Food and drink, Pão de ló: a cake for all seasons

Pão de ló: a cake for all seasons

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DSCN5125Wherever you go in Portugal you are likely to come across pão de ló, whether it’s in the window of a pastelaria (cake and pastry shop) or on a market stall. It is a cake that appears at most Portuguese celebrations, particularly at Christmas and Easter. Pão de ló is a light and fluffy fat-free sponge cake made with three ingredients: sugar, flour and eggs – lots of eggs! As with many Portuguese cakes and desserts the recipe is said to have originated in the convents where the nuns had lots of egg yolks left over after using the whites to starch their habits and naturally there are lots of regional variations to the recipe. The standard recipe for pão de ló uses six eggs and six egg yolks. Air is added to the mixture by whisking the eggs and sugar until it has doubled in size (Chef Nuno Mendes suggests whisking the mixture for 20 minutes!). The flour is then gently folded in and the mixture is poured into a cake tin lined with greased greaseproof paper, high at the sides to allow for the cake to rise. Traditionally the cake is cooked in a fluted cake tin (which gives it a hole in the middle), however, this is not essential and many recipes, including one from Nuno Mendes, use a normal round cake tin. It is not the prettiest of cakes, as it rises up very high during cooking and then deflates as it cools down, giving it a wrinkled and cracked appearance, but that is part of the charm. IMG_0817After it is cooked it should be crisp on top and slightly moist inside. The taste reminds me of the Italian savoiardi biscuits (ladyfingers) that are used to make tiramisu and, like those biscuits, pão de ló can be used as a base for other desserts but often it is served on its own with a cup of coffee or tea or even a glass of port.

As it is Easter I have decided to make a chocolate pão de ló in celebration of the season. Feliz Páscoa!IMG_0819

Algarve, Armação de Pêra: where cliffs and coves meet sweeping sands

Armação de Pêra: where cliffs and coves meet sweeping sands

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Fishermen’s Beach, Armação de Pêra

As we entered Armação de Pêra our hearts sank. ‘Is this the right place?’ we asked ourselves. Unfortunately the seaside resort of Armação de Pêra was a victim of overzealous property development in the later decades of the twentieth century, when the Algarve was becoming a popular package-tourist destination and a lot of the architecture is quite frankly ugly, with characterless high-rise apartment blocks lining the streets. The main street in the centre of the town, Via Dorsal, is more reminiscent of a financial district than a holiday resort and even the pedestrianized seafront hasn’t escaped this building trend. However, after the Holiday Inn and the Water Dog pub (with the photogenic sign of the famous Portuguese aquatic poodle) the promenade opens outs onto some pretty gardens that look out over the sea, at the end of which is an incongruous terracotta-coloured villa, that looks like it came from a pre-package tour era, and we could see the appeal of the place.

There is a long expanse of sandy beach which goes all the way from Praia dos Beijinhos eastwards to Praia da Galé and it marks the end of the imposing cliffs and cove beaches of the western Algarve. Looking to the west, the pretty little white chapel of Nossa Senhora da Rocha sitting atop a cliff is visible, alongside some of the most spectacular rock formations along this coast. Looking to the east the beaches of Praia de Armação de Pêra, Praia Grande de Pêra, Praia dos Salgados and Praia da Galé extend along the coast for as far as the eye can see. The beaches to the east of the town are wilder, with sand dunes and a wetland lagoon that I have described in A walk around Praia Grande de Pêra.

Truth be told there isn’t a lot to see in the town, but the parish church of Nossa Senhora dos Navegantes (Our Lady of Mariners), dating from 1960, is charming with pretty stained-glass windows, statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus and wonderful wood carvings on the wall depicting the stations of the cross.

A little further along the promenade is a small section of the former sixteenth-century fort and the tiny chapel of Nossa Senhora dos Aflitos (Our Lady of the Afflicted Ones, also known as the Chapel of Santo António) dating from 1720 when Armação de Pêra was a small fishing community built up around the beach that is now known as Praia dos Pescadores (Fishermen’s Beach).

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Chapel of Nossa Senhora dos Aflitos, Armação de Pêra

The word armação means ‘fishing net’ and this beach was where the fishermen from the nearby village of Pêra came to fish, hence the place being named Armação de Pêra. Praia dos Pescadores is still a working fishing beach with rows of fishermen’s huts, nets and boats.

Some of the boats are used for trips along the coast to see the cliffs of Senhora da Rocha, Albandeira, Praia da Marinha and Benagil. The streets around Praia dos Pescadores give a sense of what the village looked like before tourist development with traditional two-storey whitewashed houses along narrow cobbled streets. There were a few other small surprises during our walk around the back streets of Armação de Pêra which made me like the place more, including spotting a pretty circular bench covered in traditional tiles on Rua Bartolomeu Dias, just after stopping to admire a large mural entitled ‘Homo Sapien Space Captain’ painted on the exterior wall of a primary school.

Having taken part in the annual Christmas Day Santa Swim before looking around the town we were ready for lunch and decided to try the Olival Mar Beach Café overlooking the beach. We had a wonderful selection of freshly prepared tapas (smoked ham with melon, squid rings, octopus, garlic mushrooms and grilled pork slices) all washed down with freshly squeezed orange juice. The food was delicious and the portions were good and we were happy to pay the over-inflated €37 bill. It was Christmas Day after all!


Buses run to Armação de Pêra from many parts of the Algarve, including Albufeira, Lagoa, Portimão, Silves, Lagos and Faro. The Lisbon bus also stops here.

Olival Mar Beach Café, Praia Vale do Olival, Armação de Pêra (next to the car park at the western end of Armação de Pêra)

Algarve, Quinta de Marim, Olhão

Quinta de Marim, Olhão

Photo (747)The Quinta de Marim Environmental Education Centre is a 3km walk from the centre of Olhão. It is part of the Ria Formosa Natural Park, which extends over 60km of the eastern Algarve coast, from Ancão (to the west of Faro) to Manta Rota (between Tavira and Vila Real de Santo António). The natural park was created in 1987 to save this unique ecosystem of salt marshes, mudflats, channels and small islands, which are in a lagoon protected by barrier islands, from the destructive development of large hotel complexes and golf courses.

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Map of the Ria Formosa Natural Park

The Quinta de Marim estate could be described as a microcosm of the Ria Formosa Natural Park, comprising 60 hectares of pinewoods, sand dunes and mudflats with plants that grow in these harsh conditions, such as glasswort, leadwort, saltwort and seablite, and fruit trees that are suited to the Algarvean climate, such as almond, carob, fig and olive. The prickly pear grows abundantly too.

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Prickly pear, Quinta de Marim, Olhão

At the office near the entrance where we paid our admission fee we were given a map of the estate which showed a 3km walking trail and the places of interest at various points. The main path follows a circular route, with information boards dotted around, although we discovered that there were other paths we could take leading off the main path. Nevertheless, we were able to cover all the estate in less than 3 hours. We were using a rather old guidebook dating from 2002 and in the intervening years some areas of the estate seem to have fallen into a state of neglect: the former kennels which were used to protect the near-extinct Portuguese water dog now stand empty; and the former visitor’s house is now bricked up. However, the Ria Formosa Recovery and Wildlife Research Centre (RIAS) still operates, looking after injured animals and then releasing them back into the wild and it even offers an 8-week volunteer programme for anyone, particularly graduates, who want to be involved with wildlife research and education.

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Ria Formosa Recover and Wildlife Research Centre, Quinta de Marim, Olhão

For many people the main reason to visit the estate is to watch the birds in the salt marsh.

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Salt marsh, Quinta de Marim, Olhão

There is a hide at the edge of the marsh with a list of waterfowl you may see feeding in the mud, including the black-winged stilt, curlew, dunlin, heron, Kentish plover, little egret and white stork. Other birds that may be seen in the grounds are the Iberian magpie, white wagtail, Sardinian warbler, along with other warblers, chats, finches, larks, tits and thrushes. The very rare purple gallinule is the symbol of the Ria Formosa Natural Park having been observed breeding in the park and the symbol is on the sign at the entrance to the Quinta de Marim. It can be seen on the first two photos of this article.

Another interesting aspect of the estate is the evidence of how the natural resources have been used by successive inhabitants over the centuries, dating back to the 1st century AD, with remains of Roman salting tanks and other buildings which are thought to have been warehouses or living quarters, suggesting that this was the site of a fish salting industry where fish was preserved for export. More recently, in the late-eighteenth century, a tidal mills were built to grind barley. The building and mills have been restored and give a good indication of how the miller and his family would have lived right up until the 1970s. Detailed information about how tidal mills work was given to us on a leaflet and there are also information panels about it in the former mill house, but the basic principle is that the water is dammed in a tidal inlet reservoir at high tide and released at low tide to move the mill and grind the grain.

There is an example of Moorish inventiveness in the grounds of the estate in the form of a waterwheel known as a noria, something that used to be common in the Algarve. This would have been used by the family that lived in the farmhouse in the middle of the estate to draw water from the well by the movement of a donkey walking round in circles. The water was then stored in a tank from where it was channelled to the orchards and gardens. Sadly the noria is broken and no longer usable, but it is still intact enough to see how this ingenious piece of machinery works.

The other building of note is the visitors’ centre, but it was a bit disappointing, with a few models of traditional fishing boats and not much else. There were some nice views along the coast from the top floor and we were able to get a cup of coffee from a machine in an area that once must have been a café.

Visible across the railway line, although not in the grounds of the estate is the Casa João Lúcio/Ecoteca de Olhão, which is connected to the Ria Formosa Natural Park through its use as an environmental education centre. It also hosts cultural events organised by the Olhão city council. The house is named after an Olhão-born poet, João Lúcio (1880-1918), who designed the house in the early-20th century but died before he could live there. It has a striking exterior dominated by four staircases.

On a late December day there weren’t many visitors at the Quinta de Marim, which made it a perfect place to enjoy the natural wonders of the nature park, but despite our expectations we failed to see any birds of interest on that day. Such is nature!


Marim Environmental Education Centre, Quelfes, Olhão

Opening hours: Monday to Friday 8am-8pm; weekends and public holidays 10am-8pm. Entrance €2.70. Tours with a park guide need to be booked in advanced.

Bus: the Circuit Olhão runs from Olhão bus terminus to the Olhão campsite every hour Monday to Friday between 7.30am and 8.30pm and Saturday mornings (not on Sundays or public holidays). The entrance to the Quinta de Marim is a short walk from here across the railway line.

On foot: it is an easy 30-minute walk from Olhão. Starting from the Rua da Fábrica Velha (the road with the former canning factories with the amazing murals) walk by the fishing dock and then through an industrial area, leading to an area of holiday homes on Rua do Pedro Zé. The road continues through a rural area until it reaches the hamlet of Pinheiros de Marim where there is a restaurant on the bend. The entrance to the Quinta de Marim is just past the restaurant, on the right.

Algarve, Milreu - a Roman villa in the heart of the Algarve

Milreu – a Roman villa in the heart of the Algarve

Pool with mosaics, Milreu Roman villa

In contrast to the rococo extravagance of the Palácio de Estói, which has been immaculately restored and leaves little to the imagination, the Roman ruins of Milreu, the other main attraction on the outskirts of the village of Estói, requires quite a bit of imagination to picture how the site would have looked from the 1st to the 10th century AD when a villa stood there. Nowadays it is mainly only ground-level bricks that remain, but if you look closely there are few vestiges of the former villa. The site isn’t very big and it is amazing to think that early archaeologists mistook it for remains of the city of Ossonoba (which was on the site of what is now Faro, 8 km away). It wasn’t until the 1940s that two archaeologists identified Milreu as a large villa. The layout of the villa is still very evident and there was plenty of information around the site to help me understand what each area would have been used for.

Plan of villa
Plan of Milreu Roman villa

The villa was built around a large peristyle (a type of cloister) in which the water tank in the centre and two columns that surrounded the courtyard are still standing, but I was particularly drawn to the largely intact remains of the mosaic floor depicting marine creatures, which are thought to date from the 4th century AD. During this period a decorative style which had started in Rome made its way across the Roman Empire and wealthy Romans employed artists to create works in this style in marble, mosaic, ceramic and painted stucco. The mosaics that still exist at Milreu give us some idea of what the decorative style of the villa would have been like.

Also, still standing is the bathing complex, which comprised an apodyterium (changing room) of stone benches along a wall with a large number of niches underneath, presumably for people to store their clothes. A bathing pool had also withstood the test of time, with more wonderful fish mosaics lining it, also from the 4th century AD.

Due to its position near the Serra do Caldeirão mountains and the River Seco there was a good supply of clean water that they channelled from the mountain springs into the villa and dirty water from the kitchen, baths and latrines was removed via drains that ran downhill to the river. The villa was totally self-sufficient: they grew their own vegetables, figs, olives and grapes and made their own wine. Part of the garden can be seen along the southern side of the house, which would have been where the entrance was. They even had their own forge where they made farming tools, nails and locks. A few remains can be seen in the museum.

Garden in the south wing
Garden of the south wing, Milreu Roman villa

Another important building that is still partially standing is the temple to the south of the villa which was dedicated to a water god. Information in the small museum gave more details about the temple and even had a scale model showing what it would have looked like when it was built in the 4th century AD, with columns around the outside and an apse at the southern end. Nowadays only the crumbling apse is still visible. The temple was believed to have been built by the owner of the villa in the 4th century AD as a private place to practice pagan worship, as by then Christianity had spread throughout the Roman Empire. In later centuries it became a church and, during the Moorish rule, a mosque.

The villa was abandoned in the 10th century, possibly after it was destroyed in an earthquake. However, a farmhouse was built on the north-east corner of the site in the 15th century using some of the villa’s foundations and it was adapted into its present form of a large white building with a cylindrical watchtower on each corner in the 19th century.

Farmhouse, Milreu Roman villa

To either side of this farmhouse are what would have been the working areas of the Roman villa, including an area of wine presses to one side and the atrium area, which included the kitchen, to the other. Interestingly the kitchen is nowhere near the triclinium (formal dining room), although the atrium opened onto the peristyle, the other end of which gave access to the triclinium.

As well as lots of insightful information about the structure of the villa and the life of the people who lived in it, the museum also contains copies of some of the busts that were discovered in the grounds of the villa, including Agrippina (the mother of Emperor Nero) and Emperor Hadrian, explaining that portrait sculptures were often a way of showing support for an emperor and were put on display in areas where they would be seen by visitors, such as the atrium, peristyle, gardens and bathing complex. The originals, dating from the 1st and 2nd centuries respectively, are now on display in the Museu Municipal de Faro.

Without the information that I had gathered in Milreu’s museum before stepping out into the site I would have probably walked around the site, seen piles of bricks and a few mosaics and instantly have forgotten it, but instead I left feeling as fascinated by the Roman period of Algarve history as I am by the more recent history.


Roman Ruins of Milreu, Rua de Faro, Estói

Entrance: €2

Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday 10.30am-1pm and 2pm-6.30pm (May-Sept); 9.30am-1pm and 2pm-5pm (Oct-Apr). Closed 1 January, Easter Sunday, 1 May, 7 September and 25 December.

Bus from Faro to Estói: €3.30 per person one way (buses aren’t very frequent). It is a 10-minute walk from the centre of Estói.

Taxi from Faro to Milreu: €15 one way