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Monday, October 26, 2009

O Albertino

Mixing things up a bit... a new acquaintance and musical colleague has had me thinking about Portugal quite a bit the past few days. He is Portuguese, and I lived in Lisbon for several years in the '90's (and as it turns out, we performed together there when he was 14!). I get back there periodically--most recently, this past summer--and each time I am reminded that I believe Portuguese cuisine to be one of the great undiscovered cuisines of the world. Some elements, certainly, are very much like other Mediterranean cuisines. But there is a large part of the cooking repertory that is quite unlike any other, and it seems the only way to find out about it is to go there and immerse oneself. Portuguese cuisine does not travel particularly well--in large part because so many dishes depend on locally-produced ingredients, and if one element of a dish is even just a little bit off, the whole dish ends up not tasting Portuguese at all.

So, to give voice to my saudades, I thought I would write a bit about what is easily the most memorable meal I have experienced in Portugal so far. This occurred a few years ago, and, as I understand it, the place remains essentially unchanged. The town is Folgosinho, near Gouveia in the Serra da Estrela mountains, and the restaurant is O Albertino.

To get there, you must have a car--other than some rather attractive mountains, Folgosinho is not near much of anything. And the place is small, so the other absolute requirement is a reservation. The day I was there, businessmen had driven in just for lunch from both Lisbon AND Porto.

Upon being seated, I was presented immediately with a plate of regional items to nibble on: slices of chouriço, morcela (blood sausage), and queijo da serra (a locally-made soft, runny cheese--truly one of the great cheeses of the world) and a basket of incredible bread. And, naturally, some of the hearty local red wine. The waiter then came around and reeled off the four dishes they made that day... as my look of agonized indecision reached its zenith, he tossed in the final option "...ou um bocadinho de todos" ("...or a little of everything"). It took me about two nano-seconds to decide upon that one. First came a feijoada de javalí--a stew of pinto beans featuring wild boar--undoubtedly local--as its chief meat ingredient (with, of course, the usual hints of chouriço and bacon for extra dimension). Simple, honest....fantastic! Then came the cabidela de coelho. This is a variation of what is probably my favorite Portuguese dish, galinha em arroz de cabidela (galinha is chicken, or more properly, hen... arroz de cabidela is rice that is then cooked in the chicken broth with the giblets, then finished with chicken blood), except made with rabbit. Rice is cooked in the rabbit/giblet broth, and blood is added at the end--not too much... it's really not as disgusting as perhaps it sounds. Somehow, rabbit blood gives an overall silkier texture to the dish than that of chicken cabidela... it was, in a word, wonderful. This was followed by roasted kid goat (cabrito assado), served with small new potatoes that had been roasted along with it. Also delicious, although this was the only dish that was somewhat less than truly spectacular--I've had much better cabrito assado elsewhere in Portugal (and if you ask me REAL nice, I'll tell you where). The repast completely regained its footing with the final offering, leitão assado (roast suckling pig!). Made on the premises in a slightly different way than it's done in Mealhada, the leitão capital of Portugal, it's still tender, peppery, with the requisite crackly skin... superb. The meal was capped by the best leite creme I've ever had (and I've had a LOT of them), leite creme being a soft-ish eggy custard, very much like crema catalana, finished with a sprinkling of cinnamon and a burnt sugar crust on top (a la crème brulée and real crema catalana). All of this set me back.....are you ready?....about 10 dollars. With the dollar now totally in the toilet, it may be 20 bucks--but that is still, needless to say, a bargain.

Closed Sunday night and all day Monday.

O Albertino
Largo do Adro de Viriato, 8
Folgosinho 6290-081 FOLGOSINHO, Portugal
(+351) 238 745 266