Saturday, May 27. My last full day in Portugal. My wife and I checked out of our Lisbon hotel and drove to Sintra, a short 45-minute drive west of Lisbon. Sintra's stunning setting on the north slopes of the granite Serra, among wooded ravines and fresh water springs, make it a favorite destination for visitors to Portugal. When we checked into our hotel in Sintra, we were greeted with a tray containing four Queijadas de Sintra, the cheese tarts spiced with cinnamon for which Sintra is famous. Our exploration of Sintra included the Palacio Nacional de Sintra, with its huge conical chimneys for the palace kitchens, one of the distinctive landmarks of Sintra; the spectacular Palacio da Pena, located on top of one of the highest peaks of the Serra de Sintra, an eclectic medley of architectural styles built in the 19th century for the husband of the young Queen Maria II, Ferdinand Saxe-Coburg-Gotha; and a hike along the ramparts of an 8th century Moorish castle, also high on a hill, from which there are magnificent views looking down on Sintra and the adjoining countryside. When it came time to decide where to eat dinner, the restaurants in Sintra didn't include any that made my engine race. Other options included several highly regarded seafood restaurants in the nearby seaside resort of Guincho, or a restaurant in the small town of Cabriz that seemed an unlikely destination for tourists. We decided on Curral dos Caprinos, the restaurant in Cabriz.
The ambience at Curral dos Caprinos was perfect--informal and cozy, with goat heads adorning the walls (as a reminder of one of the house specialties) and a hams hanging from the ceiling. First to arrive at the table was the best bread I'd had during my stay in Portugal, and that is saying a lot, for all the bread in Portugal was wonderful. They also brought fresh farmer's cheese, olives, and both meat and seafood croquettes. In Portugal, restaurants will frequently bring similar assortments of appetizers to your table. If you eat them, you pay. They're not free. In this case, everything looked so good that we couldn't resist tasting them. The fresh cheese, which had been made that morning, was spectacular. The croquettes were also wonderful, crisp and nongreasy with delicious fillings. From the menu, my wife ordered the white asparagus appetizer, and decided I had to have one last taste of the irresistible small clams sautéed in olive oil and garlic and garnished with fresh coriander. Both appetizers were absolutely spectacular, full of flavor and perfectly prepared. At this point in the meal, both my wife and I agreed that we were having one of the best eating experiences of our entire stay in Portugal, and I was on a trajectory headed for culinary euphoria. For entrees, I chose the house specialty, roasted baby kid. My wife chose the charbroiled baby lamb. Both were divine. The roasted baby kid was intensely flavorful, moist and tender. I don't know their secret, but the Portuguese are masters at roasting meat and fowl. I believe that the baby kid, for example, was roasted with a covering of paprika, garlic, wine, and lard to flavor the meat and keep it moist. The roasted baby kid was served with delicious oven roasted potatoes, lightly fried seasoned rice, and chopped spinach. The charbroiled baby lamb was also jam packed with flavor. It was served with fried potatoes, boiled white rice, and chopped spinach. All of the accompaniments were superb. The white rice, for example, had been cooked in stock, giving it wonderful flavor, and was served studded with finely chopped carrots. For desert, we shared another house specialty, called pijaminha. This was a melange of fresh fruit, various types of cakes, and ice creams. Totally decadent, totally wonderful. There was also an outstanding wine list, which had lots of old wines at amazingly inexpensive prices. I chose a 1977 Meia Encosta Garrafiera, which turned out to be a terrific bottle of 23-year-old red wine that wore its age gracefully and was at, but not past, it peak, for the amazing price of $13. The service at Curral dos Caprinos couldn't have been more friendly and gracious. It was our great good fortune to have this experience as our farewell dinner in Portugal.
The following morning, after a breakfast consisting mostly of fresh Sintra strawberries and more of those wonderful Portuguese breads and rolls, we drove to the Lisbon airport, and said our farewell to Portugal. Our stay in Portugal had been, as I hope I have conveyed though my reports, a thoroughly enjoyable experience from beginning to end. My only regret was the fact that I had barely dented the list of restaurants that I had prepared for the trip, and had not tasted a number of the Portuguese dishes that I had hoped to experience--like "stone soup" (sopa de pedra), bacalhau a bris (salt cod, potato, and onion with scrambled egg), sopa alentejana (bread-based soup with garlic, coriander, and olive oil, topped with a poached egg), coelho em vinho (rabbit cooked in wine), and ameijoas na cataplana (baby clams cooked in a cataplana with rounds of sausages and finely chopped ham in a ruddy tomato sauce). And, of course, because the season had not yet quite begun, I missed out on the fabulous charcoal grilled sardines (sardinhas assadas). But I'm grateful for what I was able to experience in the time I had. And there's always next time.