From the walled medieval city of Marvão, where the stony paths are steep and narrow, the houses whitewashed and draped in cascades of flaming pink bougainvillea, you can see across the valley in northern Alentejo. Almost as far as the Spanish border that lies within a whisper, the view from this granite crag expands as the Alentejo unfurls below it in all directions. Meadows in verdant shades, sheep at pasture, bodies of water glisten and a patchwork quilt of gold and green fields hug the hills and valleys. A trip through Portugal’s, Alentejo countryside is a feast for the senses.
It’s fairly easy to navigate the Alentejo by car, long known as the country’s breadbasket. Wheat was planted to replace the vines during the dictatorship, but since the Seventies and Eighties, the vineyards have been thriving. Roads are in good nick, sign postage decent, and every town and village has a tourist office. Spanning one third of Portugal’s heft, and abundant in olive, oak trees, and cork trees - the largest cork plantations in the world are to be found here, you begin to appreciate the appeal of the countryside. Locals know it for the countless opportunities to get out and lost in nature, from kayaking, bird watching and trekking, to boat rides, hot air ballooning and camping, but the Alentejo remains untamed, unspoiled and largely undiscovered.
The food of the region varies from the rocky coastline, to the flat plains and the hilly outposts, but all will agree, this is where you come to enjoy simple dishes, or “peasant” food, a reference to the labour force that has worked the rugged farmlands for centuries. At Arte & Sal restaurant in Sines, on the southeast coast, the seafood served is wriggling-fresh. Platters of grilled John Dory, clams with coriander, mussels in wine and garlic and migas, a rustic dish of softened stale bread mixed with mashed vegetables such as asparagus, olive oil and garlic are brought to the table.
At Casa do Porco Preto, in Barrancos in southwestern Alentejo, snug at the border with Spain, we get a better understanding of this intense passion for food. We enjoy a fascinating two hour tour at the factory that produces hams made from the Alentejo black pig that famously feeds on acorns and walks distances for water in the cork forests, creating the characteristic intramuscular fat of presunto. Presunto, similar to Spanish jamon íberico, is tender, buttery, with a melt-in-the-mouth texture.
During spring, one can sample the famed Alentejo lamb stew (ensopado de borrego), a recipe that dates back to the Moors arriving around the 8th Century. It’s simply flavoured, and often served with fresh mint. Lamb feet, tripe, roasts and stews appear on menus all over the region. The pousadas, restored palaces, convents and monasteries around Portugal, like the grand ones in Estremoz and Arraiolos, just mid-centre of the region, serve outstanding Alentejo classical dishes. Desserts around Portugal are sweet and egg-rich, a tradition from centuries ago when the egg whites where uses to filter wine, and the nuns made creative use of the abundance of egg yolks – turning them into cakes, tarts, puddings and candies.
BETWEEN WINE AND FINE DINING
Many visit for the simple bowls of hearty fare, but fine dining has not eluded the Alentejo, as evidenced by the Michelin-starred L’and Restaurant, at the architecturally striking L’and Vineyards (where a wine tasting is highly recommended) in Montemor-O-Novo outside the capital city, Evora. At Alentejo Marmoris Hotel & Spa in Vila Viçosa try exquisitely plated local produce served in a predominately marble dining room. While the grape cultivation and wine production is still catching up, the Alentejo has fast become famous for its excellent quality traditional grape varietals. At Monte Novo e Figueirinha vineyard, you can enjoy a factory visit, tasting and climb up an outdoor silo for panoramic views over the farm. Perhaps the best way to understand the ideal harmonious balance between land and produce is to visit or stay at a montado, a traditional agro-forestry system that balances low-density forestry with pastoral and agricultural activities. Alfredo Cunhal is the mastermind behind the montado Herdade do Freixo do Meio, where academic conferences are often held; visitors can stay in simple accommodation and help the volunteers on the farm, in the butchery or bakery. Produce from the farm is sold at upscale markets in Lisbon. Here, we admire horses with shiny coats, observe the early morning fruit harvests, and sample acorn bread fresh from the small bakery.