Thursday, December 5, 2013

Why Porto?

Earlier this year, there was a post describing why we chose Portugal for TerraPlana (Why Portugal?).   The post does a good job of explaining our thought process, but it does not explain why we settled in city of Porto.  Portugal is a small country (even in European terms) but it's big enough, and there are a few cities.  The largest, and most well know city in Portugal is the capital city Lisbon.  Porto is the second largest city, but by most measures it is still only about half the size of Lisbon.  There are other cities in Portugal, but they are mostly significantly smaller, so for us, the choice really came down to Lisbon vs Porto.

Ribera, the old city center of Porto

 Among the Portuguese, most people hold a strong preference for one city over the other (Lisbon or Porto) and they are very different in geography, architecture, and in general 'feeling'.  In some ways, the rivalry between the cities is not unlike that between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The two cities are similar in age (that is, they are both ancient; pre-Roman) but Porto has a slightly older feel, and this is probably because Lisbon was completely leveled by a major earthquake in 1755, and subsequently rebuilt.  Porto has streets that retain a slightly medieval feel.   Whereas Lisbon is full of broad avenues, the old city of Porto is a warren of tiny cobblestone streets.

The river is a central, defining feature in both cities.  Lisbon has the Tagus (Tejo in Portuguese) and Porto has the Douro.  The Tejo meets Lisbon on a broad flat estuary, whereas Porto perches on steep cliffs over the Douro.  Lisbon has a very characteristic (and beautiful) light that results from the sunshine over the Tejo river, and the amphitheater  created by the city's hills.  Porto always feels a little more dark and medieval.  Lisbon's many fans never fail to point this out, and they usually highlight the warmer weather in Lisbon too.  There is only 300 km distance between the two cities, and they both have a southern European climate, however Lisbon is normally a few degrees warmer (which can be a problem in the hot summers).

Porto as seen from the far side of the river.

So why did we chose Porto over Lisbon?  Partly, the choice was economic.  In the last few years, Lisbon has become more of a tourist and economic center for Portugal.   While that may seem a good thing when choosing to locate a bar, there is one significant downside.  Property prices, and expenses in general are substantially higher in Lisbon.  Additionally, a small house like the one which is to become TerraPlana would be very hard to find in Lisbon.  The buildings in downtown Lisbon are generally bigger which magnifies the higher price and would make our project more difficult.

Another reason to chose Porto is the young artistic feel of the city.  Although both cities have large universities, the University of Porto has more of an impact on it's city for two reasons.  First, the relative size of the university compared to the overall population is larger, so it appears that there are more young people around.  Second, University of Porto is one of the most common destinations for foreign students in the Erasmus Programme  (a unified European foreign student program).  Consequently, there are not just a lot of young people around, but there are a lot of young foreigners.  Foreign students are by definition far from home, so they tend to focus a bit more on creating and enjoying a social circle.  For this reason, they are a little more visible and active in the city.  This has a very positive impact on the feeling of Porto.

Finally, and probably most important for us is the proximity of Porto to the sea.  Although technically Porto does not extend to the seafront, it has grown into the surrounding towns and fishing villages so that there is really no break in the urban area right down to the sea.   Lisbon is just a little bit farther from the ocean, but it makes a huge difference.  From the center of Porto, 20 minutes on a bicycle will deliver you here:

The stunning seafront.
There are some fantastic beaches near Lisbon, but even the closest will take more then 30 minutes by car.  During the summer, getting to a good beach from Lisbon can easily take more then and hour.  Sometimes the beaches in Porto get crowded, and the sea breeze can be strong, but you don't have to go far to find an amazing beach, and if you go just a short distance outside of the city, you can always find a quiet spot.  And the surfing is great too!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


As has been the story for the last few weeks, the house project is moving, but at a rather slow pace.  The technical details of construction are still being hashed out.  We are also speaking with construction firms and collecting bids, but we are still far from signing a contract and getting the work started.   It's really hard to say at this point when things will start moving, only that we are working on it, and it will happen as soon as possible.  It is, naturally, a little frustrating but our eyes are still firmly fixed on the goal, and our determination is unwavering.

So this is another blog post about keeping ourselves busy with productive diversions.

First a few words about the concept of TerraPlana;  from the beginning, our goal has been to create a comfortable space for people to meet, hang out, drink, and relax.  We are putting a lot of effort and planning into the space to achieve these goals.  We also plan to serve food, but it's important for us not to create a 'restaurant feeling'.  Food service will be order at the bar, and the main item on the menu will be pizza.  Pizza is great food for the environment we want to create.  It's a communal food, but it's also a comfortable, non formal relaxed meal.  A group of 5 or 6 people would generally feel totally comfortable sitting at a table where only 2 or 3 in the group are having pizza while the rest chat and enjoy company...  That wouldn't normally happen with a soup, or steak dinner, or just about any other meal apart from sandwiches.

We want to create great pizza, but this ambition is within bounds.  The pizza should be great tasting and memorable, but not over-the-top gourmet.  TerraPlana should be known and liked for a variety of aspects and great pizza should fit nicely into the total experience, without overpowering it.

Although we have a little restaurant experience, none of us have cooked commercially, and none of us have experience making pizza, so there's some learning to do!

As with any project, the first step is research.  In the last few months, we have been digging into the internet, talking with pizzaioli (pizza chefs - yes, there's a word for it) and of course eating LOADS of pizza!

Pizza is a huge world unto itself, and it is not short of fanatics.  Some of what I'm about to say will almost certainly be disputed.   We've done our homework, and we have our goals (one of which is not to be annoying pizza fanatics) so I will leave it to the pizza fanatics to argue how many angles can dance on a well made margarita.

Basically, pizza consists of 4 elements; crust, sauce, cheese and toppings.  With the exception of crust, all the elements can be varied (or even left out) to a great degree.  Nonetheless while QUALITY is extremely important, the sauce, cheese and toppings can be easily sourced.  Marinara sauce is not hard to make, but quality sauce can be purchased readymade and will not have a huge impact on the final product.

The pizza bread crust is the key differentiating factor that separates great pizza from the rest, and early in our research we became determined to unlock the mystery of a great crust.

It's not easy.  Flour, water, yeast and salt.  Simple enough ingredients, but baking is an art.  There are endless variations, and most of the art is in the preparation.  In fact, bread is one of humanities more impressive creations.  The seed of grass is incredibly nutritious, but it is also a well designed vault which evolution has constructed to insure that those nutrients are used for growing new grass rather then feeding animals, bacteria, or yeast.  Most animals that feed on raw grass spend nearly their entire day chewing, but even that is not enough.  Take the cow for example; the cow's anatomy and digestion is notably different from humans in many ways.  One notable difference is that cows actually have TWO stomachs!  After chewing, the grasses are processed in the rumen (the first stomach).  The rumen is in fact, a fermentation chamber.  After grinding down the grasses and seeds, they are fermented by bacteria and yeast.

Humans do not have a rumen.  Instead, we have bread!  The process is in fact, remarkably similar, instead of chewing the grass and seeds (for hours) we grind them in a mill (creating flour).  Then the baker mixes the flour with water and infects  it with a yeast culture.  The baker uses yeast to ferment the bread dough, a process instantly recognizable to a cow as what happens in the rumen.   Unfortunately for the cow, they do not have a third stomach to bake their fermented dough, instead, it is passed to their second stomach and digest it in raw form.  Lucky for us, our ancestors tamed fire and learned to use it to cook and bake.  Baked bread has a longer shelf life then raw, fermenting dough and, of course, it's also much more tasty.

At this point, I have diverged off topic enough that my dear reader is probably wondering "what the fuck does a cow's second stomach and bread have to do with pizza?"  A fair question really; the simple answer is that I learned all the above facts researching how to create great pizza crust (which is of course very flat bread).   Learning how to bake bread is a process of learning how to handle and 'read' dough, and these will be critical skills when the time comes to create our pizza crust.

Personally, (if it's not already apparent) I love bread.  When I heard that there are people in the world suffering a condition called 'Gluten Intolerance' (poor, retched souls) I cried for them.  If I were to become stricken with this debilitating ailment, I would surely die!

Given my love for bread, it may seem surprising that I never learned how to bake anything larger or more complicated then a cupcake.  There was one time we made pot brownies, but how am I supposed to remember how that turned out?

As it became clear that learning to bake would help prepare us for the multitude of small, flat, round breads to be served at TerraPlana, I became excited with the challenge of baking.  The journey is still ongoing, but I am ready to share my experience so far.

Rather then following the simple path to baking competence... that is, starting with the humble cupcake and then working your way up, I decided to turn the process on its head and start with a slightly more ambitious first loaf.  Lucky for me, Chad Robertson, a master artisan baker and owner of the Tartine bakery in San Francisco wrote a book in 2010 for people like me:

Tartine Bread

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Chad, and his amazingly instructive and beautiful book.  We have not yet settled on our pizza bread recipe and it may not bear any resemblance to the Tartine recipe, but using this book I feel I have learned much more then how to bake a loaf of bread.  I have learned how to think about baking, how to experiment, and how to create.

Tartine bread is a high hydration, wild culture, wholewheat blend bread.  Any one of those attributes would generally be described by an experienced baker as tricky to work with.  Put them all together and you have a real challenge.

Wild culture (sour dough) breads do not use commercial yeast.  Wild culture yeast is far better at creating complex flavors and character in the bread.  It is also argued that it creates a healthier bread (at least for those of us who don't believe that bread causes Candidiasis).   However because it is a wild collection of hundreds if not thousands of different yeasts, molds and bacteria it is inherently harder to work with.  A baker creates a symbiosis with his culture, and trains it the way you might train a family pet (in fact, I named mine).

Commercial yeast is a totally different process.   As with most things commercial and industrial, scientific precision is usually a desired path to efficiency and economy.  Commercial yeast is a good example.   When you purchase commercial yeast, you are generally buying a single specific species of Saccharomyses cerevisiae.  By isolating the yeast to a particular species, it's behavior became a known constant allowing for simple recipes.  100 g of flour, 50 ml of water and 5 g of commercial yeast will rise an exact amount in 20 minutes.  This kind of certainty has obvious benefits if you want to create bread in a factory.  Wild yeast on the other hand, literally has a mind of it's own.   With a wild culture, you mix your ingredients, wait 20 minutes, and then look, smell, taste and/or feel to determine if it's time to move onto the next step.

Wild culture yeast can be created easily just about anywhere.  The recipe is simple: mix some flour and water, and leave it out to rot for a few days.  The flour water mix will almost invariably become infected with yeast and bacteria already present in the flour and water, but also from the air, and even from your skin and utensils while you are mixing.  After a few days, the mixture will will show signs of microbial activity (small bubbles on the surface) and take on a smell that the Tartine Bread book describes rather euphemistically as 'mature cheese'.
After a few days... looks better then it smells
From this humble beginning, the baker 'trains' the culture by putting it on a regular feeding schedule.  After a few days of training, my culture changed slightly, and the odors became a bit less 'exotic'.

After about a week, it was following commands nicely...  After feeding, it rises for a few hours until it has grown about 20% then begins to relax until the next feeding.

At feeding time

4 hours after feeding... good boy, nice rise
Now that I had created a well trained culture, it was time to bake some bread.  First, I used my wild culture (sometimes called a starter) to create a few hundred grams of leaven.  Leaven is basically the same thing as the starter, but is then used as an ingredient in the dough.  Once my leaven had fed overnight, I mixed it with flour and water to make the initial dough.  The Tartine Bread book calls this a 'young leaven' because it is relatively early in the growth cycle of the culture, and consequently, there is more yeast then bacteria activity resulting in a less sour taste in the bread.

Looks like something a dog might vomit if it ate too much porridge, but if a dog ever vomits something that FEELS like this take the dog directly to the vet!
 Once the dough is mixed, there is a long fermentation schedule punctuated by occasional needing.  In the case of Tartine Bread, the dough is so moist that needing on a work surface is basically impossible, so the technique substitutes 'turning' the dough inside a plastic container (I used Tupperware... worked pretty well).   Below is a progression showing my 'bulk rise' or bulk fermentation.  Takes about 3-4 hours, and ever thirty minutes you have to give it some attentions (doing a turn).  You need to look closely at the pictures below to see anything, but you can notice that from top left to bottom right the dough begins to take on a different appearance, and becomes bigger (rises).

After about 4 hours, it's ready to be shaped into loaves
After the bulk rise, the dough needs to be shaped into loaves.  This is an extremely important step, but on the first attempt, my ability was a little wanting.  The dough is really wet and sticky, and I wasn't really sure what I was trying to do with it anyway.   Basically, it started as a shapeless blob, and it ended as 2 shapeless blobs.  Shaping is important because when done properly, it gives the dough an internal structure, and external tension in what will become the crust.

This is before, but they didn't look much different after shaping
After shaping the bread needs to rise for 4 or 5 hours in a towel lined basket or bowl.  The book instructed to lightly dust the towels with a mixture of rice flour and regular flour, but I didn't have any rice flour, and I wasn't sure where you would buy such a thing in Porto.  I should have looked harder!  Using regular flour didn't work at all... my loaves stuck to the towel, and any attempt I had made in shaping them was totally lost when 100 grams of dough was pulled off the top of the loaves and left on the towels, oh well.

What NOT to do.
I baked them anyway, and while they were not picture perfect (they didn't rise completely and came out looking a little too much like tall pancakes), they were certainly tasty!

Warm fresh, and great with a big slice of butter!
 On the second attempt, I got it!  A little extra dry flour to make the dough a bit more workable during shaping helped.  I was also a bit more observant and careful during the bulk rise.  The temperature in was a little cooler then the ideal 24C, so I let it rise a little longer.  It ended up taking about 5 1/2 hours to get where I wanted, so I was worried that by the time the loaves were ready to bake it would have been 11:00 at night.  It is possible to slow the process by cooling, so I let the loaves do their final rise overnight in the refrigerator.  In the morning, they were ready to go, and because I used rice flour this time, no sticking!

The end result was something I think Chad would be proud to sell in his bakery!  I am certainly proud, even amazed that I was able to create it in my kitchen.    The loaves are not only beautiful, they taste fantastic!

There are loads of blogs and information about baking bread on the internet.  It's a nerdy and slightly competitive world that even it's own lingo.  Below is what is know in the trade as the 'crumb shot' (crumb is the technical baker's term for the soft interior).  Crumb shot pictures are all over the internet, and I don't believe there is any accident that it sounds like 'cum shot' (pornographic pictures of orgasm)...  It's not the only thing about baking that's mildly sexually suggestive, holding the formed loaves is almost exactly like fondling a good size boob, and then there's the 'rise'.  Freud would love baking!

My cum shot... opps, I mean crumb shot!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Chanelling Martha Stewart

So we are still working on the final technical plans for the house, and negotiating with contractors.  Nothing much happens in Portugal (or most of Europe) in August...  EVERYONE goes on holiday, or at least to the beach.

I came up with an idea to make a notice board for Terraplana...  So in celebration of August, here's a crafty post about making a cork board.  I'm not sure Martha Stewart has ever done a project like this, but it seems right up her ally.

To start with, I collected corks from our daily bottles.  Since moving to Portugal, our consumption of red wine has increased.  Dramatically.

There are two reasons for this.  First, the wine here is fantastic.  The red wines are especially exceptional.  If you like full flavored red wines that feel like a warm satin ribbon in your throat, then you will love Portuguese wines.  It is a mystery to me that they are not world famous by now, but outside of Portugal, the wines are little known.  This contributes to the second reason our wine consumption has increased; the Portuguese wines are supper cheap.  A good bottle of wine starts at around 2 Euros.  Great bottles start around 5 Euros, and although you CAN pay more then 15 Euros for a bottle, there's little reason to get so extravagant when 10 Euros will purchase something truly amazing!  I've seen bottled water in London that costs more!

Portugal produces about half of all the cork grown in the world, so it's not surprising that wine bottles here always have a cork even at such modest prices.  So collecting corks was the easy part.  The next step took a little searching.  I needed a picture frame, and I was hoping to find one that was both large, and ornate.  It took some time at the local flea market, but ultimately, I found one.

Full supplies required:

 A lot of corks (more then you think)
Old picture frame
board large enough to fill the frame
glue gun

I needed to trim my board to fit the frame because the frame edges were held together with some triangle pieces...  I used a small hack saw to cut off the edges of the board after measuring carefully to insure that the board would fit and cover the whole inside of the picture frame.

Next, I attached the board to the frame using some screws and my beloved supper incredible battery powered drill (a screw driver would work too).

I cut the corks in half long wise.  After trying a number of methods, I determined that a sharp kitchen knife works best for this.  This picture show's me cutting from end to end starting at the top, but it's actually easier to split them exactly if you lay the cork on it's side.

 Finally, heat the glue gun, apply glue to the back of the cork, and position the cork in the frame.

Repeat until the whole frame is full (or until you run out of corks...  in the event that happens, drink more).

The final result looks pretty cool.  Now if we can just finish the house so we have a wall to hang it on!

Monday, August 5, 2013

Reflection on the Construction License

We are finally through the approval process.  It actually finished at about the middle of July.  Now seems like a good time to reflect on the process.

We made our first submission at the beginning of March, so the whole thing took about 4 1/2 months.   Theoretically, the process could be completed in 3 months, but having seen the process close up, we are very pleased with our performance.  There were a number of issues that could have easily added months, but thanks to a lot of hard work from our architect and engineers, we were able to keep things basically on track.  There are stories of processes taking years to complete, and having seen the process through, we can see how that might happen.

At times, the bureaucracy itself was the cause of meaningless delay.  Each step of the process has a legally mandated deadline, but it seems that the bureaucrats seem to think that finishing BEFORE the deadline is also prohibited.  At one point we were told that all the work to complete a step was done in two weeks, but that it sat on a superiors desk waiting for a signature.  Instead of getting the step approved in two weeks, it took a month (exactly the legal limit)...  must take a long time to sign a name, maybe they were short of pens.

There are an enormous amount of requirements that have to be met, and it would be impossible to build today without the service of a good architect and engineer.  That in itself seems a bit of a shame.  The days of building your own home are over, unless you know the system, and the requirements you will never get approved for construction.

The requirements themselves are often far too rigid, especially considering that we are remodeling an antique house.  The historical center of Porto is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so it makes sense that we would need to get some additional approval and checks that we were not distorting a part of the city's patrimony.  Before we could get the specifics of our plans approved, we had to have them approved by the historical society of the city.  The historical society was very concerned with the exterior appearance of the building, but they were less concerned with the interior construction.  We had no problems getting our approval from the historical society, but latter in the process we came up against requirements that seems directly at odds with preserving the patrimony of the city.   For example, we would have loved to construct our space using completely traditional methods, but there is no way that that could reasonably be done and still meet modern insulation requirements.  If we were not changing the floor plan of the building, then we could have repaired it as it was, but our changes required us to bring the building up to current specifications.  This is sad because it means that over time, the beautiful historical buildings of Porto will only be an authentic looking veneer, inside the buildings are slowly being 'modernized'.  Even if the 'new is better' motto of our consumerist world were always true, it would still be nice to see SOME of these buildings kept in their authentic form.  Granted, we did change the building from it's original layout, having to meet the modern specifications for disability access, insulation etc caused yet more changes.  There were cases where we were aloud a dispensation from the rules because of historical nature of our building, but these had to be fought and won on an individual basses.  It didn't make sense of us to fight every battle, and some of the battles we fought didn't go our way.

So the process has been a bit frustrating at times.  At least it's over.  Now we are focused on finding a contractor and putting them to work.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Moving Along

We have cleared a very significant approval this week, leaving only one more step before we can begin construction.  It's very exciting, and a little scary because we have not yet selected a contractor, and any mistake in this selection could easily result an expensive delay.  We are also eager to get on with the build.   The approval step has taken about 1.5 months longer then we were hopping, and there is still about a month left to go.

We added this public notice to the building too:

It was a bit of a hassle to get the graffiti paint off the window, but a little turpentine and a lot of scrubbing did the trick.  Turns out we were supposed to put this notice up when we first made our application in April, but we didn't know so it went up a little late.  No problem, it's there now.

We had some good news regarding demolition recently too.  After inspection by our engineer  it's been determined that a large amount of wood in the current structure of the house can be salvaged.   Probably there is enough to build out the mezzanine level which is fantastic news because we want to show the exposed beams there, and the old beams in the house will have a really nice rustic look.  They are also made of wood that would be hard to match today.  Additionally, a lot of the floorboards in the house can be reused.  We were always planning to use reclaimed wood for the flooring, but we were a little concerned that it would be hard to source, and possibly very expensive.  Using the wood from the house is a great option in every way.  I particularly like the story that it gives the place, and the added authenticity!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013


It may still be a few months, but it feels like we are starting to get close to 'go time' for construction.  Of course, the first step will be demolition of the existing interior space.  Once we bring in a demolition company anything that is in there technically becomes space in a landfill.  'Technically' because in actual fact, if the demolition crew finds anything of value, they will be in a position to sell it on once it is removed from that house.  Since we are paying to have it demolished and carted to disposal, we would be none the wiser if they kept some valuable salvage.  With that in mind, we've been working on removing some of the stuff we want now.

There's really not much in the house worth saving.  Most of the wood is in bad shape because of the leaky roof.  The interior doors are in passable shape.... they can be re-used (although probably not as doors).  There's also a really nice railing and banister on the interior stairs.

We weren't sure how to remove the railing and banisters, but it turned out to be really easy. 

Once one piece is removed:

The rest just comes appart.  These craftsmen were amazing...  no glue and very few nails:

Friday, June 14, 2013

What's the latest news?

The project is still waiting for approval from the Camera Municipal.  There's actually two more approvals required, and we can't apply for the second until we get the first.  It's been a bit difficult, at one point we were rejected and had to re-work the plans.  That might have been a disaster if it weren't for the incredible determination of our architect who did everything humanly possible (including stalking municipal employees) to insure that we got the project back on track with the minimum delay.

There a a few other side projects happening.  For example, this week we finally got an answer from the gas company EDP about whether/how they could hook up our business for piped gas.  Happily, we were able to get them to agree to do do a slightly non-standard hookup.  It took a number of meetings, and more then a month to get them to understand the problem, but ultimately, we got there and honestly, that's all that matters.

We have also started the search for a construction company to contract the building work.  The goal is to select one and have them there waiting (shovel in hand) the second our construction license comes through.

Our initial goal to have the construction license at the beginning of July has definitely been pushed back, but all things considered, we think the process is going about as smooth as could be expected.  If all goes well from here, we should have construction started on an Aug/Sept timeframe.  It's hard to say how long the build will take, but we are still optimistic to be open for summer next year.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Why Portugal?

When news got about our plan to open a bar in Portugal, there were quite a few friends and family who reacted with surprise.  Portugal?  Isn't there a major economic crisis there?  The surprise was particularly sharp with our Portuguese friends.  For a variety of (not always valid) reasons, the Portuguese have come to see their country with a sense of disappointment.  Even before the crisis, there was a feeling in Portugal that the country provided limited economic opportunity.  Now with the crisis, and future uncertainty many people here would jump at an opportunity to leave.  Why are we swimming against this tide?

The economic situation in Europe is complex.  So far, 5 economies (Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and now Cyprus) have become crisis hotspots, and have had to receive financial help from the EU/ECB/IMF in a variety of forms.  To the casual observer, this crisis is simply a case of (mostly southern) European governments effectively living beyond their means for many years, and now having to wake up to a hard economic reality.   There is some truth to this, but that is not the whole story.  First of all, the problems go far beyond 5 relatively small economies in Europe.  Nearly every country in Europe is in big trouble, and in fact, an honest look at the United States situation is not much better off.

Portugal is swallowing some very tough (and often miss proscribed) medicine, but the chances are that even Germany will facing many of the same realities in the next few years.  If things are going to be rough, there's a certain comfort in getting it out of the way.  It is a shame that the hardship is falling so disproportionately on the people who least deserve it, and have the least capacity to weather the storm.  Things are rough, getting rougher, and you can see the pain that people are going through.  However, unlike Greece, there IS a light at the end of the tunnel, and unlike Spain (France, Germany etc), the worst is probably over.

Then there are the things that Portugal has going for it.  First off, it is an incredibly BEAUTIFUL country.  The geography of Portugal is a bit like California on a slightly smaller scale.  The beaches are amazing and since the country does not allow private ownership of coastal property (something the rest of the world should consider) they are generally unspoiled and accessible.  Portugal and Spain share the Iberian peninsula, but Portugal came out far better in the deal.  Portugal has the Atlantic coast with it's beautiful dramatic waves (great for surfing).  The Spain has the Mediterranean, which is warmer, but on hot summer days, that's actually a problem.  The climate in Portugal is outstanding, the summers can sometimes get hot, but a cool sea breeze is never far away, winters are comical for anyone used to the northern climes.

Portugese food is awesome, and different from other parts of Europe.  Coastal regions specialize in fresh fish, and the sea here is particularly bountiful.  Inland you find amazing meats.  Portugal is a big wine making country which comes as a huge surprise to foreigners because the wines are not exported much.  The hot dry climate in Alentejo (the south-central region of Portugal) is perfect for red wines.  The soil around the Douro river valley is totally unique and possibly the best place for growing grapes in the world.  The Portuguese are typically Latin in their love of eat and drink, and whenever possible, meals are long, enjoyable, and filling!

 Compared to other European countries, Portugal is also very cheap.  A good bottle of wine can be had for a few euro's (less then 5 dollars) even in a restaurant... great wines start at about 8 euros.  If you know where to go, it's possible to have an outstanding lunch with fresh fish and a bottle of wine and spend less the 15 euros (for two).

The Portuguese love to complain about the inefficient bureaucracy of the country, but comparatively speaking, it's actually not that bad.  I've lived in 5 countries in the past 10 years (six if you count New York City as separate from the United States... and in some ways, it is separate from planet earth).  Portugal has some nifty innovations in government service that the rest of the world could learn a lot from.  For example, all cities have a 'Loja Citadade'  (City Shop);  as single location where every government service, and most utilities are represented.  You can deal with everything from your passport to your phone bill in one place.  All citizens are being issued standard electronic ID cards.  Banks have a standardized/unified, ATM system called Multibanko which also serves for general bill payment, so (for example) if you get a parking ticket, you can pay it in a few seconds at any ATM.  Nearly all of the processes of TerraPlana have been done through an electronic internet interface.  This is particularly impressive when you consider that just 40 years ago, Portugal was just waking from 50 years of fascism!  Nothing is perfect, but the country has come a long way, and they are getting a lot of things right.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


The United States could learn a thing or two from Portugal when it comes to immigration.  I have been living in Portugal for a little over a year now, and although there was a fair amount of paperwork (some of it a bit silly) I was able to achieve a Residence Visa simply by showing that I had enough money deposited in a Portugese bank to cover my living expenses for the term of the visa.  There were other requirements, (health certificate, criminal background check, etc) but basically, showing that I had the financial means to live here was all that I really had to do.  Ironically, the most difficult part of applying for the visa was actually something that the United States makes very difficult...  In the United States, the only official government body able to provide a criminal background check is the FBI.  Presumably, this is something that could be done by typing a few keys into a computer at the local sherifs office, and yet, I had to send $18 dollars with a copy of my fingerprints (taken, at the local sherifs office) and then wait one and a half MONTHS for the FBI to do it.  It's plausible that the G-Men at the FBI then do something much more intensive then typing a few keys into a computer.  Plausible, yes, but it seems more likely that they are just slow, inefficient, or incompetent (or some combination of the three).

So, legal residence was not difficult to obtain, and why should it be?  I'm here, spending money in the local economy.  I don't have the right to work, I'm basically just a long term tourist.  Why wouldn't a country want as many of those as it could get?  And now, we have made an investment into property, and with luck we are going to start a business.

Opening the business will require a change in status for my visa, fortunately, Portugal provides an Investment Visa for this purpose.  Additionally, there are incentives such as reduced taxes for foreign investors which is useful since the United States is one of the few countries that require full tax filing REGARDLESS of residency (creating a interminable headache for all Americans living abroad).

Falar Português?

Learning Portuguese is proving to be a little harder then anticipated, but it's coming along.  Although similar, Portuguese is considered more difficult then Spanish because there are more vowel sounds.  It is also proving difficult to practice the language because English is common, and it is easy to fall back on when I should be forcing myself to speak Portuguese.  There are free language lessons for legal residents sponsored by the European Union.  In fact, since my classes are at night, they even provide a small allowance for meals; so, I am in effect being paid to go to class.  My ability is improving quickly, but I still have a long way to go.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Cast Iron

Although it was not our original intention, when we started designing the cafe, there were a lot of elements (railings, spiral stairs, etc) that seem to suggest cast or wrought iron.  Cast iron can be a beautiful material, and when done properly it can have a really interesting antique look, however it is also a challenge because there has been a far amount of cheap, tasteless, naff crap made recently.

Done right, cast iron has an interesting antique feel... Done wrong, it feels like the garden section of Home Depot.

We need a real artesian who can craft what we want and also has access to antique molds which will properly match the age of the building.  Fortunately, Porto has a lot of cast iron around, it is very common for buildings to have cast railings, and other accents.  So it seemed that there must still be some craftsmen in the city, but how to find them?  Searching the internet did not turn up much, we found some specialists in the US, and England, but it just feels like something we should be having done locally.

Then we found CIF.  They are located about 10 kilometers up the Douro river from Porto.   Although they are also creating modern pieces, walking into the foundry was a bit like stepping back in time.  It's an awesome place, something like Willy Wonka meets Mad Max!

If it were up to me, they would have Umpa Lumpas, but I guess you can't have everything.

What a wonderful place, filled with things that can rip you to shreds, cut you to pieces, and incinerate anything that remains! 

Where the magic happens
Modern demand seems to have tilted towards their line of wood stoves and ovens, some of which are really beautiful.

Hansel and Gretel where cooked in one just like this.
We spent a few hours wondering around this place.  It was hard to keep from being giddy as a school boy...  Every now and then it was good to remember that this is one of the few places where falling into a bubbling cauldron of multen metal is a real risk.

These are the forms filled with molten metal
Here is a video of a new batch being made out of the rejects:

After seeing the foundry, they took us in the back where we got to see what really makes this place special.  They have a huge storeroom filled with forms, some of them dating from over 100 years!

Somewhere in here our railings and staircase is waiting to be born

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Sunday Market!

Got a surprise today, there had been some word on the street that it was coming, but really we had no idea what to expect.  And then today, there it was...

A Sunday market around Jardim de São Lázaro, and not just that, continuing up the street all the way to our place and beyond!

Most of the stuff on offer is on the lower budget end, but there were some gourmet stalls focused on local cheeses, breads and pastries.  Street markets are not that common here, so this was a really nice surprise.

Granted, it's not Broadway Market in London but it's still pretty cool.  If nothing eles, it shows that the municipality is focusing some attention on the area.  Maybe we can stake out the space in front of our door and have a stall selling pizza by the slice?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

More Plans Sent for Approval Today

Today's submission was to the Historical Society of Porto.  This is a unique requirement that is placed on our property (and others in the center of the city).  The historic district of Porto has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and because of this, there are additional requirements when renovating buildings in this area.

The requirements are not overburdensome, unless you have a plan to drastically change the appearance of the building, and since we don't, it appears that approval should be a reasonably simple process.  Given the unique beauty of Porto, it's nice to know that it is being perserved and protected.  There are also programs to give assistance (both technical and financial) for renovation.

The unfortunate aspect for us is time.  It is expected that we will wait about a month for official approval from the Historical Society.  One month is not too egregious by itself, but there's a catch.   We also need to apply for approval from the municipality, and their process is quite in-depth (and multi-stage).  All together, the municipal approval will take something like 2-3 months.  However, we can't even start the process with the municipality until we have approval from the Historical Society.

This is a ridiculously long time to wait for approval, and it really shouldn't be this way.  If we could at least apply concurrently  that could save a month.  Then there's the simple fact the approval itself does not appear to be more then an afternoon's work for a person...  What are they checking anyway?

Anyway for all of you waiting for a nice pizza and a good drink in our sunny garden...  We are sorry for the delay, normal service will commence as soon as the guy behind the desk says so.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Playing House

We have been busy the last few weeks, finalizing plans with our architect.  He has really done an outstanding job.  This week, we are going to submit the plans for approval(s).  There are a number of approvals that have to be cleared before we will be licensed to start construction.  We have already had a number of meetings with various departments to talk with them about our ideas, and understand the requirements.

For the most part, things have gone smoothly, but there are always a few surprises.  The health department are particularly pedantic, especially when compared to some of the places you see running.  It is sad to think that over time, the quant, local Portuguese bodegas that are so common here (and so integral to the local flavor) will slowly be devoured by an army of bureaucrats demanding separate men's/women's employee changing rooms.  Most of the restaurants in this city would never have gotten off the ground if they had to fight the regulations we are up against today.

But, lets not get diverted... This is not a blog post about the frustrations of planning permissions and regulations (although there will almost certainly be a few such posts before we open).  This is a post about the excitement of seeing a dream take physical shape.

TerraPlana at 1cm = 1 m
After months of discussing ideas, things are really starting to come together.  Our jaws dropped when our architect brought out this model of the house.  Looking at this, we can really start to imagine what it will be like to move around in and around the space.

If you get close enough, you can almost smell the pizza
It's hard to appreciate how cool this model is in pictures, and it will be even harder to describe with words.

A few things can be pointed out.  First, the top floors of the building will be separated into a small apartment.  The bar will occupy the ground floor.  From the very beginning, we understood that the focus of the bar would be the garden at the back of the building.  Since the garden is at a higher level then the street, we made the choice to open the ceiling and create a mezzanine level above the bar.  Since the current second floor has two large doors opening onto the garden, there will be a small metel catwalk above the bar, joining to the upper level of the garden through these doors.  There will also be a spiral staircase to the mezzanine which is not shown in the physical model, but can be seen in the drawings below.

Everything will become clear when we have the life size model done
This model is really the culmination of a million small decisions that we have been making.  As with any choices, the big fear is always, "Will we regret this someday?"  It seemed natural that when we finally came to this point, where the plans are basically done, we would have last minute second thoughts.

And yet, here we are and there is NOTHING but excitement!

The work ahead of us cannot be ignored.  Just the approval process is going to take months.  We have a lot of work to do regarding materials, engineering, and building.  We haven't even signed a contractor yet.  Then there is the work to start the bar.  Decorating, finding distributors, creating recipes etc...  It's going to be a busy year.

Monday, February 25, 2013


The paperwork should be filed today, and that will signify the birth (in legal terms) of TerraPlana.  It's only a placeholder right now (we did not even fully capitalize it).  The company will not begin operations until sometime next year.  Still it is yet another milestone for us, and one more thing to check off the project plan.

It is a great feeling to see things moving along, even if we are only just at the beginning of a very long road.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


The location topic is the oldest cliche in real estate, but it was a critical focus for us.  We spent over a year searching for the right property in the right place.  Ultimately, we found it in a neighborhood that was not our first choice.  However, this spot is unique.

View TerraPlana in a larger map

This map displays some critical facts:

First, the property is in a small group of houses that are somewhat isolated from neighbors.  This is useful because only two of the neighboring properties are residential.  This greatly limits potential problems with residential neighbors (noise complaints etc).  The old city in Porto is densely populated, so this is a unique plus for our property.

Second, the map shows that the property is on a wide tree-lined avenue (Avenida Rodrigues de Freitas).  Tree lined avenues are very rare in Porto.  The city is characteristically medieval (in fact, it is among the oldest cities in southern Europe).   The roads were never intended for modern trafic, and the antique stone architecture does not present any opportunity for improving access to cars.  Sadly, pedestrian sidewalks generally suffer.  In most parts of the city, the pedestrian sidewalk is only one meter wide (often less).  However Avenida Rodrigues Freitas was clearly designed to be a significant road, and although the neighborhood has fallen somewhat out of favor, it still retains some nice features.  In addition to the wide tree-lined sidewalk, the avenue is dotted with significant architectural monuments.  The area remains an important junction joining downtown Porto with all points to the east.  Although there is some road traffic, TerraPlana is insulated by the wide sidewalk, on-street parking, and a particularly nice tree directly in front of the building.

The third thing that can be gathered from this map is the orientation of the property.  The street front of the property is north facing, however, the building has a very large, south facing garden.  The garden is the outstanding attribute because there are no buildings to obstruct constant direct sunlight onto the garden and into the rear of the building.  The climate in Porto is ideal, spring and fall are warm and pleasant, summer can be hot, but is generally not unbearable.  Even in the winter, the rainy days tend to be interrupted with moments of brilliant sunlight.  It is likely that the garden of TerraPlana will be the main focus for clients for nearly 10 months of the year.

Finally, it is worth pointing out a few of our immediate neighbors.  The placards shown below are common sites around Porto, the top gives a brief description in Portuguese, and the bottom gives the same information in English (sometimes crudely translated).  Common as these placards are, it's still unusual to have so many of them within 50 meters of each other.

Jardim de São Lázaro (Jardim de Marques de Oliveira)

Mention the official name of this park, 'Jardim de Marques de Oliveira' and you are likely to be met with a blank stare by most Porto residents.  Mention the more common name 'Jardim de São Lázaro' and most Porto residents will probably think you are interested in finding a cheap prostitute.  None the less, the park is really picturesque, well maintained, and although small, very pleasant (especially if you are interested in finding a cheap prostitute).

Directly behind the park, and across the street from TerraPlana is the Municipal Library (Biblioteca Municipal)

Biblioteca Municipal (Convent de Santo António da Cidade)

The Municipal Library is a really beautiful building.  Inside, it is built around an impressive interior courtyard.  It also houses some of the archives of the city.  In the picture below, you can see a little damage on the far side (some broken balcony railings and windows).  This winter, one of the tree's in São Lázaro park fell over in the wind and crashed into the library.  It was really sad because the tree was the oldest in the park.

Across the street from the park to the south is the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Esperança (Church of Our Lady of Hope).  It is particularly for having been designed by the great 18th century Italian architect Nicolau Nasoni

Nossa Senhora da Esperança (Church of Our Lady of Hope)

Nasoni is really significant in Porto.  He left his mark on almost every significant building from the 18th century, and helped define the Portuguese Baroque style.  Having one of his buildings as a neighbor is pretty special.  Below is the view from São Lázaro park.

University of Porto School of Fine Arts

Finally (as if these monuments were not enough) there is the real reason that we believe this location is a great place for a bar.  Just up the street from all these monuments is the University of Porto Faculdade de Belas Artes (University of Porto School of Fine Arts).

The University of Porto is a very good European university.  It is well respected in Europe, and hosts many international students.  Being situated next to the university might seem a drawback for anything but a college oriented bar, but the School of Fine Arts is something quite special... These will be good customers to have!

One last picture to tie it all together...  This is a view of the street showing the tight cluster of significant buildings surrounding TerraPlana: