Though it had been one of the rainiest and foggiest weeks I had ever spent in Portugal, on this particular day, the dreariness gave new meaning to the word “melancholy.” In no way was this suicidal ambiance any match for my mission to discover! I was booked for a trip to Viseu and absolutely nothing was going to deter my journey.
I was invited by the legendary winemaker Carlos Lucas, a fellow foodie, who produces notable wine in the Dão (his Ribeiro Santo Branco 2014 sits regally on Gordon Ramsay’s wine list in London) as well as other regions throughout Portugal and abroad. This was undoubtedly an excellent incentive to visit! But there was more to it…
Though most of my family is originally from Castelo Branco, my father’s maternal side comes from Viseu. What these two cities have in common is that they’re both part of the Beira region in Central Portugal – the latter is in Beira Alta (upper) and the former in Beira Baixa (lower). I grew up visiting the lower region, but never the upper where we no longer have family. This fed my intrigue about the area for years… It felt like a family member I’d never met, a missing link to my story. This, I realized later, was in fact what was fueling my deep desire to visit Viseu. It was a matter of identity.
In the end, I didn’t get to see much of the city, or the rest of the area due to the poor weather, but it worked out really well for my taste buds a.k.a my compass to exploring identity. You see, this visit included one of the most satisfying and soulful meals I have ever had in Portugal, paired beautifully with wines produced and poured by the charismatic Carlos.
Earlier in the day, we met up with Carlos at a small factory dedicated to producing the region’s prized Serra da Estrela cheese, then made our way to his Quinta do Ribeiro Santo in the town of Carregal do Sal, where he took us on a personal tour of the spacious and elegant winery. The fog unfortunately veiled its bucolic mountain backdrop of the Serra da Estrela. In good weather, Carlos says it’s a lovely location to go bike riding and exploring nearby Roman ruins. We bet!
For dinner, Carlos reserved a table at one of Viseu’s beloved restaurants, Santa Luzia. Housed in a contemporary space, I would never have guessed that what’s served inside is complete comfort on a plate. Open for more than 30 years, much of what this family-run restaurant offers its patrons is grown and raised right on their very own farm. The freshness of the food is mouthwateringly memorable…
I can’t get the juicy slices of Coração de Boi (giant tomatoes) doused in fleur de sal and drizzled in extra virgin olive oil out of my mind. The black eyed peas and shredded toothy kale covered in crumbled Broa (cornmeal bread) is unforgettable – an ideal wintry salad. And my favorite, rice with wild Miscaros, mushrooms so meaty I kept confusing them with the slivers of pork belly. Along with a bevy of wholesome dishes, our feast was replete with locally smoked meats and sausages, mountain cheeses and a medley of olives. The region is a must for meat and vegetable lovers!
We finished with the staple pairing of Requeijao from the mountain village of Seia – a ricotta-style cheese that in the Beira region is produced with the upmost quality – and silky pumpkin jam. I fell so head over heels for this combo that I searched for it everywhere else I went in Portugal after that dinner, but nothing came close to the creaminess of that night’s cheese and the earthiness of that jam.
Each bite was enriched with Carlos’s personal selection of graceful red and white wines including his Vinha da Neve 2011, a mineral yet mouthfilling white made from the Dão’s emblematic Encruzado. The Dão is the only region making white wine with this grape. “Encruzado is THE varietal of the Dão. We should continue to promote it, because it does extremely well here,” explained Carlos, a passionate host on par with the high quality of everything on our table.
Throughout this emotive meal, I couldn’t help but connect the gastronomical dots between this region and the Beira Baixa, which fascinates me as the bridge between north and south with its influences from Alentejo below and Beira Alta above, sprinkled with bits of Serra da Estrela. Eating in Viseu helped me put in place yet another piece in my food identity puzzle.
The off-the-beaten-path menu that Carlos carefully and appropriately selected for our late harvest dinner that night also confirmed what I had so often felt in the Beira Baixa: there’s so much more beyond the summertime and the coast (that understandably sell Portugal so well) to discover. These hidden places, many at the foothills or in the cradle of enchanting mountains, are in significant need of some serious exploration.
Viseu, we’ll be back!
Are you as hungry as we are to explore Viseu? Let us take you on a customized tour through the gastronomical gems of this bountiful region.
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