ALENTEJO

Savour


The sweetmeats that never tasted bitter

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.

We end with the sweetmeats, another flavourful voyage that is not to be missed. Gluttons will have to contain themselves because each area has its own sweets – and there are many! – and the nuns in the convents of time past never let their reputation fall into alien hands as far as sweetmeats are concerned.

The tradition has come down from long ago and has brought us aromas of spices which the Alentejo has practically never ceased to have, whether they came by land, in the hands of Arab and Jewish merchants or, later, when they began to arrive by sea. This is the case with the perfumed canella (cinnamon), which goes into the composition of so many traditional sweet dishes.

In the houses of the poor and the rich, on days of celebration or to sweeten the harshness of everyday life, the imagination of the artists of the kitchen was creating a full recipe book. As well as the cakes from the bakery, which are baked in the same oven as where the bread is made, throughout the Alentejo we find the nógados (nougats) and the filhós (puff pastries), the bolos fintos (fermented cakes) and the folares da Páscoa (Easter cakes), the azevias natalícias com recheios de gila ou de grão (pastries filled with gourd or chickpeas). Among many others, all linked to local traditions.

Many of the well-known cakes and sweets of the Alentejo have their origins in the convents (conventual). The ingredients that make these delicacies are easy to find: sugar, eggs (lots of eggs!), bread, milk, cheese, curd, cinnamon, almonds, gourd and little more. Anyone could lay their hands on a recipe and try. Making them with excellence, though, is not for everyone, because the secrets have been guarded and passed down, jealously, from generation to generation. And the sweetmeats, like the savouries, also demand the "touch”.

Happily, today we have a weighty factor in our favour: so strong is the conviction that "conventual” sweetmeats and puddings are also part of our heritage that, in order to taste them, we do not have be the privileged guest at one of those houses where there was always a grandmother or an aunt who made some sweets to eat and to cry for more. They are now part, as in the Alentejo they always were, of the menus of good restaurants. But, delight upon delight, they are also sold in specialised pastelarias (cafes/pastryshops), whole or in slices, which allows us to transform a simple lunch into an experience that lifts us heavenwards.

Only to have a whiff of the abundance that the Region has to offer in the chapter of cakes and sweetmeats, take note and experience the taste: in Castelo de Vide, boleimas de maçã; in Elvas, sericaia com ameixas; in Portalegre, rebuçados de ovos and pastéis de Santa Clara; in Borba, doce dourado; in Arraiolos, pastéis de toucinho; in Mora, queijinhos do céu; in Évora, morgado and pão de rala; in Mourão, encharcada and bolo rançoso; in Alcáçovas, Conde das Alcáçovas; in Beja, porquinho doce and queijo conventual; in Serpa, queijadas de requeijão; in Almodôvar, bolo chibo; in Alcácer do Sal, pinhoadas; in Grândola, bolo de torresmos; in Santiago do Cacém, alcomonias; in Sines, areias and vasquinhos …

There are many more and to suit every taste. There is no lack, too, of drinks to accompany them: vinhos licorosos (fortified wines) and, popular or "conventual” in origin, excellent liqueurs.

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