La Rochelle, France

La Rochelle's medieval fortification towers in Vieux Port (the Old Port neighborhood) in La Rochelle, France

La Rochelle’s medieval fortification towers in Vieux Port (the Old Port neighborhood) in La Rochelle, France

Snuggled beside the Bay of Biscay (the coastal section of the Atlantic Ocean off Brittany), the charming historic seaside town of La Rochelle, France, is warmed throughout the year by the currents of the Gulf Stream.  Released from its feudal obligations by a charter granted by Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1199, La Rochelle grew to become one of France’s most important ports.  The harbor, now filled with yachts from around the world, is flanked by three medieval towers.

Quai Duperre -- the center of the Vieux Port (the Old Port neighborhood) in La Rochelle, France

Quai Duperre — the center of the Vieux Port (the Old Port neighborhood) in La Rochelle, France

The Vieux Port adjoins the Vieille Ville (Old Town) just behind the towers and is a maze of narrow streets, many lined with seafood restaurants, cafes, and chic shops.

Mairie de La Rochelle (Town Hall) in Vieille Ville (Old Town) in La Rochelle, France

Mairie de La Rochelle (Town Hall) in Vieille Ville (Old Town) in La Rochelle, France

Facade detail, Mairie de La Rochelle (Town Hall) in Vieille Ville (Old Town) in La Rochelle, France

Facade detail, Mairie de La Rochelle (Town Hall) in Vieille Ville (Old Town) in La Rochelle, France

Old timbered home in Vieille Ville (Old Town) in La Rochelle, France

Old timbered home in Vieille Ville (Old Town) in La Rochelle, France

Built from 1760 to 1785, the Stock Exchange was designed by civil engineer Pierre Hue.  Stock transactions originally took place in the open courtyard between the two buildings.  The building served as the home of the Chamber of Commerce and later to the Commercial Court.   In 1784 the two wings of the building were connected with the peristyle (center of the photograph, below).

The Stock Exchange (completed in 1785) in Vieille Ville (Old Town) in La Rochelle, France

The Stock Exchange (completed in 1785) in Vieille Ville (Old Town) in La Rochelle, France

Cathédrale Saint-Louis de la Rochelle in Vieille Ville (Old Town) in La Rochelle, France

Cathédrale Saint-Louis de la Rochelle in Vieille Ville (Old Town) in La Rochelle, France

Dedicated to the city’s patron saint, Cathédrale Saint-Louis de la Rochelle is one of the principal places of worship in La Rochelle.  Construction began in 1742 and was completed in 1784.  It was declared a National Heritage Monument in 1906.

Soupe de Poissons (Fish Soup) with rouille (garlic sauce) at Restaurant Andre in Vieux Port (the Old Port neighborhood) in La Rochelle, France

Soupe de Poissons (Fish Soup) with rouille (garlic sauce) at Restaurant Andre in Vieux Port (the Old Port neighborhood) in La Rochelle, France

Restaurant Andre’s Soupe de Poissons is a classical Brittany coast fish soup — topped with crisp baguette toasts spread with spicy rouille and a sprinkling of grated Gruyère cheese.  This is a classic dish of the region and was absolutely delicious!  Not something that we’re going to easily prepare at home, unfortunately.

Delicious pastries at patisserie (bakery) in Vieille Ville (Old Town) in La Rochelle, France

Delicious pastries at patisserie (bakery) in Vieille Ville (Old Town) in La Rochelle, France

The patisseries across the town all had wonderful looking confections — many of them classics, as pictured, above.  We did buy some to bring back to the ship…

Clock Tower near the La Rochelle fortification towers in Vieux Port (the Old Port neighborhood) in La Rochelle, France

Clock Tower near the La Rochelle fortification towers in Vieux Port (the Old Port neighborhood) in La Rochelle, France

To return to our ship, we needed to get to the tender dock which is outside the Vieux Port area, quite a walk.  To our surprise we learned that there is now an electric powered ferry service available from 7:30 a.m. to midnight connecting the VIeux Port with a dock on a landing across the channel (adjacent to the tender dock), completely eliminating the long walk.  And just as good as being solar electric powered, the ferry’s fare was only one Euro (US$1.10) each way.

Departing Vieux Port (the Old Port neighborhood) in La Rochelle, France, by electric powered ferry as a storm approaches

Departing Vieux Port (the Old Port neighborhood) in La Rochelle, France, by electric powered ferry as a storm approaches

The remnants of the medieval fortifications for La Rochelle are the three towers which once guarded the inner harbor.  The 14th century Tour St. Nicolas is the largest.  The Tour de la Chaine, also from the 14th century, was built to house the great chain now laying at its base and was once strung across to Tour St. Nicolas each night to close off the harbor from attack.

 

Eat Local — Marché Aux Halles (Central Market), La Rochelle, France

Marché Aux Halles (Central Market), 1835, La Rochelle, France

Marché Aux Halles (Central Market), 1835, La Rochelle, Franceor

Marché Aux Halles (the Central Market), in La Rochelle, France in Vieux Port (the old port and historic center of town) is a covered market that is open every day in the morning.  The market has both outside vendors (mostly fruits and vegetables) and indoor vendors (cheese, charcuteries (stores where pork products, such as hams, sausages, and pâtés are sold), pâtisseries (bakeries), butchers, fishmongers, prepared foods, etc.).  The covered market building was first opened for business in April 1835.

Vegetable display at outside vendor at Marché Aux Halles (Central Market), La Rochelle, France

Vegetable display at outside vendor at Marché Aux Halles (Central Market), La Rochelle, France

A wide selection of fromages (cheeses) at Marché Aux Halles (Central Market), La Rochelle, France

A wide selection of fromages (cheeses) at Marché Aux Halles (Central Market), La Rochelle, France

A selection of chèvres (goat cheeses) at Marché Aux Halles (Central Market), La Rochelle, France

A selection of chèvres (goat cheeses) at Marché Aux Halles (Central Market), La Rochelle, France

Bouchée à la Reine et Feuilletés de Saint Jacques at Marché Aux Halles (Central Market), La Rochelle, France

Bouchée à la Reine et Feuilletés de Saint Jacques at Marché Aux Halles (Central Market), La Rochelle, France

While the prepared foods were enticing and looked delicious, we decided that we would take advantage of the market and shop for our dinner buying local, fresh ingredients that we would prepare in our kitchen.

Millefeuille de Saumon at Marché Aux Halles (Central Market), La Rochelle, France

Millefeuille de Saumon at Marché Aux Halles (Central Market), La Rochelle, France

We were fortunate to visit the market early in the morning with the ship’s Executive Chef who was shopping for fresh berries, fruit and local fish for the ship’s restaurants.

Fresh fish at fishmonger's stall inside at Marché Aux Halles (Central Market), La Rochelle, France

Fresh fish at fishmonger’s stall inside at Marché Aux Halles (Central Market), La Rochelle, France

A wide variety of shellfish and fish at fishmonger's stall inside at Marché Aux Halles (Central Market), La Rochelle, France

A wide variety of shellfish and fish at fishmonger’s stall inside at Marché Aux Halles (Central Market), La Rochelle, France

The Chef was very helpful talking to the fishmonger with us, as he is fluent in French and knew the local fish selection.  (He bought 40+ pounds of fresh fish for the ship, along with selections of shellfish; we bought two small fish for our dinner in our apartment, plus lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and some rabbit rillettes for an hors d’oeuvre.)

Fshmonger filleting our two Saint-Pierre (English - John Dory) fishes at Marché Aux Halles (Central Market), La Rochelle, France

Fshmonger filleting our two Saint-Pierre (English – John Dory) fishes at Marché Aux Halles (Central Market), La Rochelle, France

The first two fillets of our two Saint-Pierre (English- John Dory) fishes at Marché Aux Halles (Central Market), La Rochelle, France

The first two fillets of our two Saint-Pierre (English- John Dory) fishes at Marché Aux Halles (Central Market), La Rochelle, France

We looked forward to preparing the fishes for dinner after a day exploring the town of La Rochelle (the Chef graciously offered to add or purchases to his and get them back on board the ship while we stayed shore side).  Our choice was the classic French preparation of sole à la meunière — the fish is dredged in flour and then pan fried in butter and served with the resulting brown butter sauce and lemon slices.  We agreed that rarely had we eaten fish in a restaurant that was as fresh.

Our preparation of the Saint-Pierre or Jean Doré (English- John Dory) as sole à la meunière in our apartment on the ship

Our preparation of the Saint-Pierre or Jean Doré (English- John Dory) as sole à la meunière in our apartment on the ship

 

 

Eat local, drink local — Bodegas del Marques de Vargas, Rioja region, Ebro Valley, Spain

Vineyards at Bodegas del Marques de Vargas, Ebro Valley, Riojas region, Spain

Vineyards at Bodegas del Marques de Vargas, Ebro Valley, Riojas region, Spain

On the way to San Sebastian, Spain, from Bilbao, we took a detour and visited the Rioja wine region with a tour and tapas luncheon (with our wine tasting) at Bodegas del Marques de Vargas in the Ebro Valley.

Banner promoting the major releases in front of the barrel aging room at Bodegas del Marques de Vargas, Ebro Valley, Riojas region, Spain

Banner promoting the major releases in front of the barrel aging room at Bodegas del Marques de Vargas, Ebro Valley, Riojas region, Spain

The family history notes: “The title of Marquis of Vargas is held by a family closely connected to Rioja wines.  A series of illustrious names marks the family tree of the current Marquis of Vargas, names of exceptional individuals in the history and traditions of this important Spanish winegrowing region, inscribed in gold…  Especially important was Hilario de la Mata, the father of the current Marquis of Vargas, who for years occupied the presidency of one of the most emblematic wineries of La Rioja.  To say Marquis of Vargas in the world of wines is to name the saga of four generations dedicated to the production and sales of excellent Rioja wines.”

Climate controlled barrel aging room at Bodegas del Marques de Vargas, Ebro Valley, Riojas region, Spain

Climate controlled barrel aging room at Bodegas del Marques de Vargas, Ebro Valley, Riojas region, Spain

Our tasting was quite special, as we gained insight into the barrel aging of their wines.  Each vintage’s wines are aged in three different types of oak barrels and then blended:  French oak, “Russian” (often Slovenian) oak, and American oak.

Wine aging in barrels at Bodegas del Marques de Vargas, Ebro Valley, Riojas region, Spain

Wine aging in barrels at Bodegas del Marques de Vargas, Ebro Valley, Riojas region, Spain

We tasted last year’s vintage from three different barrels and could taste quite a difference after 9 months in the barrels.  Our favorite, having nothing to do with our nationality, was the wine aged in American oak.  Of course, the final bottled wine is a blend of wines from each of the three different oak sources, creating a delicious final product (see below).

Grapes on the vine at Bodegas del Marques de Vargas, Ebro Valley, Riojas region, Spain

Grapes on the vine at Bodegas del Marques de Vargas, Ebro Valley, Riojas region, Spain

The hacienda vineyards are planted with three traditional Spanish red varietals>  Tempranillo, Mazuelo and Garnacha (French: Grenache).

Unique spiral staircase on fermenting tank at Bodegas del Marques de Vargas, Ebro Valley, Rioja region, Spain

Unique spiral staircase on fermenting tank at Bodegas del Marques de Vargas, Ebro Valley, Rioja region, Spain

The fermenting tanks are uniquely designed for high efficiency, with the bottoms angled so all the solids fall to the drain side for easy removal.  What was most interesting on the outside was the unique spiral staircases on some of the fermenting tanks, facilitating easy access to the tops for the workers and winemaker.  The entire facility works on a gravity flow system with minimal pumping.

The first round of tapas (on used barrel staves) with our wine tasting outdoors in front of the estate Hacienda Pradolagar at Bodegas del Marques de Vargas, Ebro Valley, Riojas region, Spain

The first round of tapas (on used barrel staves) with our wine tasting outdoors in front of the estate Hacienda Pradolagar at Bodegas del Marques de Vargas, Ebro Valley, Riojas region, Spain

After our tour of the vineyards and the winery, we enjoyed a delicious feast of a luncheon with quite a variety of tapas chosen to complement the estate’s red wines.

The final round of tapas (homemade chocolate truffles) with our wine tasting outdoors in front of the estate Hacienda Pradolagar at Bodegas del Marques de Vargas, Ebro Valley, Riojas region, Spain

The final round of tapas (homemade chocolate truffles) with our wine tasting outdoors in front of the estate Hacienda Pradolagar at Bodegas del Marques de Vargas, Ebro Valley, Riojas region, Spain

 The pairing of the 2009 Rioja with the homemade chocolate truffles was excellent and a delightful end to our viisit.

Gijón, Spain

Welcome to Gijón (Plaza la Reina, adjacent to the Puerto (Port)), Asturias, Spain

Welcome to Gijón (Plaza la Reina, adjacent to the Puerto (Port)), Asturias, Spain

From humble beginnings as a fishing village on the Atlantic Ocean coast (locally the Bay of Biscay) nearly 3,000 years ago,  Gijón has blossomed into the largest city and major seaport of Asturias (province), Spain.

Cimadevilla (the old fishing district, now the nucleus of Gijón's nightlife), Gijón, Asturias, Spain

Cimadevilla (the old fishing district, now the nucleus of Gijón’s nightlife), Gijón, Asturias, Spain

Cimadevilla is Gijón’s birthplace, the former village which retains much of its centuries old charm — from the Roman Therms of Campo Valdes to the Town Hall and statue of Don Pelayo, the first Asturian king, to the baroque-style Revillagigedo Palace (see photograph, below).

Elogio del Horizonte (the symbol of Gijón) by sculptor Eduardo Chillida, 1990, Gijón, Asturias, Spain

Elogio del Horizonte (the symbol of Gijón) by sculptor Eduardo Chillida, 1990, Gijón, Asturias, Spain

Atop Santa Catalina Hill stands Elogio del Horizonte — Praise of the Horizon — a house-sized modern concrete sculpture crowning the lookout between the two halves of Gijón.  The monument, by sculptor Eduardo Chillida, has become a symbol of Gijón since its construction in 1990.

The view to the east, across the Bay of Biscay, from Elogio del Horizonte, Gijón, Asturias, Spain

The view to the east, across the Bay of Biscay, from Elogio del Horizonte, Gijón, Asturias, Spain

From the promontory, there are excellent wide-angle views of the coast and the Bay of Biscay.  Facing inland, one can see the verdant hills, considered to be some of the greenest in Spain.

Looking up at Elogio del Horizonte (the symbol of Gijón) by sculptor Eduardo Chillida, 1990, Gijón, Asturias, Spain

Looking up at Elogio del Horizonte (the symbol of Gijón) by sculptor Eduardo Chillida, 1990, Gijón, Asturias, Spain

While the story is “if you stand just below it, you can hear the noise and the pounding of the waves,” the wind was blowing so strongly on our visit that we could just feel and hear the wind.

Beautifully decorated facade of residential building in Gijón, Asturias, Spain

Beautifully decorated facade of residential building in Gijón, Asturias, Spain

Gijón is a walking city — whether up the streets in the historic Cimadevilla neighborhood up to the promontory, or around the port and adjacent to the playas (beaches) that surround the city.

Palacio de Revillagigedo (Revillagigedo Palace), Gijón, Asturias, Spain

Palacio de Revillagigedo (Revillagigedo Palace), Gijón, Asturias, Spain

A city landmark, Palacio de Revillagigedo (the Revillagigedo Palace)is an impressive example of 18th century Baroque architecture (our 2 year-old grandson saw the photograph and remarked, “it’s a castle!).  The building is now a vibrant culture center hosting interesting contemporary art exhibitions.

Torre del Reloj (Clock Tower), 1572 -- now home to the city's municipal archives, Gijón, Asturias, Spain

Torre del Reloj (Clock Tower), 1572 — now home to the city’s municipal archives, Gijón, Asturias, Spain

Also located in the historic Cimadevilla neighborhood, the Torre del Reloj (Clock Tower) provides a wonderful lookout point over the city.  Built in 1572 atop the remains of a defensive tower that was part of the ancient Roman wall that once encircled the city, this pink structure has served many functions over time, including the town hall and a prison.  Now it is home to the city’s municipal archives and an exhibition on Gijón’s history.

It's all about the colors..., Gijón, Asturias, Spain

It’s all about the colors…, Gijón, Asturias, Spain

Adjacent to the Torre del Reloj was this fabulous splash of colors — in stark contrast the most of the surrounding historic sandstone colored Baroque buildings (for example, the Palacio de Revillagigedo, pictured above).

The Principality of Asturias, Spain

Viewpoint overlooking the fishing town of Lastres and the Sierra del Sueve mountains, Asturias region (near Gijon), Spain

Viewpoint overlooking the fishing town of Lastres and the Sierra del Sueve mountains, Asturias region (near Gijon), Spain

The Principality of Asturias in northwest Spain was part of the larger Kingdom of Asturias in the Middle Ages.  We docked in the largest city in Asturias, Xixón (Gijon), which gave us an opportunity over two days to explore the region and the city.

“Through the rebellion of Henry II of Castile in the 14th century, the Principality of Asturias was established… After its integration into the Kingdom of Spain, Asturias provided the Spanish court with high-ranking aristocrats and played an important role in the colonization of America. Since 1388, the heir to the Castilian (later Spanish) throne has been styled Prince of Asturias. In the 16th century, the population reached 100,000 for the first time, and within another century that number would double due to the arrival of American corn… During the 18th century, Asturias was one of the centres of the Spanish Enlightenment… Asturias played an important part in the events that led up to the Spanish Civil War.” – Wikipedia

The fishing fleet at the pier in Lastres, Asturias region (near Gijon), Spain

The fishing fleet at the pier in Lastres, Asturias region (near Gijon), Spain

We drove about 40 minutes to the small fishing town of Lastres (population 1,200) to see a program started recently to assist two experienced fishing net weavers and menders expand their business by offering training to other locals and to encourage tourism to view the fishing pier and learn about the use of nets and their mending.

Nets on the pier in Lastres, Asturias region (near Gijon), Spain

Nets on the pier in Lastres, Asturias region (near Gijon), Spain

A dying art -- repairing fishing nets on the pier at Lastres, Asturias region (near Gijon), Spain

A dying art — repairing fishing nets on the pier at Lastres, Asturias region (near Gijon), Spain

Part of the fishing fleet at the pier in Lastres, Asturias region (near Gijon), Spain

Part of the fishing fleet at the pier in Lastres, Asturias region (near Gijon), Spain

Fishermen's chapel, overlooking Lastres, Asturias region (near Gijon), Spain

Fishermen’s chapel, overlooking Lastres, Asturias region (near Gijon), Spain

From Lastres we drove to the historic hillside village of Tazones.  We had the opportunity to explore and shop in the village before heading to Restaurante Carols V to sample some local specialties.

Nautical attire for sale, Tazones, Asturias region (near Gijon), Spain

Nautical attire for sale, Tazones, Asturias region (near Gijon), Spain

The Asturias region is well known for their local sidras (apple cider) which is bottled like beer.

Buznego, a local sidra (apple cider), at a cafe in Tazones, Asturias region (near Gijon), Spain

Buznego, a local sidra (apple cider), at a cafe in Tazones, Asturias region (near Gijon), Spain

Traditionally sidra (cider) is served in small clear glasses which are only partially filled by the server who pours the sidra from way above the glass (see photograph, below) — a custom reminiscent of how hot mint tea is poured in Morocco.

Pouring local sidra (apple cider) at a cafe in Tazones, Asturias region (near Gijon), Spain

Pouring local sidra (apple cider) at a cafe in Tazones, Asturias region (near Gijon), Spain

In addition to some excellent local sausages, we finished our late afternoon snack with some delicious local blue cheese served with membrillo.

Local blue cheese and membrillo with a glass of sidra (apple cider) at a cafe in Tazones, Asturias region (near Gijon), Spain

Local blue cheese and membrillo with a glass of sidra (apple cider) at a cafe in Tazones, Asturias region (near Gijon), Spain


Douro Valley, Portugal

Church & Monastery of St. Goncalo, Amarante, Minho region, Portugal

Church & Monastery of St. Goncalo, Amarante, Minho region, Portugal

Long celebrated as one of the world’s most important wine regions, Portugal’s Douro Valley has been described as “a masterpiece of nature and human effort.”  About one hour into the two hour drive from Porto to the Douro Valley we stopped at the riverside town of Amarante, in the Minho region, with roots dating back to the fourth century BC.

South entrance to the Church of St. Goncalo (1543), Amarante, Minho region, Portugal

South entrance to the Church of St. Goncalo (1543), Amarante, Minho region, Portugal

The construction of the Monastery and Church of St. Gonçalo started in 1543 by order of King Joao III and Lady Catarina, under the decision taken in 1540.  The buildings include different architectural styles which belong to the Renaissance, Mannerism and Baroque periods.

Crypt of St. Goncalo at the Church of St. Goncalo, Amarante, Minho region, Portugal

Crypt of St. Goncalo at the Church of St. Goncalo, Amarante, Minho region, Portugal

Gonçalo de Amarante (1187 – 1259) was a Portuguese priest and hermit before becoming a Dominican friar later in life.  He was canonized by Pope Pius IV in 1560.  The saint is particularly popular in Brazil.

16th century cloisters at the Church of St. Goncalo, Amarante, Minho region, Portugal

16th century cloisters at the Church of St. Goncalo, Amarante, Minho region, Portugal

Mid-morning snack -- local specialty pastries enjoyed with coffee, Amarante, Minho region, Portugal

Mid-morning snack — local specialty pastries enjoyed with coffee, Amarante, Minho region, Portugal

Before heading further uphill to the Douro Valley, we stopped at a local pastry shop for a mid-morning snack.  “So-called St. Gonçalo cakes (in Portuguese: Bolos de São Gonçalo) are a fertility symbol and closely associated with the town of Amarante, though the reason for the association with the name of St. Gonçalo is disputed and obscure.” — WIkipedia

Sign for the interactive wine museum at Quinta da Avessada, Favaios, Douro Valley, Portugal

Sign for the interactive wine museum at Quinta da Avessada, Favaios, Douro Valley, Portugal

Our destination in the Douro Valley was the Quinta (wine estate) da Avessada located in the town of Favaios.  Over the past few decades the winery has followed the new tradition in the Douro Valley and now produces both red and white table wines of high quality, along with the traditional Moscatel wines.  While the Douro Valley is predominantly known for its Port wines, government regulations over the past few centuries changed several times and wineries above a certain altitude were not allowed to continue to produce Ports.  Many wineries then went back to planting Moscatel grapes and producing sweet Moscatel de Douros.  When regulations changed again and these wineries were again permitted to grow grapes and produce Port wines, many retained their Moscatel vineyards and continue to produce the very popular Moscatel de Douros (large marketing investments had created a large market for Moscatel de Douros).  According to the web site Wines of Portugal, “The Muscatel or Muscat grape has numerous variants across the world.  Two main types are grown in Portugal, one known locally as Moscatel de Setúbal (whose international name is Muscat of Alexandria) and Moscatel Galego Branco (Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains), the type found in the Douro, and recognised worldwide as the most and elegantly scented in the family – although elegance depends also upon vineyard location and vine management, and where and how the wine is made.”

Terraced vineyards overlooking the Douro River in the Douro Valley, Portugal

Terraced vineyards overlooking the Douro River in the Douro Valley, Portugal

After a welcome glass of Moscatel de Douros we had the opportunity to tour the vineyards and then the interactive museum.  Here we saw the large concrete vats where teams of ten vineyard workers, barefoot and with their dresses/pants rolled up to their knees, stomp and crush the grapes for enough time to raise the temperature of the must to a temperature where the fermentation can naturally begin.  This traditional method of crushing grapes continues in the valley, although some quintas (estates) have installed mechanical robotic systems to replace the humans in the concrete vats. After our tour, we enjoyed a leisurely luncheon, family style, with platter after platter of local specialties, accompanied by white and red wines from the estate, with a glass of Moscatel de Douros with dessert.  We knew it would be a challenge to stay awake for the ride back down to Porto on the Douro River, adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean coast.

Still wine aging cellar at Quinta da Avessada, Favaios, Douro Valley, Portugal

Still wine aging cellar at Quinta da Avessada, Favaios, Douro Valley, Portugal

In the Douro Valley terraced vineyards cling to a thin layer of man-made soil on steep hillsides, a labor-intensive practice introduced tow thousand years ago. 

A landscape of terraced vineyards in the Douro Valley, Portugal

A landscape of terraced vineyards in the Douro Valley, Portugal

As we drove back to Porto (140 kilometers, or 87 miles) from Quinta da Avessada in Favaios in the Douro Valley, we headed downhill and then followed the Douro River to Porto.  The terraced vineyards started at the riverside and ran up the hills.

Terraced vineyards overlooking the Douro River in the Douro Valley, Portugal

Terraced vineyards overlooking the Douro River in the Douro Valley, Portugal

 

Eat local, drink local — The Factory House, Porto, Portugal

The lodges (port wine aging warehouses) of Villa Nova de Gala, just across Rio Douro (Douro River) from central Porto, Portugal

The lodges (port wine aging warehouses) of Villa Nova de Gala, just across Rio Douro (Douro River) from central Porto, Portugal

Portugal’s best known wines are its Ports, produced from grapes grown in the Douro River region (about a two hour drive to the east from Porto which is just inland from the Atlantic Ocean) and aged in wooden casks in “lodges” (warehouses) in Vila Nova de Gaia (across the Douro River from Porto).  A small group of us were fortunate to be invited to a private Black Tie dinner at the so called “Factory House”, dating back to 1790, near the docks overlooking the Douro River in Porto.  Here we had the opportunity to learn much about the history of port wine and to taste both still wines and exceptional Ports with dinner with two members of the Port Association, including the current Treasurer.  Plus, we had a grand surprise — a magnificent tasting of a very special and historic Port, “Ne Oublie” (see the last photograph and story).

The entry lobby of Feitoria Inglesa (the Factory House, a.k.a. the British Association Factory House), Porto, Portugal

The entry lobby of Feitoria Inglesa (the Factory House, a.k.a. the British Association Factory House), Porto, Portugal

The Association’s history in a nutshell:  when British merchants were operating in the 16th century in Porto, they formed an association, the so-called “British Association”.  The association’s contemporary building (completed in 1790) was taken over by the French after Napoleon invaded the country in 1808. Post the French occupation in 1811, the association restricted itself to Port shippers and changed the name to the “Port Association”, with the building becoming known as “The Factory House”.

Upon entering The Factory House, you have a sense of being in a place that holds much history and whose walls could tell incredible stories about Portugal’s wine legacy.  Plaques in the lobby recall the families whose members served as Treasurers of the Port Association.  The list from the mid-1800s reads like a list of the great contemporary port houses (producers): 1842 – Sandeman, 1844 – J. Graham, 1846 – Woodhouse, 1847 – G. Warre, 1848 – Fladgate…

Portrait of Sir John Croft BT., Baron da Serra d'Estrella, Commander of the Tower & Sword, 1778 - 1862, at Feitoria Inglesa (the Factory House), Porto, Portugal

Portrait of Sir John Croft BT., Baron da Serra d’Estrella, Commander of the Tower & Sword, 1778 – 1862, at Feitoria Inglesa (the Factory House), Porto, Portugal

Throughout the second floor were tributes to the past, several of which we were able to photograph:

Port double magnum c. 1745 -- memorabilia at Feitoria Inglesa (the Factory House, a.k.a. the British Association Factory House), Porto, Portugal

Port double magnum c. 1745 — memorabilia at Feitoria Inglesa (the Factory House, a.k.a. the British Association Factory House), Porto, Portugal

Port bottle, Jas Oakes Bury 1785 -- memorabilia at Feitoria Inglesa (the Factory House, a.k.a. the British Association Factory House), Porto, Portugal

Port bottle, Jas Oakes Bury 1785 — memorabilia at Feitoria Inglesa (the Factory House, a.k.a. the British Association Factory House), Porto, Portugal

"Prince of Wales Port, Vintage 1815" -- memorabilia at Feitoria Inglesa (the Factory House, a.k.a. the British Association Factory House), Porto, Portugal

“Prince of Wales Port, Vintage 1815” — memorabilia at Feitoria Inglesa (the Factory House, a.k.a. the British Association Factory House), Porto, Portugal

An excellent account of the history of the association and a description of The Factory House was posted in a blog (“Wine, Woman, Travel: The Factory House in Porto”) by Cynthia Jenson, which we are excerpting from:  “Very briefly, in the 17th and 18th centuries, Factories were commercial associations founded by Portuguese, British, Dutch, name your merchant nation, in the foreign ports where they established trading activities.  According to local circumstances their headquarters could be anything from heavily fortified storehouses to more club-like accommodations, but they were all established as trading posts and were the centre of commercial activity for the relevant merchant community.

“The British Factory here in Porto was founded in the mid 17th century as an association for those engaged in trade with England in any sort of goods – typically wool, wine and cod.  In 1790 this building was opened; the building and upkeep were funded by contributions from the members in proportion to the value of goods exported by them from Portugal.  Today each member house (11 of them) pays a fixed amount to maintain the building and association, and all its traditions…

“Very handsome and very English inside and out, the building and its contents are fascinating, as are the history and customs of the British Association.  The most well-known tradition is the dinners which are served in one dining room through the cheese course (which is accompanied by a tawny port).  The members then arise, and move into an identical dining room set end to end with the first, where they seat themselves again and enjoy a glass of vintage port without the distraction of lingering aromas from the meal.  The port is selected by the Treasurer and served blind; the members and their guests must try to identify both shipper and vintage.

Primary dining room at Feitoria Inglesa (the Factory House, a.k.a. the British Association Factory House), Porto, Portugal

Primary dining room at Feitoria Inglesa (the Factory House, a.k.a. the British Association Factory House), Porto, Portugal

“The public spaces of the building are very elegant – the entry hall is floored in granite, and the granite stairway is cantilevered – an incredible feat of engineering, but the 1.20 metre (nearly 4-foot) thick walls make it feasible.  The dining rooms are beautiful, and the ballroom is exquisite, like a fine Wedgewood piece, with white Adams-esque garlands painted on blue walls, fabulous chandeliers, and a beautiful sprung wooden floor.

The ballroom of Feitoria Inglesa (the Factory House, a.k.a. the British Association Factory House), Porto, Portugal

The ballroom of Feitoria Inglesa (the Factory House, a.k.a. the British Association Factory House), Porto, Portugal

“The Library is what a library should be, as far as I am concerned – completely book lined, three rooms of it, immense windows for good light, and painted a wonderful deep Rouge Vif d’Etampes pumpkin red, though the walls are hardly visible except above the shelves.  The library was accumulated by donations over 200 years, and was intended as a circulating library for members, not a specialist library, though the Association do now make an effort to acquire books about Port and the trade.

“So much for the public and grand aspect of the Factory House.  Personally, I was captivated by the bits behind the scenes:  the cellars and the kitchen.

“Every member port shipper must donate to the Association a dozen cases of every declared vintage, and when an individual becomes a member, their induction is also marked by a donation of his – or her – pick of one of their house’s vintage wines.  Yes, you read that right – this bastion of tradition now has its first woman member.

“In the cellar are shelves, each marked either with the brand and year of the vintage if it was a vintage donation, or the name of the donor as well as brand name and vintage, if it was an induction donation.

“I couldn’t help but spot:  Johnny Symington’s donation of Warre’s 1985 is already gone, and the Warre’s Vintage 1970 is down to the last 3 or 4 bottles.” – from: http://winewomantravel.com/2010/08/23/the-factory-house-in-porto/

We learned from the Treasurer at dinner that presently The Factory House has 50,000 bottles of Vintage Port in the cellar!

Table setting at primary dining room at Feitoria Inglesa (the Factory House, a.k.a. the British Association Factory House), Porto, Portugal

Table setting at primary dining room at Feitoria Inglesa (the Factory House, a.k.a. the British Association Factory House), Porto, Portugal

Our dinner at The Factory House was designed to showcase local wines:

Sea Bass Raviolis with Black Truffle Sauce accompanied by Soalheiro 2014 Primeiras Vinhas

Roast Beef with Olive Oil and Garlic, Cauliflower Puree and Spinach Mushroom Ragout accompanied by Quinta de Vesuvio 2009

Chocolate Cake with Red Berries Sauce and Quenelle of Marscarpone Mouse accompanied by Graham’s Colheita 1972

After the main part of the meal, following The Factory House tradition described above, we adjourned to the adjacent second dining room, with all of us sitting in the same locations as in the first dining room.  Note the formal portrait of Her Royal Highness, Queen Elizabeth over the fireplace mantle.

We continued dinner with the cheese course and Vintage Ports:

Serra, Ilhas and Stilton Cheese accompanied by Dow’s 1963 Vintage Port (Magnum) and Dow’s 2000 Vintage Port.

After dinner vintage port tasting in second dining room at Feitoria Inglesa (the Factory House, a.k.a. the British Association Factory House), Porto, Portugal

After dinner vintage port tasting in second dining room at Feitoria Inglesa (the Factory House, a.k.a. the British Association Factory House), Porto, Portugal

After our dinner and the Vintage Port tasting in the second dining room, our small group received an incredible surprise.  The Factory House Treasurer, on behalf of the Symington family, presented us with their gift of an extremely rare Port – a wood aged tawny-style Port from the single vintage of 1882, which was aged in a wooden cask in their cellar until its bottling last year.  This was truly an “amazing” wine – still vibrant and fruity, while smooth with a long finish.  We felt that we were incredibly lucky to experience such a distinctive and historic port in it’s natural “home”, The Factory House.

Here’s what we learned about the wine that evening, supplemented by additional information from Graham’s:  The Symington family released 656 bottles of a Port that dates back to the arrival of their great-grandfather Andrew James Symington in Portugal in 1882.  The family named this wine “Ne Oublie” after the original family motto (“Do Not Forget”) and for the company where Andrew Symington started his life’s work.  The name reflects the respect with which the family regards their British great-grandparents’ joint decision to commit themselves and their descendants to Portugal, to the Douro and to Port.

After discovering three casks in the Graham’s Lodge (port wine aging warehouse) in V. N. Gaia (across the Douro River from Porto, Portugal) in May 2014, Symington’s direct descendants bottled one of the remaining three barrels of the 1882 Tawny Port.  The other two barrels have been entrusted to the next generation of the family and it is they who will decide the wine’s future, in 2025 at the earliest.

Note that this isn’t a bottle-aged vintage port. Instead, it is a much more unusual wood-aged colheita, which is a tawny-style port from a single harvest.

A special treat -- a group tasting of W. & J. Graham's Port, "Ne Oublie", "Very Old Tawny Port" (1882, bottled 2014) at Feitoria Inglesa (the Factory House), Porto, Portugal

A special treat — a group tasting of W. & J. Graham’s Port, “Ne Oublie”, “Very Old Tawny Port” (1882, bottled 2014) at Feitoria Inglesa (the Factory House), Porto, Portugal

This extraordinary port wine has been bottled in an individually numbered, hand-made crystal decanter designed by Portugal’s leading glass manufacturer Atlantis.  In the Graham’s cellars are ancient wine bottles of varying shapes; inspired by the beauty of these old bottles, the family chose the classic bulb form typical of nineteenth century bottles for the Ne Oublie decanter.

Three sterling silver bands, moulded and engraved by Scottish Silversmiths Hayward & Stott, and carrying the mark of the Edinburgh Assay Office, adorn the glass.  The decanter is presented in a bespoke presentation box handcrafted with the finest leathers by quintessentially British brand Smythson of Bond Street, one of the world’s oldest luxury leather goods companies.  Hence, Ne Oublie represents the work of the very finest artisans of the three nations from which the Symington family is descended: Scotland, England and Portugal.

Andrew Jefford visited the family… and tasted this wine. He wrote: “You simply can’t create complexity of this order in under a century or so, I suspect…There was a cleanliness and a precision about the wine, though, that was a testament to 130 years of exemplary stewardship… a synopsis of life and time.” — World of Fine Wine, Issue 37, 2012.

Background on the Symingtons:  The Symingtons have been Port producers for five generations since 1882 but their involvement in Port dates back fourteen generations to 1652 through their great-grandmother Beatriz Leitão de Carvalhosa Atkinson.  The family company is the leading quality Port producer with brands such as Graham’s, Cockburn’s, Dow’s and Warre’s, as well as being the leading vineyard owner in the Douro Valley with 1,006 hectares (2,486 acres) of vines at 27 Quintas (estates). Many of the region’s finest Quintas belong to the family.