Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas in Braga!

Our Christmas in Braga was much like everything else about Braga - some things expected, some unexpected, others just a bit odd - but all of them lots of fun!

The most unexpected and slightly odd part of our Christmas was our first event on Christmas Eve - Bananeiro 2010! Every Christmas Eve a small wine shop named Casa das Bananas on the main pedestrian street serves Moscatel wine and bananas beginning around 5:30pm and wrapping up by 7:30 or 8:00pm. Although we heard multiple stories about the origins of this event, our best guess is that it started somewhere between 15 and 30 years ago when the wine shop owner invited neighboring shop owners over for a beverage after everyone had closed up their shops that evening. Over the years some customers started tagging along and it grew into a nice sized gathering that spilled out of the shop onto the street. Many people would stop by and buy a bottle of chilled Moscatel to share with friends and to wish them a Merry Christmas before heading off to a traditional Christmas Eve dinner with family.

The event exploded between 10 and 15 years ago when a TV reporter from Lisbon, who was born and raised in Braga, did a story on the event that included a live TV broadcast. Now, there are thousands who show up. The streets are crammed full of people for over 100 yards in all directions.

Because of the large crowd, there are now a few booths outside to sell the wine and bananas - but just getting to one of these near the shop proved to be quite a challenge. But with some determination we made it and I could order - in my broken Portuguese - a bottle with two glasses and two bananas.

With wine and bananas in hand we made it back to the corner where we were to meet João and his friends. Here we heard the many stories of the origins of Bananeiro; they seemed to grow more varied and contradictory as the wine flowed.

Moscatel is a sweet wine, best served cold, and a traditional Portuguese favorite. (And if you're wondering, most of the bottle came home with us and has proven to be a tasty pre-dinner treat. I think I'll help myself to a short one now.)

After this rather untraditional Christmas Eve kick-off we were very happy to go with João to his parents' farm to be part of their family's Christmas Eve dinner. This reminded me of Christmas out on my grandfather's farm in many ways. There were lots of kids, lots of food, and lots of gifts.

The traditional Portuguese meal for Christmas Eve is boiled bacalhau (cod fish), boiled vegetables, boiled eggs and boiled potatoes.

João assured us that probably 90% of Portuguese families have this on Christmas Eve. He also assured us that far fewer than 90% of Portuguese people really like it that much... But the Saraivas pass around olive oil, vinegar, and fresh garlic to top it all and it was really quite tasty.  On Christmas day, the leftover fish, eggs and vegetables will be made into a dish called roupa velha which means "old clothes."  Many people actually prefer this concoction to the original meal.

Another Portuguese specialty is dessert. If it has lots of sugar and eggs in it, the Portuguese probably invented it.

One of our favorites is rabanadas - you can see it above both above and to the right of the pear in the basket. It is like French toast that's drowned in a port wine sauce reduction and sometimes includes raisins. Peggy's Russian tea cakes are there on the green plate. They are just above the aletria - this is in the deep white bowl on the right. Aletria is made with angel hair pasta in a creamy cinnamon custard. It is sweet even with the pasta and it helped resolve Peggy's confusion of always seeing cinnamon prominently displayed in the pasta aisle of the grocery store.

We had a great time with the Saraiva clan that night and were very happy that they invited us out to the farm to share Christmas Eve with them.

After a lively Christmas Eve we were happy to enjoy a quiet Christmas day. We slept in and then went to the 11:30am Mass at the Cathedral de Se - the main Cathedral in Braga that was built in the 13th century. The music was nice and the sermon was probably good since the Bishop was there to deliver it - but since it was in Portuguese most of it was lost on us. I thought I as was at least able to pick out some of the words as he spoke and I felt pretty good about that until I thought for sure that he said "polvo." But "polvo" means octopus so I may not have understood as much as I thought...

After this we came home and enjoyed a day of food and mulled wine. Peggy made a nice mid-afternoon snack of polenta cakes topped with quince with blue cheese that were warmed under the broiler and then topped with a port wine reduction drizzle.

Dinner was a fantastic pork loin with a mustard and brown sugar glaze and basted with apple juice. This was topped with fruit that was poached in red wine. Sides included parsley potatoes and little brussels sprouts with bacon, sage and chestnuts. As usual, Peggy had put together a delicious meal. After dinner we opened a few gifts and watched that Christmas classic "Christmas in Connecticut."

To wrap up our Christmas weekend we went to see the Presépio the next day. This is a living nativity put on outside of Braga. Amazingly it includes people enacting 600 different roles. So it is much more than a single manger scene. It is more like "Living History Farms: The Biblical Years". There was a camp of Roman soldiers, several shops and scenes of people performing various crafts of the times, a meeting of the Roman Senate, and of course the nativity with a real baby, cow, and donkey.

It was a little cool out there - as you can see Peggy absconded with my scarf to keep her head warm. But it was lots of fun. A bit quirky at times but overall it was really very well done. Although we never did figure out how the Noah's Ark, with a live Noah waving us on board, figured into the whole affair.

Christmas isn't quite the same without one's family and friends and we did miss everyone back in Minnesota, Iowa, and New Mexico. We had a great time here in Braga but we also look forward to seeing everyone back home next holiday season.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

Praça da República 
Crews spent weeks stringing lights and decorations all around town. They are now lit and it's magical!!  On the main square, Praça da República, a HUGE tree of lights glows brilliantly and each side street that radiates from it is decorated with a different theme.

gifts tumble down a side street

With chestnut vendors, festive music piped into the streets, Santa on stilts making balloon animals for kids, and fartura stands scattered around town it's hard not to get caught up in the Christmas spirit!

the new gate to the city built in 1772
Nossa Senhora da Lapa church
view from our balcony

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Eating the interesting bits

On Saturday night we went out to dinner at a new restaurant and I decided to try the papas de sarrabulho. One of our books translates papas to gruel. This was only the first thing about the meal that I was glad to learn afterwards instead of before.

We'd been told that papas was a sort of "pap" and it is a specialty of northern Portugal. Feeling adventurous, I ordered it along with the rojões à moda do Minho - pork cooked in wine. The rojões is a multitude of different cuts - there is the pork meat, the stuffed intestine pieces, and the slice of cooked congealed pork blood. The pork meat was really good, some of the best we've had. The intestine pieces were not bad, a bit chewy, but good flavor. The congealed blood is always a bit salty for my taste and, oddly, it has a dry texture. This also came with fried bread.

Smearing the papas over this, the potatoes, and the rice was great. The flavor was rich and meaty and, well, almost deep. There was a great cumin flavor - a spice we don't find very often in Portuguese food. You could tell there was a lot going on with it. It contains a fair amount of bread which gave it an interesting gluten-y texture - almost like potatoes that had been mashed for way too long. But the flavor was fantastic and I ate nearly the whole trough that they brought out.

The Portuguese white wines continue to impress. We again had the house white - served in a jug - and it is fantastic at cutting through the richness of most Portuguese foods. It helps cleanse your palate without stripping it bare. I am already sad about the lack of inexpensive yet fantastic Portuguese white vinho verde back home in Minnesota.

Being slaves to the Google, we did look up some recipes for papas de sarrabulho when we got home. They were all in Portuguese - so this dish hasn't yet become a staple in English speaking kitchens.

My favorite recipe makes a nice generous portion - 10 to 12 liters! Yes, what one does with 3 gallons of papas I don't know.

The great flavor comes from the beef, pork, and chicken and the spices - and the other interesting bits...

I encourage you to take a look at the translated recipe available here.


Monday, December 6, 2010

An amazing home in Belfiore di Foligno, Italy

While in Italy, we were very lucky to have Piera show us some sites that are definitely off the beaten path. Perhaps most amazing was a house in her hometown of Belfiore di Foligno owned by her friend Edvige.

In the 1920's all the rooms of this home and an adjoining one were painted in an art-deco style. The wall and ceilings are all adorned with magnificent patterns that are instantly recognizable as being from that era.

Sadly, the major earthquake of 1997 that hit central Italy cause major damage to these homes. Peggy saw this house back in 2003 on a previous visit to Malvarina and was saddened to see this great home in its damaged state.

Although the Italian government moves very slowly, it does move and the houses have now been almost completely restored. It is again a marvel!

One of my favorites was the room with the sunflower theme.
The detail is so striking.

Another room has equally detailed paintings on the wall and ceiling.

Here is another room showing the floor-to-ceiling detail.

The entry way to the house.

The greeting above the door in the entry way says,
 in at least one translation, "Welcome".

Edvige recounting the earthquake.

The adjoining house has many similarly beautiful
 rooms - here is just one.

The rooms in these homes are real masterpieces and it was nice to see them restored to their original luster. We felt very lucky to get a peek at these beautiful homes. 

~ Eric

Our first visitors!!!

Leaving their new puppy, Stella, at home in Minneapolis must have been hard for them, but our friends Marsha and Mike came to Portugal nonetheless. We're so glad they did!

We showed them the sights in our quirky little town and dined at some of our favorite spots. Mike bravely ate polvo (octopus) and liked it! He's still undecided about bacalhau and apparently couldn't quite get over his mental images of this smelly fish in its inedible, dried form.

Mike and Marsha at Santa Barbara gardens

We took a day trip to Guimarães, explored the castle and ate a lovely lunch at Cheers. I'm so proud of our friends for embracing the practice of having wine with lunch. They are real troopers!

The castle at Guimãres, the birth place of Portugal.
Mike - one cranky knight when he doesn't get his polvo!
Our last night together, Mike and Marsha made us an amazing meal of pork tenderloin with sauteed fennel and fennel cream sauce, beer roasted potatoes, and roasted beets with blue cheese. The food was fantastic, the wine flowed freely, and there was much laughter. Yup, our dear friends set the bar pretty high for all of our future visitors!!

Mmmm - dinner a la Wagners!
After their stay in Braga, they headed off to Porto to explore the port wine cellars and then to Sintra - a cute town north of Lisbon with a great Moorish fort and medieval palace. We were quite happy to see Mike and Marsha successfully navigate the travel problems that arose when nearly all of the civil servants in Portugal went on strike for the day. They managed to roll with the punches and find a bus that would take them down to Sintra - about 3 hours by bus from Porto. No one likes when well-laid plans go awry, but Mike and Marsha handled it like champs!

-Peggy and Eric

Ophthalmology and Laundry Day

Our latest "first":

We made an unexpected trip through the Portuguese health care system on Sunday. A few nights ago we were out and about, enjoying the Christmas lights and smell of sizzling farturas (stay tuned for a blog entry on those). Heading towards home, we walked near a construction site and I felt something fly into my eye. It was sharp and painful. That will teach me to leave home without my hardhat and safety googles...

I yanked my contacts out and flushed my eye, but a few days later my eye still felt uncomfortable. Sunday night I called Health Partners in Minneapolis and explained what happened. The nurse told me to get my butt to an emergency room to have it checked out. A quick phone call to MEDEX led us to an accredited ER which happens to be across the street from our apartment. How lucky is that??!!

After standing in the waiting room watching SERIOUS medical emergencies, we were sent through triage and quickly escorted to Dr. Handsome, an ophthalmologist who assessed the situation. He confirmed that my cornea was not damaged, then he flipped up my upper eyelid, grabbed a pointy tool and snagged a piece of grit that was embedded under my top eyelid!! I felt better INSTANTLY.

After paying the bill, the ER staff directed us towards a 24 hour pharmacy so I could get my antibiotic eyedrop prescription filled (for a mere $4).

The upside of this drama was our tour of the old part of the hospital where the ophthalmology department is housed.  Built about 500 years ago to house pilgrims, travelers, and impoverished citizens, Hospital de São Marcos is a beautiful building with stone arches, a lush courtyard and neoclassical chapel.  Originally intended to provide hospitality to those in need, it eventually evolved into a teaching facility for medical students and has now been absorbed into the sprawling complex of the new hospital behind it.  I had never made the connection between the words "hospitality" and "hospital" before!

beautiful and functional Hospital de São Marcos

Although we were nervous about tackling yet another unfamiliar system here, everyone was extremely helpful and kind throughout the whole process. It took a village to get that rock out of my eye and I couldn't be more grateful to those who helped along the way.

Laundry Day:

This actually happened a few weeks ago, but I think I'm ready to go public with the story... Our laundry situation is interesting here. We have a tiny washer that takes 2 hours to complete a cycle. We don't have a dryer, so we put everything on racks or the clothesline that's strung just beyond our balcony.

On this particular morning I was happy to see sunshine and blue skies, so I started hanging stuff out on the line. I was NOT so happy when I heard a thud and realized that I had dropped something down on to the roof of the balcony 3 stories below. <SIGH>

With a clothes pin in hand as a prop, I headed down to Rita and Rui's apartment as it has access to the roof in question.  As I mimed my situation, Rita quickly figured out what was going on. Trying to hide  her amusement, Rita helped me retrieve my item.  Was it a sock or a hankie or a towel?  NO! It was my favorite pair of blue and green polka dot underpants!!

As I was leaving with my damp underwear in hand, Rita presented me with a bag of cookies and a nice smile.  If I had known that my clutziness would be rewarded, I would have dropped something down there sooner!

~ Peggy

Friday, December 3, 2010

Field trip to Barcelos

We are hopelessly behind with our blog entries, but are planning to stay put for a while and get caught up with various aspects of our lives.

The first weekend in November, Eric and I took a bus to nearby Barcelos. We were on a food mission.  I had seen a flier advertising an Arroz Pica-No-Chão (translates to "rice picked off the ground") event. "Picked off the ground" refers to the eating behavior of chickens which form the base of this slow-cooked stew.  16 different restaurants in town were all going to be preparing their own special versions of this classic Portuguese dish and we did not want to miss out.

We were, pretty much, the only 2 people in the restaurant I had chosen from the list of 16 possibilities. The waiter enthusiastically described the lunch options, but did not mention Arroz P.N.C. When I held up the flier which described the event and asked the waiter about it, his face lit up and he said, "OH! You like chicken with blood???" We replied, "We'd like to try it!" and he happily bounced back to the kitchen.

A few minutes later a younger waiter proudly presented us with our vat of Arroz P.N.C. and ladled some onto each of our plates. I kept telling myself that the color of the sauce was due to tomato paste or something. It was very rich, had just a slight metallic taste, and the chicken pieces were HUGE! Eric had a drumstick that was almost twice the size of a normal one and I had a wing that was unbelievably large, more like a turkey wing! When we asked about it, our server explained that the chef is also a farmer and raises a lot of the restaurant's food himself. That was his gigantic chicken we were eating which made us appreciate even more!!

After our big meal we were pretty full, but the young waiter insisted on bringing us a special dessert that he wanted us to try. We soldiered on and enjoyed crunchy pastries filled with vanilla custard. They were very good and it was so kind of him to treat us to dessert!! 

After lunch, we strolled around the main square. The town was totally quiet when we hopped off the bus before lunch, but now it was bustling. There was a group of 4 accordion players of varying ages standing together and playing their hearts out and a nice crowd had gathered. A few women from the crowd started singing at the top of their lungs and people started dancing. We stood and watched the scene for quite a while. Eric referred to it as an "explosion of Portuguese cuteness"  and declared that Barcelos is now his favorite Portuguese town.