Chef Alípio Branco is putting Algarvian flavours u...

Chef Alípio Branco is putting Algarvian flavours under the spotlight at Quinta do Lago’s iconic Casa Velha restaurant

Chef Alípio Branco is putting the Algarve’s flavours in the spotlight at Quinta do Lago’s iconic Casa Velha restaurant (2)

By: Alexandra Stilwell

A celebration of the Algarve’s Essence

If the walls of this restaurant could talk, they would tell the story of how Quinta do Lago was born. This is where it all began. It is where André Jordan, founder of Quinta do Lago, sat by an old farmhouse and envisioned the exclusive resort we now know.

Today, the charming rustic building boasts the title of the resort’s oldest and most revered restaurant. Recommended by the Michelin Guide, it is much more than a fine-dining experience. It is a celebration of the region’s very essence.

The traditional farmhouse’s architecture sets the scene for an exquisite evening. Behind the large wooden doors, a warm and welcoming stone terrace with bushy olive trees and large lanterns evokes a rustic atmosphere with elegance and style. The restaurant’s interior is sober. Large white arches, reminiscent of the farmhouse, separate several dining areas decorated in muted shades of beige and aqua green.

In the kitchen, chef Alípio Branco has slowly been changing the identity of the classic restaurant, bringing in the flavours of the Algarve. “The idea is to introduce the region to Casa Velha. And promote local gastronomy differently – elegantly and innovatively, using a lot of technique,” says the tall chef in a deep voice.

And with Portuguese flavours comes Portuguese hospitality. The chef insists that Casa Velha is all about enjoying the moment. “Our service is laid back. We want people to feel at home here.” However, he does admit that “it is a great challenge to work in a restaurant with so much history”. There is also a lot of responsibility to ensure that several generations of faithful international customers appreciate his new take on Portuguese cuisine.

All of the products chef Alípio works with are locally sourced. He even cultivates vegetables, fruits and herbs in Quinta do Lago’s organic vegetable garden, where he can keep a close eye on the produce and taste everything regularly.

His menus feature a lot of classic Portuguese flavours and dishes that he has refined for finer palates. For example, his bacalhau, which he serves with a chouriço purée, cozido broth, onion compote and cured egg yolk, “is softer than the salted cod the Portuguese like to cook”.

For the chef, it’s all about authenticity. “At Casa Velha, we have Pata Negra ham from Zambujal, unique to the Algarve. And oysters from the Ria Formosa, that we serve with gamba da costa shrimp salad, algae and lemon verbena kombucha, to bring freshness, and reveal the taste of the oyster.” Each dish is balanced to bring out the flavour of the star ingredient.

Chef Alípio’s passion for cooking came at a young age. A passion he acquired from his mother and grandmother, who made broa de milho (cornbread) in a stone oven. He has loved bread ever since and still has some of his grandmother’s “yeast starter” that he uses to make the bread at Casa Velha.

Although his family is from Viana do Castelo, in the North-western tip of Portugal, Alípio grew up in Germany from the age of 10, where he went on to do his culinary training. Later, curious about bouillabaisse, he learned how to make it in a traditional restaurant in Marseille. Then, in Zurich, he worked at the two-Michelin-star Widder restaurant and in Feusisberg, at the Panorama hotel.

Tired of the cold, he moved to the Algarve, where he worked at São Gabriel for five years, then Vila Vita Parc, before finally taking the reins at Casa Velha.

To create his tasting menus that change according to seasonal products, chef Alípio and his team are on a constant quest for the Algarve’s authentic flavours. Together, they travel across the region to visit traditional restaurants and taste local recipes. “From Sagres to Vila Real de Santo António, and from the coast to the barrocal and the mountain,” he says. The chef gives the example of a chicken and chickpeas snack he created “inspired by the flavours of the barrocal”: a chickpea cracker with chouriço cream and free-range chicken cooked at low temperature.

“We work to involve the region and work closely with the producers”, such as a shepherd whose Churra sheep are almost extinct. With their organic meat, he makes a chanfana, a traditional dish from the North, served with bean purée, artichoke and tomato. “It is perplexing that I should use this meat, but it is the only way I have to value and raise awareness to help the producer make money.”

Local products and traditions are also part of Casa Velha’s presentation. Several exclusive pieces were produced in collaboration with the Loulé Design Lab. One of the artists designed an acrylic brick inside which they put crystals of fleur de sel. Chef Alípio serves an unusual snack on it, inspired by some of the Algarve’s most ancient gastronomic heritage: salt flower and garum, a fermented fish sauce that the Phoenicians used as a condiment. “We have sardine and mackerel garum and make a snack with cured, braised sardines, peppers and olives, salt and garum”, which is carefully dosed so as not to overwhelm the palate.

A summer vegan dish of stuffed courgette flowers with tomato wedges, mint sauce, sweetcorn and pepper salad is served on plates made from an olive tree. And another, representing the three arts of the Algarve – cordgrass weaving, copper and porcelain – is used to present a Portuguese steak with potatoes.

For the restaurant’s reopening in mid-February, the chef hints at a few novelties but only reveals that they will consist of spring flavours, including “fresh cheeses from the Martins cheese factory in Loulé and local honey”.

Interpreting the Algarve’s essence with such refined taste, sensational creativity and dedication to sustainability, it is surprising that this restaurant has not yet been awarded a Michelin star.


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