Farewell Alentejo: Wine, Olive Oil, and Chocolate Bolo Podre
Wine tasting is certainly 50% bullshit. Travel writing, at least 50% bullshit. But, my friends, the wisdom that comes with hovering around the age of 35 tells me this: life is easily 50% bullshit. But we all live, we all work, and we all do our best to enjoy it. In various parts of the world, in various jobs, in various states of mind before arriving at this particular age, I looked hard for the meaning of life, every new thing (chocolate was once one of those things) I happened upon potentially it, everything I'd tried before (chocolate was once one of those things, too) rendered irrelevant. I'm thinking that the people around me who seemed to be coping so much better hadn't come any closer to that one meaningful thing—they were just better about balancing the search with more everyday needs, desires, and responsibilities.
In September of this year, I came to the Alentejo region of Portugal, a sun-saturated place in the countryside where olive oil and wine are cheap but where movie theaters and public transportation (not to mention any number of other things I had within a radius of three blocks when I was growing up on the Upper Eastside of Manhattan and didn't know how good I had it) are hard to come by, looking once again for life's big secret. Three months before that, I'd left China, I'd left my job as a university teacher there, and I'd left the track leading to other university jobs, while leaving trackers among my friends and family stumped about where precisely I was headed and why. Why was I here? What was I doing? I did not get fired in China. I was not forced off the track. (Climbing back on, though, I can tell you from experience, is another story.) I did sort of fire myself. I decided it was time to get out of one situation and I didn't look too hard for another. But what do you look for when you don't know what you want? Balance.
Alentejo DOC wine in the fridge, my heat and electricity with everyone at home in New York who doesn't have them today. I wish I could share the employment and job-related luxuries I've had over the past two months in Portugal with everyone here who increasingly does not have those things.
Since I arrived, I've been working as an editorial consultant for a boutique hotel. Working creatively with a salary and a budget better suited to a scrappy 25-year-old upstart, I've had the chance to visit some great wineries in the region, like Esporão and Plansel, to wear a lab coat and sip olive oil tapped from the holding tanks at Olivais do Sul, and to see a synagogue unearthed after the Inquisition in the town of Castelo de Vide, walk through an abandoned fortress on the Spanish border that could as well have been the set of a sci-fi movie, and find assuringly balanced urban respite in Lisbon. I have a few more things to take care of here in Europe this month (and maybe I'll have a chance to pick at the leftovers of this past weekend's Chocolate Show in Paris). But after that, I think I'm going home. I sent in my absentee ballot, a gave another few bucks to the Obama campaign, and started to think of myself as an American citizen again.
Meanwhile, while packing up and cleaning out my fridge here in the Alentejo, I made (with the help of a few friends) octopus risotto with a dose the easy-drinking EA table white from the nearby Cartuxa winery and a splash of balsamic vinegar followed by an improvised version of the Portuguese cake known as bolo podre (literally "rotten cake" but I can assure you it was fresh and delicious). I added a bar of Grenada's 82%-cacao blend and used exclusively olive oil in the place of other fats like butter and lard. "But bolo podre doesn't have chocolate," one of my coworkers at the hotel told me. Well, as you'll see below, sometimes it does.
Bolo Podre com Chocolate
butter and flour for preparing the pan
2 cups (450g) sugar
3 oz (85g) dark chocolate (choose something with a hearty, earthy, even smoky flavor)
1/2 cup (125ml) milk
3 tbsp olive oil (match the chocolate with unexpected fruity and nutty notes and aromas)
1 tbsp honey
1 tsp lemon zest
1 tsp ground cinnamon
2 1/2 cups (300g) all-purpose flour
Preheat the oven to 350F (175C). Grease the pan with butter and dust the pan lightly but completely with butter.
Beat the eggs and sugar together until thick and creamy.
Melt the chocolate with the next three ingredients over low heat. When the ingredients are completely combined, add the eggs and sugar, still mixing or whisking over low heat until the mixture begins to thicken. Remove from heat. Add the zest and cinnamon and then whisk in the flour. When you're done, you should have something the consistency of store-bought chocolate pudding.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 40 minutes, until the cake puffs up and a knife or toothpick comes out of the center clean.
Allow the cake to cool in the pan for up to half an hour, then invert it onto a serving plate.