Marvao, Alentejo, Portugal, Europe

Gorging on Portuguese food in alluring Alentejo

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By Neil McQuillian
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Alentejo is huge and Alentejo is gorgeous. The Portuguese food is excellent, the wine arguably even better; it’s cheap, it’s quiet and it’s wild. And for now at least, besides a handful of the rich and famous who own houses here, you can have it largely to yourself… Neil McQuillian takes a rather delicious tour of this underrated region.

Alentejo plays hard to get: the regional airport at Beja serves mostly as a handy parking space for Portuguese national carrier TAP, public transport isn’t up to much and neither is the road signage, the marketing of its sights needs some work and in travelling between them you’ll generally be confined to single carriageways. So it might not be very approachable, and it’s inclined to keep itself to itself, but surmount these obstacles and you’re onto a good thing. Because Alentejo knows how to treat you right, and it’ll reach your heart the tried and tested way – through your stomach.

Together with its infrastructural stumbling blocks (you’ll probably end up flying into Lisbon and making your way from there), Alentejo’s food and wine is liable to make a happy, heavy-lidded sloth of you for the duration of your stay. Of course, the region can do activity, but it’s generally of the gentle variety: rambling along the rugged, aromatic coast, exploring atmospheric walled towns such as Marvão and Monsaraz, or UNESCO World Heritage Sites Elvas and Évora; or even stargazing, since part of the region was designated a dark sky reserve in 2012. Crucially, though, none of these things are incompatible with feeding your face.

Ardila river from Noudar Castle Barrancos Beja Alentejo Portugal

For me, what marked Alentejo’s gastronomy out was its seasonality and diversity across relatively short distances. On the coast the chief seafood treat is the hard-to-harvest goose barnacle known as percebe, while near the Lagoa de Santo André you’re more likely to be served eel stew. Nisa, Serpa and Évora all have cheeses that are proudly stamped DOP (denominação de origem protegida), meaning that they’re protected and produced uniquely in those places. In terms of seasons, you might only find the traditional cardo (thistle) soup between winter and spring, depending on the timing of the rains; fresh pork is generally a wintertime treat; while wild asparagus, truffles, silarca (a type of mushroom served simply grilled and salted), black bass and game are only available at particular times of year.

Many people in the UK are trying hard to prioritise these precious factors of seasonality and place-specific produce, yet in Alentejo it’s just the way things work. Of course, there’s a degree of overlap – Nisa cheese isn’t available exclusively in Nisa and a freshly shot hare can be frozen – but the principles are basically respected and the promise of new gastronomic treats is a compelling reason to push on (nice and slowly) from one place to the next.

According to the locals I met, diversity of produce is central to the region’s culture. An example came on my second day in Alentejo: the tour group I was part of were just about to leave Padaria Joana Roque – a venerable old cave of a bakery in Vidigueira – and the owner, Joana herself, who was well into her 70s but still working and rocking forearms like ham hocks, asked where we were off to next. Our excellent guide Olga explained that we were headed for an olive oil tasting in Moura and this was immediately met with Joana’s disdain. “Why?” she asked. “It’s so much better here” – even though the two villages are just thirty minutes apart.

The small scale of much of Alentejo production must partly account for the variety, and this bakery was classic cottage industry: a two-room, two-woman affair, with Joana’s home visible through the open door in one corner. It was film set perfect too (morning light forming floury beams, a 1950s mixer sitting on stone floor beside battered antique scales and long, knobbly wooden oven paddles) but I’ve no doubt it was mostly hard graft. As a parting gift Joana cut up hot bread and doused it in sugar and olive oil (Vidigueira olive oil of course), producing something doughnut-like but far superior to any I’ve tasted.

The Great Convent Bake Off

We’d met another hard worker the previous evening, in Beja, where we were at a pastry shop and café, tasting an array of doces conventuais (cakes made to centuries-old recipes, originally devised by nuns at local convents). “Some days I break three thousand eggs”, owner Francisca Casteleiro told us. And that’s without machines: “Just two pans, and my hands.” Christmas is her busiest time, apparently: “I say no more orders, but there’s always the friend of the friend of the friend,” she explained, raising her eyes heavenwards. The cakes were rich, delicious and showy – my favourite, styled to look like a loaf of the local bread, contained over fifty yolks. The extravagance was partly down to competitiveness on the nuns’ part, many of whom were wealthy and had been apparently forced into the religious life to avoid the shame of a bad marriage.

With both these women, you sensed a compulsion to keep doing things the right way, with no shortcuts or shirking. That was the mood at Casa de Porco Preto in Barrancos, too, which was again a celebration of all things regional. The experience was a guts-and-all lesson in provenance – we saw black pigs snuffling for acorns in the fields and then, half an hour later, we stood beneath rows of oozing hams, maturing to succulence. One pig needs a whole tree’s worth of acorns every day, then thirty to sixty days to fatten, and another three to five years for the presunto (cured ham) to be ready to eat – it ain’t cheap, as you’d imagine, but you can buy it direct from the premises for a whole lot less than you would at home. I thought I could taste those local acorns in the truly outstanding finished product – eaten with a glass of Alentejo wine, this was the most powerful experience of what the French call terroir – the conviction that what you’re eating has deep ties with the place it came from – that I’ve yet known.

For many people, the region’s wine alone is reason enough to visit – Olga told us that wealthy Brazilians fly in on wine jollies. And they’re not the only big shots coming to Alentejo: it’s said that Sarkozy and Mourinho have houses here, while the big Comporta Dunes development in the region’s northwest is an indication that major players are starting to take the region seriously. Come soon while it’s still quiet, move slowly, eat well.

Sunvil Discovery offers tailor-made itineraries across the Alentejo. One possible itinerary costs from £601 pp (two sharing) including return flights (Heathrow) with TAP Portugal, one night at the Pousada S. Francisco in Beja, one night at the Hotel Convento do Espinheiro in Evora and two nights at the Pousada Santa Maria in Marvão, and car hire. For further information about the Alentejo, see http://www.visitalentejo.pt/en/.