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.
The Alentejan cuisine, highly rich in flavours, has always been connected to the products of the countryside and has as its base a fundamental trilogy: bread, olive oil and aromatic herbs.
Bread has many applications. It is eaten as an accompaniment to every petisco; it is present in açordas (traditional soups and stews) as well as in dozens of other soups made here, such as gaspachos, fish (peixe) soups, thistle (cardo) soup, purslane (beldroega) soup or catacuzes (soups made from red dock); and it is the great ingredient of migas, which can be made from cauliflower, codfish, green asparagus and many other things.
Olive Oil, today recognised by dieticians as a factor in healthy eating, is the touchstone which distinguishes the excellent from the good or bad. We don’t need to be experts in gastronomy to perceive the difference there is between cooking and seasoning with virgin olive oil and with the mixtures that are produced to pass as olive oil. Alentejan olive oil is among the best.
Aromatic herbs –coriander, pennyroyal, water mint, rosemary, laurel or bay, savory, oregano, to name only the best known – are the magic wand of the imagination which characterises this cuisine. They are crushed, chopped or placed in sauces according to the dish they are going to flavour. And they are used in a specific measure because, when the products are genuine and of high quality, as happens in the Alentejo, the seasonings exist not to hide but to enhance the flavour as much as possible. It should be noted that there are various farms which specialise in their production and which, in Vendas Novas, are to be the subject of research in the Horto Experimental das Plantas Silvestres Alimentares of the Ecomuseu de Recursos Florestais (forest resources museum), which functions and can be visited in the Escola Agrícola D. Carlos I.
To enjoy to the full the seductive gastronomic adventures this region has to offer you, we suggest you travel with three ideas in your baggage.
The first is that you forget the globalised world in which we live, dominated by homogenised tastes and freezing technologies and enjoy your holidays in the Alentejo by reviving the most ancestral ways of eating: fresh products in the right season, when the tastes are expressed in all their splendour. Some examples: in winter, taste fresh pork; between winter and spring, depending on whether the rains are early or late, the ingenious soups made from thistles, carrasquinhas (a shrub), beans with common dock or red dock, wild green asparagus with eggs, truffles, silarca (brown gurumelo mushrooms) grilled over charcoal seasoned only with ground salt; around Easter, sarapatel de borrego (”pluck” – heart, lungs and liver – of lamb cooked in blood), queijos frescos (cottage cheeses) and queijadas (curd tartlets); at the end of spring and during summer, the dishes made with favas (broad beans), the gaspacho, the tomato dishes, the purslane soups, the black bass; at the beginning of October, the game dishes.
When you eat with the seasons, the difference is vast.
The second is that you experience dishes that are always different. There is only one Alentejo, but it is large and it is diverse. It is Atlantic and Mediterranean, hills and plain, coast and interior, rivers, lakes, reservoirs and sea. Therefore, although you will identify in everything you taste that "something” which marks out so strongly the way of doing things and flavouring things, you will be surprised to discover how infinite and varied is the traditional table.
The third is that you should have these experiences in the right place. Is there anything that can match a good fish on the grid, being grilled above a beach with a view over the sea? A sophisticated game dish, as the light of autumn softly penetrates the woodland of the montado? Or a fresh gaspacho, when dry yellow has taken over the wheat fields and there is heat enough to roast you? If you don’t soon find what you are looking for, don’t give up. Insist on someone helping. But for this reason, be sure that you can’t, under any pretext, allow yourself the luxury of not tasting these pleasures.
On the coast, it is evident. From Troia to the port of Azenha do Mar, the Alentejo is rich in seafood (the percebes [goose-necked barnacles] of the south west are excellent!), in cuttlefish and octopus, in fish such as sea bream, stone bass, sea bass, mackerel and sardines. And as well as the common but delicious grilled and poached fish, there are dishes that are characteristic of this zone: the massinhas de peixe (fish with pasta), the arrozes de camarão, de choco e de navalhinha (prawns, cuttlefish, razor clams with rice), the sopas de peixe (fish soups) and the caldeiradas (fish stews). Sopa de cação (dogfish stew) is universal: it is on the menus of almost all Alentejan restaurants even, as long as nothing is amiss, in the interior. As far as fresh water is concerned, the geography broadens. You should not miss the ensopado de enguias (eel stew) of Lagoa de Santo André, nor indeed the lampreia (lampreys) of the Tejo (Nisa and Gavião) and of the Guadiana (Mértola); nor the achigã (black bass), fried or grilled, which you find in Odemira and in at least two places where they have fishing competitions – in the Alqueva zone and on the Raia river, close to Cabeção. Where there is fresh river fish, try the succulent caldeiretas, stews made with barbel, black bass and carp, which are seasoned with bay, pennyroyal and water mint.
We pass on to meat
The dishes are many: the grills, always excellent, the sopa da panela (meat, sausage and vegetable stew), the ensopado de borrego (lamb braised in liquor and served with bread), the borrego assado (roast lamb), the sarapatel (braised "pluck” of lamb), the migas com carne de porco (herby breadcrumbs with pork), the feijoada com cabeça de porco (beans with pork), the cozido de grão (stew of chickpeas and meat, which in some restaurants is served in cork pails), the burras assadas no forno (roast cheek of pork) …
Finally the game dishes. Always made with great sophistication, they are the highest emblems of the most refined Alentejan cooking. Between the coelho bravo à S. Cristóvão (rabbit), the lebre com feijão branco (hare with white beans), the innumerable recipes for perdiz (partidge), the canja de pombo bravo (woodpigeon stew), the estufados (braises) and assados (roasts) for javali (wild boar), do you think you can make a choice?