Thursday, September 30, 2010

Football and Sweet Wine

Weeknights in Braga are also turning out to be quite nice. This week: soccer and sweet wine.


On Tuesday night Peggy and I were able to enjoy an evening of Champions League Football. If you're not a big soccer fan you may not know that the Champions League is the biggest thing in European football. This is a competition in which the top few teams in each of the big European leagues play to be crowned the champion of Europe. For example, the top 4 teams from the English Premiere League, the top 2 teams from the Portuguese league, and the top few teams from the Spanish, Italian, German, and other leagues participate. In football, it is a big deal.

Last year Braga finished second in the Portuguese league so they are in the Champions League this year. A professor at the Univ. of Minho was able to get two tickets for Peggy and I. The Braga stadium is set in an old quarry site with a fantastic view out over the valley. It really is a stunning stadium.

The roof over the seats is supported by the cables that run from one set of stands, across the field, to the other set of stands. It makes for a dramatic setting.

Unfortunately the football didn't quite live up to the setting, especially if you are supporting Braga. They lost 0-3 to Shakhtar Donetsk from Ukraine. Braga started well and was unlucky to not get a goal in the opening minutes. In the second half Shakhtar benefited from a goal-keeping error and Braga was denied a clear penalty (and the crowd let the referee know that they were unhappy). After that goal Braga really came to life and some quality goal keeping from Shakhtar prevented 1, maybe 2, Braga goals. After that, a bad substitution from the Braga manager left the Braga midfield wide open to Shakhtar and they ran right right through on several occasions. Another easy goal and a late penalty left the home side well beaten...

But we had a good time and I am looking forward to going back again for some league games.

Sweet wine

Tonight we got to sample the "sweet wine" at João's father's farm. This is wine that is only a few days old and has only just started to ferment. It sits in a 1000 liter tub, open to the air, in a barn on the farm. The grapes have been crushed, but not pressed, so the skins and stems are still there floating on the top. Here João's father and Amelia use a hose to siphon some out into porcelain bowls, the traditional Portuguese vessel for young red wine.

At this point it tastes very much like juice but is has some alcohol in it. Thus the name "sweet wine". It does taste really good and one could easily over-indulge. Here is Peggy enjoying hers along with Alberto Pardo - a computer scientist from Uruguay also visiting the Univ. of Minho.

The mixture has to be stirred a couple times a day - this is quite a job and requires using a big hoe-like tool and scrambling up onto the tub.

After this we can't wait to taste the final product ...

Monday, September 27, 2010

Tourists in our own town

on our street - Avenida da Liberdade
After going to other towns the past few weekends, we were looking forward to staying around home and exploring Braga a bit more.  I bought a book called "BRAGA" which contains heaps of beautiful photos and descriptions of churches, monuments and other historic sites.

Our first stop was the Fonte do Idolo, just 2 blocks from our apartment.  I had walked past the building which houses this beautiful pre-Roman fountain and sanctuary (1st century BCE) countless times without realizing what was inside!! I think I was too focused on not tripping over the cobblestones to notice the HUGE sign above my head.  It was definitely worth the visit.

Hungry for lunch and more historic finds, we headed to Frigideiras do Cantinho, a restaurant that has been in business since 1796.  We enjoyed the specialty of the house, frigideiras, which are meat pies enveloped in buttery, flaky pastry.   After a tasty lunch in their leafy courtyard, we walked into the restaurant for our second historic visit of the day.  It seems that when the restaurant owners renovated their space a few decades ago, they discovered the foundation of a Roman house (3rd-4th century) in their basement!!  It's now tastefully excavated and lit and clearly visible through glass panels in the floor of the restaurant.  I'm embarrassed to admit that I've eaten there by myself before and NEVER realized that my chair was perched on top of those glass panels!!!

frigeidara actually means "frying pan" or
"flaky, buttery happiness on a plate"

After lunch, we wandered into the center of town and saw some sort of festival in progress.  There were booths with people in Medieval attire selling food, beverages and trinkets.  Oddly, there was also a stage set up for the Portuguese Communist Party event that was to occur later in the evening.  As we strolled, our ears and feet were drawn to the familiar sounds of drum beats in the distance. It didn't take long to find 2 drum groups, facing off, and playing their hearts out.  One group was comprised of young, enthusiastic kids and teens, and the other group was made up of equally energetic mentally impaired adults.  They were having such a great time challenging each other that we were quickly caught up in the excitement.  

Later in the evening, we had an incredibly simple but delicious meal at Churrasqueira da Se (BBQ of the Se Cathedral)  which had a huge grill blazing in the front window and an agile chef who cranked out the most wonderful chicken - oh yum!!  There was a long line of patrons waiting patiently for takeout - a testament to the griller's skill.  The house wine comes out of a tap at the bar and is served in little jugs - light, cold, refreshing and perfect with the chicken.  We were sure to give the grill master a big smile and a wave as we left, wiping the last bits of juicy goodness off our chins. This is definitely a place to bring any carnivorous visitors who come to see us!!

Geeze, I'm starting to sound like Elizabeth Lane from "Christmas in Connecticut" (played by Barbara Stanwyck - NOT Dyan Cannon).  I need to take it down a notch

Earlier in the evening we had been trying to find a certain square (there are LOTS of them in this town!) where there was supposed to be live music and a pig roast.  We were actually headed home when we finally stumbled upon it.  We passed on the pig (too full of chicken) but helped ourselves to cake and listened as 2 different groups performed while the crowd danced. 

Our last stop of the night was back at the main square, Praca da Republica, to catch a few minutes of the Communist Party speeches.  It was well attended!!

On Sunday, we wandered around some more, stopping in the very nice Santa Barbara gardens.  Lots of different types of flowers and the beautiful backdrop of the Archbishop's Palace make this one of our favorite spots in town. 

the colorful Jardim de Santa Barbara with the 14th century
Antigo Paco Episcopal in the background

We may never make it to all of the sites in our "BRAGA" book, but we're off to a good start.   ~Peggy

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A funny thing happened on the way to Curves...

a tiny sign 2 blocks from my destination and 10 feet above my head helped lead the way

Before I left MN I discovered that there is a Curves (actually Curvas) in
Braga, so I planned to transfer my membership. I can only handle one or two
or 10 new experiences each day, so after we had been here for a week I
finally grabbed my trusty map and headed towards Curvas.

Curvas is located WAY north of the city center, so I walked for almost an
hour (slight detour due to poor signage and/or poor map-reading skills)
before I finally arrived. There was no sign out front AND it was in the
middle of a bunch of car dealerships. I was so confused!

Almost there!  Just past the VW service garage...
It's the mysterious unlabeled door on the right - found it!!

When I entered, the only way I knew I was in the right place was a tiny
sign that said, in Portuguese, something like NO MEN BEYOND THIS
POINT. I poked around until I found an employee. Although she claimed
to not speak much English, Silvia's English was excellent and she
explained that this was no longer a Curves location and that they are
changing over to become a different workout place (hence the lack of
signage). She still gave me a tour of the beautiful facility (locker rooms,
showers, sauna!!!) and let me work out though.

They still have all the Curves equipment, so I felt okay with that, BUT at
each station between a machine, the very perky employees lead the clients
in intensive, coordination-testing, cardio exercises. I was a sweaty mess
by the end. THEN, my new friend Silvia informed me that we were going
to do some abdominal and glute work. After working a bunch of muscles I
didn't even know I had, I thought I was done. No, then it was time to
stretch. I was there for an hour and a half and it was unlike any workout I'd
had in Minnesota, that's for sure.

I chatted with Silvia and the manager about joining the new club IF I could
find a bus that could get me there in a more timely manner. When they
realized that I had walked all the way from the south end of town, they
insisted on driving me back home. Isn't that incredible?? I declined, but
eventually caved in.  Silvia got the car keys from her boss and zipped me
back to our apartment. Almost 3 hours after I began my journey to Curvas,
I was ready for lunch, a shower and a nice long nap!!

Andrea and Silvia help keep the vinho and pastries from taking their toll on me

Since joining what is now the "Academia da Mulheres" 3 weeks ago, a staff
member has driven me home each time.  Finally this week I was able to wave
goodbye and slip away to the bus stop.  I was relived but I sort of missed
riding home with my kind and supportive workout dominatrices.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Gastronomic Overload in Porto

I am fully embracing my job as Weekend Event Planner!  This past Saturday, I had mapped out a full itinerary of port wine tasting and Duoro River cruising in Porto, and off we went.

When we first arrived, we hopped off the train and headed for the beautifully ornate Palacio da Bolsa (Stock Exchange Palace).  We had toured the building on a previous visit, but this time we were interested in a stop at the Vini Portugal wine center inside.  The Portuguese government sponsors the center which features an ever-changing selection of wines from 3 different regions of the country at a time.  It's a great place to learn about the different styles, grapes and regions while sipping generous samples of wine in a stunning location.

As we approached the Palace, it was hard to miss the huge banners promoting Essencia do Gourmet strewn across the facade.  We weren't sure what the heck was going on, but after a brief explanation from a friendly Portuguese woman, we ditched our previous plans and went for a full-on Portuguese Food and Wine experience.   We didn't hesitate to strap on our hands-free wine glass holsters and plunge in

The second story of the palace was ringed by representatives offering samples of wine, liqueur, cheese, meat, chocolate, jam and olive oil from around the country.  Everyone, except the lone beer rep., spoke excellent English and didn't laugh at our newbie questions.

Also upstairs, a number of swanky Porto restaurants offered small plates of food.  It was fun to see the chefs in action and try some amazing dishes including roast suckling pig  (the crunchy, salty skin almost brought me to tears), braised short ribs atop a mound of silky potatoes, and juicy chicken breast with wild mushrooms and white truffle foam.

Below us, on the first level, a number of chefs were offering cooking demonstrations, some of which required audience participation - we were ready - we had our free aprons in hand.  After a few minutes of watching the action, we figured out the procedure.  You wander and peruse your options for various dishes being prepared at various times, got your name on a list, then were allowed into a session when the action started.  If you're not speedy and slightly assertive, you may miss your chance to see a new interpretation of duck rice or salt cod sushi being prepared.

Our first session featured a new twist on a classic Portuguese preparation of pumpkin soup topped with the ubiquitous bacalhau (dried salt cod).   The steamy, creamy soup was gorgeous and delicious!  The second session we signed up for looked exciting - polvo (octopus) with sweet potatoes and a red pepper mousse.

The chef made it seem absolutely simple to whip up this fantastic dish.  I'm not quite ready yet, but there may be some octopus preparation in my future.
After a few more samples of wine, cheese and other delights, we headed for some fresh air, 6 hours after arriving at the expo.

The finished product tasted as good as it looked!
The fresh air and walk along the river were exactly what we needed at that moment.  Porto is a fantastically crusty, busy, energy-filled town. Wandering aimlessly seemed like the perfect thing to do.

Our evening ended with a fab dinner at Dom Tonho's and a great view of the Duoro River from our table.  Eric enjoyed a mountain of duck rice (duck meat, sausages, other mystery ingredients, mixed with rice and topped with melted cheese) and I had a gigantic portion of pork and clams (pork cubes, fried potatoes and clams in a wine broth topped with pickled veggies).  The combination of rich meat and seafood and the acidity of the pickled vegetables was a taste sensation.  We were a bit full, but did opt for dessert when we spotted something called Miminhos de Cafe which was translated as "Tenderness of Coffee."  Who could pass up something called Tenderness of Coffee??   Not us!!  The creamy, lightly coffee flavored custard was melty and heavenly.  It was the perfect conclusion to a wonderful day.  ~Peggy

Monday, September 13, 2010

Feiras Novas in Ponte de Lima

On Saturday Peggy and I went to Feiras Novas in Ponte de Lima. The translation is "new fair" - even though they started in the 12th century. Europe sometimes has a different sense of "new" than we do in the States... The fair reminded us both of the state fairs in Minnesota and Iowa with their many similarities; these included a focus on agriculture and traditional ways of life, a glorious display of farm equipment, many options for food, a "midway" in which you can purchase just about everything under the sun, and of course, animal barns. The program mentions several events over several days but please don't ask for a translation yet.
At 4pm the Cortejo Etnográfico -- parade of ethnic (traditional) ways -- began and this was a highlight of the day. People from different regions dressed in traditional garb paraded through the streets performing different kinds of music and streamed past on decorated floats. There is a propensity towards carrying things on one's head. The lady above with the chickens and the woman below with the turkey are but a few such examples.
Poultry did play a big part in the parade - and the local children seem to like poultry as much as we do.
The floats were mostly dedicated to showing off the traditional ways of life and the great gastronomic traditions. There were floats dedicated to hunting, bee keeping (with live bees and honey processing), wine making (with grape stomping), baking (with working wood fire oven), and even cheese making. Many of the floats made an effort to give away their wares to the crowd. Below is the cheese float and the kids giving away cheese. Unfortunately we were too far back to partake. While missing the cheese was sad enough, we also didn't get any of the wine from that float or the free pork passed out from the float of "all things meat."
Besides the food there was plenty of music - many drum corps and groups of accordion players. This movie captures one of them - though I'm not sure what the guy in the green shirt at the end of the clip is doing - perhaps a tourist who did get (too much of) the free wine...

There were also the big walking puppet-like creations - they were a bit creepy.
Crop art, a Minnesota tradition, was also popular. Though here it had a more religious theme. Here an homage to St. Paul - combined with the practice of carrying things on one's head...
More peculiar were the various "scenes" that were played out on floats or just by collections of people walking in the parade. This clip is of drunks and police. We have no idea what it is about, but it was entertaining.

There are also many, many vendors - selling food, drinks, and all other sorts of things. Vendors selling shoes and, oddly, socks were very popular. With all of these vendors were the hoards of people ...
And with any good fair comes good food. We saw more than one place that was roasting a whole pig (sometimes more than one) over wood coals. We found a place selling bifanas - a pork sandwich which we first discovered in Tomar on our last visit to Portugal. These are simple pieces of pork served on chewy rolls baked on the premises. This one had a wood-fired oven for baking the bread. They were delicious. The beer was also pretty tasty on this hot afternoon ...
And what fair is complete without animal barns! It is not only the people that carry things on their heads, the animals get into the act as well, if perhaps unwillingly. Some of the cows were adorned with flowers on their heads. They look sort of nice, but this particular cow does not look to happy about it.
The animal barns are not as extensive as the Iowa or Minnesota state fairs. They only had some horses, cattle, and a few donkeys. No chickens, but they've apparently been promoted to participants in the Cortejo Etnográfico!


Friday, September 10, 2010

Bom Jesus do Monte

The beautiful 19th century church, Bom Jesus, is perched on a hill a few kilometers from Braga.  From our balcony, we can see it illuminated at night.  I take a peek at it each night, just to be sure it's still there.

There are 3 ways to ascend the 285 meter Baroque staircase that leads to the church - on foot (takes about 20-25 minutes), on knees (I assume it takes MUCH longer), or by water-powered funicular (3 minutes).  It's fun to watch the "driver" fill the tank of the cable car (built in 1882) at the top of the staircase in order to descend and pull the other car (now emptied of water) back up to the top.

 The staircase itself is magnificent and features the stations of the cross, fountains galore and several chapels.  One set of fountains pays homage to the 5 senses - it's a bit unsettling to see water squirting out of a small child's ears and nose! 
puppy enjoying a drink as the funiclar tank is filled with water

There are several hotels and restaurants near the church.  We enjoyed a huge buffet feast and were bursting at the seams after eating local specialties including salt cod with potatoes and chestnuts, duck rice, and octopus salad.  I helped myself to a huge scoop of what I thought were sauteed mushrooms, only to discover that they were sliced pigs' ears.  Like mushrooms only porky!!
~ Peggy
view of Braga from the top of the staircase

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Lunch at Arafate

For lunch today João took a few people from the department to Restaurante Arafate. A traditional Portuguese restaurant so named because the owner is a dead-ringer for Yasar Arafat - the added "e" in the name being a Portuguese modification of the spelling.

I know Peggy will feel jealous for missing this one. I ordered the "yellow beans with beef feet" - think pig trotters but from cows. Missing in the translation was that tripe (cow stomach) was really the main protein ingredient in this dish. The whole trotter is there mostly for flavoring the broth, but some portions of that meat are also cut up into edible pieces.

It was really good. This was my first trip down "tripe avenue" but I liked it and would order something like this again. It is very tender, almost like pork belly, but not so obviously fatty. This is a traditional dish from the Minho region, but tripe is also a specialty of Oporto.

The wine - yes, wine with lunch! - was vinho verde tinto. This red green-wine is served in jugs drawn from big tanks that we passed on the way in. One drinks this wine from bowls - as you can see in the photo. My hosts explained that the red vinho verde is sometimes a bit harsh since it is "green" and thus not aged. But because of the popularity of white vinho verde winemakers are working to make the red variety more palatable to a wider audience. I thought that the one we had was quite good. These wines don't have lots of deep subtle characteristics but are very drinkable - even out of a bowl.

The owner of this place is a bit of a practical joker. When they offer you the special house dessert you get not a flan or something sweet, but a bowl of kale soup... After the tripe, yellow beans and that I'm ready for a nap.


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

For our first several days we've been exploring Braga much like many tourists do - wandering around and finding interesting places to eat or have a drink. We've found a few great places down by the New Gate (actually a very old gate).

But on Sunday, we had a real treat. João Saraiva, the computer science professor that is hosting my visit to the Universidade do Minho, invited us out to his parents' farm for Sunday lunch. In many ways it reminded me of trips out to my grandfather's farm - lots of relatives, lots of children, and lots of good food.

The farm sits on the hills overlooking Braga and now grows grapes for wine and kiwi fruit as its commercial products. But it is primarily a diversion for Joao's father and is populated by many free-roaming chickens, ducks, geese, 2 pigs, 1 donkey, 3 deer (which they call the "bambis"), 2 trout ponds, and a few exotic pheasants. There are also many fruit and nut trees scattered across the property.

The farm buildings are constructed of stone and have been there for a few hundred years, and some have been recently refurbished using these traditional materials. We had lunch is the grain-drying building which was refurbished for João's sister's wedding a few years ago.

For lunch we had very tasty grilled bacalhau (cod) topped with grilled onions and olive oil and potatoes and a nice Portuguese white wine. This was followed by a fruit course - the highlight of which was the figs (see photo above). They were very sweet and really big - just fantastic and grown on the farm. I've never had a fig this good. We also had some fresh passion fruit that João's sister had brought back from Maderia and walnuts from the farm.

We had a wonderful time and are excited that we may be invited back for the kiwi harvest and the grape harvest. The wine is made on sight with modern equipment, but the old stone basin for stomping grapes is still there. For this I'll be sure to bring the good camera - the iPhone photos are OK, but don't begin to convey what it is really like.


Thursday, September 2, 2010

We made it!!

We both can sing the praises of the fabulous Mpls. airport helper who assisted us with schlepping our 5 hernia-inducing suitcases out of the taxi and onto his cart.  We were hoping he'd follow us all the way to Braga, but no such luck!

Yesterday we began settling into our apartment. We are so fortunate to have this huge space all to ourselves.  The location is fantastic too!

Last night we went to a fabulous vegetarian restaurant for dinner called Anjo Verde (Green Angel) and I had the most delicious stuffed mushrooms with yogurt sauce.  We figured we'd  treat our systems to some fiber before we load up on pork and pastries.  We ended the evening with a glass of port at a hip little wine bar then we both slept like dead people.

Today we're out enjoying the beautiful sunshine and wandering aimlessly.  Life is good! ~ Peggy

mmm... pastries with a view

FAST, free WiFi is my friend!