|Sao Francisco, Evora, Portugal|
In Evora, Portugal, a small town in the Alentejo province you are offered the opportunity to visit a Chapel whose lining is made up entirely with the bones of the dead. Not just bones but skulls as well. There are two figures preserved whole, an adult and a child and their bones are discreetly covered in clothing. Given that the Chapel dos Ossos is about 10 metres by five metres, it is quite an awesome sight to see the bones neatly made to comprise the four walls of the chapel. The bones were apparently gathered up by a monk following an earthquake which uprooted the local cemetery.
Such zealotry shouldn’t go un-noticed. Above the entrance door is a Latin saying something along the lines of, from memory, “We are dead and we await you”. There’s a warning in the guide books that some might find this distressing but parents happily posed for photos with their kids. When I mentioned this to another seasoned traveller he said he had been there and here I quote “Our NYC Jewish friend was with us and said “Christians! They always overdo everything”.
Just down the road from the church of Sao Francisco and its chapel is Chouricaria da Praca. From the outside it’s a nondescript place and there are no markings which indicate the fine cuisine on offer inside. Friends had discovered it the night before and were keen to go back. As a result, the two best meals we have thus far consumed in Portugal (with just a day to go) were partaken.
The chef is Diogo Prego, a man with the looks of the young Alain Delon, and he has built the place slowly starting by selling his grandmother’s bread. He learnt his trade in Lisbon where he cooked for nine years before returning to his home town. Put simply he cooks like a dream and his food is a mile away from the plates of meat or codfish accompanied by both badly cooked chips and rice which are the staple feature of Portugal’s central kitchen.
|Diogo Prego of Chouricaria da Praca|
Diogo is helped by a head waiter who speaks excellent Portugese, English, Spanish and French. He looks all of twenty-five years old but his culinary knowledge bespeaks years of experience. On the second night we visited the restaurant (we decided that the first was not enough), the young assistant was helping out in the kitchen as well.
We were expertly steered towards some of Diogo’s signature dishes, starters of Trompettes of Crayfish, some tiny meatballs with chutney (Croquettes de Farinheira com compota di cebola roxa) and a plate of mushrooms tossed with tiny rounds of chorizo sausage. We chose a white wine from the list with a recommendation for a local product. Delicious and ridiculously priced at Euro19 a bottle.
The mains we chose were part of the reason for returning the next night. Diogo’s right hand had steered us toward the house speciality Pig’s Cheek, a meat cut of astonishing tenderness, juiciness and flavour. It was served with potatoes and a pea mash. Three of us chose it and one chose a Duck Pie with a delicious tomato and lettuce salad. Desserts were again signature stuff – a three layer near liquid chocolate concoction, and a pear and ice cream combo doused in orange. Magic.
On our return we again fell upon the Trompettes of Crayfish (delicious pieces wrapped in a tempura like cone) Those who hadn’t tried the pig’s cheek went for it and those who hadn’t tried the Duck Pie fell upon it. We had apparently drunk the place out of the previous night’s Evora area white and were forced to drink a Sauvignon Blanc Viognier blend from the nearby town of Estremoz. The price was a mere Euro16.
We’ve eaten out for lunch and dinner for a week and half now but nothing compared with what Diogo and his crew turned out for us. Utterly memorable.