The island of Pico is as intense as a ship on the high seas. The perfect setting for the boundless and inspiring energy of the chef Ljubomir Stanisic and his wife Mónica Franco.
White houses in a green and black setting. Volcanic, dense, poetic, whimsical. Here the black is deep, the light is many things and feelings are more fervent and powerful, closer to the elements, to an infinite and living essence. Winter was setting in and Ljubomir and Mónica, his partner in the adventure that’s been his life, were delighted by the idea of flying off to the temperamental Azores. They feel at home here: “I love São Miguel, but São Jorge and Pico are engraved in my heart: they’re wild. São Jorge is even a bit scary,” says the chef who doesn’t seem to be afraid of anything.
Ljubomir Stanisic and Mónica Franco are pure, good energy. A romantic and effective team who complement one another. They’re more together than they ever would be alone. Ljubo, as his friends call him, is really excited about the new house they’re building in the Alentejo, and about his new restaurant 100 Maneiras, in the Bairro Alto, his best so far, a top-of-the- range (they still have Bistro 100 Maneiras in the Trindade area, all in the centre of Lisbon). He’s just vamped up their graphic image and published his fourth book, Bistromania, organised by Mónica, which Ljubo describes as “love applied to what we’ve done in the last ten years”. “I love reading it.” Before that, he’d published a guide to cocktails, one of the highlights of his restaurants, and Papa-Quilómetros – Europa, an account of their gastronomic travels, which was made into a programme on Fox. “It was our first child before Lucas.” Travelling is fundamental for them. “But what’s best is coming home,” says the Bosnian chef who’s becoming increasingly Portuguese. “I must know Portugal better than most Portuguese!” When he got here, he hopped into a Fiat Tipo and drove around Portugal. “It’s so beautiful, it’s got everything: mountains, sun, villages, wind – paradise. The world has discovered Portugal, but before that, Portugal discovered the world and it’s everywhere.”
When we drive around the island the following morning, guided by the teacher Eduardo Elias, a true Azorean, there’s a growing sense of freedom. He tells us about the “blue of the fishermen, the green of the land, the yellow of the farms with their orange groves and the ochre colour of the clay.” And the red of the Flemish influence in the small, Alentejo-like houses with their Algarve chimneys. He tells us of the mysteries, almost as vast as those of life: historic volcanic eruptions that were spectacular on Pico, leaving a trail of basaltic conduits, the largest lava tunnel, and almost half the caves in the archipelago (we went down to Gruta das Torres and we loved it). The eruptions were “a great mystery, a punishment from God or the descent of the Holy Spirit”. Pine forests then sprang up, leaning out over the sea and forming one of the largest endemic forest masses on the youngest of the islands. He tells us that an investor built a hotel here in the 1980s, but it went bankrupt: “What a stroke of luck!” Only later did tourism open up, but on a small scale, in good taste and ecologically aware. “Pico is an empty island, so visitors feel alone, the definition of luxury,” he says. A stiff sea breeze comes in through the window, the skies on an island are limitless, and the stormy expanse lures us like one of Turner’s beautiful paintings.
The last time the couple came here they were dating, in 2018. The chef comes to the Azores regularly to do training, take a peek at regional products and visit friends. This time was no exception. Pico traditionally invites its guests to come to its winery and exchange wines and anecdotes. “The last time I was here I entered António Maçanita’s winery and said: ‘This wine is mine,” he recounts. An Encurralado, whose vines literally twist around the volcanic rocks and which now features on his new menu. They struck up a friendship. He’s already made over 20 wines, some in the Douro with the universal Dirk Niepoort. “It’s always been my challenge to others,” he comments. “Always his threat,” retorts Mónica, laughing. Naturally, any time was a good time for Ljubo to head into the Azores Wine Company determined to make wines. And he did.
We end one afternoon at the Adega da Buraca, where we meet the area’s wine producers in a friendly gathering. “We have a protected landscape, but it’s almost inert: these wines are produced on lands that no-one really values,” says the host Leonardo, who grew up “with his feet in the fig trees and vines”, he says. We taste over 20 bottles, from a new, still label-less one to old fortified wines, like the Último Czar of the beautiful Gina Garcia, sitting at our side. “Today it’s on the tables of cardinals and in the plot of Tolstoy’s War and Peace,” comments Eduardo. António Maçanita guides our senses: “There’s something here that makes us dream, right?” Guests joined us every day during our time on Pico. Wine tasting combined with buttery cheese and corn bread is a pleasure that’s hard to leave behind. Ljubomir tasted decades-old wines at the Adega Cooperativa and cried out: “I want that barrel!” And he brought it. We dwell on the words of the winery’s vice-chairman, Daniel Rosa: “This is a mysterious and bitter-sweet island.” On the way to the hotel, Ljubo picks flowers from the roadside and gives them to the girls.
Around the table
When you ask Ljubomir to rustle up a snack, you awake the monster. He planned an entire meal and invited friends. He went to the abattoir and to the docks; he went to the cheese shop to look through the shelves and loaded up with vegetables and fresh herbs. All with a childish and contagious delight. We gathered at the end of the day in the kitchen of the new tourist spot, Ínsula. The image of its inviting swimming-pool nestled among the black volcanic rock is almost as stunning as the orange hues on the horizon as we watch the sun set from the verandah. Despite the clouds, a strip of sea sparkles in the distance. “This is the island with the most iodine,” says Eduardo sharing his thoughts. “And the vines know it,” adds António Maçanita, the wine-maker of the Azores Wine Company, offering us a glass of one of his superb whites. António has been coming here on holiday since he was a child and says that when he wants to fall asleep, he thinks of the Azores. He uses native species of grape to make unique wines (the Alentejo Fita Preta and Sexy, and the Douro Maçanita are his) and he works with several wineries: “We want there to be a new energy in this region, an energy for everyone.” Ljubomir loves this land, too, and he’d get everyone eating and cooking well if he could. As we can see.
Next to the cooker, guests are nibbling excitedly at buttery Azorean cheeses (Alfredo and Morro), while they journey through Maçanita’s wines, which are somewhere “between what he’d like to happen and what happens”, the maker himself says, because he lets a part “slide”. He casually pours a drop of milk into our glass, which he passes around for us to try: “This is lactic”. Ljubo lets the whey “burn”, mixes it with milk and gives it to us to try. The flavour is unique. We come in closer and closer, gravitating around the chef with a cloth over his shoulder: he makes broths from the rests of the cuts, wine reductions, he sharpens the knife on the base of a salad bowl and seems to fly between the cooker and the grill onto which he throws carrots and lettuces. The result is sublime and ranges from an Asian-inspired fish broth to squid and pasta with raw milk, from a beef tartare on bread or in a tart to the tangerine lemon of Pico, grilled cheese and plenty of wine. Ljubo explains the smoky flavour we can taste: “We went to visit the caves; I still didn’t know what I was going to make for dinner. Lava, fire, smoke. I went to the winery and the wines tasted of the volcano, I followed that volcano,” he smiles and snuggles Mónica onto his lap while on the verandah we watch the light fade away.
The morning is spent crossing the green heart of the island; cows appear here and there, lakes and very little civilisation. We pass Lagoa do Caiado and see the sun peeking out after hours of stubborn fog, until we reach Lagoa do Capitão, which looks like something out of a film. We look back in awe at the mountain of Pico rising up out of the clouds. We stop at the church of Madalena, one of the main ones among the many small chapels scattered like lamps showing us the way. On Pico alone there are seven UNESCO-preserved areas. And we go back to the coast like children who want another ride on the merry-go-round. We do Vinhas do Calhau as far as Lagido de Santa Luzia, passing through Porto do Cachorro, where the Casa dos Vulcões will be inaugurated. On the way, there are small natural pools or inviting steps cast into the sea. In some cases, you can see the pattern of the lava. São Roque, Prainha, Santo Amaro, where they used to build the boats. It’s easy to be swept away by that lunar, photogenic landscape. We stop by the rocks and are almost licked by the huge waves. Eduardo comments that over 20 species of whale pass through the Azores, a third of all existing species. “This air, I can’t explain it, just breathing here brings me peace,” says Mónica. And we stay in that vast deep blue mantle that stretches out ahead of us as if it were all around us.
Over lunch we talk about the documentary on Ljubo’s life that Mónica has been preparing since 2011. Coming from lifestyle journalism, she has the best perspective. “I’ve always been interested in what’s behind the scenes in cooking, and you could make a film about the story of his life, a kind of American dream. The way he cooks has to do with the way he survives. His mother had to cook potatoes in different ways so that he and his sister didn’t realise what they were; that’s why he gets somewhere and cooks with whatever he’s got and makes something flavoursome and memorable.” Ljubo was honoured at the Sarajevo Film Festival as a representative and ambassador of the city: “My family was in the war, it’s very important to me,” he says. When they went to Sarajevo, he took his entire team to understand the Bosnian soul, “the joy around the table and the sense of humour,” comments Mónica. “He hadn’t been for years and he was really moved. The last time, he’d come in a plane with no seats and only now has he made peace with his homeland.” On one of the evenings, when he went out to smoke in the street, Ljubo told us that the cigarettes come from the times of the trenches, when Sarajevo was bombed and how, at the same time, his uncle taught him how to fish. What’s left from that time is an unmatched generosity not everyone knows about: he’s got schools and homes cooking, he invents pro bono projects amid an impossible schedule and always helps out. “I do it from the bottom of my heart.” His large, affectionate build contrasts with the ruthless character he plays in the TV show Pesadelo na Cozinha, and it’s natural for people to feel slightly nervous when he comes into a restaurant. People stop him all the time in the street and he’s showered with compliments. He patiently and fondly holds selfie session with strangers and tries to find out who they are.
After lunch, Ljubo asks to drive and we go at his speed – fast. Always upbeat, he pulls over twice and gets out to drag tree trunks off the road. Ljubo goes back to Lisbon with a cow, a barrel, a new signature wine with Azores Wine Company, cheeses and an entire island that embraces him. “But you won’t be back anytime soon … João Garcia assured him he would. Margarida’s eyes had an evasive light, of hope that serves her honour. They were deep and blue, under the strong arches,” wrote the Azorean writer Vitorino Nemésio in Mau Tempo no Canal (1944). He must surely have been referring to that sea.
by Patrícia Barnabé /// photos Rita Carmo
web design & development 262media.com