From Lisbon Airport, it is a 10-minute drive to the elegant white curve of the Vasco da Gama bridge, suspended from a spider’s web of steel and cutting across the broad River Tagus for nearly 11 miles. At the far end, we (my wife, son and I) find ourselves in farming country, among verdant fields of shoulder-high corn, barley, beans and rice, watered by the pulsating sprays of ‘pivots’ (like giant lawn sprinklers, rotating in huge circles on wheeled towers), interspersed with acre upon acre of tomatoes grown for the likes of McDonald’s and Heinz.
This is the Ribatejo (meaning ‘banks of the Tagus’), the fertile alluvial plain bordering the great river, where agribusiness thrives. Refrigerated trucks and agrochemical tankers rule the road, but after half an hour, near the town of Vendas Novas, the character of the traffic changes from industrial to antiquated. Trundling towards us are vintage lorries weighed down by layers of cork bark, stripped from trees growing right up to the roadside. As the landscape becomes more arid, lush crops give way to groves of hardy olive trees and vines. Temperatures here exceed 40C in summer, water is scarce and the soil is thin, yet this semi desert somehow sustains cattle, pigs and, most importantly, wheat — hence its reputation as ‘the bread basket of Portugal’.
In this wildly beautiful but poor region, necessity has spawned a multitude of ways of using up stale bread. They include migas (bread and water beaten to a porridge, then fried in dripping of pork marinaded in garlic and sweet red-pepper paste, seasoned with coriander); açorda (a bready soup, made with shrimp or fish); and gaspacho, using the same ingredients as the Spanish version, but in chunks instead of a purée, and poured over large, dry croutons.
It isn’t exactly haute cuisine, but the food of the Alentejo is reliably good, homely and generous, with a strong emphasis on cheeses, cold meats and sausages, among them paio de lombo, chouriço, farinheira and linguiças. In Mora, where we make a detour to stay at the Hotel Solar dos Lilases — a grand 19th-century mansion of great charm — we have our first taste of the region’s bounty. At Restaurante O António, a casual venue packed with locals, we are automatically brought petiscos, or appetisers, as is the custom (if you leave them, you don’t pay for them): country bread; quails’ eggs; the sweet, buttery, slightly spicy cheese, queijo serpa, coloured brick-orange by paprika; a refreshing salad of chopped tomato, onions, coriander and black olives; and (not for the faint-hearted) fried fish heads, the unused part of the peixe espada (scabbardfish) which my wife has as a main course. I opt for the moist, flaky bacalhau (salt cod) with batatas ao murro (‘bashed’ potatoes) while my son has grilled pork loin with a fried egg on top, rice and fried potatoes, another carbohydrate-packed dish of the region.
Hours later, we’re in the sunny conservatory of the Solar dos Lilases hotel, eating again — this time a breakfast of freshly-baked breads, cheeses and presunto (ham), followed by home-made ginger cake and preserves, the best being a dense, fibrous purée of pineapple, which thrives in this arid region.
In 2002, the drought was eased slightly by the closing of the Alqueva Dam floodgates at the head of the River Guadiana, submerging 100sq miles of farmland to bring irrigation, hydroelectricity and tourism to what had been a blighted area. The Grande Lago de Alqueva, Europe’s biggest man-made reservoir, stretches all the way to the Spanish border and provides a surreal, unexpected playground for watersports enthusiasts. That is where we head next, emerging from behind a parched yellow hill to see the ruffled blue lake spread out before us, complete with the smart Amieira Marina complex. The jewel in its crown is the nautically-themed Panoramico restaurant, with a wraparound terrace overlooking the pontoons and a burgeoning reputation.
For a week we explore the lake on a 40ft Nicols Quattro cabin cruiser, swimming when we want, going where we please, and docking each night at one of the lakeside towns, fortuitously built on hilltops. A stone’s throw from the jetty at Mourao, BarZeco serves us a memorable meal of crayfish fresh from the lake. At Monsaraz, we moor at a spot where black pigs forage — the source of preto porco, the succulent meat, marbled with creamy fat, which I try at Sem-Fim, a restaurant in a village above the harbour, converted from an old olive mill. The local wine cooperative produces Carmim’s perfectly decent Reguengos de Monsaraz red (full-bodied, garnet in colour, with an aroma of red fruits) for £3.25 a bottle, and its finer Aragonês and Trincadeira siblings for £6.50. There is no better place to drink them than on the deck of a boat, looking up towards the floodlit walls of Monsaraz and a diamante-bright night sky.
Our gastronomic tour ends in Évora, the prettiest of the region’s historic towns, with a municipal market, vintage food emporia such as Alforge, and the subterranean Divinus deli. At Restaurante Giraldo in the main square, we order the famous Alentejo dish of pork stewed with clams. The briney nuggets of seafood complement the sweet cubes of meat perfectly, as do two goblets of Alentejo red — and, of course, some freshly baked bread.
Five Alentejo food finds
Solar dos Lilases hotel, Mora: Charmingly restored 19th-century house with oil paintings, four-poster beds and peerless Portuguese breakfasts. From £49 a night. www.solardoslilases.com
Restaurante O António, Mora: Friendly, informal, great for petiscos (tapas), known to locals as ‘rei das Bifanas’ (the king of pork fillets). Rua de São Pedro 51.
Alforge, Evora: An old-fashioned food shop just off Praça do Giraldo selling tinned fish, olives, coffee beans and organic Serras do Guadiana honey. Rua Alcárcova de Baixo 1.
BarZeco, Mourao: Simple timber cabin a stone’s throw from the harbour, ideal for sunset views of the Grande Lago de Alqeva and fresh crayfish. Dinner for three: £36.
Poejo: The discovery of my trip — a sweet, slightly minty, moreish liqueur made with the herb poejo (pennyroyal). About £4 a bottle.
Four places for a taste of Alentejo
Tiago Kalisvaart’s characterful restaurant near Monsaraz was once an olive mill, as the presses still on display show. At an outdoor table garlanded with pimento branches, we ordered gaspacho alentejano, coarse chunks of onion, tomato, cucumber and green pepper in a chilled water seasoned with garlic, vinegar and salt. Next came melt-in-the-mouth pork with migas, a fried bread mash with coriander, and a Moorish-influenced borrego assado com canela (lamb baked in cinnamon) along with a leek, squash and raisin casserole.
■ How much: Three courses for about £16 without drinks. Rua das Flores 6A, Telheiro. www.sem-fim.com
On a balmy evening in Evora’s main square, it’s hard to believe there’s an economic crisis in Portugal. Late-night shoppers stroll by and every table at Restaurante Giraldo is filled. The house speciality is migas, but this buzzy outdoor cafe also does an authentic açorda alentejana (bread porridge) and the classic Alentejo dish of carne de porco com amêijoas, tender pork stewed with clams in a delicate sauce.
■ How much: Three courses, £20. Praça do Giraldo 77, Évora. Stay at the Best Western Plus Hotel Santa Clara, a two-minute walk away. From £57 a night. www.bestwesternhotelsantaclara.com
If cruising on the Grande Lago de Alqueva, splash out at this smart, modern air-conditioned restaurant overlooking Amieira Marina. Avoid monkfish or bacalhau (salt cod), which we found far from fresh, and go local: a queijinho (miniature cheese) of the region, or a tábua de enchidos (cold sausage platter) to start, or perhaps ovidos mexidos (‘mixed eggs’) with farinheira (a sausage of pork and wheat) and silarcas (mushroom). As a main, try tender, rose-pink plumas de porco preto (pork cutlets) or açorda de perdiz (bread soup with partridge).
■ How much: Three courses a la carte, about £22; set menus £13-£22, without drinks. Amieira Marina. www.restaurante.amieiramarina.com
This dazzlingly contemporary underground deli and wine shop is entered via a staircase opposite the Mercado Municipal in Évora. Familiarise yourself with local produce at the air-conditioned market first, then enter this Aladdin’s cave of treats: enchidos (charcuterie) such as paio alentejano (smoked pork seasoned with salt, garlic and pepper paste), linguiças (a thinner version) and chouriço preto (from black pigs fed on acorns), plus pâtés, cheeses, oils, vinegars, honeys, jams, chocolate, biscuits, wines and liqueurs.
■ How much: Beautifully packaged hampers cost £22-£276, wines from £5. Mercado Municipal de Évora, Praça 1º de Maio, Évora. www.divinus.pt
Published in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)