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Alentejo Adventures: A Journey to the Borderlands of the Raia

Winemaking around the Alentejo town of Vidigueira has some teeth to it Romans were producing juice at São Cucufate as far back as the 1st Century. Today, the remnants of this wine and olive oil-producing agricultural villa stand as some of the Iberian peninsula's best preserved Roman ruins.

Set on a spectacular hill a stone's throw away, however, is Quinta do Quetzal, a Dutch-owned winery that has forgone the area's traditional method of aging of wine in clay amphoras something many winemakers in and around town still do today and relies instead on an even older, simpler method: Gravity! The results are a pretty unfaultable line of reds and whites calling on signature grapes like Antāo Vaz, Trincadeira and Alicante Bouschat (a varietal tossed aside by the French which thrives in Vidigueira terroir). 

I meet up with is Quinta do Quetzal's amicable Pedro Bonito, who generously pours the entire family of reds despite most wine fame from the region stemming from whites made with the aforementioned Antāo Vaz. From the everyday offerings of their Guadelupe line to the limited-edition Quetzal Família Grande Reserva (produced in just the 600 magnums only), every damn one of them is great. Then Bonito does something very interesting, the likes of which I have never seen at a wine and food pairing.

Upstart chef João Mourato, whose modern Alentejo cuisine at the restaurant is perhaps only bested by the incredible vineyard views from the dining room, begins sending out his modern takes on local dishes. An outstanding Farinheira à Brás (smoked sausage with eggs and potatoes) stands out among the first courses, but his porco preto (Iberian black pork) medallions with migas (a savory bread crumb pudding made with garlic, olive oil, stale bread and greens), pickled onions and oranges is the meal's standout course. 

But not only for the food. Bonito pairs the pork with two wines, a red (the Quetzal Família Grande Reserva 2016) and a white (Quinta do Quetzal Reserva Branco 2017). Both do a fascinating dance with the porco preto and Quinta do Quetzal once again asserted its willingness to break with tradition to outstanding results.

My Alentejo adventure ends the next day in Elvas, a remarkable fortified town whose modern Forte da Graça is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the best-preserved examples of trace italienne (star fort) military architecture in the world, but not before the Alentejo saved the best for last.

I begin the day exploring the small but fascinating town of Monsaraz, a pristine hilltop village that contains little more than three streets and innumerable Instagrammable moments around every turn. Were cameras not yet digital, you wouldn’t have enough film on you to capture every desirable angle across the Alentejo plains, the Alqueva dam (the largest artificial lake in Europe) and into Spain the views are that good. Monsaraz is tiny and compact, though, which allowed me to high-tail it out of there after about 45 minutes to nearby São Lourenço do Barrocal

São Lourenço do Barrocal is a formally abandoned aldeia (small village) a worker's colony of sorts once thrived here in the 19th century turned exquisite countryside retreat. Most remarkably, 8th generation owner José António Uva, who is responsible for bringing this vision to life (along with his wife and brother), took a mostly hands off approach, reusing, recycling or just generally leaving be almost everything from the village. He lived for two years in the property's only roofed construction hatching his plan. 

Guest rooms were forged form the former worker's apartments; the school is now the property's winery; large hooks that were previously using for hanging hammocks remain in the ceilings; repurposed wooden shutters and doors have received new leases on life as side tables;
The hotel's bric-a-brac is made up of objects found amongst the property; and so on. The details are remarkable. Sizable farm rooms are spacious, refined and make abundant use of beautiful thick pinewood, custom designed by Anahory Almeida as desks, headboards, end tables and cabinetry all of which I want to take home with me. Rooms facing east frame postcard-perfect views of Monsaraz. The 780-hectare estate is sums up everything wonderful about both the Alentejo and Portugal.

Back in Elvas, I check-in to Travassos 11, the last stop on this near 900km road trip, trading expansive, cork-draped countryside surrounded by endless horizons for narrow alleyways and atmospheric cobbled streets surrounded by a fortified star-shaped wall. A lovely former residential palace turned guesthouse, Travassos 11's original artistic tiling and period furniture give the guesthouse a house museum feel; and the outdoor pool and garden and former chapel (now a bar!) are ideal ways to wind down from the trip. But little did I know it would be Travassos 11's housekeeper who would provide the best memory from my Alentejo adventure.

For those that don't know, the Alentejo is known for its hearty cuisine and plentiful use of pork, specifically the aforementioned porco preto, which is served innumerous ways. Cândida, who is not a trained chef, occasionally throws together meals for Travassos 11 guests when she is not tending to the housekeeping. She made a wonderful coriander soup followed by Bochechas de Porto Preto (black pork cheeks), slow-cooked and braised in red wine, accompanied with mashed potatoes. Simple stuff.

And quite simply the best I have ever had.

This is the third dispatch in a three-part series from the road in Portugal, where journalist Kevin Raub is exploring the wonders of the Alentejo. Click to read the first and second installments.

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