Visiting the Centre of Portugal – Experiencing Parador Casa da Ínsua and Making Portugal’s Famous Serra da Estrela Cheese From Scratch

Nearing the end of our time in Piódão, one couldn’t help but notice the weather. A nasty fog was coming on good and thick. Considering the hairpin turns and narrow bends we experienced scaling the mighty Serra do Açor, I wouldn’t imagine it to be a whole lot of fun coming down the other side. Not that Marcos (a SimplyB team member, who else?) couldn’t do it. That dude sure can drive.
Our next stop through the centre of Portugal was Penalva do Castelo, a small town just over 20 kilometres from Viseu. Our destination? A Parador, nonetheless. If you’re not quite familiar with the term Parador, fret not. I only came to know the term a couple of years ago and until this trip, I was under the impression they were exclusive only to Spain*. A Parador (from the verb parar, meaning stop) is a luxury hotel located in a converted historic building. There isn’t a huge amount of them, and that’s what makes them so special. And no, you can’t just convert your granny’s house into a B&B and slap Parador on a sign. In case that was your plan. Don’t think I don’t see those dollar signs in your eyes.
Anyhoo, our stop for the night was Parador Casa da Ínsua, an 18th-century Baroque style manor house. I know, right? Snazzy.

*fun fact – I later found out that Casa da Ínsua is the first parador to receive the title outside Spain.

The moment we arrived, I fell in love with the cobbled courtyard, warmly lit against the dark limpid sky. The fog was well and truly behind us then. There was a remarkable silence. Everything felt welcoming at Casa da Ínsua.
We had some time to ourselves before dinner that evening, so I went straight to my cosy little room and drew a bath. The bathroom was super cute. My favourite part. A nice bubble bath is one of the best ways to get settled in. I figure if I stay in a Parador, I should do as the Paradorians do. Yep, totally made up word, but it works.

Post bath experience as a true Paradorian™, I floated to the restaurant down curious hallways, passing a large drawing room with a mix of beautifully crafted furniture, also 18th century. I then passed by another courtyard, protected all around by thick glass panelling that by day serves as a pleasant little suntrap. I could imagine myself sitting there, with nothing but my Kindle and a good cup of coffee for company.

We entered an understatedly elegant dining room. Simple, modern, chic. The room was lit by orbs of light overhead, glowing from cream lampshades, each one roughly the circumference of a hubcap. They hang from mahogany wooden beams crisscrossing on the vaulted ceiling overhead, overlooking a selection of rectangular and circular dining tables with crisp white tablecloths…but in our case that night, we dined on starched black.

Before our first course arrived, we got to see it being plated up in the kitchen, like the VIPs we are. I find being invited into the kitchen a real privilege. I’ve seen my fair share of fast-paced but controlled (no shouting!) kitchens and a few incredibly zen almost silent ones. This was for sure, the latter.
That first pretty dish was octopus carpaccio, with lettuce and hard cheeses, drizzled with vinaigrette foam. Fresh, light and punchy. We had this course with a glass of white wine from the Parador’s very own vineyard.

Just look at our second dish. Have you ever had soup like this in your lifetime?! It’s like that joke when you ask someone to go buy black and white paint. I guess nothing truly is impossible. Extra points for the colours of the Irish flag! It’s like they knew I was coming.

We continued with a crisp glass of white to accompany this cod and green baby pepper purée, with olive oil and almonds. We were advised to try each individually, then mix it together. Everything tasted great, but I felt genuine anxiety stirring it all together. It felt like putting my foot through a painting. Or making a baby cry.

Our main and final savoury course (served with a glass of their very own red) was a beautiful piece of lamb, slow cooked over hours at the lowest of temperatures. There was sweetness to the meat, the texture in parts was sort of like sausage meat stuffing on Christmas Day. That sounds odd but honestly, it was a really interesting way the lamb was served and seasoned, and it was in no way greasy. I would return for that dish alone. It was served alongside a little crispy filo parcel of greens, chestnut and persimmon. Very strong flavours to accompany the sweetness of the meat. A clever dish I really did enjoy.

To finish, this beautifully presented dessert. Sponges of thistle and cottage cheese served with sweet rice ice cream. Light, airy and sweet. The entire meal was a winner, prepared for us by the wonderfully talented chef, Paulo Cardoso.

As we were enjoying our sobremesa, Sandra asked who would like to make cheese. Not just any cheese of course, but the famous Portuguese export – Serra de Estrela! Naturally, we answered with a resounding yes. Sandra then said that it can be made right there at Casa da Ínsua, the entire process from start to finish. The first step would take place in the morning, milking the sheep at 5.45am. She then asked who wanted to do the whole process, and while this time, the group was quieter, lots of us were still willing. It’s not every day you’re going to get up at the crack of dawn to visit some woolly pals and steal their juice.
I agreed, looked at my watch and figured I should put down the wine. I know what you’re thinking. I admire me too for my sacrifice. Saint Emma, Milker of the Sheep, they’ll call me.

Here we are, at the crack of dawn! I didn’t take any photos walking to the dairy? (sounds weird for sheep) as it was pitch black and we were half asleep, truth be told. But we did it. The sheep all lined up in front of a trough full of food. Once they started eating, metal bars suspended them (in a humane, painless way!) where silicone valves are applied to extract and collect the milk. We were there about 40 minutes with the gentleman above, who showed us what to do and herded the sheep. They looked at us like we were aliens, sheepish (lol) to come near us. I would be too. We probably looked like death getting up that early.

By the time we left, the sun was coming up. Our surroundings made the early start worth it. The air was cool and crisp. You could hear nothing but the birds, and the dew was still on the grass.

The picture above really reminds me of my hometown where I grew up, if someone told me this was somewhere in Ireland, I would believe them.

Sandra, Vitor and I stopped by this tree, to try the fruit right from the branches. The fruit from this tree, a medronho tree (arbutus in English) makes a strong fruit brandy, or aguardente (aguardiente in Spanish.) The Portuguese also call medronho liquor ‘firewater’, due to the burning sensation it causes in the throat. I told you they love to socialise over their collection of fermented liquors (we covered that a few posts back in Óbidos) Such fun people they are, those warm-hearted* Portuguese. Might I add the fruit straight from the tree was tasty, kind of like a stoneless peach with a spongier texture. The centre of Portugal definitely has a lot to experience.

*in character, and from all the liquor, obvs.

The morning dew! On the grass! Like I said!

We entered the Parador back through the courtyard you saw in darkness from the night before. How beautiful are all the different colours, and the ivy giving those little blue doored barns some extra flair?

We met as a group for breakfast back in the main dining room. I feel like everywhere I’ve written about so far has served up a seriously impressive breakfast, so you know what’s up. Meats, cheeses, fruit, cereals, pastries and hot food like the buttery yellow scrambled eggs and incredible crispy bacon above. Might I add the jams on offer and the cheeses, of course, are from the Parador.
Not pictured: The bowl of fruit and pastéis I had for round two. If you’re not eating dessert for breakfast (pancakes, waffles) then breakfast needs dessert. A rule to live by.

The table, after hungry savages (aka, us) ate everything. I like this picture, I’m not sure why…perhaps I should title it ‘Scraps of Sunshine Fruit.’ Either way, I enjoy looking at it for the little corner of morning light.

How awesome is this old kitchen? Anytime I went to my room I passed it by. So much space to cook! And hold dance parties.

The view from my bedroom window. I felt like a character in a Jane Austen novel.

After packing up our cases and a little relaxation time, we all met back in the lobby for a tour of the grounds. This included the gardens, the house itself, the stables full of old machinery for the vineyards, military weapons and hunting tools. The manor was built by Luís de Albuquerque de Melo Pereira e Cáceres (a former Governor in Brazil) and has been in the Albuquerque family for generations. The family’s coat of arms can be found all over the house, as well as those famous blue (azulejos) Portuguese tiles.
Our guide was wonderful, I wish I got his name. He couldn’t be more than 20 and he knew everything there is to know and more about the grounds, as well as being extremely well spoken in several languages.
Tour done. Time for cheese! We got suited and booted in rather fetching outfits and hairnets. Serra de Estrela is made using three simple ingredients. Sheep’s milk, which gives the cheese it’s strong flavour, as the milk is high in fat. Thistle flowers (those beautiful little purple guys below on the left) and salt. You mix the thistle flowers, ‘flor do cardo’ with plenty of salt which curdles the milk.

I wrote briefly about the process on my Instagram post a couple of weeks back, so I’ll share it here:
We got up at the crack of dawn to milk sheep, then later we curdled the milk by mixing it with salt and ground thistle and strained it through cotton.
We then separated the curds and whey (which was pretty satisfying) and literally mashed the curds into small cylindrical pots to form the cheese (also very satisfying) where we then labelled each one and left them with the lovely ladies at Casa de Ínsua to allow the cheese to mature.
Above, you’ll see some cheeses maturing in the cool cellars. The best part? We were sent our cheese (identified by number) when they were ripe and ready for eating. I squealed with glee when my cheese came in the post. What a wonderful experience and pay off. Truth be told, I didn’t finish it. When my Mother visited recently, she loved it so much I had to send it home with her. Not just for her but for my Dad to try. They were super impressed. Their daughter can make cheese! I hope they told all the neighbours.

And that concludes the end of our wonderful Parador Casa da Ínsua adventures. This was the last picture I took before we all boarded the SimplyB mobiles, refreshed and ready for our next destination.

There’s so much more to do at Casa da Ínsua, it would be worth visiting for a few days. Not only is there a cheese workshop but a jam one too. There are farm activities, which allow you to experience working in a vegetable garden and picking fruit. You can take part in archaeological tours, visit the old ice factory (also on the grounds) enjoy golf, horseriding, swimming, cultural tours and of course, winery tours.
The perfect place to visit. Embrace the quiet, the countryside, and enjoy the production of the simplest and most satisfying foods first hand.

For more information on Parador Casa da Ínsua, click here for the official hotel website.

Paradores Facebook page
Centre of Portugal Tourism
SimplyB – Free Walking Tours

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