Alqueva Part 2 – The Food

I am not a travel writer, I am a cook and a food enthusiast. Nevertheless, I think I might start sharing my adventures around a few places, but I assure you it will always include food. If I’ve never been down this road before it’s because of:

A) Up till last year I was a mear culinary student (students don’t usually have much resources to travel – well, me at least).

B) Being from the Algarve, my only time off (summer) was spent working.

C) Surely, through any spare time I could find, I would cook and photograph and plan how to write a blog.

Anyhow, a year has passed, I gained (some) professional experience, saved up (some) money and decided to, instead of enrolling into a masters degree or something that would pin me down (financially and geographically), take interesting short-term courses to enrich my mind, body and soul (oh, and don’t forget, my belly) – I will surely post these whenever I start my adventures through wherever I go. You will find out soon enough! For now, here goes take 1.

This year, my parents were so kind I was actually invited to go on a four day trip to Alqueva. Check out my intro, aka Part 1 – The Trip!

I was bewildered (because they usually travel without the kid) yet grateful for the opportunity. Grabbed my bikini, Anthony Bourdain’s – A Cook’s Tour, my camera and hasta la vista world, here goes Mel to enjoy some silence, on a boat, in Alentejo.

I blame my mother for getting me into this post in the first place (in a good way obviously): besides introducing me to great travel writer such as Bill Bryson and handy Lonely Planet books, I think she knew I knew I had what it took to write an interesting point of view about our adventures on a boat through this unique place in Portugal. Heck, the world! She is also the best travel planner I have ever known. She does it at least twice a year and already has a first-name basis relationship with international airports and airlines (just kidding – but, if this were true, I wouldn’t be the least surprised).

Before you start mouthwatering on the other side of the screen, let me give you some basic info you might find useful:

  1. Amieira Marina is where you rent the boat. They provide a map, a big one. If you lose it, there is one stapled to the inside of the boat. Plus, GPS system is easy to get used to. Big big plus side? You don’t even need a boat license! You get a two hour tops lesson on how to drive it, float it right and, eventually, not sink it.                                            IMG_6923
  2. They provide elevator trolleys so you don’t have to carry heavy baggage. Yes, this means take as much food and booze as you possibly can.
  3. Kitchen completely equipped – even a BBQ you can set up! Stove and oven are gas run. Portable water and separate dam water taps (non consumable). Good sized fridge and regular freezer, plenty of cute plates and bowls, tea towels and table cloths, complementary basket with an Alentejano bread loaf and cured goat cheese. Now this is quality of life people! The only thing I could complain about was the amount of time the fridge took to cool my drinks (very hot, can’t blame floating technology) and the lack of sharp knives. I suppose my cooker self should have anticipated such a fact. Now I know never to travel without my kit again.
  4. PET FRIENDLY! Yes, for a small fee of 40€ you can take your dog. Make sure you buy a float jacket ahead of time and spend your peaceful moments teaching him how to fetch the tennis ball into the vast waters. Just tell him it’s a big pool – it worked for us!

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So, as you can imagine, I was the private chef on the boat! I basically cooked and served whatever my dear mother thought we needed most. I can assure you, we could of survived another week, easily and comfortably, without starving. Here you have it:

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Petisco lunch: veggies from our farm (cherry tomato, cucumber, green pepper, onion and cilantro with a balsamic + red wine vinegar combination), assorted deli such as Presunto, honey roasted ham, Queijo de Azeitão, healthy seedy crackers, bread, tinned preserved fish and, of course, beer! A 15 minute gathering of ingredients so we could make the best of our first day, with little hassle.

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Do you like my smoked mackerel cracker bruschetta?

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Waking up to this? Could get used to it, easily.

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Breakfast with a view! Eggs, cheese, portuguese bread and butter. Some preserved asparagus – ovinhos com espargos is a very traditional Alentejano tidbit.

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Stopped in Campinho on our second day where we found a park with tables, benches and embedded BBQ’s through the so called park. Plenty of friendly families who shared their burning coals so we could make a grilled veggie salad and some chicken breast marinated with pimentão doce (paprika), bay leaf, olive oil, salt, pepper and white wine.

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Once we arrived at Monsaraz, so much art and unique features. First of all, if you want to go here, talk to Amieira Marina. They know a guy who knows a guy that owns a B&B who will gladly pick you up at the nautical club (where you will have to park your boat) in his private car so you can have a nice meal, a stroll and will even take you back. For half the price that a regular taxi would charge, this is the best solution as taxi’s will usually come from far away and will rip you off with a 60€ trip (even if it’s 20 min back and forth).

Dinner at Templários Restaurant:

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Charcuterie plate with top notch cured pork.
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sem título-378Goat cheese gratin with olive oil and oregano. Plenty of bread to dip!

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Cabrito assado com batatas – young goat roasted in the oven till tender, with likewise accompanied potatoes.

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Octopus with olive oil and cilantro.

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Back in Aldeia da Luz, our final day. This town was completely rebuilt somewhere else – they even moved the cemetery and respective carcases. Otherwise, the town council wouldn’t have agreed with the move. Check out their museum for some historical facts.

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Traditional Bakery Sign. Got there just in time (before 1pm as it shuts for lunch till 3pm) to buy a loaf and some almond and egg cream pastries.

Translation: The bakery belonged to the parents of the current owner, who still baked bread in a traditional brick oven. When he inherited the bakery, he continued to bake bread in the traditional way, only ceasing to do so when the family moved to the new village. Here you can find regional Alentejo bread and cakes. The bakery owners are Albertina and Manuel Godinho.

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Alentejano excursionists arguing what they were going to have for lunch. Out of both options shared through what seemed to me loud roars of hangry (for more info about this human state, click here) they stood for at least 10 minutes discussing the pros and cons of choosing:

  •  carne de alguidar: when we make chouriço, we put everything in a bucket, season it well with salt, pepper, vinegar, olive oil, bay leaf and paprika, but instead of stuffing the chouriço we can also make a meal out of it. It actually goes by the name of bucket meat.
  • Churrasco – our grilled meat, you can call it our barbecue but without the american sauce. Simple is best with a tad of lemon juice topped after being grilled, to cut the strong flavor of the fat and smoke drenched meat.

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Our last evening on the boat.

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Preparing some roast veggie salad and local chouriço to put on the grill for our last floating meal.

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Once back home, I couldn’t help myself by making a friendly petisco with my edible souvenirs. I brought three cheeses:

Cured sheep milk cheese – Sapata from Reguengos de Monsaraz

Cured sheep milk cheese – Lactobelavista from Rio dos Moinhos

Mixed sheep and cow milk cheese – Belqueijo from Nisa

I also brought back a black pig chouriço. Let’s just say it was too damn yummi, it didn’t survive before the photoshoot.

All in all – one of the best trips ever. Four days isn’t enough to cover the amount of territory you can explore. The people, the food, the peace and quiet, the warm still waters and the everlasting floating. After two days, I would step on land and feel like I hadn’t stopped floating – this is normal and a pretty cool thing to experience!

Stuffed Azeitão Cheese Rind

This post is about cheese, the portuguese kind that if you don’t already know about, you should search for on the internet and order some right away. Besides me talking you into trying some of our greatest delicacies, there will be a recipe, with simple ingredients none the less. Even if your cheese purveyor is not a portuguese fan (which he/she should be), you can adapt and create as you wish, with any other similar cheese you can get your hands on.

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So, Azeitão cheese has a lovely story behind it, like most interesting cheeses do. One day, this guy (Gaspar Henriques de Paiva) who used to live in Serra da Estrela (highest range of mountains in continental Portugal, which produces a creamy scoopadilic cheese) decided to live elsewhere. He therefore moved to somewhere, called Azeitão, and decided to mimic his beloved iguary. So, that’s how the Azeitão cheese was borne (I am now wishing for more synonyms for the word cheese – which is impossible – so bare with me). It is made from unpasteurized sheep milk, and is coagulated with cardoon (Cynara cardunculus, L – related to thistle and artichoke), an abundantly found herb around the area, which has an enzyme that is responsible for the coagulation of the milk (that only works with goat or sheep’s milk). Later on cured in special conditions for 20 days, so that delicious flavor can maturate, consistency set and rind be developed. This precise way of production, also the breed of the sheep and the geographical location (Serra da Arrábida – District of Setúbal), makes this cheese a DOP product (Protected of Designation of Origin), with a runny spreadable consistency known by every portuguese person on the planet. Marvelous.

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creamy goodness

I will warn you now – I eat too much bread. That’s just how the portuguese roll. Bread with everything. I don’t really have a tendency of eating it with a main course (although most PT’s do), unless it is a picky, or there is plenty of dipping sauce, or the bread itself is the meal – with picky snacks. Now, another warning, we don’t appreciate you calling our eating habits tapas, if you ever say that in front of a portuguese, you will get the hatred stare.  We eat and adore petiscos. In every possible way. And that always includes bread. So don’t think I’m obsessed with it or anything, it’s just a part of who I grew up to be. It is obviously a part of this vittle.

So, here is the “recipe” – it is more an idea than a recipe:

First get an Azeitão cheese. Spread that amazing gooeyness on anything you like. But, don’t do it while at fridge temperature – you must let it set at room temperature for a while before it becomes spreadable. Now, to all you health safety freaks out there, this can be a microbiological hazard, as it does have unpasteurized sheep’s milk. So don’t do this too often, as huge temperature discrepancies will increase the risk of a possible upset tummy. Although many studies have shown that raw milk cheese is a safer option, because of the natural flora (which interferes with pathogen survival), you should always store your goods in proper conditions and avoid huge temperature differences.

When you get to that point where you look at your cheese and think “not enough to spread on many crackers, but still plenty not to waste”, then that is when you should think about using that last bit and stuff the rind.

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Now, choose your filling. I decided on mushrooms, parsley, fennel and smoked trout. The idea of fish with cheese never amused me much, but this is smoked trout from a can, which goes well with the mushrooms and combines perfectly with the delicate yet strong Azeitão.

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le trout trout inside The mushrooms should be sautéed beforehand, otherwise they will release too much moisture and ruin the cheese. A slight maillard reaction also gives flavor and lets the rest of the ingredients to caramelize a bit. So, add a bit of olive oil to a pan, fry a bay leaf (yes, fry it a bit – it’s just like those indian spices which render best when heated in grease) crush a few cloves of garlic, add mushrooms and let them release all the water, then add chopped up fennel. Refresh with some dry sherry, and finish off with chopped parsley. mushrooms and trout 2

For the trout – this is already cooked, so just add it in with the mushrooms when finished.

Best to scrape all the remaining cheese out of the rind, before filling. Save that last bundle of happiness to scrape on one last cracker, and put the rest aside to top off the filling, so it gently melts in the oven. And top with whatever you have left of the cover (mine broke a bit, but it worked just as well).

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I advise you to bake it on top of some parchment paper, as to move it will be a non profitable challenge – just cut around the excess paper and move it to a plate to serve (with the help of the parchment paper), so it won’t be destroyed.

The remaining bay leafe and parsley was used to decorate the concoction.

To bake it – 180ºC oven for about 5 minutes, it should end up looking like this:

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top off cheese

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two toasts cheese back

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Serve it right away, with thinly sliced bread of your choice. Surrender to the meltiness of the cheese!

I used whole wheat with plenty of healthy seeds, just to make it a little bit healthier (though all the mushrooms, parsley, fennel and garlic already provide so many vitamins, not to mention the trout which is rich in Omega 3 – mega healthy treat).