History and hearty dishes in Alentejo
Between the Algarve and Lisbon, this rustic swathe of Portugal is locally beloved for its food and wine, yet often escapes the attention of tourists.
Speak to practically any Portuguese person and they’ll tell you that Alentejo is synonymous with good food in their country. Yet beyond Portugal, this sprawling region is still something of a culinary secret. Home to some of Europe’s most vivid scenery – red cork trees, olive orchards, fields of sunflowers, pine-covered forest floors and near-deserted sandy beaches – Alentejo’s beauty, and its flavours, will remain etched on your memory long after a visit.
Roughly the size of Belgium, Alentejo is Portugal’s most sparsely populated area and has been influenced by its Greek, Arab and Roman visitors over the years. Today its modern dishes are a fusion of traditional cultures, rich in red meat, sausages and porco preto (black pork), bread, creamy cheese, fish, clams and dishes that consist of simple, fresh ingredients, infused with garlic and laced with herbs such as parsley and coriander. Catholicism has also had a hand in shaping the region’s food: many desserts from the historical capital Évora were invented by Clarissian nuns. Giggle-inducing names for these egg-based, sweet treats such as ‘Nun’s Belly’ and ‘Heaven’s Kiss’ are a nod to their religious history and many pastries are still made using centuries-old recipes.
When it comes to wine, oenophiles will have a field day. Alentejo is in close competition with its more famous northern neighbour the Douro. Visitors can expect equally good quality here, with well-balanced whites and rich, full-bodied reds. Alentejo receives three times more rain than the rest of the country, making it the perfect climate for grape production. And the region’s flavourful grapes have attracted a new generation of winemakers, who are applying new technologies and earning acclaim for zingy vinho verde, organic grapes and sustainable farming.
With a rich history, evocative landscapes, and great food and wine, Alentejo deserves more of the love that Lisbon and Porto are getting from visitors.
Encompassing 22 acres of organic farmland, Craveiral is the brainchild of a Lisbon lawyer who escaped city life to transform a swathe of Alentejo land into an elegant countryside escape in 2010.
The nucleus of the site’s agricultural operation is its farm-to-table, open-air restaurant. Here, the innovative seasonal menu sings of the restaurant’s surroundings; 70% of the ingredients come from the onsite vegetable garden and orchard of Craveiral Farmhouse, while the remaining 30% is drawn from producers in the Odemira region.
The food at Craveiral is fresh, hearty and wholesome, blending old and new flavours. A highlight is the locally sourced porco preto (black pork found across the Iberian Peninsula), served with a glass of red and cooked on a sizzling open fire beside your table.
Diners also have the option to stay at one of Craveiral’s 38 luxury villas, equipped with cork baths. Guests are encouraged to pick fruit and veg from the garden and get treated to daily breakfasts with eggs from the farm’s chickens and copious helpings of farm-fresh fruit, tomatoes and honey.
02 Tasca do Celso
For excellent, authentic Alentejan cooking, head to this rustic, family-run restaurant 10 minutes from Milfontes beach. There’s a laid-back at-home feel, with utensils and tools hanging from the walls, and an open, airy kitchen leading into a shop that sells spreads and wine.
Sitting close to the point where the Mira River sluices into the Atlantic, seafood takes centre stage at Tasca do Celso. Specialities include shrimp sautéed in garlic, clams cooked in coriander and grilled monkfish or sea bass, but there are also meat options such as veal with roasted tomatoes or black pork salad.
Staff are attentive and knowledgeable and there’s a wine list running to more than 30 pages. If visiting in summer, it’s best to book ahead for dinner or you can chance your luck at walk-in for lunch.
Rua dos Aviadores 34, Vila Nova de Milfontes; https://tascacelso.eatbu.com; closed Mon
03 Herdade de Coelheiros
Some 30 minutes from Évora, this vast family estate has been producing wines since 1991. Full of bright greens in summer and purple grapes during harvesting season, Coelheiros specialises in organic reds and whites. France and Brazil are its main export markets, but its popularity is now growing elsewhere too.
Take a tour of the vineyard, which lasts two to three hours and includes a walk through the estate’s cork and olive trees, where you might even spot wild deer. You’ll get to taste the grapes and learn about the harvesting and wine ageing process. Wine sampling is, of course, part of the tour: try the light, citrusy whites, which lean heavily on the local Arinto grape; and rich, woody award-winning reds, which blend grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon with local varieties including Touriga Nacional and Alicante Bouschet.
Herdade de Coelheiros, Igrejinha, Arraiolos; www.coelheiros.pt; closed weekends
04 Dom Joaquim Restaurant
To finish your Alentejo food tour, head deep into the medieval alleyways of the pretty regional capital, Évora. After a stroll within the city’s 14th-century walls, Dom Joaquim feels like the perfect retreat. This family-run, Michelin-starred restaurant offers Portuguese dishes cooked to perfection.
You’ll find many of Alentejo’s classics here, such as roasted octopus, grilled sea bass and codfish cakes, but it’s the meat and game dishes, using locally sourced cuts from animals raised on Alentejo’s plains and in its cork oak forests, that really grab the attention.
Try the melt-in-the-mouth half partridge marinated in a cherry sauce, and the pork crackling – best served with a hearty black bean or rice stew. Wines are another feature, with bottles protruding from practically every wall in the restaurant – staff are well-versed on which bottles will perfectly pair with your meal.
Rua dos Penedos 6, Évora; http://restaurantedomjoaquim.pt; closed Mon
05 Pastelaria Conventual Pão de Rala
Many of Évora’s desserts were invented by Clarissian nuns, and this famed local bakery is one of the most lauded places to try their recipes. Lined with traditional blue tiles, the bakery is steeped in local history. Try the almond and egg-based queijinho do céu (‘little cheese from heaven’) and the pão de rala (a flourless, lemon-flavoured bread cake with almonds), or the amusingly titled ‘Nun’s Belly’, which combines sugar, eggs, butter and bread.
There’s even a bacon-inspired sweet treat, indicative of the region’s obsession with all things pork. A spherical, jam-filled, flour-based tart with a salty aftertaste, it’s called pastel de toucinho (pastry of bacon) but there’s actually no longer any meat in these – the name has just stuck.
Pull up a chair at one of the tiny wooden tables indoors, order a cafe pingado (shot of espresso with a dash of milk) and watch the city of Évora roll by as you tuck into your sweet treats.
Rua de Cicioso 47, Évora; Facebook
Where to stay
Quinta Da Comporta
For some serious R&R head to this former rice farm, which has been transformed into a complex of 73 luxury rooms and four white-washed villas. Take a dip in the solar-heated infinity pool overlooking rolling rice terraces, or grab a bike and cycle down to the nearby beach. The glass-fronted restaurant at Quinta da Comporta also offers incredible views of the fields.
Albergaria Do Calvário
Unpretentiously elegant, discreetly attentive and comfortable, this beautiful guesthouse is housed inside a 16th-century olive oil mill in Évora. The breakfasts are outstanding, with locally sourced seasonal fruits, homemade cakes and egg dishes. Gorgeous lounge areas are decked out with a tasteful melange of antique and modern furniture, and there’s a pleasant garden patio area. It’s in a delightful part of town, near Porta Velha da Lagoa and the aqueduct. The excellent staff also give good insider tips for exploring Alentejo.
What to do
Reserva Natural Das Lagoas De Santo André E Da Sancha
Alentejo has some of Portugal’s most gorgeous and quietest wild places, and this nature reserve is one of the best. It consists of the Lagoa de Santo André, (the largest lagoon on the Alentejo coastline) and the smaller Lagoa da Sancha. Visitors can canoe the reserve or drink in the spectacular mountain views while hiking among its grassy dunes and wetlands. Birdwatching is particularly good here in late summer and early autumn. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a dolphin or two at the Sado’s mouth.
National Culinary Festival
Alentejo is Portugal’s gastronomic soul, so it follows that the National Culinary Festival is held here. It’s been hosted by the Alentejo town of Santarém since 1981 and usually runs for around 10 days in October. Visitors get the opportunity to sample dishes from each of the 18 different regions in Portugal, as well as from the Azores and Madeira.
Reproduced with permission from Lonely Planet © 2022
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