Portugal’s great 19th-century novelist José Maria de Eça de Queiroz was ahead of his time in many ways, dealing with raw subjects like incest, abortion and priestly sex crimes in his books.
Yet Eça de Queiroz, a renowned bon viveur, also peppered his writings with less controversial culinary references. In fact, one of his best-loved scenes features the main character tucking into roast chicken and rice with fava beans. It’s a fictional meal that Restaurante de Tormes, a restaurant in the hamlet of Santa Cruz do Douro dedicated to serving dishes associated with the author, has turned into a reality.
Perched on a hillside overlooking the meandering Douro River, the dining room fills a rough granite barn where oxen once turned great circular stones for crushing olives. Next door is a vine-covered mansion – now a museum – that belonged to Eça de Queiroz’s wife and served as the setting for that fictional fava-bean dinner.
Eça de Queiroz’s literary tribute to the humble legume features in The City and the Mountains (A Cidade e as Serras), a novel written in 1895 but only published after his death five years later. Partly autobiographical, it tells of a jaded aristocrat, Jacinto de Tormes, bored by his luxury life in Paris but horrified at having to return to the ancestral homeland above the Douro.
After the lengthy train journey south, young Jacinto begins to warm to the Douro when he alights at a tiny riverside station and takes in the majestic sight of the vine-covered hills surging from the river bend.
What really reconciles him to a return to rustic living, however, is a hearty meal that starts with steaming chicken broth and is followed up by a golden, spit-roasted bird accompanied by the famed beans and rice.
“Fabulous! … Oh, favas like this, yes! What favas! How delicious. There’s nothing like this in Paris,” gasps young Jacinto as he reaches out for another glass of the local vinho verde to wash it down.
“Your mouth waters when you read those pages. The reader can visualize the room, you can smell the soup, taste the wine,” says Afonso Eça de Queiroz Cabral, the author’s great-grandson, who happened to be lunching in the restaurant when we dropped by on a chill winter day.
Naturally the fava bean dish is a cherished fixture on the menu at Tormes. Young chicken with skin roasted crisp is accompanied by a creamy rice fortified with smoky chouriço sausage as well as the gleaming green beans.
Favas are a staple in the south of Portugal, where they are served in a dry stew with bacon, chouriço, morcela blood sausage and generous helpings of garlic, cilantro and olive oil, but are rare here in the north.
António Queiroz Pinto, the restaurant’s young chef (no relation to the writer), explains that the local microclimate allows southern crops to thrive (and also facilitates the production of the crisp white wines the area is known for).
“There are thousands of culinary references in the books of Eça de Queiroz, but the dishes we serve here all come from our local traditions.”
Trees heavy with oranges line the banks of the river and gila (a type of spaghetti squash), another favorite in the Portuguese south, also grows in abundance. At the restaurant, the latter is incorporated into bite-sized sweetmeats served with coffee and a post-lunch glass of port wine as a Christmas holiday treat.
Queiroz Pinto cut his teeth in Michelin-starred restaurants in Portugal and Spain, but his cooking is firmly grounded in the products and traditions of this stretch of the Douro – he perfected the region’s classic dishes while working at Residencial Borges, his family’s hotel/restaurant in the nearby hill town of Baião.
“There are thousands of culinary references in the books of Eça de Queiroz, but the dishes we serve here all come from our local traditions,” the young chef explains. “He didn’t make anything up, these dishes were already part of our regional heritage.”
Across the room, about three dozen local guys in their 60s were celebrating a school reunion by tucking into trays laden with anho assado – oven-roasted baby lamb served with roast potatoes and rice flavored with meat juices and baked dry in a special clay pot. It’s a dish referenced in three of Eça’s novels.
The lamb is among several special dishes that, in theory, need to be ordered in advance, but if there’s any available, they’ll be happy to offer a portion or two to guests who haven’t pre-booked. Others include roast capon doused in port, stuffed with a mixture that includes smoked ham and chouriço; boar stew; and arroz de cabidela, in which a farmyard hen is simmered in a mixture that includes its own blood diluted with vinegar.
Although such meaty morsels may scream out for a hearty red, the tradition here is to serve local vinho verde whites. A renowned local winery, Quinta de Covela, produces fresh, citric, slightly sparkling vinho verde especially for the Eça de Queiroz Foundation, which runs the museum. Opened in 2015, Restaurante de Tormes is a partnership between the foundation and the Residencial Borges.
There are some Eça de Queiroz-inspired dishes always on the menu, including salt cod with chickpeas and red peppers; pork loin with chestnuts; roast partridge; duck in olive sauce; and sautéed shrimp on rye toast. As is the norm in Portugal’s north, portions tend toward the gargantuan.
Even so it’s hard to hold back on appetizers that include tempura green beans (the Portuguese introduced tempura to Japan in the 16th-century); a wafer-thin omelet with salpicão, smoked sausage seasoned with wine, garlic, paprika and bay leaves; and that “divine” chicken broth featured in The City and the Mountains.
One starter unique to this part of the Douro is bazulaque, a mush made from lamb heart, lungs and liver, thickened with bread and potatoes. The dish was traditionally served as a wedding day breakfast while the lamb itself was roasted for lunch.
To build up an appetite for such treats, many travelers will take the Douro-hugging train from Porto, alighting at the picturesque riverside station at Aregos, where Jacinto and his companion Zé Fernandes arrived in Eça de Queiroz’s novel. From there they follow the characters’ footsteps up the steep, three-mile Caminho de Jacinto, a path that threads through what the novelist called “fluffy valleys of greenery, almost sacred woods, blooms of sweet-smelling orchards and the freshness of the singing waters.”
After lunch, we explore the 16th-century manor house hewn from blocks of stone granite that Eça de Queiroz turned into his hero’s family home. A dandified, monocle-wearing diplomat who divided his life between Lisbon’s café-society and consular postings to Cuba, Britain and Paris, Eça never actually lived there, but the grandeur of the site and the rustic lifestyle in the Douro hills left an indelible mark.
After his death in 1900, Eça de Queiroz’s possessions, including a magnificent library and writing desk, were shipped from Paris to the Casa de Tormes, and the house was eventually turned into a museum to the gourmet novelist who took rustic cuisine into the realms of high literature.