Saturday, October 30, 2010

Harvest Time

On Wednesday we got the call - to pick KIWIS!! João's father grows kiwis as his main source of income.  He watches his crop closely, and once the fruit reaches the desired sugar content, it's time to pick.  We were happy to be a part of the group of friends and family who headed into the fields.

Our first up-close look at these large plants revealed that the fruit grows on vines draped over 6 foot trellises.  The kiwis were HUGE - much bigger than what I've seen in stores at home. Male plants are lovely and definitely come in handy for pollination, but they do not bear fruit (no comment).  It's the females that produce 50-100 pounds of fruit per vine!!  We got a good workout reaching and squatting to pick the fruit and it didn't take long to fill our first buckets. 

Bucket after bucket - all dumped into large bins that each held about 700 pounds of fruit.  After 4 hours of work, Eric and I had picked a combined total of 2000 pounds of fruit!

Cute little critters were a welcome distraction when our muscles needed a break.

After helping to pick about half of this year's crop which will be around 30,000 pounds, we joined the rest of the group for some delicious grilled pork (possibly a relative of the cute porcine friend in the photo above) and sampled the new wine made from this year's grape harvest.  The meal was tasty and satisfying, but at that point I would have been happy eating a pile of dirt.  ~Peggy

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Douro River, dinner in Porto, and cat tongues ...

On Saturday, Oct 23, Peggy and I took a boat cruise from Porto up the Douro River into the Douro wine region, the oldest and perhaps most famous wine region in Portugal. This is the place where port wine is born.

We started out at 9:00am from Vila Nova de Gaia, the town across the Douro River from Porto. Initially the weather was cool and a bit hazy but at least it wasn't raining as had been forecast and it cleared up quickly.

Leaving Porto we pass a number of quaint villages.

And if you're in the market for an old fixer-upper, there are a few to choose from...

The Douro River has two dams on it, constructed in the 1960's I believe, for hydro-electric power and to make the river more useful for commercial traffic. The locks in the dams were dramatic, especially the second one. It is 35 meters deep. So when the boat pulls in and they shut the big steel gate at the back, you are at the bottom of a pretty deep hole.

It is also a tight fit - the boat is quite close to the walls.

We were also well fed on the boat. Before lunch it was a glass of white port and traditional Portuguese treats - "cod cookies" and a fried meaty concoction.

For lunch we had a Porto favorite - a francesinha. The literal translation of this is "little French girl" - but how a little girl could eat this I don't know. It is a sandwich only in that it has two pieces of bread. These are filled with three or four kinds of meat; ours had some pork and beef pieces and two kinds of pork sausage. On top of the second piece of bread is more meat and a thick layer of cheese. It is all covered in a light tomato sauce that is not like anything else I've had before. It is a serious nap-inducing meal. Peggy made a good effort with hers and I'm especially proud (or should that be embarrassed) to say that I did finish all of mine...

But the real attraction is the scenery. The vineyards with the terraced grape vines are fantastic.

Mining of granite and other rock is also a big operation along the river.

Of course, it doesn't always go as planned ...

It was a great day out on the water.

After disembarking, we took a trip to a winery for a sample of white port. After this we headed to the Museo do Douro. This museum had lots of great artifacts relating to wine production in the area. Two things stuck up for me. One was a picture of the old rabelo boats that would carry several large barrels of wine down the rushing Douro River to be stored in the wine cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia. The new dams make the water very peaceful but, from the photos, the old Douro would have been a challenging ride.

The other was a photo of men creating the terraces for the wine plants. To say that it looks like hard work is an incredible understatement. The land is very rocky, mostly rock actually and there is no easy way to get any machinery in there. One of the tools they used is a 6 foot steel bar over an inch in diameter. The photos showed men using this to stab into the ground to blast away the rock. They had one of theses bars there and I could barely lift it! Granted, being a computer scientist doesn't exactly put much meat on your bones, but still. How these guys would hoist this thing all day long I don't know. (My brother-in-law Brian borrowed something like this from his father when we helped him put in his backyard fence - he said they called it the "man killer", and it was. In Portuguese that would be "assassino do homem".)

After this we took the train back into Porto. We could have headed home, but instead decided to go back to the restaurant that so impressed us on Friday night. We'd come to Porto on Friday night for a nice dinner and to avoid having to catch a very early morning train to get to the boat by 9:00am on Saturday.

On João's recommendation we went to a small very out-of-the way place up, up, up the hill from the old Stock Exchange building. João's sister is good friends with the chef and her two daughters who run the front of the restaurant. This is one of those places in which you feel like you've been invited into someone's home for dinner. In fact, on our second night we were invited into the kitchen to see what was on the menu for that night as our Portuguese is still quite rusty and we looked sufficiently confused when one of the daughters explained it to us.

All of the food was fantastic, the dessert the first night was a real standout. It was sheep's milk ricotta cheese with a candied pumpkin preserve. The cinnamon and walnuts in the preserve, along with the sweet pumpkin, were nicely balanced by the creamy cheese. It was a great way to end the meal. I had to move fast in taking this photo as Peggy did not wait for me when I reached for the camera.

Lastly, a mention of our first gastronomic treat from Porto. On Friday evening we stopped at the Arcadia chocolate shop for these small slivers of delicious dark chocolate. The are called "linguas de gato" - translated this is "cat tongues" - due to their small, thin, and apparently cat-tongue-like appearance.

A few of these and a nice glass of white port have been nice companions in writing this entry.


Monday, October 25, 2010

Thursdays in Barcelos

About an hour away from Braga by bus, Barcelos hit its stride in the 15th century as an agricultural and political center.  In this area, the soil is extremely fertile and the abundant produce is grown naturally, without chemical fertilizers or pesticides.  My sister Nancy would be in heaven!

Every Thursday in the center of town, the enormous Feira de Barcelos market comes to life.  In the same location since 1412, it's one of the oldest and largest outdoor markets in Europe.  A serious shopper can buy beautiful, fresh seasonal produce and everything else from coils of rope and blindingly white brassieres (with helpful saleswomen who make sure you get the right fit), to parakeets (for pets) and bunnies (probably not for pets).

The market is busy, loud and vibrant and there are lots of interesting items for sale, but it's the people-watching that makes it so special.  Customers and vendors engage in lively conversations, women gracefully carry gigantic baskets of produce on their heads, and groups of men gather to chat and wait patiently while the women take care of business.  Barcelos is a great place to slip back in time.

Naturally, I must comment on lunch.  I ate at a cute little restaurant called Azeitona (Olive) and I had my very first batch of Cozido à Portuguesa which means "boiled Portuguese."  It tastes better than it sounds!    It reminded me of Mom's boiled dinner with hunks of meat and veggies cooked together.  It was filling and comforting and I must admit that I saved the pig's ear for last - it was my favorite part!!

Barcelos may not be hip and happening like Porto or Lisbon, but it's a fantastic destination for a slice of everyday life.

~ Peggy

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Beautiful Barcelona!!

I had a tough decision to make - travel to Eindhoven in the Nethelands with Eric and bunch of computer scientists OR meet up with friends from Minnesota in Barcelona.  I think I made the right choice.

 Gaudi building near our apartment
On Tuesday I flew from Porto to Barcelona and met Julie, Ann, Sue & Bobbi at the large apartment they had rented for the last leg of their 2 week Spanish extravaganza.  Despite the fact that all 4 women were sporting some serious germs and plenty of cold & flu symptoms, the atmosphere was charged with energy and I was happy to join them for the grand finale of their trip. 

Wednesday's weather was questionable, so I decided to take a train to the Salvador Dali Museum in Dali's hometown of Figueres, north of Barcelona near the French border.  After the theater in Figueres was destroyed during the Spanish Civil War, Dali made a proposal to the mayor to rebuild the structure and house a museum of his own work there.  It's a spectacular PINK building and a work of art itself.  Giant eggs and gilded human figures adorn the rooftops.  Inside, Dali created amazing installations and spectacular gallery spaces.   Although he is best known for his paintings of melting watches, that was just a tiny fraction of his diverse body of work.   He loved to play with illusion, symbolism, self-portraits and images from science, nature, religion and popular culture. 

Salvador Dali Museum
nude Gala watching the sea
**squint at the painting to see a familiar famous face**

On Thursday we went to the Freixenet winery where their bubbly cava and still wines are produced.  The guided tour was fun and informative, but my favorite part of the tour was the free sample at the end!

me and my new best friend

Ann & Sue survived the quirky Torres winery tour

The tour at Miguel Torres was a bit more like a scene from Willy Wonka as we boarded a little tram and drove past strange multi-media displays.  Words cannot describe the experience.

Thursday night's dinner was unlike any dining experience I've ever had!  El Celler de Can Roca, located outside Barcelona, is one of the top restaurants in the world and has been awarded 3 Michelin stars - 3 more than any other restaurant I've been to, that's for sure! 3 brothers, Joan, Josep & Jordi Roca are the chef, sommelier and pastry chef.  The restaurant is a simply decorated space with rocks (rocas!) and other natural elements used to create a soothing and elegant atmosphere. The service was fabulous and we felt totally relaxed, even though it seemed like we were much too young and silly to be there.

silky & gorgeous figs with foie gras

But truly, the food was the star of the show.  Just to give an idea of what it was like, as soon as we sat down we were given glasses of the house cava to sip while our first "snack" was presented. A server brought a beautiful bonsai olive tree and set it in the center of the table. Dangling from the branches of the tree were green olives stuffed with anchovy and glazed with olive oil caramel. The olives were hanging on tiny hooks, so we just had to reach in and tug at an olive then pop it into our mouths to experience the contrast of the briny anchovy with the sweet, salty olive enveloped in caramel. It was amazing and a multi-sensory experience I won't soon forget. 3 hours, 7 "snacks", 8 courses & 9 wines later, we emerged happy and overloaded in every possible way.

Julie plucking her first olive
Sue fell behind with the wines

On Friday, Julie & I went for a healthy dose of Antoni Gaudi.  Park Guell, Gaudi's failed attempt to create a one-of-a-kind housing community, is lively and full of fanciful Gaudi-esque features.  It's a wonderful spot to wander and watch people. 

La Sagrada Familia
(photo "borrowed" from the web)
Our last touristy stop of the day was Gaudi's magnificent unfinished basilica, La Sagrada Familia.  We bellied up for a tour and had a cheerful, informative guide who obviously loves this church AND Gaudi's genius.  Gaudi lived to see one of the facades finished but died (smushed by a tram) before the rest could be completed.  Thanks to a flood of attention and money after Barcelona hosted the 1992 Olympics, work continues and the interior is nearly finished but the facade may not be done for another 25-30 years.  Next month the Pope will consecrate the space and it can then be used for public worship, 118 years after the first stones were laid. 

the gorgeous "trees" inside the basilica
Our final dinner together was punctuated by laughter, cava sangria (my new favorite), good food and adorable waiters at Tapas Place.  Bobbi, Sue, Julie & I enjoyed piles of paella, clams and garlic shrimp.  It was the perfect finale to a wonderful trip.

Bobbi and Sue highly recommend Tapas Place

I have known Julie since my chemical engineering days at the U of M.  23 years ago, to celebrate our college graduation, Julie had a wacky idea to take a 2 month trip to Europe.  That trip changed my life.  At the risk of sounding a little too cliche, it honestly changed the way I looked at the world and how I saw myself and my opportunities. When I came back from the trip I dumped my "almost" fiance (I used to say that we were semi-engaged), stuffed my engineering diploma in a drawer, started the math education program at the U of M, continued to travel and never looked back.  If it weren't for Julie and our low budget, high adventure trip, I know that I would not be married to my prince charming Eric, would not have had so many other wonderful travels and certainly would not be living in Europe now.  So, as I sipped those last few drops of sangria surrounded by hunky waiters at Tapas Place, I drank a silent toast to my friend Julie.

sipping cava with Julie

To see more photos from our trip, click here:   Barcelona photos!!


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Guimarães - birthplace of Portugal and home of good food!

With a cool 1000 year old castle, quaint streets, beautiful palace and wonderful food, Guimarães has it all!!

Located about 20 miles from Braga, Guimarães is considered the birthplace of Portugal.  After defeating the Moors in 1139, Afonso Henriques declared himself the first king of Portugal and set up shop in the magnificent castle in his hometown of Guimarães.  I'm guessing that he didn't invite his mom to move in with him, as power-hungry Afonso had defeated her army in a battle for independence several years prior. 

The castle was built in 968 and is a fantastic place to explore!  Zipping past the lone warning sign, we scrambled along the walls and into the towers for great views of the tree tops, the royal palace and the town below.  If this were a site in the U.S., there would be guardrails and plexiglass and crabby looking security guards at every crumbling staircase.  Not here!  We were free to explore at our own risk.  It was exciting and only slightly unnerving for those of us who are afraid of heights.

the sign says it all
no railings, no chain link fence, just people using common sense
The royal palace was neat, the churches were pretty (I've never seen a church with Mary at the center-most, highest focal point and Jesus tucked off to one side - my Protestant husband just shook his head), the streets were narrow and packed with interesting homes and shops, but my second favorite part of the day, after the castle, was LUNCH!

By about 3pm we were pretty hungry.  At the center of the old town there are several great courtyards and squares lined with restaurants, but most of them were done serving lunch for the day.  One of our few options was a place called Cheers.  We were skeptical but happy to find someone who was willing and able to feed us.  Lunch was delicious!  We started with an appetizer of quail eggs and bacon.  We inhaled the 7 tiny, creamy eggs rather quickly.  For a main course, Eric had bacalhau.  He has really warmed up to this Portuguese staple food.  It was nicely prepared with sauteed onions, buttery fried potatoes and a dish of gorgeous greens (rare and special here).  My dish was a gloriously crisp duck leg on top of a bed of roasted chestnuts and raisins.  Sooooo good!  

What's not to like about quail eggs & bacon?
Eric's beloved bacalhau

Yes, the history was interesting, the entire town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, blah, blah, blah...  Did I mention the duck leg???