The secret of chef Leopoldo Calhau’s cuisine is in Alentejo

The secret of chef Leopoldo Calhau’s cuisine is in Alentejo

Cuba, Alentejo, is a Portuguese town known for its amphora wine and fabulous cuisine. As if these reasons weren’t enough, it was an invitation from chef Leopoldo Calhau that took us there.

Born and raised in Lisbon, a trained architect, at the age of 35 he decided to dedicate himself to a passion he had since childhood – gastronomy. Although Lisbon is his “home”, it’s in Vila Alva, Cuba, that he feels among family. His father’s hometown, ever since he was little, Calhau’s summer holidays and family celebrations have taken place in Alentejo and this is the only place he knows when he seeks refuge. Surrounded by people who love to eat, drink and, above all, prepare delicious food, he learned early on that cuisine was something bigger, which brought people together.
He welcomed us at one of his aunts’ cafés, in the town centre. A few streets below, in the entrance to his parents’ house, a wood oven was fired up to bake bread for lunch.
“This is a tradition. My grandfather used to make bread almost every day and my father didn’t want that habit to disappear, so he continues to do so. The tradition has been passed on from generation to generation; I learnt from him and now I make sure my children also participate. It’s family time. Making the dough, kneading it, watching the bread bake in the oven and then, of course, savouring it at the table”.
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While the bread was baking, the kitchen was busy with preparations for lunch. Aside from the roasted lamb’s head that chef Leopoldo was going to prepare, his mother, Joana, made the tomato sauce and feijoada (bean stew). They were expecting some guests who were hard at work with the harvest, and these people are big eaters.
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At his uncle’s winery, in a setting surrounded by amphora jugs and with the sound of wine fermenting in the background, Leopoldo prepared one of the dishes he serves at Café Garrett, in the Teatro Dona Maria II theatre in Lisbon, where he is currently the chef.

“Sometimes I serve roasted lamb’s head at the Garett and I’m always surprised by people’s reactions. They don’t expect it but I can’t help it. These are my roots; it’s in traditional Portuguese cuisine and, above all, the Alentejo bases that I get my inspiration”.

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The long table began to fill around the food and amphora wine. Between each toast and mouthful, many relatives and friends shared memories.

“It’s so good to be here. To be together and share these moments. This is what I love, and this has been my inspiration since childhood. I grew up with these people and my connection to gastronomy comes from them. These moments are touching.”

Standing up with glass in hand, uncle José Calhau Rim begins to sing the “Galo Cantor“ (singing rooster) song.

It was moving. And we could see it in chef Leopoldo’s tearful eyes. Once again, food and wine, in this deep connection with people and the moments they create.

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