Monday, 19 March 2012

My Weekend in the Country (Day 2)

*Interested in learning more about Portuguese food and wine with me? Check out my An American In Portugal Tours, and my blog's new home!*

In Day 1 of My Weekend in the Country, I explored ancient Roman ruins and caves with Rita and her family around the tiny village of Avecasta near Ferreira de Zêzere along with enjoying some delicious home- cooked food and strong country wine!  Well, my second day in the Portuguese countryside was packed with even more delicious food and wine and a visit to one of the most picturesque aldeias in area, Dornes, a hilltop village settled on a small peninsula stretched out in the middle of the Rio Zêzere
Sunday morning I woke up completely relaxed and refreshed from a wonderfully peaceful night's sleep under the moonlight and comforting sounds of nature.  I stepped out onto the balcony from the room to breathe in some of that still-chilly clean morning country air! :)

When Rita and I came down for some (late) breakfast we found her parents already starting to prepare our lunch and dinner!  A freshly killed and plucked chicken from the hen house greeted us in the summer kitchen, all ready to be popped into the oven to roast for dinner.  Well, all except the feet, Rita's mother said she would put them into a pot for canja  or chicken soup ;)  

Outside, Rita's father was readying the stone oven for the chicken, as well as our lunch, which was to be a classic Portuguese dish, bacalhau assado com batatas a murro -roasted salt cod with "punched potatoes".  

 It first starts with putting whole potatoes and onions (these were fresh from the family's garden!) to roast with just a generous helping of coarse sea salt, followed a little bit later by adding the fillets of salt cod to roast to finish all together.   This time, the chicken was also added to roast, since there was plenty of space :)  And you could just imagine the heavenly aroma of all those caramelizing onions, potatoes and meat filling the whole neighborhood, we couldn't wait to dig in!

But in order to finish this dish, the bacalhau had to be shredded and the potatoes "punched" down and mixed together with the onions, along with chopped garlic, olive oil  and vinegar, which all of them also happened to be homemade!  (The family has a fairly large plot of both grape vines and olive trees in the next village over and they get their olives pressed at the village's own community press, this is actually quite common for most locals).

Then the "punched" potato mixture is combined with the shredded bacalhau to complete the dish!

Here is a short video I got of Rita with her parents putting the finishing touches to the dish and making sure the seasoning is just perfect, as in making sure there was plenty of garlic hehe :)  I am asking questions about the recipe as well as remarking how good it smells  ;)  

Then we all settled down on the outdoor picnic table for an absolutely delicious lunch!  The family's killer white wine accompanied our bacalhau and was perfectly chilled this time to take the edge off haha.   As for dessert, they kept it simple: fresh strawberries in season macerated in açucar amarelo ("yellow sugar"-like a very light brown sugar) and Port wine, I was a very happy girl :)
After seriously pigging out at lunch, we needed some time to digest so luckily we had a nice little drive ahead of us to visit the beautiful aldeia of Dornes.  We drove right up to the top of the hill in the village and this was my first view of the Rio Zêzere, surrounded by lush evergreen and aromatic eucalyptus mountains :)
It was a gorgeous afternoon to be by the river!
The river had a lovely shimmer from the sun and all you could hear was the warm breeze whipping through hair :)
All we could do for about the first part of our time was relax and enjoy the view!
The original settlement of Dornes can be traced back as early as the 12th century, even before the country of Portugal was founded.   At the top of the village is the ruins of the Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Pranto,  a 15th century church built for Queen Isabel.  It has a peculiar pentagonal tower, that's unlike any other found in the country.
The view from where the church is, as you can see the village doesn't stretch too much beyond the peninsula!
A 14th century crucifix shrine decorated with traditional blue and white Portuguese azulejos (tiles).  Love the pink wildflowers!
We headed down to the water's edge where the boats were launched to get our feet wet....
Can you tell that my feet are submerged in water?  I couldn't believe how crystal clear the water was!  Especially at the boat launch area!  When the water was perfectly still, you would almost believe I'm just standing on a regular cobblestone path!
Ah there you go!  Now you can see the water! ;)  And you know what the best part was?  Rita told me that this is where Lisbon's tap water is sourced from!   I knew there was a reason it had always tasted so good! Oh and don't worry, my feet were clean hehe ;)
We spent the rest of the afternoon driving along the mountains around the river and exploring different but equally beautiful parts of it.  When we got back to the house, there was a surprise waiting for me.....a giant basket of nesperas (Japanese plums) that Rita's aunt had just picked to take home with me!  The nesperas were in peak season too, and even though I didn't find them to be that good before when I had bought them at the supermarket in Lisbon, there was such a difference in flavor with these all natural ones!  I now have a new appreciation for this fruit because of them :)
And of course, we were just in time for an early dinner before we had to head back to Lisbon.  The roast chicken was waiting for us, along with some more of those fresh picked grelos (cabbage greens) from the garden, sauteed with some garlic and onions, also from the garden and a simple salad of lettuce and onions with a little homemade olive oil and vinegar.  Again, our meal was paired with some of the family's homemade red wine, chilled just enough to enjoy on a warm evening.  So I was sitting there for the first time, with food and drink that was completely organic and locally grown and produced, and it was one of the most deliciously satisfying meals I've had to date.  And truly, my stomach has never felt so good after a meal!  My digestive tract was being spoiled by so much lovely "clean" and healthy food!
I will never forget the wonderfully warm hospitality Rita's family and neighbors treated me during my stay there, and of course I will never forget the simple yet amazingly delicious Portuguese food they filled my belly, and my heart with.  But what's even better, I have been so lucky as to have been invited back by Rita's family to stay another weekend with them and bring a friend if I want, to do it all over again!   I hope my story of my weekend in the Portuguese countryside will inspire you to go out and explore this beautiful country beyond the cities and towns and experience what is truly memorable :)

Cheers to good food, wine and friends! 

Friday, 16 March 2012

My Weekend in the Country (Day 1)

*Interested in learning more about Portuguese food and wine with me? Check out my An American In Portugal Tours, and my blog's new home!*

Back in May 2011, I got to experience what it was like to live in a small, rural Portuguese village, thanks to the kind invitation from my private English student Rita.  Every weekend, Rita goes to visit her parents at their family home, situated in the tiny aldeia of Avecasta near Ferreira de Zezere which is right smack in the middle of the country.  She had told me many stories about growing up there playing outdoors , raising animals and having meals made completely from what they grew in their garden and seeing how fascinated I was by them, she told me I had to come with her one weekend to meet the family and see the country.  I happily accepted her invite to come out with her the following weekend, as being middle of May, the weather was going to be absolutely perfect for exploring the countryside, sunny and clear but not too hot :)

You can check out my Catavino post- Aldeias of Portugal Part 1: Staying with Friends to learn more about aldeias and for my full experience there.  For this post, I wanted to share more in detail photos and video I took on my adventure that didn't make it onto my Catavino one.   And though I was only there for a day and a half, I couldn't believe how many adventures Rita and her family packed in that time for me!

We arrived in Avecasta Saturday afternoon and I was greeted by this beautiful garden scene in the back of their family home, beyond that, there was nothing as far as the eye could see!  Towards the back of the garden was a small "barn" with a hen house that they still used and an old pig pen and cow stall for when they had raised more animals.   

The house was huge, 7 bedrooms with both a "summer" and "winter" kitchen, the summer being separate
from the rest of the home and attached to their mini-winery and cellar, both made of thick cement to keep them cool year-round.  Outside the house, they had a large patio equipped with what I would call my "dream" outdoor barbecue area, complete with a stone oven and grill!

No sooner did we drop off our things did we head out on foot for our first adventure!  The road through the village was small and quiet with not a soul in sight so it was perfect for taking a walk on this beautiful afternoon :) 
Rita and her sister wanted to take me just up the hill from the village where there was a beautiful clearing that overlooked the surrounding valley.  This was the place where the village had had their windmills which had been used to grind their grain into flour for making bread.  Unfortunately the original windmills did not stand the test of time, so the village decided to build a new one on top of the original base.  They also decided to construct it in the old-fashioned style, as a means of preserving the memory.  And today they use it off and on to show visitors how the grain was originally grounded between the two stone wheels :)  

Afterwards, we walked back down and took a detour through the woods where we came to a clearing that led down to a HUGE cave!  Rita said she and her sisters used to play down in it with the other village children when they were younger, but nowadays the local government fenced it off to protect recent archaeological investigations.  From what the locals know, the cave was once used by the Romans as a holdout to defend against invaders, so the finds have been linked to the Roman era.  But luckily for us, someone had cut through the fence so we sneaked in for a tour, very cool but creepy!  There were several tiny passageways leading further into the hill, which Rita said went right under their village!
Posing in front of the tiny corridors with Rita's sister Eva and their dog Simba,  it was actually really dark here and that was a nervous smile on my face :p 
After the cave exploration, we walked back to the house for a break and got there just in time for a homemade afternoon snack courtesy of Rita's parents :)  They had scrambled some fresh eggs from their henhouse with some local chouriço (sausage) and served it with their homemade white wine and local cheese.  Might seem more like what you'd eat for breakfast but it's not common in Portugal to have eggs for breakfast, normally they come on top of a steak or other dishes for dinner.  
But anyhoo, the scramble and cheese were absolutely delicious and the homemade wine was quite powerful!   It basically had the same alcohol content as a fortified wine (which they said is normal for homemade wine :p) so they normally drink the white very chilled or with ice.   Strong but tasty, I almost had a bit of buzz on me as we headed out for our next adventure :)  

This time, we went with Eva and her boyfriend, who drove us around the countryside to an even tinier aldeia, where we parked and hiked down an overgrown stone path through a beautifully vibrant green forest dotted with olive and cork oak trees.  Rita told me this path was actually an old Roman road and we were going to see one of the many, still-used arched Roman bridges.

The olive trees thrive in this pretty overgrown meadow surrounded by ancient Roman walls
And I couldn't believe how good of a condition it was still in! Stretching over a small river that looked gorgeous in the late springtime covered in little white water flowers,  that tranquil setting out in the middle of nowhere made you feel like you went back in time :)

Until we caught the familiar sound of a herd of goats going up the hill!  You could clearly hear them from the clanging of all the little bells around their necks.  And apparently they heard us as well, since they turned back to stare :)
More beautiful ancient Roman walls and olive trees :)

My blast from the past continued as we arrived back at the house to see garden-fresh grelos (cabbage sprouts) being prepared to cook over the family's old-fashioned open stove for dinner :)
Followed by some tasty local pork ribs cooking on their outdoor grill.  All together with some more homemade potent red wine, it was a delicious dinner!
Afterwards, I walked with the whole family down the unlighted street to get some after-dinner coffee.  And when I mean unlighted, it was pitch-black!  I could barely see in front of me at some parts, but on the plus side, you could see the beautiful starry sky clearer than ever without all that city pollution!   We arrived at the only shop in the village, a small café where everyone gathered for their afternoon and/or evening coffee to catch up on news or to watch a soccer match.  My, was it so quintessential small town! Everyone really knew everyone there, and even though I was the odd one out, I still got friendly smiles and hellos :)

That night, I slept like a baby with the clean, crisp country night air flowing through the moonlit window.

In Day 2 of My Weekend in the Country: More delicious organic, home-cooked Portuguese food and a trip to the clear-water Rio Zêzere to visit one of the most picturesque aldeias in Portugal :)