Emmanuelle Jary - 2010-02-23
Portugal’s most beautiful region is also its least well known. Alentejo has numerous assets including a cuisine which is rustic yet totally delicious.
In all of the ex-Portuguese trading posts we’ve visited, from São Tomé to Salvador de Bahia, from Macao to Goa, the Portuguese people living in these places have said of Alentejo: “It’s our country’s most beautiful region.” So you can’t help wondering why they left to live so far away “beyond the Tagus” (Tejo) – the literal meaning of Alentejo. Indeed, it was the people of this region who followed Vasco da Gama’s example of setting out to discover the world and inhabit the colonies.
This is Portugal’s largest region, as well as its least populated. Here, the towns resemble villages, including Evora with its population of 56,000. Local men sitting on benches wait for time to pass and for the bark on the trees to thicken. Cork is one of Alentejo’s principal economic resources. As well as the corks for bottles, it’s also used, more surprisingly, for umbrellas, shoes and bags for tourists. In 2009, however, the locals stopped harvesting it. Nobody wanted cork any more. The reason? The recession, as well as, perhaps, the current trend for using composite and synthetic materials. Our concern and questions as to how these people of the land make their living made them laugh. “It takes 39 years for a cork oak tree to produce its bark, then 9 years after the harvest for the bark to grow again. So what difference does it make to wait another year?”
The locals find their solution in mixed farming and animal rearing, raising a few sheep here and a few black pigs there. Not forgetting the bulls raised for both pleasure and the bull ring. Leisure in Alentejo is a rare commodity so the Corrida and hunting is typical Sunday entertainment and the dishes are a reflection of this. Despite a long history of vegetarian dishes, the local cuisine is now rich in rabbit stew and rice, braised partridge and wild boar ragout. Bread remains the undisputed staple of all meals. Far from being a simple accompaniment, it’s often the main dish. Women prepare it in the form of migas: white bread mixed with olive oil and garlic, rolled into sausage shapes and cooked in a frying pan or in the oven. Migas are eaten with grilled meats but are just as good on their own when prepared with vegetables and herbs and, particularly, with wild asparagus. Coriander, thyme, rosemary and aniseed are the salts of Alentejan cooking.
In the immense plains that occupy the countryside, cooking passes the time. The nuns used to compete, with one convent vying with another over their sweet delicacies. They would use egg whites to starch their robes with the yolks ending up in their cakes. As for the monks, they produced wine whilst the farms made cheese. Served with little bean salads and chorizo or chick peas with cod, the cheeses are cut into fine slices and eaten at the beginning of a meal. These small appetisers, known as petiscos, are probably one of Portugal’s greatest culinary pleasures. At times they can be very elaborate and even make up an entire meal to themselves: pig’s foot stew, meat pies (empadas), chicken grilled with coriander and vinegar, scrambled eggs with herbs...
It was, perhaps, all this good fare that led the 15th century Kings of Portugal to bring their courts to Evora. John III fell in love with this place of beautiful architecture: white houses covered with whitewash and decorated with azulejo ceramic tiles and wrought iron balconies. Elements which earned it a Unesco world heritage site classification in 1986.
The last remaining evidence of this glorious past, besides the chapels still gleaming with gold, is the Coudelaria of Alter do Chão, a stud farm which belonged to the Portuguese Royal dynasty. The rare Alter real breed of Lusitano horse is bred here, as well as several falcons formerly used for hunting. Hunting is not the only way of obtaining meat though. Pork from Black pigs is often used in the form of grilled meat and, particularly, as charcuterie. Every town has its own speciality of chorizo, each of which turns out to be a variety of either spiced or unspiced saucisson or dry sausage. You can, for example, find chorizo made of meat, tripe, blood or liver.
Generally speaking, Portuguese cuisine is fond of its land and sea combinations and Alentejo has a particular speciality – Pork with clams. A reminder on your plate of this region’s double boundaries.
Alentajan Olive Oil
The Moura region in South Alentejo has been associated with olive groves for centuries. It was the first Portuguese region to be given DOP protected name of origin certification. Three varieties of olive are cultivated here: cordovil, galega and verdeal and Alentejo has the largest cooperative in the country (cooperativa agricola de Moura e barrancos), bringing together over 1200 members and producing up to 600,000 litres of oil per day.
The olives are harvested by hand or machine from November through to the end of February. In order to obtain an olive oil with the right freshness on the palate, both green and black olives are harvested, with the colours corresponding to the different stages of the fruit’s maturity. Once brought to the cooperative, the olives are separated from their leaves and twigs. The temperature should not exceed 30°c for the oil to be termed “cold pressed.” In this way one acquires a fruity oil with a slightly bitter and spicy after-taste. A Portuguese saying has it that an intelligent person is as gifted as Moura olive oil!
Portuguese tourist Office
Tel: 0845 355 1212
Turismo do Alentejo
Av. Jorge Nunes
Lt 1 R/C Esq
Tel: +351 269 498 680