First Fires

Three years ago, we moved into our home on the Sintra coast, just hours after a pleasant immigration officer stamped my temporary visa at the Lisbon airport. My journey here had begun. My love had the house all ready, and we had space, and a little garden, and a classic fireplace for cool Portugal nights.

A few days later, shrugging my shoulders against the growing chill in the air, I hunted around for the thermostat. I found none.

I couldn’t believe it, but reality hit quickly: no central heating. The fireplace I’d looked at so fondly would be our sole source of warmth until we secured an electric space heater—and past experience led me to think that would be an expensive way to heat a three-story house. Still, the fact it had never even occurred to me to ask—of course, any house has heating! Coming from the Midwest, it was nearly a given, like the frost on Halloween night. My naiveté stunned me.

We spent the next two winters getting by with blankets, and hot water bottles, and flannel sheets—and that fireplace. It surely looked authentic, but it didn’t heat the house worth a crap. With such a broad opening, it was like having a campfire in our living room. You could almost hear the hot air whooshing uselessly up the chimney. The dogs parked themselves in front of it searching for warmth, and we did the same, pulling our couch in closer…and closer…

Last fall, when it appeared that we’d spend another year in this house, we looked at each other and said, “No more.” We entered into negotiations with our friend from whom we lent the house, and struck a deal. Carlos (from CJ Lareiras in Colares) would show up the week before Christmas and put in our modern lareira, complete with a fan and ducting to blow the hot air into the house, where it would be welcomed by man and beast.

We watched the demolition warily, then gained confidence in Carlos’ crew after seeing the diligence with which they completed each step. He showed us how it all worked by lighting the first fire—of pinecones—to match the very first fire we set in November 2015. A fitting display. The pups approved.

We made a promise to our pups that we would take care of the den, and the food procurement, and we’ve lived up to that.

While I’m walking back through memories, I recall another fun evening when friends invited us over and served up an entrada that we’ve worked many times to duplicate since. Credit goes to Mónica for the Baked Brie in Bread…so delicious, it’s now a favorite easy, lazy supper—or a treat to give to guests.

Baked Brie in Bread

Queijo al Forno no Pão

1 round of hearty bread, about 2-3 times the diameter of your cheese

1 round of soft-rinded cheese, like Brie, Camembert, or an Azeitão

Sprigs of thyme

1 clove garlic, minced, plus additional unpeeled cloves of garlic as you wish

4 tablespoons butter

  1. Preheat oven to 375F or 180C. 
  2. Take the lid of the cheese box (if it comes in one) and place on the round of bread to measure the correct-diameter opening.
  3. Cut around the box rim into the bread about halfway through—you want to leave a good base for the cheese to sit on inside the bread round. Cut off the “lid” to create the hole.
  4. Crosshatch the remainder of the bread round, scoring the bread into easily pulled sections.
  5. Melt butter in the microwave in a Pyrex measuring cup, or other pourable, microwave-proof container. Stir in the minced garlic clove.
  6. Place the cheese inside the hole in the bread round, and place the bread round on a cookie sheet. Scatter the unpeeled garlic cloves around the bread.
  7. Place the thyme springs into the top of the cheese (you may need to cut off the top of a cheese with a firmer rind), and sprinkle any additional leaves over the top.
  8. Pour the melted butter over the bread, letting it seep into the crosshatches. Pour the remainder with the minced garlic solids onto the top of the cheese, if you wish.
  9. Place in the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes, until the cheese is soft and gooey. Watch the process the first time, to ensure your bread doesn’t toast too darkly for your taste.
  10. To serve, place in the center of the table, and let everyone dig in, pulling pieces of bread off and dipping them in the cheese. Yum!

    Once the bread pieces have been pulled, you can use the crust of the round as the base for a pizza