A ‘dark skies’ area, the comet Ison can be seen from the clear skies of the Alentejo, high-tailing it past Venus. Alentejo is not where most tourists head when they go to Portugal; the bright coast of the Algarve or the windy hills of Lisbon, humming with Fado, tends to be the ticket. But for the food lover, Alentejo, south of Lisbon, inland, is the destination.
I’m on a press trip with the usual flotsam and jetsam crew of bloggers catching some winter rays. We arrived last night and our guide explained how to recognise Manueline architecture, pointed out a carob tree, and took us to a pasteleria in Beja that makes Portuguese custard tarts with cream (most use milk) as well as other historic recipes developed by frustrated nuns forced into convents.*
The desserts and pastries tend to be similar: egg yolk is a strong theme ingredient-wise. I’m shocked to discover the baker throws away the whites, around 1, 500 each day. I’m half-minded to set up a meringue shop next to her. Can’t bear waste. The Portuguese aren’t fans of meringues, she explains. The nuns used the egg whites to starch their habits, and in wine making.
The waiter at the monastery hotel restaurant where we stay, asks me if I want brinjal to eat.
Brinjal? Is that aubergine?
Portugal’s peak, in monetary terms and as a world power, was in the 15th and 16th centuries and things have sorta gone downhill from there. The Portuguese kings sponsored exploratory trips around the world, they discovered India, Macao, Brazil, Angola, and were the earliest trading partners with Japan. The Portuguese had the best ships, the smartest navigators, the choiciest trade routes. Portugal, the most westerly country in Europe, down the coast from Finisterre (the end of the world) looked out over the vast Atlantic Ocean every single day, wondering, dreaming, planning, calculating. The ships brought back wealth: spices, gold, silver, new plants, new animals. This nautical culture is celebrated in the details in the Manueline buildings; ropes carved from stone, bas reliefs of knots and astrolabs, compasses, constellations and stars.
Today Portugal is one of the poorest countries in Europe, while her younger richer fatter sister, Brazil, part of the BRIC set (Brazil, Russia, India, China) is booming. And within Portugal, Alentejo is a poor, dry region, with high unemployment. Which is possibly a good thing because nobody has had the money to fuck it up.
The tourist will find shiny white cobbled villages with dashes of duck blue and butter yellow paint, castles teetering on hilltops, monasteries and nunneries, connected by tunnels, with babies bones turning to dust underneath, converted to cathedral-sized hotels. The houses are tiled on the outside, like ornate bathrooms, turned inside out.
Today we visited Joana Roque and her daughters, who run a home bakery, a faggoty-flamed fire in her wood burning convex oven. She makes 40 sourdough loaves a day. She used to make thousands per week, but the local Portuguese prefer to buy bread from a supermarket. Fools. The bread is baked in front of us, a slow bake of one hour, I ask the temperature of the oven. She shrugs. Who knows? It works.
When it is shovelled out of the oven on a worn wooden peel, she cuts it into hunks, pours olive oil and brown sugar over it. The heat of the bread melts the sugar, while the olive oil knocks back the sweetness. It is divine. To be repeated at home.
Her daughter plucks pomegranates from the tree in the back yard, chickens squawk, bitter oranges tumble from branches, the sun streams through the beaded curtain. Joana rests her feet, her rosy swollen ankles in need of a rest. At 76, baking is very physical. Visit her house in Vidigueira.
Olive oil is good for you. Astronauts drink it before going on a flight because it is helpful against radioactivity.We do an olive oil tasting in Moura. How you do it is this: a small amount is poured into a dark glass and a glass saucer is placed on top. You must not judge olive oil by the colour. Unlike wine, olive oil does not age. The newer the better. You warm the dark blue glass in your palms, so that the oil will soften and release odour. Remove the glass saucer. Take a big sniff. What do you get? Is there fruit? Is there spice? Is there mould? Then you taste, sucking it through your teeth. We taste three. Olive oil tastings have a maximum of 6 or 7 in a session. Wine tasters can do 40 different wines right off the bat. We feel the differing levels of greenness, of pepper hitting the throat, we are alert for any signs of rancid. Most farmers don’t know how to taste, explains our guide. It’s only recently that olive oil has become good, before it suffered from fermentation, but people are used to a ‘fusty’ taste. The difference between olive oil, virgin olive oil and extra virgin is that extra virgin must be without fault. Not a hint of fermentation. Extra virgin means very young.
Alentejo has become fashionable with people from Lisbon as a weekend retreat. In the last decade it has turned over the land to growing wine; small bespoke vinyards using Port grapes blended with more traditional varieties. The whites I have tasted are bright and minerally, the reds are weighty, with blackberry notes and liquorice and mint.
An artificial lake was built in 2002, making Alentejo fertile and wine production has increased. I spoke to the winemaker & owner of Herdade do Sobrosa, Felipe Teixera Pinto (a Julio Iglesias lookalike but even more handsome) about his wines. Portuguese wines sell well in Brazil and more recently to Angola, he told me. We are selling also to China, but they want French wines, the Chinese think in terms of brand not taste.
You can’t buy any other nationality wines in France, I mentioned.
It’s the same here, we don’t buy French wines in Portugal, shrugged Felipe. We don’t sell that many in the UK, the taxes are so high.
I heard this from several wine makers in the Alentejo region. So much for European solidarity, successive UK governments use wine, because it’s nice, and because they want to punish and deprive us of anything nice in our lives, as a excuse to skin us. A good bottle of Portuguese wine, costing perhaps 5 euros, would cost more than £20 in the UK.
1) They don’t put locks on toilet doors
2) They don’t put salt and pepper on the table.
3) They really love ornate lampshades and lamps.
Sunvil holidays sponsored this trip, they specialise in selecting unique places to stay. The herdade do Sobroso, just outside Vidigueira (herdade means ‘homestead’) was one of my favourites, roomy fireplaces, candlelit bathtubs, family style meals, Penny Royal (a popular herb in the region) liqueurs by the chimney. Cosy intimate luxury.
Another grand hotel, Convento Do Espinheiro, an ex monastery near Evora, they even have their own private church
A cafe at the hill-top village of Monsaraz
Another hill top castle which we visited at sunset. We could see Spain from there.
Sheep and goat’s cheese are more common than cows cheese, due to lack of pasture
A curtained doorway in Monsaraz
In Evora, the roman temple was filled in during the 14th century. It’s now been restored. Evora stems from the latin for ‘Yew’ tree, as is York in the UK.
Sheepskin slippers are cheap, I got a pair for 14 euros. These will be my ‘computer’ shoes this winter.
The cobbled village of Monsaraz