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FEATURE

Sourcing Slow

Discovering Portugal's Small Organic Producers

From oyster breeders to dairy farmers, we visit some of Portugal’s best organic, artisanal producers with chef João Rodrigues, founder of the nonprofit platform Matéria, on a quest to source the ingredients that will make their way onto the menu at Slow's projects in Portugal.

  • Photographer Matilde Travassos

From oyster breeders to dairy farmers, we visit some of Portugal’s best organic, artisanal producers with chef João Rodrigues, founder of the nonprofit platform Matéria, on a quest to source the ingredients that will make their way onto the menu at Slow's projects in Portugal.

  • Photographer Matilde Travassos

FIVE YEARS AGO Lisbon native João Rodrigues had attained the kind of success as a chef that others only dream of, earning numerous awards and a string of Michelin stars for Feitoria Restaurant at Altis Belém Hotel. And yet something, he felt, wasn’t right.

“I started to question what I was doing. We had products from all around the world, very good products, but it was lacking some identity,” said João. “I was thinking that when someone travels to Portugal, they want to know what Portuguese people eat and what is the culture, you know, because food is culture.”

Authentic food culture, João realized, must begin with the ingredients, so he began calling chefs all around the country and asking them for recommendations of farmers, divers, fishermen and other local producers whose products and methods were very local, cultural, traditional, who did things “the old way.” He began visiting all these producers to try to understand their processes, their challenges and difficulties.

João Rodrigues

“I discovered something that made a great impact on me: the product is often a reflection of the producer as a person. So the person got much more interesting to me. The product depends on the producer and the love that he puts into that work.”

He began to build Matéria, an online database of these producers, documenting their work and wares through interviews, photography and video. The platform is a godsend for small local producers whose time-consuming methods and focus on product over profit often make it hard for them to stay afloat.

“Sometimes there are incredible products out there, but nobody knows about them,” said João. “If you create information, then more people have access.”

Matéria is also an invaluable tool for chefs and restaurateurs looking to offer truly authentic, sustainable local cuisine that benefits the wider culinary ecosystem, so when Slow went looking to source its restaurants in Portugal, from our beach house, Simple São João, on the Caparica Coast to Casa Noble in Lisbon. On a weekend in May, we joined João to visit some of the farmers, breeders and other producers whose goods will end up on our menus and uncover what the chef describes as the “authentic DNA of Portuguese cuisine.”

Portuguese Oyster
Neptun Pearl, Sado Estuary, Setúbal

There’s a popular story that Portuguese oysters actually originated in East Asia, that they arrived in the hulls of foreign ships. But Célia Rodrigues doesn’t buy it. “It’s nonsense. We have fossils that come from the Jurassic Age,” explains the founder and director of Neptun Pearl, a small oyster farm set within the Sado Estuary, a vast protected landscape of wetlands separated from the Atlantic Ocean by the Tróia Peninsula. Born into a family connected to the sea (her mother is one of the last sellers of dry fish in their village near Peniche), Célia has been in Setúbal for 20 years. It was here, while working in aquaculture, that she was drawn to oysters.

“I became friends with the fishermen. I used to do autopsies on the fish, and one day one of them introduced me to wild oysters,” she recalls. A local producer, Reinaldo Mendonça, took her to the natural banks and Celia made it a mission to recover the Portuguese species, Crassotrea angulata.

She started by catching them in the Mira River, “the least polluted in Europe,” she says, and today she raises them in nurseries in the Sado Estuary in an integrated aquaculture system where halophyte plants and river shellfish grow. She practices non-intensive production: each oyster receives more oxygen and food, which allows it to develop with the excellent quality that’s made Neptun Pearl one of the best oyster farms in Portugal.

Célia Rodrigues

“I became friends with the fishermen. I used to do autopsies on the fish, and one day one of them introduced me to wild oysters.”

Eggs
Cucumbi, Aldeia do Barracão, Alcácer do Sal

In 2017, Tozé and Catarina Francês were looking for a change, so they left their old life behind and moved to the 110-hectare Alentejan estate Catarina inherited from her father. They rehabilitated the ruined buildings, preserving the structures’ traditional design and named it Cucumbi, after a river in Cacolo, Angola, near Tozé’s childhood home. Then they transformed it into one of the best organic chicken farms in Portugal, or as Tozé describes it, a “sanctuary of pure, healthy and happy animals.”

Cucumbi is home to more than 1000 chickens, 463 of which are native Portuguese breeds: black, yellow, white and Pedrez. Tozé wants to preserve the four breeds and reach 600, 150 of each breed. The chickens are raised for their eggs but never slaughtered for meat. They roam free over an area of one and a half acres consisting of six open-air “rooms” sown with various grains.

Tozé Francês

“Cucumbi is a sanctuary for pure, healthy and happy animals. They eat organic grains, listen to classical music, We keep the doors open. They are free! This is our joy that we want to share with people!”

“I do a cereal mix,” said Tozé. “This is all sown by us. We have organic feed, plus leftovers from our gardens.” The chickens leave their coop at 7am and return at night. “But we keep the doors open. They are free!” he added. Tozé even plays classical music for the chickens in and out of the coop and regulates the temperature for their comfort. “The temperature is never less than 15° C in winter and not more than 25° C in summer. They are happy chickens!”

Alentejan Pork
Porcus Natura, Serra de Monfurado, Évora

It’s widely known that Alentejo pigs, with their extraordinary genetics and fat content, provide some of the highest quality, best-tasting ham in the world. Yet it’s also an established fact that few in the country are able to process the pigs with the skill of their Spanish counterparts. It is not by chance that more than 90 percent of the national production of the species crosses the border.

At Porcus Natura in the highlands of Alentejo’s Serra de Monfurado this paradigm—among others—is shifting. It all starts in the “maternity ward,” an area rich in water and shade interspersed with small private houses, where the breeding sows spend two weeks before giving birth. They then stay with their young for two months, before being transferred to a 10-hectare area where they must exercise their muscles.

“Animals need to walk,” said Francisco Alves, whose father developed this innovative system that he now oversees. At many other farms, he added, “they only go to the field to finish breeding and they don’t even know how to walk.”

The 700-hectare herdade is home to more than just pigs. “We also have Angus cattle, Merina sheep and serpentine goats,” said Francisco. But this diversity is not as important for the farm’s business (whose main activity is still raising Alentejo pigs) as it is for its philosophy. “We have an extensive regenerative management system,” says Francisco proudly.

Francisco Alves

“Livestock has a fundamental role in the regeneration and construction of soil. For that to happen, we have to learn how to guide animals correctly.”

This means using all species for the sake of soil vitality to create healthier pastures and to capture carbon to offset the emissions caused by the animals. This is done by promoting rotation of the animals and by simply “letting them work.” This sounds easy enough, but it isn’t: it requires knowledge and the will to do it differently. Fortunately, Francisco seems to lack neither.

Traditional wood-oven bread
Maria Virgínia Graça, Azóia

You might say it was out of necessity that Maria Virgínia Graça started her bread-baking business some 40 years ago in her childhood home in the village of Azóia, which sits at the foothills of the Serra da Arrábida near the town of Sesimbra.

“Back then, the situation was quite complicated, and most people went to Sesimbra to work, which is quite far. But I wanted to stay. So, I was trying to think of something I could do in my own house. I grew up baking bread here in this house with my mother. So I started to sell bread to people in the area, and that’s how it all started.”

Maria Virgínia Graça

“I started with 30 loaves per day. Now I’m making 300. It’s the thing that gives me the most pleasure and the thing that I want to pass on to the next generation.”

The business, which is known to locals simply as Virgínia, uses only three ingredients in its bread: Portuguese wheat flour, water and natural yeast, working with the same ferment—or mother dough—she began with 40 years ago. These ingredients, as well as the way she kneads the dough and bakes it in a wood oven give the bread the unique flavor and texture, soft inside and crusty outside, that have made it popular in the region and beyond.

“I started with 30 loaves per day. Now I’m making 300,” said Virgínia, whose customers today are often the children and grandchildren of her original customers. But she no longer bakes alone—now she bakes with her daughter, to whom she’s passing the family business. And her granddaughter has recently begun joining them in the kitchen.

Virgínia might have begun her trade from necessity, but today it’s a labor of love. She added, “It’s the thing that gives me the most pleasure and the thing that I want to pass on to the next generation.”

 

Apple (Maçã Riscadinha de Palmela D.O.P.)
Pomar na Vinha, Lagoa do Calvo, Palmela

Ten years ago Paula and Eduardo Iris took over the old vineyard of Eduardo’s father in the countryside of Palmela and planted it with apple trees—but this wasn’t just any apple.

“The food association of Palmela asked some farmers to start cultivating this lost breed of apples, Riscadinha de Palmela,” said Paula. “They were planning on creating a D.O.P. because it didn’t exist back then. Everyone had abandoned it,” she added of the endangered cultivar known for its crisp bite, juiciness and unique flavor.

“It’s sweet and floral, but at the same time it has acidity. It’s very fresh because it’s a summer apple. But when you ask people, they don’t tell you about this,” said Paula. “They say it’s my childhood apple. They will remember the beach with the family, the grandfathers. That’s what they like—the memories of the apples.”

Paula Iris

“When we went organic, the quality improved like 200 percent. We tried to involve the community so they could help create some value, and now we are a case study for everyone.”

But not long after Paula and Eduardo converted the vineyard to an apple orchard, the association that started the Riscadinha de Palmela project went bankrupt. “So we were kind of left wondering, now what, what do we do? Eight years ago, we were just trying to survive. We had other jobs. It was very difficult for us, and many producers gave up. There are very few left,” said Paula.

“I used to use the Riscadinha but it was very difficult to find,” said chef João. “This is the strange part: for us it’s really hard to find. For them, it’s really hard to sell.” What’s more, Riscadinha de Palmela can only be harvested from June and has a short shelf life of no more than a week. But Paula and Eduardo kept going, and four years ago they decided to go entirely organic to try for D.O.P. designation, which no one had at the time.

“When we went organic, the quality improved like 200 percent,” said Paula. “We tried to involve the community so they could help create some value, and now we are a case study for everyone.” The orchard got the D.O.P. designation and won a regional award. Paula and Eduardo even organized a Riscadinha de Palmela festival. “People from all over the country came,” said Paula. “We sold everything in 45 minutes. It was like, oh my god, people like this!”

Azóia Sheep’s Cheese
Queijo Sabino Rodrigues, Azóia, Sesimbra

Susette Miguel Rodrigues has been making cheese for as long as she can remember. Her grandparents founded the family business what would develop into Queijo Sabino Rodrigues more than 50 years ago. “They started it in the attic,” said Susette of the Azóia dairy. Her grandparents passed it down to her parents, who still work there to this day, following a careful process that’s been passed down through generations.

“My parents and my husband grow grains on the land outside, where the sheep can graze and walk around freely. They milk them twice a day and bring the raw sheep’s milk here, where we make three kinds of cheese with it: fresh cheese, cottage cheese and cured cheese.” The fresh and cottage cheeses are sold right away, but the cured cheese is refrigerated for 30-40 days before it’s ready to be sold.

Susette Miguel Rodrigues

“I’ve been doing this since I was born, and I’m completely in love with the process. I love to continue the family tradition and to feel like I’m really a master of the process.“

Similar to its more famous neighbor Azeitão, Azóia cheese is creamy in the middle and considered vegetarian-friendly in that it’s made with thistle flowers, rather than animal rennet, or stomach lining, which is what is usually used to coagulate the milk in the cheese-making process. “Azóia is different because of the quality of the soil and the diet of the sheep,” said Susette, adding that the thistle gives it a pleasing bitterness.

But for Susette, the excellence of the cheese is almost secondary to her love of the work itself. “I’ve been doing this since I was born, and I’m completely in love with the process,” she said. “I love to continue the family tradition and to feel like I’m really a master of the process.”

One of Cucumbi’s resident donkeys
Tozé Francês and one of his chickens
Cucumbi’s tomato plants
Tozé Francês and the team at Cucumbi
One of the barns at Porcus Natura
Piglets at Porcus Natura
A pig birthing tent at Porcus Natura
The entrance to Porcus Natura
An oyster breeder at Neptun Pearl in the Sado Estuary
Oysters being transported at Neptun Pearl
Diving for oysters at Sado Estuary
Inspecting the daily catch
One of Cucumbi’s resident donkeys
Tozé Francês and one of his chickens
Cucumbi’s tomato plants
Tozé Francês and the team at Cucumbi
One of the barns at Porcus Natura
Piglets at Porcus Natura
A pig birthing tent at Porcus Natura
The entrance to Porcus Natura
An oyster breeder at Neptun Pearl in the Sado Estuary
Oysters being transported at Neptun Pearl
Diving for oysters at Sado Estuary
Inspecting the daily catch

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