Charming-walled medieval towns, colourful landscapes and dramatic beaches, the Alentejo region has plenty to win you over.
Alentejo, which translates as beyond the Tagus, has carved out quite a reputation for itself as a wine producer. Its cuisine, arguably Portugal’s best, is creative and imaginative. The secret is in the simple, seasonal ingredients used to produce an exciting melange of flavours.
Once it was a region of wheat and wide plains with pigs roaming freely so bread, pork and olive oil became staples of the traditional Alentejo diet. Bolstered with wild plant species such as asparagus, coriander, river mint, garlic and oregano, the people produced delicious dishes, the secrets of which have been passed from generation to generation.
Bolstered with wild plant species such as asparagus, coriander, river mint, garlic and oregano, the people produced delicious dishes, the secrets of which have been passed from generation to generation.
|Restaurante Café Alentejo|
From wonderful soups such as that made from dogfish (a small white-fleshed shark) which you have to dip in your “Alentejo" bread, to flavoursome lamb and the highly-acclaimed porco preto (black pig) to relish, you will be treated to an outstanding culinary journey.
Tucked into small side street off Évora’s main square, Praça do Giraldo, is the Restaurante Café Alentejo. This was, I discovered, the perfect place to sample the dishes of the area. At this once royal inn, I was greeted by a heady mix of aromas which made me feel even more hungry than I already was.
|Restaurante Café Alentejo|
The Portuguese are known for their long lunches. Food is of vital importance here. As soon as I sat down my table was covered in dishes of olives, local cheeses and the Alentejo bread (beware they are not free, you pay for what you take). The temptation was hard to resist as I tucked in while admiring the beautiful décor and arches of the place.
For my main course I plumped for salted cod (Bacalhau). Although Portugal only catches a small amount and the majority is imported, this is a popular dish here. Salting the cod and sun-drying keeps it fresh for months without having to be refrigerated. Before it is eaten, it is soaked in water for at least a day to reduce the levels of salt. The Portuguese have been preparing cod like this for centuries and are still so besotted with this dish that they serve it as their main dish at Christmas. Mine came with scrumptious small baked potatoes. I think I could also get hooked.
I soon learnt you cannot have a meal in Portugal without having a dessert. While pastel de nata (custard tart) is a firm favourite, I was tempted to try one of the others. These tasty treats date back to the Middle Ages when many nuns made pastries to help raise income for their convents. The main ingredient was egg yolk which were in surplus due to the fact that they used the whites to stiffen their habits. Sweetened with sugar and spiced with cinnamon they are hard to resist. Although I was full, I managed to enjoy every spoonful of my selection of typical sweets.
Another great place to go in Évora to partake in local cuisine is Mr. Pickwick. The menu offers a mix of local and international dishes. The rustic atmosphere is convivial and the waiters are attentive and friendly, just what you would expect from Portuguese hospitality. The asparagus melted in my mouth and the fish as spot on. Again, I could not turn down the desserts which were mouth-watering.
|Restaurante Degust'AR II|
Dom Joaquim is rated as one of the best restaurants in the city. I had the roast lamb, another Alentejo speciality, which fell off the bone. It was succulent and tender. In my books a winner. The lively restaurant is attractively done out and has an impressive wine list (as there is so much to say about the wines from this region, I will cover it in another post). It is one you should put on your list when in town.
Restaurante Degust'AR II at the five-star Mar d’AR Aqueduto is the place to go for something special. Bang in the centre of Évora, this boutique hotel, once a 16th-century palace, is the place for fine dining. A tasting menu which has a distinctively Mediterranean flavour is highly recommended, although the à la carte menu is equally enticing.
Most memorable were the crab paté with a vinaigrette of Alentejo herbs followed by scallops with seafood foam. A dish of sautéed red mullet followed before I was served with veal with a sausage crust and potato ragout. A selection of wines were served to accompany each dish (Portuguese, of course.) The meal ended with a plate of convent-inspired sweets, served with a tangy lemon sorbet.
I could not leave Évora without eating at the Divinus Restaurant, the gourmet establishment at the Convento do Espinheiro. This luxury hotel was once a 15th century convent which played host to royalty and nobles.
They would certainly give their seal of approval to the fare being served today. Once a wine cellar, you get a sense of place as you tuck into dishes of the Alentejo which have been given a sophisticated and innovative twist of Mediterranean aromas. The wine list here is full of palate pleasers.
Caramelised sea scallops in a tomato and basil purée made a divine starter. Spoilt for choice for the main course, I plumped for veal which was served with summer vegetables. Delicious. For somebody who actually does not have a sweet tooth, once again, the word no did not leave my mouth. I rounded off with “raspberry and lime freshness with lemon ice cream.”
Emerging from my stay in Évora as a rather bigger version of myself, it was time to head to the airport. Luckily, TAP Portugal weigh your luggage and not you!
By Daralyn Danns
TAP Portugal flies from London Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester to Lisbon up to 9 times a day, prices start at £124 return including all taxes and surcharges. For further information, visit www.flytap.com or call 0345 601 0932
I stayed at the impressive five star M`AR De AR Aqueduto, housed in the 16th-century Sepulveda Palace. For more information visit www.mardearhotels.com
Another wonderful hotel is the Convento do Espinheiro. Slightly further out of the city, this is a great place if you want a combination of culture, cuisine and relaxation. For more information visit www.conventodoespinheiro.com
Great places to eat
Café Alentejo restaurantecafealentejo.com
Mr. Pickwick www.evora.net/mrpickwick-mrsnob
Restaurante Dom Joaquim restaurantedomjoaquim.pai.pt
For more information about Alentejo visit www.visitalentejo.pt/en/