When you mention Portugal to the average Brit, the word conjures up images of the touristy Algarve with its coastline littered with high-rise apartments and English pubs serving egg and chips to sunburnt tourists. And yes, this vision of Portugal is indeed on offer in some resorts. But if you fly into Lisbon and head south for an hour or so by car, you will find yourself in a rather different vision of Portugal, described by a friend of mine as “a lovely, lonely place” – the Costa Alentejana.
The first I ever heard of the Costa Alentejana was a couple of years ago when a friendly waiter in a Lisbon restaurant recommended that I order carne Alentejana. I was so taken by the dish that I researched it when I got home and found the translation to be literally “meat, Alentejo style” – the Alentejo being the vast area between the Algarve in the south to the Tagus river north of Lisbon. It is the most depopulated region in the country, representing over one third of national territory but only 7.1% of its population. The area is commonly known as the “bread basket” of Portugal and consists mainly of vast open countryside with gently rolling hills and rich fertile soil. With very few exceptions all the major towns are mainly reliant on agriculture, and the area produces livestock (including products like cheese and cured meats), cork, olives and wines. In fact, the Alentejo region is the most important area in the world for the growing of cork and the cork-oak has been grown commercially in the region for the past 300 years. The bark of the cork-oak is still harvested by teams of men using hand-axes as no mechanical method has yet been invented that will allow the harvest to be achieved as effectively. The harvest of one mature tree provides sufficient bark to produce about 4,000 wine bottle corks and about 60,000 people work in the cork industry.
But we were there primarily for the food and wine, and our first stop after arrival was A Talha restaurant in Grândola, the town that was to be our base for the duration of the trip. The restaurant is located in the centre of town, in premises formerly occupied by a grape press – hence the large tanks scattered around the room. Presumably the additional presence of hunting imagery (like the rather handsomely whiskered stuffed boar’s head above our table, and watercolours of hunting dogs) alluded to the Alentejo love of meat, which deatured prominently on the menu. The room is traditionally furnished and if the night we visited is anything to go by, it is mostly frequented by locals which is always a good sign in my book. We were warmly greeted by Carlo Silva, executive vice president of the Costa Alentejana Regional Tourism Organization, and our host for the night (and translator of the menu).
Hungry after our journey from London, we fell eagerly on the crusty bread served with local Serras de Grândola white wine (surprisingly full-bodied with delicious notes of green apples and honey). To accompany the bread there were also fat green olives; two types of paté (sardine, and smoky pork); and thick slices of reassuringly fatty and gelatinous pork brawn (headcheese). We were also served a dish that I had not encountered on previous visits to Portugal: migas. The direct translation of the word is “crumbs” but this is not really an accurate description of what we were served. Although the recipe varies regionally, the basic ingredients of the dish are day-old bread soaked in water and mashed together with garlic, peppers, olive oil and salt (ours also had tomatoes added). Although the description does not sound promising, it is one of the most more-ish comfort dishes I have ever encountered – like a big starchy hug in a bowl. This particular example was quite porridgey in consistency, but other examples we had later were more like stuffing – and all were delicious.
Although we had been told we were only getting “a light meal”, the next course arrived in the form of a whole crumbed and fried fish, served very simply with only a slice of lemon. This is something that you learn very fast in the Alentejo: food is generally not fussy or complicated but relies on simple ingredients and simple cooking methods. But when the raw materials that you start off are so fresh and of such high quality, the end result cannot help but be delicious – as this fish was. The next thing that came to the table was greeted with universal grins of delight: a big bowl of home-made potato crisps, hot and fresh and better than anything that ever came out of a foil package. This was the side dish to accompany succulent strips of simply pan-fried pork and a chunky apple sauce. The wine pairing was the local Herdade de Comporta red, a blend of Aragonez, Trincadeira, Alicante Bouschet and Touriga Franca. This made for a fantastically raisinny and full bodied, yet one without overpowering tannins and very approachable. Although we did not try it, Carlos also told us about Pinheiro da Cruz, a wine made nearby by prison inmates at the prison of the same name. The final flourish to our “light” meal was gently collapsing chocolate torte that appeared to be near-flourless, gooey and completely decadent; and a glass of medronho, a strong digestif (distilled from arbutus fruit) enjoyed throughout the Alentejo and the Algarve, and for which I had already developed a taste on previous trip to Portugal. The restaurant is very centrally located in Grândola and is a good introduction to the food and wine of the Alentejo. Although it is neither formal nor fancy, it provides a far truer reflection of the land and its people than a smarter or more expensive place.
From there our driver, the lovely Jorge, whisked us off to our accommodation for the next few days, driving deeper into the inky black night and avoiding the hares racing across the road in the beam of our headlights, until a gate loomed up in front of us. Herdade das Barradas da Serra is a 800 hectare farm located at the foot of the Grandola hills, primarily producing cork and breeding of sheep, but also providing agriturismo-style accommodation. The farm has been in the Dias family for five generations and they have recently spent four years sensitively restoring all the original buildings using local materials, as well as adding a block of four new rooms and a swimming pool (pictured above) in a style sympathetic to the original structures. The buildings are long and low with red tile roofs, whitewashed walls and deep, cool verandahs where you can cool off in the midday sun. The bedrooms are enormous – high-ceilinged with cool terracotta floors, a small seating/dining, acres of cupboard space and beautiful modern bathrooms. The main public room comprising a lounge and breakfast area is furnished as I imagine a Portuguese hunting lounge would be, full of dark wood and leather armchairs. Despite being on a working farm, the overriding ambience is one of simple and unhurried tranquility. By day, the cork forests pressing close on all sides seem to emphasise the vastness of the sky by their relatively modest stature; and the silence at night is velvety, almost palpable. My only disappointment was to discover that the WiFi did not work outside of a tight radius surrounding the small office, but then if I had not been standing under the office eaves dripping with the last of the day’s rain, I would not have been able to hear the owls calling to each other in the cork forest in the darkness. It is a truly serene place to base yourself for a few days, whether to explore the surrounding area or simply to spend time by yourself, enjoying the kindness of the Dias family and the beauty of their farm.
The following morning, after a breakfast that included excellent fresh bread as well as local cheeses and cured meats at Herdade das Barradas da Serra, Jorge arrived bright and early to take us on a short visit to Grândola before the rest of the day’s activities. “My grandfather fundated this area”, he informed us in delightfully quirky English, as we drove through the sleepy town. Evidently his aunts, uncles and many cousins own a number of businesses in the area, and the one he was taking us to was Padaria Isaias, a typical Alentejana bakery. We were greeted by Maria Joaquina, who has run the bakery for decades and who took us through to the back to see the business end of the bakery where breads, cakes and pastries are fresh baked at the crack of dawn every morning. The ancient old bread oven with its blackened iron door stood side by side with the sleek new stainless steel oven; ancient and modern Portugal living companionably together in one room. Here there were piles of sourdough loaves piled up in a wooden tray and draped with a white cloth; there, a tray of meringue-topped tarts slowly turned golden in the oven – and Maria Joaquina keeping a quiet eagle eye on it all. Back in the small shop area, the fruits of the bakers’ labours are piled high in the glass cabinets where coffee is served and we faced a tough choice. But in the end I could not resist a square of what looked like pine nut brittle: toasted pine nuts held together by a matrix of burnished caramel. The sweetness of the caramel is offset by the savoury crunch of the pine nuts and it’s wonderful with a cup of strong, bitter espresso. By then the tiny shop was filling up with locals so we made our exit – but not before we had encountered one of her regular customers outside – slightly bemused at our interest in him but shyly friendly and dignified.
Stay tuned for the next instalment in which we visit a a rice museum and vineyard along the Sado River.
GETTING THERE & GETTING AROUND
We flew on TAP Portugal which operate a number of direct flights per week from London Heathrow airport to Lisbon, with fares starting at about £125 for a return flight. EasyJet also operates regular flights from Gatwick and Luton. The Alentejo is easily accessible by train from Lisbon (there is a station in Grândola and trains to and from Lisbon seem to run about hourly), but it makes things easier to have a car while you are there. The other option is to be driven around by a tour guide – we were lucky enough to be ferried around for the entire weekend by the endlessly cheerful and knowledgeable Jorge Pereira from Passeios & Companhia whom I cannot recommend highly enough.
GETTING FED & WATERED
A Talha de Azeite
Rua Dom Nuno Álvares Pereira
Loja 17 C.C. O Lagar
Telephone: +351 (0)269 086 942
Rua 22 Janeiro 4,
GOOD TO KNOW
DISCLOSURE: This was a press trip organised and paid for by Costa Alentejana Regional Tourism Organisation. Other than the trip itself, I received no payment to write this post and all opinions are my own.