Cooking lessons fit for royalty

Of the many experiences I’ve had during my week exploring the wine and food culture of Portugal, my favorite was going to the home of a real live countess and having her teach us how to make a traditional Portuguese lunch.

Who is this Countess and why is she teaching cooking? Maria’s family has owned “patrimonies,” or palaces, in the Douro Valley for over 300 years. She spent her childhood at the one near Lomego, in the heart of the best port production area. It was her grandparents’ home.

Cooking with the Countess' House

The Countess’ Story

The countess’ family was booted out by the revolutionaries in 1975. They were either sent to prison or escaped to Brazil. All the family money was confiscated and they were left with nothing. Maria, a woman of inimitable resolve and ambition, was determined to regain the family property. Given a talent for design and fashion, she started selling beautiful and colorful blouses to friends. They were so admired that soon she opened a shop in Lisbon. As fortune would have it, her best friend’s husband, who owned the largest newspaper in Portugal, decided to start a private TV station.

He needed fashionable, colorful blouses and blazers for his on-camera news team. He turned to Maria to provide them. Suddenly, her business exploded and she opened several more stores to keep up with the demand. Now she had enough money to re-purchase the family property, which had been sold to the Seagram’s family.

But the palace, with its multiple buildings and extensive grounds, needed even more money to refurbish and maintain. That’s when she decided to use her love of people and talent in cooking to turn the palace into a place where people could spend the night, learn how to cook authentic foods and enjoy the charms of the Douro Valley countryside.

Today, at age 70, a fact Maria proudly shares, she runs an 11-room property and restaurant, with a pool, horses, vineyards, orchards…and cooking classes.

Cooking with the Countess' House

Cooking With The Countess

After offering us glasses of local port or water (I chose water as it was only 10 in the morning), we donned aprons and went to the kitchen. No modern showplace, this is the original kitchen where cooking is done in the fireplace and wood-burning stove.

Due to a tight schedule, we had an abbreviated lesson. Some of the steps had been already prepped for us. We started with a traditional soup made from a blend of pureed potatoes, finely chopped kale, chunks of chorizo and bacon.  All the ingredients are simmered in a cauldron over the open fire.

The Main Meal

Next, we made bread. The dough, a sticky blend of flour, olive oil and egg, had already been proofed. I was instructed to dip my hands in more olive oil, peel off a handful and press it into a cast-iron baking dish. Then I could add whatever fillings I wanted. With choices ranging from tuna, mozzarella, sliced tomatoes, provolone, bacon, ham and chorizo. I added the cheese, tomatoes and bacon. Then I added a second layer, then sealed the top and bottom layers together and used another little piece of dough to form my initial on the top to know which bread was my creation.

One of the helpers whisked my creation into the wood-burning oven. In the meanwhile, others in my group got to stuff mushrooms with a chopped ham filling or wrap bacon around slices of chorizo. By now it was 11 am, so I happily accepted a glass of locally produced white wine. It was crisp and light enough to justify drinking in the morning!

Time For Something Sweet

While all of this was happening, Countess Maria was preparing her favorite dessert: crème brûlée. She whipped up a creamy custard with a stick blender. It was the only modern convenience I saw except for the very necessary dishwasher. After she sprinkled it with copious amounts of sugar, Maria demonstrated the traditional way to caramelize the topping. She took what looked to be a branding iron and placed it in the fire to heat it up. Then she “branded” the dessert, making sure the hot iron melted every bit of sugar.

In the interest of time, Maria’s staff prepared some additional foods for our lunch feast, including a lovely vinaigrette-dressed salad including lots of yellow corn kernels, another widely used ingredient in the Douro, little chicken medallions in a brothy mushroom sauce and topped with walnuts and fresh fruit. If we’d had time, we would have cooked everything. What’s extra special about Maria’s lessons is that she is open to preferences and always abides by food allergies. One more unusual preference was to cook a meal centered upon octopus, and Maria obliged.

We ate our feast in a dining room straight out of a movie set from the 18th Century. Set with exquisite porcelain, each size plate a different pattern. There was flatware on the left, the right and above, and multiple glasses for different types of wines, not to mention centerpieces and other decorative items, it was a breathtaking setting.

Place setting at the countess home

Sadly, we had to leave for the airport for our next adventure. But Maria, who is more of a mom than a monarch, packed each of us a ham, cheese and tomato sandwich, just in case we got hungry before our next meal!

The Verdict

When I first heard we were going to have a cooking lesson with a Countess, I had visions of the kind of themed experience you’d find at Disney, like a Princess Breakfast. Nothing could have been further from reality. Countess Maria was as charming and hospitable as anyone I’ve ever met, and her riches-to-rags-to-riches story was inspirational. I promised her I’d return, and next time I’d love you to come with me!