tour. On my last visit I indulged in a great Sag Paneer, a chapati and an ice cold Cobra as I read an article about Mumtaz in some Gibraltarian magazine. I can’t wait to go back!
Deep fried food. Before moving to Spain this was something I ate occasionally in a bar or to cure a hangover. In Spain however, fried food disguises itself in a way that almost makes it seem healthy. And, according to many a Spaniard, if it is prepared correctly it is healthy indeed. You may try to avoid it, try to minimize, but it is always there and always delicious. Even after 17 years I still haven’t taken up the tradition of deep frying in my own home. I prefer to leave the dirty work to someone else and enjoy my “fritanga” sitting on a beach or a pleasant terrace. The smell of my neighbor’s fried fish wafting into my open windows three times a week is as close as I need to be.
Two years ago we discovered a great campground in a national park on the Northern coast of Spain in the region of Cantabria. From the campground you can walk down to an extensive beach, Oyambre, that allows amazing views of the “Picos de Europa”, a spectacular mountain range. Last year we discovered a great little restaurant still open in the off season where we enjoyed a menu of the day that included a pinto bean stew and an excellent tuna with onions or atún encebollado, typical along this coast. When we returned this year in August, the main beach restaurant or “chiringuito” as we would call it here was open. El Pájaro Amarillo as it is called has beautiful views of the beach from its extensive terrace. We were looking to eat something “light” on our first afternoon at the beach. Since my daughter is a huge fan of fried calamares we decided to order “rabas” . They are basically deep fried squid cut to be straight instead of rings. We also ordered a “ración” of patatas bravas ( fried potatoes in a spicy sauce). The fried squid in Cantabria is one of the most tender and delicious that I have had in the country (and my daughter eats it everywhere possible). But, the patatas bravas were unbelievable. This is a typical tapa served all over the country in many different ways. Like my daughter with fired squid, I try to taste all varieties of patatas bravas throughout the country. What usually varies the most is the sauce. These were actually patatas mixtas which includes both the spicy tomato sauce and an alioli or garlic mayonnaise. Both of the sauces were so delicious that we dipped both the potatoes and the squid into the sauce. YUM!!! The alioli held enough garlic to ward off the flu for 5 years and the brava sauce was actually SPICY!!! Something very unusual in Spain. We returned the next day and ordered the exact same simple meal without one regret. The beach is beautiful and the mixture of sand, sun and fried yumminess makes it all the more worth the visit!!!
Well, cheers to the New Year. I can’t say that my New Year’s Eve was the most exciting to be had but it was enjoyable, relaxing and more or less healthy. Luna and I and a dear friend enjoyed our leftover homemade seafood ravioli’s with spicy vodka sauce. Of course Luna preferred her ravioli’s with truffle oil and Parmesan cheese. Luna and I ate our mandatory 12 grapes at about 8 o’clock with our friend making the chimes of the clock and then Luna was asleep by 8:30 and my friend went out with the “normal people”. My partner is out of town working and I kindly turned down all invites by friends. There was something soothing about starting the New Year on my couch with a glass of Cava and a movie. And as an insightful friend said, “you are not a loser, you are a cool Mom”. So this is how Luna and I began 2011, relaxed, happy, and together.
There will be a New Moon on the 4th of January along with a partial Solar Eclipse. So said this will bring us good fortune and happiness. More than anything I hope it will bring some necessary change in the world. For me personally I could definitely use some inspiration and good fortune. Last summer I promised myself I would finally start my book about great Spanish food and hidden restaurant treasures. Needless to say I have done plenty of research in the past 16 years but I need to get it together. So, this blog I am hoping will help me along a bit. Little by little I plan to share my research along with other experiences of my life here in beautiful Southern Spain.