From the land and the sea
– September 14, 2023 | Text Beatriz Maio
In an intimate and cosy atmosphere, Porches’ Vilalara Thalassa Resort welcomes guests for a unique tasting experience at the fine dining restaurant of the luxury resort which is part of the Blue & Green Hotels & Resorts chain.
Portuguese traditions and local produce are prioritised in this space where the friendliness of the staff provides a warm welcome to diners, further enhanced by the kindness of sommelier Vitaliy Lesyuk.
Available in six or seven moments, the new tasting menu called “Maré”, which includes bread, snacks, starter, main course, dessert and petit-fours, brings the flavour of the sea, through various fish and seafood dishes, and of the mountains. To start, as it could not be any other way in a “Portuguese house”, freshly baked bread is placed on the table, made with national wheat flour by a local baker, served with homemade butter with natural fermentation, flavoured with seaweed from the Algarve coast.
To savour this moment, diners are invited to share a generous piece that must be broken with their hands, which breaks the usual formal atmosphere of the typical fine-dining experience. When emphasising the importance of the meal, chef Diogo Pereira explained that this act has “a symbolic meaning” and makes “the moment more intimate because it requires trust and proximity”.
To prepare the menu, the chef, a native of Faro, said that “the inspirations all come from nature and our traditions”, stressing that “Portugal has a unique cuisine, ingredients and techniques”. Next, diners are surprised with three small snacks with traditional flavours, which should be tasted in the following order: fig with ham and muscatel sauce; sun-dried moray eel skin, fried in extra virgin olive oil and seasoned with Madeira molasses and dried chillies; and mackerel with sea lettuce marinated with garum, a condiment of Roman origins, resulting from the fermentation of blue fish with salt for several months.
The dishes presented are intended to celebrate authenticity. As such, there is a choice of fish and meat, with starters such as carabineiro em crudo (raw scarlet prawn) from Vila Real de Santo António served with its grilled head; fresh scallops with Silves-style arjamolho, made from tomatoes, cucumber and peppers lightly macerated with olive oil and vinegar; tuna tartar, fresh herbs and trout roe; braised bonito with fennel and sour leaves and oysters farmed in the Ria de Alvor, prepared in a light escabeche sauce.
The selection presented, which pays homage to fishermen and shellfish harvesters, was carefully planned, having undergone changes from the initial idea. For example, “the scallops were supposed to be served with a gazpacho, but we ended up going for the arjamolho that makes the broth lighter”, explained the chef. For the fish dishes, the options are fried sunfish with goose barnacles from the rugged Sagres cliffs and millet; grouper, caldeirada broth, clams and fried bread; and one-sided tuna, cooked on one side with salted toucinho (bacon), parsnips and a semi-dry Madeira wine sauce.
The choice of each specific fish stems from the chef’s knowledge and familiarity with the sea and fishing. In particular, he made a point of serving sunfish because it is “often considered rubbish because it is difficult to work with due to its very tough skin and because it is difficult to get hold of, so it is not used a lot”. He wanted to test ageing it and had no doubt that it would have a place on the menu.
Meat dishes include black Alentejo pork neck, Provençal-style tian and prune chutney; aged Arouquesa beef, served with boiled corn and carob, slow-cooked with fig wood ash, a technique that dates back to the Aztecs; and duck breast, aged for five days to achieve crispy skin and tender meat, served with Jerusalem artichokes and Óbidos sour cherry sauce.
The pork neck was chosen to honour this “gastronomic icon” and the specific part of the animal was chosen because it is a piece that the chef loves to work with and can be used in various dishes. The last dish is also one of the chef’s favourites, as it reminds him of the duck rice made by his grandmother and highlights the meat’s versatility, since it can be served “both fully cooked and more on the rare side”.
Desserts include soufflé de melosa, a Vilalara icon that has been on the menu since 1972, made from medronho and honey from the Monchique hills; tangerine, parfait, granita and pickle, with various textures and flavoured with pennyroyal; and chocolate and carob and pastel de nata reinvented by António, master pastry chef at the resort for over three decades.
The menu also has a vegan option with seven moments featuring almond gazpacho and caramelised onions, pumpkin steak, spinach and ancient wheat, mushroom chou farci, yam puré and pumpkin sauce and chocolate and carob. The rest are surprises, chosen by the chef himself.