In the Alentejo, you eat and drink very well. Eating, drinking and snacking (petiscos) are rituals, ways of socialising, of entertaining friends and guests, of celebrating. It is customary to say that, in a true Alentejan’s house, whether rich or poor, the table is always set. It is true. And this truth confers a very special flavour on the discovery of the gastronomy and the wines. They are products of recognised value for tourists, but it was not Tourism that created them for outside consumption: they are part – and a happy part – of the most authentic daily life of the Region. In the light of this, we can offer only one invitation: be Alentejan for a few days!
From traditional recipes to recent innovations in gourmet cooking, from the savouries to the traditional sweets and puddings created in convents, in the Alentejo you will find everything, created and recreated with the finest products of the land, a lot of imagination and that mysterious thing called "mão” ("touch”). The wines, the cheeses, the cured meats and sausages are excellent. The sweets and puddings are a divine sin. There has been serious investment in the certification of products. There are new projects for organic products. And, as regards the table, there is a curious understanding between generations. Dedicate time to discovering all of this. Experience an upmarket restaurant, which offers a meal prepared with refined sophistication, as well as genuine popular cooking, which is often found in a village tasca (small restaurant or tavern) where people are found at the end of the day enjoying their petiscos (snacks). Taste the wines in the adegas (wineries) in direct contact with the producers. Participate in cookery courses. And don’t be worried about your diet: some good walks will burn off the calories.
Let’s now complete the table of savoury goodies: with the traditional olives and olive oils; with the little cheeses which, depending on the season, the area and one’s taste, can be from goat’s milk or sheep’s milk, fresh or cured, hard or soft; with the inevitable sausages and cured meats of various qualities; and with the cured ham. For all of these products, a great deal of investment has been made by the producers to achieve certificates of quality. But in this field too, the same is true as we pointed out to be true of wine: there are excellent producers who have never put forward their products for the certification processes that are in force – some out of choice, others because the size of their operations does not justify it. You will find the contacts for all of these in Tourist Offices, as well as information about where the products are for sale. Here, because we have to be selective, we provide only information regarding the products with a DOP – Denominação de Origem Protegida (PDO – protected denomination of origin) and IGP – Indicação Geográfica Protegida (PGI – protected geographical indication) classification, subject to the systems of certification and control of the European Union.
Queijo Nisa DOP, cured, semi-hard in texture, closed, with small holes, is exclusive to a region in North Alentejo which embraces eight council areas. In the same geographical area is produced the Queijo Mestiço de Tolosa IGP, using milk from both sheep and goats.
There are producers in Nisa, Monte Claro, Gáfete, Tolosa, Alpalhão, Vaiamonte and Monforte. In Tolosa and Vaiamonte, organic cheeses are produced which, when certified, display the seal AB – Agricultura Biológica (organic production).
Queijo Serpa DOP is, perhaps, the most famous cheese in the Alentejo. It is a cured sheep’s cheese, semi-soft and buttery in texture (it can even be poured) and has few or no holes. The cheeses are kept in so-called "linen cupboards” (cheese stores) for at least one month, in a cool, humid environment, until they reach maturity. Their provenance is a region that embraces 12 council areas in Lower Alentejo where the climate, soil and pasture provide Serpa DOP with the characteristics that make it a unique cheese. There are producers in Beja (Santa Clara do Louredo and Penedo Gordo), Moura, Pias, Serpa and Mértola (Corvos and Corte da Velha).
It is from these companions of humankind throughout the centuries that the olive springs forth, a food with a long tradition, which continues to "be sweetened” as in olden days, to be seasoned with salt and oregano and to make its presence felt in all Alentejan cuisine that is prized and respected. The customs of home cooking, which have been passed on to restaurants, are maintained: the first olives, gathered from October onwards, are eaten after being cut into pieces or pounded; for the rest of the production, the olives are conserved until they become ready in the following March. As far as industrial production is concerned, the only conserved Alentejan olives that have the DOP – Denominação de Origem Protegida (PDO – protected denomination of origin) seal are those of Elvas and Campo Maior.
In relation to azeite (olive oil), there are three DOP brands: Azeite de Moura, Azeites do Norte Alentejano and Azeite do Alentejo Interior, all with distinctive flavours. DOP olive oil is Virgin or Extra Virgin, that is, it is produced exclusively through mechanical processes using low temperatures. It only receives its classification when the unequivocal connection between its quality and the natural and human factors of its region of origin are proved. The production of Azeites biológicos (organic olive oils) is famously expanding.
Producers of Azeite DOP are to be found in: Sousel, Santo Amaro, Borba, Redondo and Reguengos de Monsaraz (Azeites do Norte Alentejano); Moura, Serpa and Vila Verde Ficalho (Azeite de Moura); Portel, Vidigueira and Torrão (Azeite do Alentejo Interior).
In Moura, don’t miss a visit to the Lagar (olive press) de Varas do Fojo, transformed into the Olive Oil Museum, and in Campo Maior to the Lagar-Museu do Palácio Visconde d’Olivã. In the latter town, it is worth getting to know the Museu do Café (coffee museum).
If you would like to do technical testing of the certified olive oils, you could go to the Centro de Estudos e Promoção do Azeite do Alentejo, with its headquarters in Moura. It is always good to know what goes best with what, and it is never too late begin your "olive oil collection” because, in the Alentejo, there exist many shops that focus on fine flavours.
The process of production is slow. It begins with the selection of the most suitable meat, which is then pricked and seasoned. The seasonings are not always the same, but the most common involve pimento, garlic, salt, wine and spices. After being seasoned, the meat is left to marinate to absorb the flavours. When it is ready, the natural skins are filled and hung on battens while they go through various stages of curing, all of which is done slowly, in the open air and in the smoke from olive wood. The tradition is still maintained today: a person who kills a pig, whatever the number of fridges and freezer rooms may be, never gives up curing meats and sausages. At the same time, this ancestral way of doing things has entered industry, as one of the requirements for obtaining certification which, with respect to different kinds of sausages (painho, chouriço, morcela, cacholeira banca, lombo enguitado, farinheira, etc.), is identified by the IGP seal.
There are producers in Portalegre, Póvoa e Meadas, Elvas, Arronches, Fronteira, Sousel, Cano, Estremoz and Borba. Many of these belong to the the "Rota dos Sabores do Alentejo” ("Alentejo Tastes Routes”), an initiative which makes it possible for people to visit their establishments, with prior booking, to taste their products and to buy directly from the producer. Information from www.rotadossabores.com
Now that you have completed this picture of savoury delicacies, you can imagine yourself there, comfortably seated, with a beautiful landscape in front of you and an Alentejan table laid before you: a basket of bread, a small dish of olive oil (are you not going to want to moisten the bread?), a tray of cheeses, sausages and cured meats, a presunto from which the thinnest of slices of ham are being cut and a tall wine glass with a good red to accompany everything …