Dense chewy bread with a crust you can knock your knuckles on; black Iberico pork that’s sweet, nutty and moist; tomatoes so vibrant they could carry a meal on their own; verdant, fruity extra virgin olive oil; and glorious wines. Set these kitchen pantry mainstays against vast cloudless blue skies that crown land strewn with wheat fields, olive groves and quirky, scarecrow-shaped cork trees, and you begin to get a tiny taste of Alentejo, the largest yet least-populated region in Portugal.
Meaning ‘land beyond the Tagus’ (the river that runs alongside Lisbon), Alentejo was historically home to bullfights and Lusitano horses. People lived according to the weather, working the wine or olive harvest in late summer and early winter, and living from what they could wrangle from a little plot of land, raising a pig and growing vegetables, for the rest of the year. It’s a place that bakes brown in the 40-degree heat of summer, where houses are white and windows and doors are outlined in iridescent blue, and where you can drive for miles without seeing a soul.
The landscape is the essence of life in Alentejo, and it’s also the larder — so cooking is simple and rustic. Many of the dishes here form the backbone of all Portuguese cookery: over the centuries, poverty-stricken farming folk fanned out across the country in search of work, taking their recipes with them. Here, the necessity of eking things out came to define popular dishes. Stale bread is fried with a little pig fat and perhaps some wild asparagus to create migas, which simply means ‘crumbs’ and is a tasty, crispy breadcrumb kind-of hash. Alternately, the old bread is used to thicken soup known as açorda. This is built on a broth base, sometimes with a small amount of shellfish or a poached egg, and is always scattered with lots of chopped coriander. Frugality abides everywhere and so foraged herbs, such as pennyroyal mint and purslane, are often used.
In her exquisitely old-school home in the seaside town of Vila Nova de Milfontes, Idália Costa José explains how she buys produce from farmers across the region and sells it every Saturday from her dining room to members of the local community. “I buy directly from the farmers because they need help — they are very poor,” she says. “They grow amazing vegetables, including tasty tomatoes, but don’t really have places to sell their produce. So, we get together and buy it.”
I capture a sense of what Idália means when she describes these flavours when I’m presented with a plate of tiny tomatoes, lightly roasted and dressed with extra virgin olive oil, salt and oregano at nearby Tasca do Celso. The tomatoes pretty much explode in my mouth and I learn they have actually been grown by one of the restaurant’s customers. This place, owned by the jovial José Ramos Cardoso, or Celso to his friends, grills fish over a huge charcoal grill and offers fantastic petiscos (snacks) as well as prawns with garlic, and coriander and rice with sweet, fragrant clams. The wine list here is enormous, celebrating some of the 300 or so wine producers in the region, as well as across Portugal. Celso presents me with a plate of Serpa, which he says is the best cheese in the Alentejo — aged for at least 30 days, it’s moist and creamy and I find myself murmuring blissed-out agreement.
At the Saturday market in the town of Estremoz, in the eastern part of the province, I sample the various Portuguese sausages that are a highlight of the region — chouriço, linguiça, morcela and farinheira, the latter an Alentejo speciality made from bread and pork fat. As well as wonderful fresh produce here, there’s a fabulous flea market. When I’m done snacking, I head across the main town square to Restaurante Mercearia Gadanha, where those stunning tomatoes are presented as fantastica sopa fria — a cold soup dressed with strawberry, prawn and a basil ice. The flavour is amazing. A puff pastry of partridge (a local speciality) takes the Portuguese fondness for pies and pastries to another level.
Some of the best places to get a true taste of Alentejo are the vineyards themselves. Herdade da Malhadinha Nova has a restaurant on its estate, but I eat in the smaller dining room in the country house. Here, I watch chefs assemble plates that combine produce from the estate with that of the wider region. Skilled hands marry prawns with asparagus and seared acorn-fed pork, all of it matched with wine produced right outside the door.
At Herdade do Sobroso Country House, in Baixo Alentejo, I meet winemaker Filipe Machada and his wife Sofia, owners of a 4,000 acre property, of which just 130 acres is cultivated for wine. Over lunch, Sofia explains that they like to keep the food very traditional. There’s good sheep’s cheese, their own honey, salt cod croquettes and chicken pies, and then a main course of cozido de grão, a stew of chickpeas with lamb, pork, veal and sausage. As I taste Filipe’s wine, I learn how the nearby town of Vidigueira — ‘land of the wine’ — brought the first gold medal for wine back to Portugal more than 100 years ago. And how, many years after he discovered India, returning home with ingredients that would change the cooking of his country and the rest of Europe forever, 15th-century explorer Vasco da Gama retired to this corner of the Alentejo. As I glory in the simplicity of the place, I can see why that great explorer would happily settle into some lovely twilight years under these astonishing blue skies.
Five food finds
A thick, garlicky soup using stale bread in broth, scented with fresh coriander and topped with a soft-poached egg.
Evora, Serpa and Nisa are all DOP-protected cheeses made from sheep’s milk. Serpa, the most famous, is semi-soft and buttery in texture.
Convent desserts (doces conventuais)
Cakes and desserts made from egg yolks, sugar and almonds, originally created by nuns and monks.
Porco à Alentejana
Small, sweet clams with pork that have been marinated in white wine, garlic and massa de pimentão (red pepper paste).
Porco preto IBÉRICO
The prized black pigs thrive on the fallen acorns of cork trees; consequently, the meat has a nutty, sweet flavour.
A taste of Alentejo
The day’s catch is laid out and you can eat on the terrace by the waves of the Costa Vicentina. Owner Carlos Barros knows everything about Portuguese fish, but will bring a book to the table to help you understand what’s on offer. On my visit there were petiscos of octopus salad and home-made duck liver pate, and a main of grilled sargo (sea bream).
How much: Three-course dinner from £20 per person (without wine) but expect to pay more should you order a big fish.
The tables of the region’s most-famous restaurant heave with traditional Alentejo cuisine. Meat pastries (pastéis de massa en tenra) are glorious, as are the chicken pies. Desserts include encharcada, an Alentejo dish of bruléed egg yolks, sugar and cinnamon, and serricaia (an eggy pudding) with sugared plums.
How much: Three-course dinner from £21 per person, without wine.
Divinus Restaurant, Convento do Espinheiro
A stunning setting inside this ancient convent is matched with cooking that takes Alentejo cuisine up a notch. Chef Bouazza Bouhlani offers dishes such as scrambled eggs with local, wild asparagus and a trilogy of Alentejo pork with asparagus migas (fried richly-flavoured breadcrumbs).
How much: Three-course dinner from £35 per person, without wine.
TAP Portugal flies direct to Lisbon from Heathrow, Gatwick, London City and Manchester.
Herdade de Maladinha Nova offers double rooms from £209; Convento do Espinheiro from £142, including wine tasting.
Published in the June 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)