We live life at a frantic pace and when we take a moment to reflect we muse on the quiet life, the good life, of life filled with gentler pursuits, and of time spent around the kitchen table. That good life is still evident in the Alentejo region of Portugal.
Bread is an indispensible part of meals in Portugal. It’s there on every table and for every meal. It’s even used as an ingredient in hearty dishes. Açorda Alentejana is one of the most traditional soups in Portuguese cuisine and comes from, as the name suggests, Alentejo. It’s a flavourful broth with coriander, in which soak large cubes of bread. The creation is finished with a topping of poached eggs.
The local bread is somewhat addictive with its open and slightly chewy texture and substantial crust. This is just about as far from your regular ‘white sliced’ as one could sprint, although that tasteless entity is taking hold even in this neck of the woods. But Alentejo’s traditional bread doesn’t make itself. It’s what one might describe as artisanal, so there must be an artisan doing the work, and that work is tough.
Joana Roque looks every inch a toddler’s dream grandmother. She has a substantial lap and bosoms, and a character that is as warm and welcoming as her wood-fuelled bread oven. Joana is in her mid-seventies and is bent through decades of hard graft. Her hands are like shovels – but gentle. She shapes the bread into rolls and loaves with a practised movement, with no wasted effort of crimping, slashing or unnecessary twiddles. This is daily bread.
These days, the oven output is around 3 dozen loaves per day. Even with the aid of her daughter it’s still a lot of dough to measure and mix. A few years ago Joana would make thousands of loaves per week but times change and now the ready-sliced in plastic is gaining ground. It’s ironic that those of us who have grown up on the spongy and tasteless stuff crave this authentic bread with a bit of character. Joana wonders what the future might bring.
Rua do Meirinho Velho, no 12
Phone: +351 284 085 029
Barrancarnes – Cassa do Porco Preto offers an insight into another Alentejo product: its famous black pigs. These are special in the same way as are Champagne and Stilton cheese: they are unique and prized. The Alentejo breed is a descendent of the sus mediterraneus wild boar from the south, that were domesticated to become modern Iberian pigs.
These pigs have not crossed with other breeds and therefore they retain unique characteristics of meat and fat to produce a particular flavour, aroma and texture. The marbling of fat throughout the meat is key.
One can see the pigs roaming freely under oak trees in fields near the town. They live on the acorns and there is a mathematical formula to calculate how many pigs can graze in any particular pasture. Each tree is assumed to give so many kilos of acorns and each pig is assumed to eat so many kilos per day, thus one knows how many pigs can be sustained in the area.
This company was established in 1988 and deals exclusively with the production of meats from the Black Pig of Alentejo breed. There are now two factories in Barrancos, one for hams, pork loin, Paiola, Copita, Paio, and the other for more traditional pork products.
If you want to know how to carve and taste authentic quality ham from Alentejo then watch the video here.
The landscape of Alentejo speaks so much about its food. The aforementioned pigs gather under oak trees; the cork trees, found in abundance here, still provide the natural seal for bottles of excellent local wine; and the vines provide that wine. And then there are the groves of olive trees with their silver-grey leaves and gnarled bark.
The Museu do Azeite (Olive Oil Museum) in Moura shows the methods of extracting olive oil through the ages. It is evident that, in general, olive oil is far more delicious these days than a century or so ago. One can see large bins where local growers would deposit their olive harvest. Those olives might have been collected over a period of several days and might wait another day or so before being pressed. This delay resulted in deterioration and the beginning of fermentation of the olives, giving a rather disagreeable taste in the finished product.
These days the olive oil of the region is revered as some of the best in Europe. It’s sampled and tasted by experts who sip from blue glass so as not to be distracted by the colour of the oil, which can range from gold to green. It is then designated as Extra Virgin, Virgin or just olive oil.
To learn more about the olive oil of Alentejo visit the museum.
Olive Oil Museum
Rua São João de Deus,
Phone: +351 285 253 978
The vineyards and wines “Encostas de Estremoz” were founded by José Castro Duarte and his wife, Joana Silva Lopes. It’s an estate of 100 Ha where the couple work with leading Portuguese winemaker, Miguel Reis Catarino.
This is one of the friendliest wine estates in the area. They contrive to combine commercial production with warm hospitality. The tasting salon is rather like a small sitting room with comfy chairs and even a TV. One is educated in the ways of the local wines but without the stiff formality of some other establishments.
All wines are produced at the Quinta da Esperança vineyards in Estremoz, where new techniques of production are found next to traditional methods. This domain’s wines were first presented in 2001 with Encostas de Estremoz Red, and Encostas de Estremoz White.
In 2002 another red wine was launched: Terras de Estremoz. This wine is made from the Aragonez, Cabernet Sauvignon and Trincadeira grapes. In 2004 the collection increased to showcase local grape varieties. Encostas de Estremoz features not only the Touriga Nacional grape, but Touriga Franca, Alicante Bouschet, Tinta Barroca and Trincadeira.
In 2006 the estate presented their celebrated red wine called DJ Encostas de Estremoz Reserva, and DJ Encostas de Estremoz Quinta da Esperança.
My particular favourite is their Terras de Estremoz Rosé. This is an ideal wine for those hot summer evenings, the chill of the wine forming a dew on the glass, and the contents mirroring the blush of the setting sun.
This estate is well worth a visit
Quinta da Esperança
Phone: +351 268 333 795
Fax: +351 268 333 754
The products here are simple, but that does not mean that they are lacking in quality. They are full of flavour and deserve to be recognised in the same way as produce from their richer European competitors.
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018