Beijinhos from Beja

Beja stationFor many, the south of Portugal holds a special charm. It’s easy to get to from the UK, for example, with daily flights connecting local airports throughout the year.  Most people stay in their resorts to relax (and who wouldn’t?) but if you fancy heading a little further afield, the towns of the Alentejo are a good option, and at this time of year they have a big advantage over their northern counterparts – sunshine!

We headed down to Lisbon for a weekend in search of said sunshine and decided to have a day out in Beja, a town located in the Alentejo, a region that is famous for fantastic food and wines.  We weren’t disappointed on either front but we’ve definitely upped our intake of Alentejo wines as a result of that trip.

House within Beja's wallsBeja welcomes visitors to the town in its azulejo tiled train station, something that’s fairly common in Portugal and an indication of just how popular the railways once were here. Almost every station we’ve been to from the railways’ glory days are a work of art in themselves, just like the beautiful Victorian ones in the UK (think York, St Pancras, Darlington).   Beja takes its name from Pax Julia, Julias Caesar’s name for the town, since 48 BC and if you look closely enough there’s still evidence of the Romans around the town.  A  medieval castle stands proud, with the town’s original walls, built in Roman times and restored in the Middle Ages, still intact. The view from here over the surrounding countryside is worth the climb. It reminds you just how much of Portugal is still lush farmland.

 

Inside the museumA trip to Beja’s museums are a must.  With an all inclusive ticket (€3 per person) you have access to the Museu da Rainha D. Leonor  and the brand new Nucleo.  The Museu is housed in a Manueline and Gothic convent with a mix of artwork on display once you pass through the wonderfully tiled halls.  Tastefully decorated and in immaculate condition, the azulejo walls and Baroque church are a  At the Nucleo Museologico you have the opportunity to walk over the remains of a section of a Roman bath house.  With reinforced glass just metres away from the bricks and mortar themselves and clearly marked maps, this is a fantastic insight into the Roman world.

 

I would recommend a day to Beja for anyone passing through from the Algarve or en route from Evora. It’s quite a small town but with a visit to the museums and a long lunch, it’s esy to spend a day here.

 

SAM_5812SAM_5816Town square in Beja

A recipe for sweet… or savoury delight

food, tripas, aveiro

Tripas de Aveiro

It seems that the typical Aveirense tongue is a sweet one. Alongside Ovos Moles, there’s the fabulous tripas to tempt the tastebuds.  Tripas in Aveiro are not the same as the ones the people of Porto lap up.  No, they’re quite the opposite.  In Porto tripas are tripe, served in a similar way to the tripe in the UK.  But in Aveiro, they’re a crêpe-like taste sensation, filled with just about any condiment, chocolate brand or sauce you like.

TM&M tripas from Aveiro

M&Ms on a chocolate tripa

Tripas are made of pancake batter, but flattened on a waffle iron before being filled or topped with your choice from the menu – so whether you’re a fan of After Eight chocolate, Lion bars, icecream in a plethora of flavours or something a little more savoury like tuna and cheese, there’s definitely a tripa for you. They’re a great afternoon snack or a light dinner when you’ve eaten too much at lunchtime!

 

To make tripas, just follow this recipe:

  • 3 eggs
  • 250 g of flour
  • 500 ml of cold milk
  • 125 g of sugar
  • 60 g unsalted butter
  • a pinch of salt
  • your chosen topping/filling
  • Mix the eggs and flour together.
  • When the mixture is smooth, slowly add the milk and stir continuously.
  • Add the sugar, melted butter and a pinch of salt.
  • Leave the batter to rest for 30 minutes then grease a waffle iron (or similar) and slowly add the batter in a circular format. Once lightly browned on both sides, add the filling to the centre, then fold into a square shape, as if wrapping a present. Add a topping and serve.  A sprinkle of cinnamon is always a good idea.

 

My favourite place for tripas in Aveiro is on the canal, overlooking the moliceiro boats.  It’s a small place called Tê Zero and you can smell it before you get near the door – yes, it’s that good!

Recipe translated from the Aveiro Lovers website which promotes the best of Aveiro. Their Facebook page has some great links, photos and the latest events in Aveiro.  it’s worth checking it out if you’re in town.

 

Images from Alimentavida17 and Cocò Na Fralda blogs.

The majesty of Alcobaça

Alcobaça is another of Portugal’s hidden gems. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s brimming with history. Alcobaça centres around a stunning monastery which can be admired from cafés in the town’s main square or from the old castle, perched about ten minutes walk away.

Acobaça view

A view over Alcobaça

My first visit to Alcobaça coincided nicely with their annual sweet exhibition – the International Conventual Sweet and Liqueur show (Mostra Internacional de Doces e Licores Conventuais). Since 1999 it has taken place every year in November, and has a growing number of international companies taking part.  The show initially focused on cakes, sweets, jams and liqueurs made using traditional processes by nuns and monks. It has grown to include businesses from across Portugal selling sugar infused goodies made the old fashioned way but the nuns are still present with lots of lovely food to try. Top picks include Ovos Moles, Ginja and pão de Ló. Well worth a day’s diversion on any holiday in Portugal, just make sure you take a big shopping bag for the cakes on offer.

2013-11-17 12.12.47

Now that summer is well and truly here in Portugal, the square in front of the monastery is the ideal location to relax in the sun with a slice of cake and  a coffee after exploring the cool interiors of this 12th century Cistercian monastery. Founded in 1153 by the first king of Portugal, Afonso Henriques, it was, along with its church, the first gothic building in Portugal. Containing magnificent carvings, the two most important historic features within it are the tombs of King Pedro I of Portugal and his lover, Ines de Castro, his true love, who was assassinated under orders of his father.  The impressive kitchen includes an awe-inspiring floor to ceiling chimney and the gardens, where the exhibition now takes place, are the perfect place to wander at snail’s pace.

Tickets are €6.00 per person with varying discounts for students, over 65s and families. A combination tickets for monasteries on the Patrimonial Route (three in total are €15 per person). On Sundays and Bank Holidays, entry is free before 2pm.

Dusk

The monastery at dusk

Did someone say chocolate?

chocolate, Obidos, fashion show

One of the chocolate fiends at the festival

Generally speaking around this time of year, chocolate is one of the first things people give up for Lent. In the small walled town of Óbidos, that’s not the case.In Óbidos it’s time to celebrate chocolate in all its gooey, sweet, versatile glory.

For one month, the walled town and castle are taken over by stalls selling anything and everything related to chocolate. Along the main street, Rua Direita, even the local drink, Ginja (or Ginjinha) comes in shot sized cups made of chocolate.

 

chocolate, Obidos, Portugal, castle

Feira do Chocolate, Obidos

This year’s festival was zoo themed with a tie-up with the zoo in Lisbon (Jardim Zoológico) so a team of chocolatiers created works of chocolate animal art, ranging from lions, reindeer and sea lions to flamingoes, giraffes and even an elephant.  The exhibition tent was one of the best areas of the festival and one I’d head back to.

 

 

 

chocolate, festival, Obidos, castle

Obidos Chocolate festival

Stalls at the festival include hot chocolate, marshmallows, fruit bathed in chocolate, cake decorating materials and cakes galores, but the cherry on the top of the celebrations has to be the fashion show that took place on Saturday night.  With an oriental theme, three countries – India, China and Japan, were fashioned in chocolate accessories and sashayed down the catwalk.  From belly dancers to Harijuku girls, the crowd had the challenge of determining exactly which part of the outfit was made from chocolate and which wasn’t.  Sounds easy?  Trust me, it wasn’t!  The chocolate accessories were made on the day and it was no mean feat deciding what was likely to melt under the lights!

Santiago Church bookshop

Converted from a church to a bookshop

The castle walls are in fantastic condition in Óbidos and as a result, should you need to walk off some of those newly added calories, there are steps dotted around to climb up to the walls for a view of the festival and the impressive landscapes which surround the castle.  Two bookshops are also worth a mention.  Both are located on Rua Direita – one, the Mercado Biológico de Óbidos stores its books, mainly second hand, in over one thousand old wooden fruit crates and is also an organic fruit and vegetable shop.  The second, the Livraria de Santiago, is located in the Igreja São Tiago, a converted church along the castle ramparts.  An altar remains, surrounded by books.  Óbidos is an excellent place for a day out, or for a break from the nearby surfing beaches of Nazaré and Peniche, or even en route to Lisbon, as a minor detour.

View from the Casa do Fontanario

Our view

We stayed at the Casa do Fontanario, a restored former plumber’s home just outside the city walls.  The rooms were a good size, spotlessly clean with a good breakfast and even a small bottle of wine on the house waiting for us on arrival.

What’s inside The Barrel?

Restaurante O Barril, traditional Portuguese food

The Barrel’s logo.  Does what it says on the tin

So, I’ve already mentioned a fantastic little place for food in Leiria, and now it’s Aveiro‘s turn. We have a local, and it’s a true local’s place. It’s a little bit away from the town’s main dining areas, but locals do know about it, and frequent it, almost as much as us – with the amazing food here, I simply have to go to the gym to prevent myself growing to the size of a house! The Barrel, as it’s affectionately known by myself and English speaking friends here, is a classic case of don’t judge a book by its cover.

From the outside it looks a little untoward, there’s not a single whiff of haute cuisine or la-di-dah food snobbishness here. What the Barrel contains is a homely atmosphere where real food and friendly service are standard. I’m originally a Yorkshire girl, and we like real food on our plates with a smile to accompany it. I don’t do white plates with a drizzle of sauce, I do real meals with vegetables, fish, meat and good company.

Bife na Pedra in all its glory.

Bife na Pedra in all its glory.

Tucked away down a small street near the theatre in Aveiro, Restaurante O Barril has been on the Aveirense restaurant scene for over fifty years. Its current owners are a family who bought it ten years ago and carried on the tradition of serving home-cooked, freshly made food in epic portions using locally sourced ingredients. As is the norm here, the menu changes daily and includes a wide selection of dishes from fish to meat. There’s always a dish that’s guaranteed to tickle the taste buds, but of all the dishes on the menu, there are two which stand out and that are always available – tiled salmon and steak on a stone.

Salmõ na telha

Prepping the salmon on the tile

Salmão na telha, tiled salmon, consists of salmon, potatoes and onions in olive oil, cooked in a roof tile. The traditional rounded roof tiles of Portugal double up as cooking pots, it seems, and this is one dish that has to be tried. It takes around thirty-five minutes for this fish to gently cook in the oven, just enough time to enjoy fine local cheeses and pâtés. Like the cakes in the bakeries, Portuguese cheeses give the French a run for their money.

Samâ na telha

Ready to eat!

Sizzling steak

Hard to resist, the sizzling steak is hot to trot

As for the steak, well, it’s all about audience participation. Set to sizzle on the stone, the role of the chef reverses and it’s the turn of the diner to do some work! The bife na pedra, or steak on the stone, arrives at the table as a baking hot stone, heated up to around 200°C, straight out of the oven. The steak is served seasoned with local salt, pepper and garlic, but the it’s raw, and like a sizzling platter, you cook it yourself, turning it until it’s oozing with juices, your mouth is watering, and it’s as raw, or as well done as you like it. The wine list is good too, with both a standard and specials list – great for trying something new.

Wines are available by the bottle as well as by the carafe. Even Vinho Verde is available by the carafe here, quite an anomaly in Aveiro.

*As I said in a previous post, I don’t get paid for anything on my blog, but I believe in credit where credit is due. As I’m referring to a local business that someone might miss if they’re in the area, there’s a link in this post to The Barrel’s Facebook page (where these photos came from).

Visions of Vista Alegre

SAM_4228Vista Alegre is a small town which is located  approximately 5miles/8km from Aveiro, in the district of Ilhavo.  The town name means beautiful view and as you can see from the photos, with the river running through it and the masses of grassland along the Aveiro estuary, it’s a particularly apt name

SAM_4231The town itself is probably most famous for the Vista Alegre porcelain factory. The company was established in 1815 by Pinto Basto who saw the success of glass manufacturing in Marinha Grande, a town in the Leiria district, and decided to establish his own firm in Ilhavo.

SAM_4237The original grounds of the Vista Alegre quinta remain today alongside the factory where Vista Alegre’ s high end product are hand crafted from initial mixing off the clay to the varnish that protects the final product. Pinto Bastos purchased Quinta da Ermida, a mansion along the estuary where clay, sands, fuel and pebbles were readily available, to which, at a later date he added the 100 acre estate that is the present day Vista Alegre factory. Granted the title of Royal Factory in 1832 , the company enjoyed a golden era of glass and porcelain production. Fast forward to the present day, and following various restructures, it is still one of Portugal, and indeed, the world’s most well respected porcelain companies.

SAM_4242Today the grounds at Vista Alegre include the original quinta, a family church and the factory itself. The factory’s grounds have a small garden in them which is reminiscent of that often found in an English country house. There’s a museum (currently closed for refurbishment but the displays can be seen elsewhere in the town) which charts the history of the factory, the families involved over time and includes pieces from its finest collection. These collections are a true reflection of how our approach to fine dining, homewares and decoration has changed over time, with each artistic era since 1815 brilliantly represented in porcelain, china and glass. Royal families and presidents of several countries are amongst the lucky ones to have Vista Alegre on their dinner tables.

SAM_4238Nowadays the factory produces the high end pieces for the likes of Christian Lacroix and Eduardo Nery whilst their partner company, Atlantic, is the crystal and glasswear producer.  Tours of the factory are available for anyone who wants to learn more about the production process and marvel at the steady hands of the artists working there. When they say handmade, they really mean it here.  An extensive range of Vista Alegre Atlantis’ products are on sale at the two shops at the Vista Alegre factory, both of which are an absolute dream of a place to visit.  You’ll come away wishing you had ten kitchens and dinings rooms  and that you could entertain every night of the week, just to have an excuse to buy the tea sets, coffee pots and crystal glasses.  My personal favourites are the Vila Verde range, based on a tradition related to handkerchiefs that’s resurged here in Portugal which I’ll write about at a later date.

SAM_4246 In the last week of July of each year, the town pays homage to the local saint, Our Lady of Peñafrancia (Nossa Senhora da Penha de França), and of course, this is an excellent excuse for a party or two.  In the grounds of the factory, a stage is erected alongside several stalls with local food, toys and daily entertainment.  Anyone visiting Porto and especially Aveiro at that time of year should add a visit here to their plans. SAM_4234There’s also a Vista Alegre factory shop sale which is immensly popular and additional (free) tours of the factory take place- bring your car if you want to stock up!  For us, though, one of the highlights of the celebrations was a Fado night organised by the Vista Alegre Sporting Club, a local community organisation on a par with a rugby or cricket club in the UK.  With local wines, food served on Vista Alegre pottery (what else?!) and local Fado singers, the community came out in force to celebrate.  It was a simple affair, but often, it’s best to take it back to basics to enjoy great company, a friendly atmosphere and a local tradition that few foreigners get to see.

São Gonçalinho – the art of chucking bread off the church roof

São Gonçalinho festival in Aveiro

Fishing nets ahoy in Aveiro

A month ago, the centre of Aveiro was host to one of its biggest festivals, which celebrates São Gonçalo. Aveiro is broken up into geographical districts, there’s Alboi, Glória, Vera Cruz, Barrocas and each one has its own celebrations, traditions and of course, church or chapel. For the São Gonçalinho festivities, the action takes place in Vera Cruz, right in the centre of town.

São Gonçalo, or São Gonçalinho as he is more commonly known here (inho is diminuitive in Portuguese), was reputed to cure illnesses of the bone and sort out marital problems, but today people pay homage for a variety of reasons personal to them. At the chapel dedicated to him, just next to Praça do Peixe, where the main fish market is, the locals gather with umbrellas, fishing nets and sackloads of a special bread, called cavacas. Cavacas are an oval shaped flat bread that is dusted with icing sugar. They are hard on the outside but soft on the inside, which when it comes hurtling towards you from a church roof, you’d find hard to believe! They’re shaped a little bit like a boat, very apt for this region of Portugal.

São Gonçalinho festival in Aveiro

São Gonçalinho poster for the 2013 festival

São Gonçalinho poster

São Gonçalinho poster for 2014 festival

Local tradition dictates that in throwing the bread from the dome of the church, a prayer will be granted for the year. They call the wishes promessas here, but this sounds strange to the English ear, and so, having had the concept explained to me, I think wish or answered prayer, is a more appropriate translation. Day and night, people file into the chapel with their cavacas, heading up to the dome to stand and throw them at the crowds gathered below. The unique way in which the crowds catch the wishes, though, is what makes this such a fun festival. People are armed for cavacas battle with long fishing nets, metres high, upturned umbrellas, their bare hands and sacks to take them home in… and they’re trained, really trained, for action. It’s normal to see ten fishing nets waving about in the air as people catch the cavacas, with cheers from the crowds, clapping and the necessary dodging of these sweet flying saucers by debutantes like myself.

São Gonçalinho festival in Aveiro

São Gonçalinho festival in Aveiro

It’s not just about the art of throwing the bread, though, this is a festival for everyone. The festival takes place every year in January, on the Sunday which falls nearest to the 10th January, with fireworks every night in the five days running up to the Sunday, concerts and cavacas bread stalls – it’s perfect for anyone with a sweet tooth. They even do selection bags so you can test the waters, as it were, then go back for more.