Esporão & A Comida Portuguesa a Gostar Dela Própria

JOSÉ VILA: A LESSON ON GASTRONOMY AND LIFE

JOSÉ VILA: A LESSON ON GASTRONOMY AND LIFE

In the Algarve, near Portimão, there’s a small place called Mexilhoeira Grande, full of low-level, traditional Algarvian houses, painted in shades of white and blue, to match the sky. In one of the many old houses, we find Adega Vila Lisa. There are no signs on the door, or appealing awnings, the small windows painted yellow set it apart from the rest and confirm that we aren’t lost – it is here.
Inside, sitting at the head of one of the long, wooden tables, José Vila, one of the restaurant owners, is waiting for us. To the sound of Cante Alentejo coming from a small radio, we are welcomed like old friends. Vila’s physical presence – reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway or a deep-sea fisherman, solitary, with a sad look – gives us confidence, comfort. The walls are covered with his art, the smoke of his cigars, and all the surrounding scenario leads us into the artist’s very personal world.
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Algarve born and bred, José Vila fell in love with the region with every childhood adventure and at the table of his grandmother’s house. They called him Zé Bandido – he reckons the name a little exaggerated – because of the trouble he got himself into. Always barefoot and in the street, looking for the good things in life. He liked being free, active, but without going overboard. For him, life should be lived intensely and it was during his childhood and teenage years that he discovered how to be happy.

Painting also started way back – he still has the first pictures he did aged nine -, much like his passion for food, which he began to acquire as a small boy, when his grandmother invited him to eat at her house. Her recalls meals sitting on his grandfather’s lap and, later, on top of fig boxes. At the time, there were, and still are, lots of figs in the Algarve, and people, through necessity, often ate this fruit.

“PEOPLE ATE FIGS IN VARIOUS WAYS. ROASTED WITH BREAD AS A SNACK, IT WAS A MATTER EATING WHAT WAS AT HAND. AS WELL AS GRILLED SARDINE.”
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In the many places he has lived – Mexilhoeira, Castro Marim, Vila Real de Santo António, Faro, Fuseta, Olhão – at mealtimes and while strolling through the streets, he became friends with and gained respect for older people, and what they had to teach him. He fell in love with Algarve food or “the food of necessity” as he calls it. He tells us that people invented cuisine within their needs and this fascinated him. The simplicity of what the land and sea had to offer. For him, his home is the Algarve of the land and sea. He would later christen the book he wrote on Algarve cuisine, ‘Coisas da Terra e do Mar’.

The restaurant is a result of this passion and Lisa’s invitation to become part of the project. Returning to the region where he was born, Mexilhoeira Grande, was also inevitable and, as such, he accepted. When he had to prepare a menu, he searched the Algarve, recovered unfashionable recipes and sought out the flavours of his childhood, those that remain still so alive in him.

“Nobody gets old at the table”
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