Food and Wine of the Alentejo:
The people of Portugal eat more fish per capita than any other European country. Their heritage, world leading explorers like Vasco da Gama and an Empire that grew from their seafaring skills, is perhaps at the heart of their love of fish. Alentejo, the area directly south of the river Tejo, is an unspoilt agricultural region and also home to Portugal’s second largest fishing port at Sines and a wonderful unspoilt coastline.
Our first stop in Alentejo at Hotel Vila Park gave us something of an insight into coastal cuisine. A particular favourite with all of us was this stunning fish cataplana. By cooking a mixture of fish inside the clam-like pot, all the aroma is saved for the moment the dish is opened at the table. The result is an intensely fragrant dish, a perfect way to showcase the region’s produce.
On the coast you will find fresh, grilled fish served with utter simplicity. At Arte et Sal, a charming restaurant looking out over the heritage coastline a few miles south of Sines, we feasted on every kind of local fish, and some not so local Bacalhau.
Salt cod, which is so popular in Portugal I believe originates from the days of the great Portuguese explorers. The discovery by the Portuguese of the rich fishing seas of the Newfoundland coast is thought to have been the catalyst for this dish. Salting and drying the fish allowed it to be transported from the Americas to Portugal without spoiling in the days before refrigeration. More recently much of the cod comes from the North Atlantic. But it’s still a real Portuguese speciality and something that is eaten on feast days.
That’s not to say that we were starved of local fresh fish. Sea Bream, Sea Bass, Octopus Salad and Sardines were all on the menu.
I was fascinated on a brief stop at the supermarket in Evora, to find a huge range not just of fresh local fish but of Bacalhau in all manner of shapes and sizes. I wouldn’t have a clue where to start, but the price varied tremendously…and as you can see the most expensive was clearly the most popular.
The food of the Alentejo is not just about fish though. Inland, there’s a wealth of game dishes. At the Convento Do Espinheiro we feasted on wild hare stew, cooked over wood in a traditional kitchen.
And in Evora itself over dinner in the traditional restaurant D. Joaquim we sampled a whole range of meat dishes. We learnt that the fundamentals of Portuguese hospitality were bread, cheese and chorizo – there are four regional PDO kinds of cheese and a whole range of cold meats and sausages. Add to that locally produced olive oil, honey and fruits and you have something of a feast. The region also produces its own rice, along the Tejo valley, and of course, there is wine.
We visited the vineyards and cellars of Adega da Cartuxa, one of the larger wine producers in the area, owned by the Eugenio de Almeida Foundation. Originally a Jesuit monastery, it became a winery when the Jesuits were expelled in 1766. In 1834 it was bought by Eugenio de Almeida and became a charitable foundation in 1963.
Set up by Vasco Maria Eugenio de Almeida, the entire estate of some 5,500 acres is used by the foundation for a variety of farming activities including viticulture. There are 8 sub-regions of the Alentejo DOC, which requires a minimum of 85% indigenous grapes (6 red and 3 white varieties). I’m no expert in wine, but I particularly enjoyed the DOC Cartuxa, a blend of Alicante Bouschet and Arogonez and the white Pera Manca (Arinto and Antao Vas) which is a complex white.
Whilst much of the food we ate was evidently traditional, there were clear examples of the influence of the spice route countries with foods that including this spicy meat pastry empanada served to us at the Pousada de Arraiolos. And, in the restaurant of the Convento do Espinheiro, the fine dining dinner was a great example of how contemporary cuisine doesn’t need to lose national identity.
A visit to the Herdade da Amendoeira to see the ancient distillery and cheese production highlighted the wealth of local produce.
We saw racks of herbs drying in preparation for infusing in the liqueur they produce as well as some of the cheese making. I particularly liked the pennyroyal, a herb that has almost disappeared in the UK, but that lent a very subtle minty-aniseed flavour to the drink produced with it.
On balance, despite or perhaps because of my own urban origins, I’d favour simple, traditional dishes over fine dining in this unspoilt area of Portugal. The quality of the ingredients makes it possible to feast on the most basic of foods without compromise. And, those with a sweet tooth can spoil themselves with a wealth of delicious pastries and cakes, a fitting end to any meal.
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TAP Portugal flies from Manchester, London Heathrow and Gatwick to Lisbon up to 9 times daily, with return fares starting at £116 including all taxes and surcharges.
Hotel Vila Park
(Double room B&B) – from 68,00€ to 110,00€
Av. de Sines
77501-909 Vila Nova de St. André
Tel:+351 269 750 100
Hotel Convento do Espinheiro
(Double room / 2 Pax / B&B) – from 250,00€
Bairro dos Canaviais
Tel:+351 266 788 200
Fax:+351 266 788 229
(Double room B&B) – from 120,00€
Tel:+351 266 419 340
Restaurante Arte e Sal
Praia de Morgavel
Tel:+351 269 869 125
Average price without drinks – 16€ to 24€ per person
Restaurante D. Joaquim
Rua dos Penedos 6
7000-537 Évora – Portugal
Tel:+351 266 73 11 05
Average price without drinks – 20€ per person
Food and Wine Estates:
Herdade da Amendoeira
Santana do Campo Arraiolos
Tel:+351 266 847 498
Adega da Cartuxa
Quinta de Valbom
Estrada da Soeira
Tel:+351 266 748 380