Of all the memories turning golden from my coming-of-age years, summer camp ranks near the top. I loved the weeks spent away in the North Woods of Minnesota, at Camp Lake Hubert—and I’d go back in a heartbeat. The sing-alongs, the activities from crafts to sailing, the lifelong friendships solidified while portaging canoes and swatting mosquitos… It’s easy to forget the angst of being 14 years old in a cabin full of rapidly maturing girls, with the boys camp tantilizingly across the lake, a mile-and-a-quarter swim away, as it so happens.
So, one of the mysteries to me when I first moved to this corner of Portugal’s Sintra coast was this: What was the story behind the seemingly abandoned camps and their lodges scattered around the area? Were they used at one time for holiday retreats? Were they still used, ever? The creeping mildew, encroaching grass, and random grafitti tags told me they’d been left behind for years, but the fact that groups of Scouts pitch tents every weekend in our neighboring forests means that camping itself surely has not fallen out of fashion.
Who, then, owned these camps? When did they last see kids playing, families gathering, reunions made each year? The largest of them looked to me like the deserted set of a vintage horror movie. One along the main road opened suddenly last summer to host a wedding; another on the hill overlooking the ocean just got a new front gate (and locks), but the buildings stay unoccupied, unloved. Their slow disintegration marches on in our damp Colares climate.
The one resembling the movie set lays along the tram tracks into town. I would run by it early in the morning, and, in the evening, the sunset light hitting the old granary tower made me feel like time travel would be possible here, to return to its heyday. I kept meaning to ask around about it; when I did, I heard it was for sale—a number like €2 million floated past. Was that for real? The land covers an entire corner, after all. But so much work lay ahead to bring those cabins back into habitable shape. And no habitation seemed to be taking place…
Overnight, it seemed—but we were probably just away on a trip—last fall, cars pulled up into the lot. Then a real gate went up. And earth started moving. Next: a burst of activity in the main building, with saws going, and paint splashed around: sporadic changes slowly revealing themselves.
Three months ago, the activity picked up to a furtive pace. And then, one day, the signs and flags went up and the gates opened, and the once-deserted lot blossomed into bright, colorful life.
As it turns out, this camp once belonged to the Comboios de Portugal, the national train company (also known then as the Companhia do Caminhas do Ferro Portugueses). Construction began around 1937, when the first buildings were moved to the site. It then served as a summer holiday camp (colônia de ferias) for employees’ children of the CP, and was eventually designated a protected public monument. It fell into disrepair a couple of decades ago, no longer in use, with some minimal effort to keep it from falling apart.
Now, its owners have turned it into Aldeia da Praia (Beach Town), and “glamped” it up significantly. The Aldeia hosts a café, a grocery, a wine bar, a yoga studio, a brewpub, and a food truck (SoulDough) selling pizzas and soft drinks. Soon, yurts will open for rental. Yes, you too will be able to camp there again (in somewhat better comfort than I did on a thin, cotton-duck-covered mattress and scratchy wool blankets).
During its opening weeks, we’ve wandered down to the Aldeia a few times, mostly for a local craft beer or glass of wine—or a liter of milk—and found welcoming folks and lots of hopeful new customers. The timing is excellent, at the start of our real summer, evoking happy camp memories for me, and others, I’m sure. We’ll take a deeper dive into each of their offerings later this summer.
Camp food perhaps doesn’t evoke the same pleasant feelings (for some, I know, it would be mostly horrifying flashbacks to industrial-sized and tasteless chow), but the camp I went to served up some great family-style meals. Just as an army moves on its collective stomachs, so does a troop of hormonal pre-teen kids. Though you won’t find chili mac-and-cheese on many menus here in Portugal, you can find feed-an-army deliciousness like arroz de pato, utilizing ingredients frugally yet tastefully.
I have a feeling that arroz de pato has played on many a menu at these historic colonias de ferias in the past. Our version adds a few twists for additional flavor, to suit our tastebuds—but it’s still intended to satisfy a crowd at your own summer festas. Happy Camping!
Arroz de Pato
You make the attack on a good arroz de pato in three stages: the duck and stock, the rice/refogado, and the bringing together of the two. Maybe it sounds complicated, but all you’re trying to do is build flavors and layer them into the final dish. Each step is pretty straightforward. We made ours after using the breasts from the duck for a separate dish.
Stage 1: Duck and Stock
1 duck, about 2 kgs, with the breasts removed and the fat saved from their pan-frying; separating the legs from the carcass, plus the giblets (neck, primarily)
Leek greens from 2 leeks, sliced to 1/2 inch
1 medium onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon total coriander seeds and peppercorns (pink if you wish)
1. Roast the neck, giblets, and carcass (not the legs), plus onion and carrot, in a 180º C oven for about 25 minutes until browned.
2. Place roasted duck pieces plus the legs in stock pot along with roasted vegetables and leek greens, and spices, and cover with water.
3. Bring to a simmer (do not boil), and let simmer over low heat for an hour, or until liquid is reduced by half.
4. If you do not use the breasts for a separate recipe, remove them and sauté them to cook through, reserving the fat for the assembly of the dish.
5. Remove duck from stock and reserve; strain the remainder through a fine sieve and reserve.
6. Shred all of the duck meat from the bones and reserve.
Stage 2: Rice and Refogado
3 cups carolino, vaporizado, or arborio rice
2 tablespoons plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons reserved duck fat
1/2 red bell popper, diced into 1/2 inch pieces
1 onion, diced into 1/2 inch pieces
5 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
1 tomato, diced into 1/2 inch pieces
1 teaspoon smoked paprika or pimentón
1 teaspoon turmeric or several strands of saffron, bloomed in a teaspoon of water
1 bay leaf
1. Make the refogado first: Sweat the onion and garlic in 2 tablespoons of the olive oil for 4 minutes in a medium sauté pan, then add the tomatoes and turmeric, and continue cooking for another 4 minutes.
2. Stir in the peppers, paprika, and bay leaf and heat through.
3. Next, add the rice: Heat the remaining olive oil and duck fat in a large sauté pan, then stir in the rice and refogado.
4. Cook rice mixture over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the rice is golden and lightly toasted. Set aside.
Stage 3: Assembly
1 carrot, diced to 1/2 inch
1 red onion, diced to 1/2 inch
2 leeks, sliced to 1/2 inch, white parts only (you can use those you used for leek greens in the stock, preferably)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Reserved stock, at least 7 cups
Reserved duck meat, about 2 cups total
1 chouriço, diced into 1/2 inch pieces, casing removed, about 1 cup
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
Salt and pepper to taste
Special equipment: Paella pan
1. Preheat oven to 180º C.
2. Incrementally add 6 cups of duck stock to large sauté pan with the rice mixture, bringing it to a simmer and maintaining that simmer. Ideally, you can add 1 cup at a time, stirring it into the rice until incorporated, as you would risotto. Continue until all of the stock has been absorbed by the rice, about 30 minutes. It should be al dente.
3. Taste the mixture, and adjust salt and pepper.
4. In the meantime, heat olive oil in a small saucepan until shimmering, and add carrots, onions, and leeks, and brown slightly, about 7 minutes. Set aside.
5. Once rice mixture has absorbed 6 cups of the stock, stir in the sautéed vegetables, and spread it into an even layer in the paella pan (if you don’t have one, you can use a large Dutch oven).
6. Add one more cup of stock drizzled over the rice, then scatter the duck and chouriço on top of the rice, evenly distributing each.
7. Place in oven, and cook for 10 minutes.
8. Remove from oven, and cover with foil. Let it finish cooking through via its own steam for about 5 minutes.
9. Sprinkle cilantro on top and serve. Makes 6-8 servings.