The man crouched low between the rows to reach the tendrils winding from each arm of the vine. The vinhas of Colares are trellised low—those that aren’t grown in the traditional bush style—and he needed to focus in a bit more closely to finish the pruning before the first of the buds burst open.
I’d been stalking the vines during each of my long runs. I saw him three weekends in a row as I ran past the stone-stacked walls on the coast near Fontenelas. I looked all over for the tight new buds that signal the arrival of spring and what will be promised for the coming season. He worked along each row of what appeared to be Malvasia, its roots digging down into the sandy soil, and he would not be disturbed from his careful efforts as I called to Billy to stay on the road.
We spent last week surveying the various vineyards we have grown to know around the Colares DOC, a very special demarcation within the Lisboa viticultural region. Budbreak can be capricious, when the buds explode into leaves—but it tends to occur when the degrees of warmth average at least 10C for a succession of days and then weeks. Our winter nights in Colares rarely dip below 5C all season long, but it takes a while to gather the solar energy needed to rasie the average above that required value. I had a feeling it was coming soon, though, when some newly planted yearlings burst into leaf in one sheltered corner of a local plot, on another one of my running loops.
We found vines on the chão rijo—rich soil—within the DOC boundaries breaking first. This clay soil can’t produce the DOC wines (which must be the red Ramisco and white Malvasia de Colares on sandy soil) but they’re an important part of the local table wines we drink every week—and an interesting source of experimentation for local growers and winemakers. Diogo Baeta, of Adega Viúva Gomes in Almoçageme, has begun a project on chão rijo with Malvasia that he’s treated organically since they took over management of the plot. He has located other vines as well, that are traditional DOC, ones he’ll start to shepherd this year, in the interest of preserving historic plots, with their hand-laid stone walls and bunkers and bamboo fencing put up to protect the grapes from the harsh winds off the Atlantic.
We hiked up on the Adraga highlands too, to visit the vines belonging to João and José Corvo of Mare e Corvus wines, as they had some of the first Ramisco and Malvasia that we saw leafing out. After João invited us in to take some pictures, he showed us the various varieties they have growing on their windswept land. Chardonnay and Fernão Pires join Malvasia in their white blend, which can be found in local markets.
He’s planted more vines, and they stand in aqua-colored tubes until they grow strong enough to withstand the elements on their own. Still, as Baeta had noted to us, loss from initial plantings can rise to 40% if one is not lucky—or careful. These’s no get-rich-quick scheme to being a vintner.
As the region comes to life, we will follow it through its progressions, cheering as the apple trees planted next to the Ramisco serve as harbingers for each phase. Yes, they grow apples near the Beach of Apples, Praia das Maçãs. But the most precious crop hangs in bunches on these low-slung vines.
The week before budbreak this year happened to be the week of Carnaval, since Easter’s so late in 2019. As a tradition, I make king cake—New Orleans style—to have for breakfast on Mardi Gras. (Rather than the Pancake Day of the Brits. Or in addition to it.) I have complicated feelings now about using the recipe I had used for years, so I decided to change it enough this year to make it my own.
You see, it was from a lovely cookbook that explored the cuisine of New Orleans and surrounding country, but the book was written by a star chef who has recently been outed as a serial harrasser and has since bowed out of the management of his restaurant group (though not its ownership). I won’t perpetuate his fame by printing his name, but I learned techniques like the creation of king cake from studying that book.
What to do about it? Give it a twist—literally. It’s a buttery brioche dough with little other adornment save a glaze and colored sugar in the original, so I mixed up a swirl of pecans, butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon to roll into the dough “ropes” from which you braid the loaf before its last rise. After baking and cooling the cake, I made a more substantial frosting, adding butter to the condensed milk, powdered sugar, and lemon juice. Colored sugars are harder to come by in Portugal, so I turned the frosting into the three royal tones: purple, green, and yellow. Então: a king cake now more “mine” than “his.”
King Cake Swirl & Frosting
(to use with your brioche dough)
1/2 cup pecans, crushed
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- Blend and roll into each of the three strips of dough before you make the braid.
- Turn the oven to a slightly lower temperature and extend the cooking time a bit to help fully bake the dough with the swirl, as it is a bit “wetter” because of it.
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup condensed milk
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar (or more for a stiffer frosting)
squirt of lemon juice to taste
- Blend the butter and condensed milk together until smooth. Add the lemon juice.
- Blend in the powdered sugar to the desired stiffness.
- Color according to directions on your food coloring to achieve the shades of purple, green, and yellow you desire.
- Frost the cooled cake in swirls, and add whole pecans on top for extra flair if you like.