About an hour outside Trancoso, Silvinha’s has just two tables tucked amid the mangrove behind a near-empty beach, serving lunch only to those who book ahead. I was lucky enough to secure a table at Silvinha’s and meet the woman herself.
On the dirt track that leads down to the beach, a guard wanders out to greet us. Only those who are visiting Silvinha or staying at the cluster of 11 villas on the cliff top can pass, making the beach, which is protected by a reef, more or less private.
We’re running late, so our guide Leandro calls Silvinha, knowing that she’ll be anxiously wondering where we are. When we arrive at the colourful beach shack, however, we’re told to take it easy: lunch will be served whenever we’re ready. So while Leandro heads off for a swim, Ciara and I take our passion fruit and lemon caipirinhas to the wicker loungers to recline under the shady palms, taking in the rather idyllic scene.
A perfect, golden strip of sand is the first thing you see when walking down to the beach. A river runs into the sea, creating a popular swimming spot, and as we sip our caipirinhas, we watch a group of local boys riding their sleek chestnut horses down the beach. Another couple arrives shortly after us to take the second table, but we don’t see anyone else for the whole afternoon.
Silvinha’s is a little hut with two blue and green tables, views out to the beach, and a small kitchen consisting of an open fire stove. Shell strands and wooden birds dangle from the supports; a row of family photos line the kitchen hatch; and hand-painted place mats are laid out on the tables accompanied by fresh flowers. The vibe is homey, warm, and undoubtedly Silvinha’s labour of love. A small ridge of sand and a line of mangrove trees hides the building from the view of those walking along the shore, adding to the sense of having found something quite off the beaten track.
Silvinha herself is a slender lady in her 60s with a fantastic broad smile and warm, dark eyes. As we chat after lunch, she perches, legs crossed, on the bench opposite us, wearing an apron of the same cornflower blue and turquoise as the cushions behind her, all of which she painted herself.
Most tourists hear about Silvinha through word of mouth, but every local knows who she is, and the response is always an effusive, ‘I love Silvinha!’ A former teacher, she left the red tape and the frustrating and frequent government changes behind to live a life more simple. In the beginning she used to live on the beach by her restaurant, but Silvinha soon moved up to the cliff top for more privacy: ‘when people want to see me, they come here [to the restaurant]’, she says.
There is no menu at Silvinha’s. She cooks what she has to hand on the day – usually fish – which is served with a vast selection of little dishes, most of which are inspired by her travels to Asia.
We asked her where she learnt to cook, but Silvinha has never had formal lessons. She adds, ‘I am not a chef’, explaining that a chef must be creative and disciplined, but she cooks what she wants and tweaks her recipes according to the availability of ingredients.
Some dishes are clearly inspired by Asian cuisine; our delicious dorado fish (mahi mahi) was marinated in soy sauce and orange. Other dishes are a blend of Brazilian and Indian flavours. Alongside the fish we are served rice, lentils, vegetables, pureed banana (‘it’s just banana’, Silvinha told us later, ‘nothing else added’), mango with star anise, half-pureed apple also with star anise, and spicy pineapple. It’s a fruity and tasty combination of flavours that I for one would never have thought to put together.
We asked about where the pineapple dish came from. ‘I read about it in the newspaper. I thought, ‘well, I have pineapple [Silvinha grows her own during the summer], I have pepper…’’ This is how she works, creating dishes from taste memory and using whatever she has to hand. Everything has an original touch; even the coffee we are served after lunch with bite-sized coconut treats came with a pinch of cinnamon.
Silivinha is originally from São Paulo, but, like so many of the Brazilians that travelled during the 1970s and ’80s, she fell in love with Trancoso and moved permanently. She explains that ‘Paulistanos’ like her have exploration in their blood, having been the people who originally explored Brazil’s enormous interior. The wealthy inhabitants from São Paulo travelled for 20 hours to reach Trancoso – but the tiny fishing village clearly had a strong attraction.
I asked Silvinha what makes Trancoso so special and she says something I’ve heard many others say too: that there is a ‘magical’ atmosphere, especially around the Quadrado, a quality that seems to have a marked impact on the many people who visited for a holiday and never left.
When she arrived in Trancoso in the ‘70s, Silvinha says that money played little to no part in day-to-day life: everyone traded their goods and services. Now things are different, with many wealthy Brazilians spending their holidays in Trancoso and a big tourism industry having grown to accommodate that.
Does Silvinha miss Trancoso as it was? She pauses to think. ‘No…no, I don’t feel any melancholy’, she says. ‘I am so lucky to have this’, she casts her hand around, referring to the restaurant and her little spot of tranquillity, ‘and during low season, the town is still very quiet.’
The busiest months are December and January, but the remainder of the year is a perfect time to visit Trancoso. Apart from the occasional Brazilian wedding that books out the whole town, Trancoso is laid back to the point of being horizontal, and even the winter weather is sunny and warm. Ciara and I visited in September and the conditions were perfect for sunbathing and strolling down the virtually empty beaches.
In high season, Silvinha serves a maximum of 40 guests in up to three sittings, usually in a communal setting. Everyone else who wanders down, she refers to her daughter Mel, who runs a sushi bar a few yards away, only open during high season. Silvinha laughs, noting how flustered her daughter gets coping with her cast-offs.
Even though demand is high, she has no plans to expand. She has space for many more diners, which would be snapped up immediately, but Silvinha is sticking with her two tables – and that’s something on which she’s very firm.
‘I like to be in the kitchen’, she says. ‘I like to be in control.’ With expansion she would need extra help, and she likes the ways things are now.
This is part of what makes Silvinha’s and Silvinha herself very special. She has integrity, and in many ways Silvinha represents the Trancoso of yesteryear, with her contented approach to life and her appreciation of simplicity.