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douro decadence

Luxury and Portugal didn’t seem to me like very compatible bedfellows, but I was wrong. What bliss there is to be discovered here! Luxury; discreet, surprising, original, charming.

Here’s the paradox about the high life. It can feel so extremely impersonal. It can make you feel low. It can make you feel like an imposter, even if the cheque is in your name. It can be so unwelcoming, so rude, so bitchy… despite the lure being one of absolute comfort, pleasure, and “exclusivity”: an ugly word meaning special, separated from the ordinary world, separated from ordinary problems. Buying luxury is buying the promise of a little happiness. I guess that’s why it can be so disappointing when it doesn’t deliver.

But they’ll be none of that here. Instead there will be too many superlatives.

palacio-do-freixo   palacio-freixo-interior

We arrive in Porto at the dream barn car park of the Palácio do Freixo. Porsche, Porsche, Ferrari, S-Class, Maserati, 1987 Mercedes diesel estate with some trim missing, Porsche. I’ve never seen people posing for photos in a car park before, so that’s got to mean we’re in Portugal. Not up ourselves.

Visible as you enter Porto from the Freixo bridge, Palácio do Freixo is a baroque architectural classic by Nasoni and typifies the completely gorgeous perfection that 18th century Portuguese architecture rose to. It’s a cupcake fairytale of a building with a few original public salons that haven’t been ruined by over zealous restoration. The rooms themselves, all set in a modern annex, aren’t bedazzling but the pool and bar on the river’s edge was an excellent way to introduce our very special guests to a week’s worth of Douro decadence.

porto-yeatmanThat night we ate at the Yeatman Hotel, one of the two Michelin-starred restaurants in the north of Portugal. Frankly I was a bit worried, and tested, as they had all gone Michelin the night before in Spain, with mixed reviews. It became a bit FC Porto vs Real Madrid.

The Yeatman is pretty new and like the Freixo, the location alone is worth a million bucks. High on the hill of Vila Nova de Gaia, the panoramic view of Porto stretching from Ponte Dom Luis I to Massachusetts, a million little lights cascading down into the river, and then the moon rising over the Mosteiro do Sierra do Pilar, well…golly gosh.

And then the food. You can only rarely expect that the intricate, elaborate miniature artworks that these kitchens create will also possess an alchemy of surprise and flavour and delight, that elevate a meal into an experience. It really was extraordinary.

yeatman-restaurantMercifully, despite the nonsense formality and ritual, the service was also charming, with the young staff not being quite as serious as the atmosphere intended.

(The hotel itself looks ghastly btw, Modern American Plantation in primary colours.  Half expected Julia Roberts in a hoop skirt).

Day two started frighteningly hungover and then it got worse. I had researched Douro boat trips for a month in an attempt to avoid what I suspected could be a really nasty crowded smelly tedious loud and trashy experience. The company I booked with was Rent Douro but all the boats are in collaboration and we got sold on, cheaply. Despite promises and photographs to the contrary, we became stuck on a boat for 5 hours with 200 too many people, bad food, bad music, bad fashion and the Zumba. It was horrendous. The Douro isn’t even pretty until the last hour before Peso da Régua, so it’s just a complete waste of time. For god’s sake, take the train. The stations on the Douro are the cutest in the universe.


All of this was forgotten once we walked through the doors of the Aquapura Hotel. Everything about the Aquapura is perfect. Architecturally it is designed to draw the outdoors in and you feel swamped by the beauty of the Douro Valley. It might be disconcertingly dimly lit, but around each corner is an enormous picture window framing the lines and colour of vineyards and the spectacular light. Actually the presence of the outside is so strong that the interior design makes little impact at all, except perhaps for that lovely big green bath in the centre of our room. It was an enormously relaxing place, and although we did venture out to Lamego and some wineries, we were all pretty keen to come back and do nothing much, except be there.


Sadly, after a couple of days, we had another really nice place to go to. About 10 minutes up the road, across the river, there’s Quinta do Vallado, a family-owned working vineyard with a few rooms in the manor house and a bunch more in a very nicely designed modern wing. Massively tasteful and understated, more intimate, characterful and altogether a different kind of thing than Aquapura but still holding us there in with comfort and quietness. And good food.

quinta-do-vallado  quinta-do-vallado-dining

I felt we were risking unhealthy levels of languid contentment so we set off on a adventure finding Quinta do Passadouro, tucked into one of the Douro’s deep clefts. Our destination lay in a chasm between two cars and two generations of GPS. As we locals know, GPS don’t differentiate well between new tar and centuries old donkey track with 50 degree gradient and hairpin turns unsuitable for E-class Mercedes hire cars and vertiginous types. Great wines once we got there though. We loaded up the trunks.


Perhaps a good point to mention, if you are planning a quick trip to prop up the Portuguese economy, deep Douro country is not the place to be caught short. Banks here are not agreeable in exchanging obscure Antipodean currencies and while the multibanco system (ATM) is excellent in many respects, providing a customer with voluminous wads of cash is not really its forte. The plastic was fine in fancy-land but hopeless on the street. Our jetsetters were well prepared, however, and one international money transfer at a pre-ordained favourable exchange rate kept the palms greased and wheels oily or whatever the metaphor.

lamego  casa-mateus-bw

Now we left the Douro proper and headed for Amarante, via the lovely Casa Mateus, just to show I really knew something about quality wines. At Amarante there was the Casa da Calçada, a large posh place of the pompous kind, all heavy drapes and aristocratic imagery. The kids took the presidential suite, because they could. We were there for the food at Largo da Paço, the other Michelin star of the north. I wonder now if after 5 days we had fortune fatigue as while the meal was astonishing, we couldn’t help comparing it to that first night at the Yeatman. Sigh.

casa-da-calcada-2  casa-da-calcada


Our return to Porto proved we were not jaded. The Hotel Infante Sagres is as gay as a Mardi Gras. It’s Portuguese 18th century meets Versace. High camp, colour, magic and glamour. It looks like a party. I love it. So we dressed up and romped off to the Ribeira, where the promise of real food with the people waited to be found. Just some perfect treasure of a place I had to find… in the Ribeira.

hotel-infante-sagres-room  hotel-infante-sagres

VIP Mario and I hit the waterfront while the others watered their fronts. You know that waterfront, with the menus in several languages and the touts – I was just hoping there might be one shiny place I’d missed…we went upstairs, we went behind. Then we went to my favourite backstreet behind the Pestana where I’ve had many a real meal. Dodgy. Full. Maybe. Flags on menu. Empty. Too rustic. Then that was the end of the options. Regarding our prospects, I was thinking Holy Shit. BUT THEN I saw lights on in a teenie weenie building straight ahead, and despite being wildly discreet, I could smell ambiance.

The sign on the closed door said, “if you are in a hurry, go somewhere else”. We were hooked. It was a slow food place. We had hit the jackpot. I had to negotiate our way in, however, promising on scout’s honour that we would not want anything before 10pm.

“But you can serve us drinks, right?”

“Hmmm. OK, drinks only. But really no food, no bread, no menus, nothing before 10. I won’t look at you before 10.” He said. He was a feisty opponent this restaurant security guard host person. Earnest. Stubborn. Serious. This was all good.

“But after 10, we will be absolutely there for you. But it will be slow! You must be patient!”


I don’t know what sort of people he was used to dealing with but I knew we were the perfect customers. Dammed happy to be left alone with a fine wine of his choosing, and then another while our anticipation lifted elegantly like puffs of smoke from a Cuban cigar.

A tiny place, in the stone cellar style of the Riberia and we were in the back room with walls of wine boxes and candles. Linen. Reidel. This was restaurante ODE. We already knew it was going to be great.

He chose all the wines that night, our host, we trusted him so well. It was a wonderful meal, and a delicious end to a beautiful week.


Very special thanks to The Prez, Mrs Prez, Mars Prez and Dra Rob Prez. Lots of love.

hole in the wall: building update

I know, I know. It’s been a long time. Life gets in the way sometimes.

At the end of the last series, Emma was in Australia, working, recovering from back injury and suffering from the saudades.

Well, she finally got home again, reunited with The One and back trying to make a palace from a ruin.


The trip to Oz was successful on the work & financial front. With the winning combination of a bouncing economy, a supportive friendly and familial network and some good luck, I found myself with three jobs that were enjoyable and memorable. The cooking was great, then I did some writing and internet stuff, then a four month photographic project for a government publication on compost which morphed into agricultural field work.

Talking to Australian farmers, watching the extraordinary quantities of waste we create being transformed into the very substance that could save the Earth, and being in the wide open expanse of beauty that is Australia cracked open my mind. All that space made way for some big thoughts and I had an epiphany about why to build a house in Portugal. Emma’s House in Portugal, the book, now has its reason to be. It has, like, depth, man.

And now I’m a published dirt photographer as well. Awesome.


Meanwhile back in Cú de Judas the winter had wreaked havoc on this half built half ruined farm house and now the renovations needed renovating. A dirty rotten secret little hole in an outside wall had made an enormous bloom of black mould inside, and lo! if there’s a good reason to reject everything I’ve said about lime walls in the past, this is it. You can’t wash mould away from lime render with a stiff bleach, não é. You have to cut it out. And then there’s the rain that came in horizontally (Central Portuguese rain does, literally, pour horizontally, and even upwards, given that it never comes without hurricane-like winds. So it’s quite normal to find rain coming down your dome-hatted chimney. Quite normal)… through the windows and lo! if there’s a good reason to ignore everything I’ve said about fabulous old windows in the past, this is it. And so the render under the windows with have to be cut out too. The windows themselves will be cut out and placed without ceremony upon our private tip, aka the garden.


At least there’s that to be proud of. A dump of my own. Very interesting how little you call rubbish when you are using your own garden as a tip instead of some nameless hole in the ground somewhere else. Furthermore I don’t have to feel so bad about the house looking like a building site, because I’m just gloating with noble responsibility here (although it’s probably a crime of some sort). When it’s going in your front yard you quickly find there’s almost nothing that can’t be recycled or eaten by the neighbour’s dog. Naturally I care about my private hole in the planet and what goes in it – nothing leaching, nothing toxic, nothing a tree won’t grow on top of. Prawn heads still go in the regular garbage I confess, because of the smell. And cigarette butts. The garbos have to keep their jobs after all.

2a-hole  hole-2

Enough chit chat. We have made a gorgeous hole in the wall! While in Australia The One was clearing out the basement, moving a huge trunk outside and come upon one of those holes in the wall that people in olden days used to stash stuff…like cash or jewellery or crystal meth. At least I presumed that’s what it was because these walls are full of cavities with small jars in them. But The One reported that he removed all the loose stones as a measure against curiosity killing the cat (see final pic). And so more and more stones came out until he reached what was unmistakably a large flat shelf and above, a well rotted lintel. So then I presumed it was a filled-in cupboard, because we have those too. Except you could see light coming in from outside, where the exterior render had failed. I was well worried about the house falling down on husband’s head by this stage.  I didn’t actually believe that there wasn’t any clay mortar between the stones until I saw it with mine own eyes. The exterior render was simply stuck to the loose stones on the outside, and ripping it off revealed another ex-lintel. Although our hole wasn’t precisely in the right spot, there had definitely once been a window there. A neighbour told me that it was the father’s shoe repair shed (I had all kinds of shoe-making curiosities like stone heel moulds and huge needles and innumerable strips of leather) and when the son took the house it became the adega, where dark and cool took priority over a finely crafted piece of stone engineering.

Some of you have probably gone to sleep by now, but those of us who can hear the stones speaking, these discoveries are better than sex. I might be in dead set boring ordinary nowhere’s-ville, but this old house is still alive with intrigues and stories and hidden little secrets. If only just a hole in the wall.

Thus, with the perilous work done by The One and catastrophe avoided, I fixed the hole up into something nice and now we’re about to launch into some wall framing, followed by a bed, furniture and cupboard buying rampage. One day shortly they’ll be a nice room for the cats, because there sure ain’t enough space in our bed no more.

So while in the throes of hole making, we’ve made several new steps, grown some plants, fixed two major plumbing issues, re-worked the grey water system, siliconed the bath and broken the microwave, one of the last two remaining ‘kitchen’ appliances. I now have one electric frypan with which to produce miracles. “Ode to the Electric Frypan” post coming up.

What I actually came back to do is the kitchen. Which means the fix the walls, stain the floor, put skirting boards on and then do the kitchen. Even.Tu.Al.Ly.




petersham, little portugal

little portugal

I didn’t expect that a visit to “Little Portugal”, Petersham, Sydney would mean so much to me.

I must have been infected by the condition of the Portuguese diaspora – that special form of saudades-homesickness where the sight of a proper pastel de nata induces tears.

Of course, the Chinatowns and Little Italies of any major city do not exist just for visitors, local or native. They are founded by the populations of emigrantes, who, finding themselves crowded out by language and strangeness, and a social life devoid of shared history. Apart from being useful, familiarity is comforting.

salted cod petersham portuguese chicken

In Sydney, however, Little Countries are something of an attraction. We do multiculturalism so well that it’s not nearly enough just to go out for Korean BBQ – it has to be on a Korean street, run by Koreans for Koreans speaking Korean. Sydneysiders don’t just want an exotic meal, they want to get their passports stamped.

So, when I tell people I’m from Portugal and they ask me if I’ve been to Oporto Portuguese Chicken Chain That Sells Mostly Burgers, well, I worried about the authenticity of the Aussie-Luso relationship. You might say Oporto and their ilk are about as Portuguese as the hat-with-dangling-corks is to Australia. It’s a stupid image, and that’s it.


The Portuguese colonised Petersham during the late 1970’s. Australia had had an immigration policy that courted Europeans since WW2, and following the Italians of the 60’s, a Portuguese community sprang up in inner city Paddington. As house prices there began to rise, the Italians moved out further west to the suburb of Leichhardt and the Portuguese to nearby Petersham. Just as it happened in Central Portugal with Brits, it was a Portuguese-owned real estate agency in Petersham that guided a steady stream of new arrivals to settle there.

Meanwhile Gloria Belinha was not happy in post-Salazar Portugal. Democracy in chaos, economic upheaval and a people damaged by poverty, isolation and fascism. Liberty had not brought enlightenment or kindness to the small-minded Portuguese who judged you for your second hand clothes and from whose prying eyes you couldn’t hide. In 1983, with their shoe factory business failing, Gloria and her husband decided to get out.

Gloria's portuguese restaurant

When I asked Gloria what Portuguese quality she wished Australians had more of, her answer was ‘none’. She recalled instead how welcome she felt in Australia, how happy and unfettered her kids were at school and how people here summed you up by what kind of person you were and not what you were worth. And when, after the death of her husband she was left alone with four kids and little means, how her shame and despair was met with understanding and dignity and she was given support without being belittled further.

Gloria worked for Peter Doyle Snr at Doyles, an iconic seafood restaurant in Sydney. She must have learnt the trade very quickly because in 1988 she opened the first café in Petersham. And today it’s still the best.

Gloria Belinha Petersham

Gloria’s restaurant is, like the person, completely authentic. Nothing pretentious, no cork hats. Yet nor is it a flag waving, fado-filled lament to the homeland. It just champions big Portuguese flavour and hospitality, with that European family-run works- like-clockwork style. This is the Portugal I want to remember. Everyone probably feels that way about it.

Gloria’s story is the story of both countries still today. Of a Portugal which fails the Portuguese, losing its brightest and best who deserve a fair go. And Australia, which is made great, not because of its cuisines of the world, but because those migrants are motivated, hardworking and come with the learned perspective of harder times. That Gloria doesn’t romanticise Portugal is a particular lesson for me.

sweet belem cafe petersham

If Gloria’s is Petersham’s biggest drawcard, Sweet Belém café-pastelaria is the other. What more can I say except that it’s a real Portuguese cake shop. It has tarts so good they are trademarked. Only a Portugal insider would appreciate the reverence.

The bottle shop is also pretty outstanding. I don’t want to say it felt just like modelo in there, but it did feel good. Vinho verde is something I would definitely miss.

portuguese wine ptersham

And of course there is the chicken. Both churrasqueiras were heaving with takeaway customers when I was there. The Portuguese have got these aussies hooked, well and truly.

pasteis de nata petersham

Gloria’s Café

           Portuguese Restaurante                                

82 Audley Street

Petersham NSW Australia



Tel: (612) 9568 3966




little bay

The One is here on holiday! We have been houseminding in a delightfully forgotten corner of Sydney, which despite owning a perfect little beach has up until recently remained unmolested by property developers. For the last 100 years half of the suburb was a hospital, originally for infectious diseases, due again to the end-of-the-line geography of the place.

Now, the hospital has been developed, but this isn’t such a bad thing. It’s quite a groovy piece of urban planning. Many old hospital buildings have been kept, and although there are more than a few new multistorey apartment buildings, most of the development is freestanding houses which have been built, it appears, under a very strict architectural code.

It’s hard to say what era the place belongs to. Some houses have a whiff of Frank Lloyd Wright, others suggest Japan or Jacques Tati. It’s all a kind of post-vintage, neo-Truman Show mid-century modern-modern.












a very aussie christmas

You can take your snow and pretty lights, your Glühwein and hot puddings and you can stick it. Really, I’ve tried your northern hemisphere christmas and I’m not convinced.

Australian Christmas rules.


After all, it is an insufferable season wherever you are. Obscene commercialism, nonsensical symbolism and forced frivolity all wrapped up in the vapid myth of a little baby jesus who apparently brings a little hope, peace and love – except that the location for his story is one of the sorriest and hateful places on the planet.

So if you’ve gotta do this Christmas thing, let it at least be sunny.

In Sydney, Christmas starts on December 1, the first day of summer, or whenever the temperature reaches 28 degrees and the sun beats down so hard that you have to wear a hat or otherwise your nose will melt off your face.

paul polly

At this early part of The Silly Season (as it is known in scientific circles) all the folk start lighting up their barbeques, rush the bottle shop for cases of beer and invite the mates around. Office Christmas parties also erupt in a frenzy of regretful boozing and wearing of embarrassing hats. Suddenly it’s ok to wear thongs (flip flops, dear, the undies are called g-strings), shorts and dirty little dresses to the office because it’s too bloody hot and too bloody busy and no one could give a stuff anyway because of the way the boss behaved at the aforementioned firm’s function.

Around this time beer and wine sales are reported as a news item. Sales go particularly ballistic sparkling wine/champagne sector. You will not attend any gathering between December and January without the frothy gear unless it’s an AA meeting.


And there’s no better cure for a hangover than blobbing on the beach and splashing in the sea. While average air temperatures are around 25, which for us is a bit average, the sea makes its way from 17 (bit chilly) to 21 or 22 (lovely). In Sydney the water never gets too warm, unlike Northern Queensland where it’s nothing more than a warm bath seething with lethal marine life. No, not here. At the right beaches in Sydney there are dolphins, a penguin or two, and whales within sight from shore, not forgetting swimming labradors and  kelpies on longboards. Get yourself a snorkel and you can visit the blue gropers and a million other smaller fish in the optimum visibility that is Sydney’s coastline.

prawns turkey

Christmas proper starts with the friends’ backyard lunch, a convivial and culinary affair where the French champagne and the freshly shucked oysters are a irrefutable sign that everything is right in the universe. Kiddlies frolic in fancy dress and someone always passes out.


Next we have the family festivities. My family is enormous and despite 40 years of experience I can never seem to stay out of the mayhem of it (unless I’m 10 thousand miles away, that is). It always takes 20 emails, a few squabbles, a bit of hassle and a day or two of cooking. And then the day itself, which can only be approached with a glass of champagne and a valium.  Anyway, this year was a bit special. It’s the first time the family have been all together for 6 years and it was a very cheerful and relaxing day. Of course, it was outside. Kids went swimming in the lake. It was hot. We had to wear hats.


If there is a traditional Australian Christmas menu (and in my experience the tradition is to be non-traditional) it goes something like this. Prawns. Tiger Prawns. More prawns. Oysters; mangoes; cold ham & turkey; salads; green, asian and italian. Avocados. Fish. Beer. Champagne. Prawns.

Oh, and in my family we always have a home-made, hand-made ice cream, of multiple flavours.


On Christmas day itself a few family leftovers came over to our place. We had oysters: sydney rock and boffin bay. Sashimi; salmon and kingfish. Garlic prawns. Turkey leftovers. Rocket, bocconcini and grape tomatoes. Pavlova, passionfruit. And there was a bolo de bolacha but we were too stuffed by then. It was raining; we played Cluedo and Trivial Pursuit. The sun came out; we went to the beach. Gloat. :)


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