Among the cork trees and rolling hills of this vast rural region, you’ll find some of Portugal’s choicest produce, from rich reds and black pork to sumptuous olive oil. Here, we bring you five unique producers to visit when travelling in Alentejo.
By Jez Fredenburgh (National Geographic)
Published 2 Apr 2021
1. The farm estate
The silvery leaves of a 2,000-year-old olive tree are still budding green fruits. Its trunk curves around one of the Neolithic dolmens that scatter the landscape and line the drive to the São Lourenço do Barrocal estate. Perhaps, I muse, a shepherd sat here, chewing olives from this very tree and discarding the stones, back when the wheat fields fed Rome.
“Olive oil is very important here,” explains Luis Lobato de Faria, an archaeologist and my guide for the estate’s olive-grove walk. “Every family has an olive tree, and olive oil was once used to light the streetlamps of the regional capital, Évora. There’s evidence of olive oil production here going back 3,000 years.”
While the lighting in Alentejo is now electric, wheat fields, olive groves and vineyards still dominate the region’s plains. It’s a place of extremes: by 10am it’s dry and unforgiving, but as the sun lowers, a soft, pink glow illuminates the grasses, cicadas start to sing and huge skies seep into starry blackness.
Alentejo is both Portugal’s poorest region and the country’s gastronomic heartland. Here, many people still grow and produce their own food, and local cuisine and celebrations are closely tied to what’s available in gardens, farms or hedgerows.
At São Lourenço do Barrocal, self-sufficiency is key. Once a thriving village of 50 families, the now rural retreat still produces its own olive oil, wine, vegetables, fruit, herbs and beef. Soon I’m sampling, sitting under a shady tree with head olive oil maker and resident winemaker José Rogel, dunking freshly baked bread into a golden pool of estate olive oil.
“This has a soft, buttery flavour with a hint of apples,” he says of the first oil we try. “But this one is made using galega, Portugal’s native variety. It’s softer and more velvety, but it’s a rustic variety — you will feel it!”
The difference is unmistakable. A delicious bitterness spreads around my mouth before a spicy warmth hits the back of my throat. “People who know olive oil like this one best,” says José. “It has more personality and is persistent.” I douse my bread once more and let the oil soak up to the chewy crust.
Later that evening, I sit among peach, pomegranate, quince and apple trees in the estate’s old walled garden, now an outdoor restaurant, Hortelão. Lavender bushes run down to a vegetable patch and herb garden. Seafood is sourced from local fishermen, honey and cheese from nearby villages, and black pork from southern Alentejo.
While the birds sing goodnight, I try gaspacho alentejano made using fresh tomatoes, garlic and oregano from the garden, a delicate purslane salad drizzled with olive oil, beef with rosemary, and sheep’s milk cheesecake with pennyroyal. As the night ends, I finish with the estate’s reserva wine, and find its aroma matches the sweet honeysuckle around the garden.
2. The gin producer
“All my gins are made using a fresh Portuguese fruit,” says António Cuco, a former teacher who’s now Portugal’s best-known new-wave gin-maker. Using an adapted pressure cooker as a still, he made his first gin using the native Bravo de Esmolfe apple, a variety he was introduced to when his grandmother gave him an apple at a fair.
“Gin is the spirit with the most amount of flavour profiles you can find,” he says, as I follow him into Sharish Gin’s modern distillery. The copper still emits a soft humming noise and a hot fug of citrus and fruity aromas. Each still is heated from underneath by a blue flame, and long spouts gush clear alcohol, labelled, variously, as lemon, Rocha pear, coriander and strawberry.
I follow him out into the ‘infusion room’, which has a subtle aroma of spices and fruit, and boxes neatly stacked floor to ceiling. “Here’s where everything starts,” he grins, striding around and pulling out different tubs to show me their contents — apples, limes, raspberries from the coast, cinnamon, juniper, cloves, white pepper — all of which will be distilled to extract essential oils for use as aromatics.
There are also boxes of tangerines and oranges from the trees outside the distillery — their rind softly perfumed — and lemons that António’s friends bring him in exchange for gin. “Coming in here and picking different aromas is really fun,” he says, opening a box of local lavender and fanning the aroma at me.
Later, at Sharish Gin’s inhouse bar, António fills a large glass with ice and daintily adds a couple of fresh raspberries. He pours in Blue Magic, his infamous midnight blue gin, dyed by the petals of a pea flower.
As he adds the tonic and stirs, the citrus reacts with the gin and magically turns it to purple and then soft pink. The cool aromas are sweet and floral, with a hint of cucumber that transports me to a summery garden.
3. A culinary legend
Before I left Lisbon, a friend advised me: “If you want true Alentejo food, find Isabel and her restaurant Sabores de Monsaraz.” So here I am, driving up a steep road to the medieval white-washed village of Monsaraz, whose hilltop position was once fought over by the Moors, the Spanish and the Knights Templar.
Perched on the edge of the hill, Sabores de Monsaraz has quite a view — a vast open plain running to the Spanish border, reminiscent of an African savannah. Isabel is a local legend, known for her hospitality and authentic regional cooking, and today the restaurant is buzzing with the chatter of local families.
Before I’ve even ordered, a waiter brings me the standard ‘couvert’ — an array of regional produce comprising cured cheese, spicy black pork chouriço and olives, plus pão alentejano, the wood-fired bread that’s a staple here and, historically, an important stomach-filler.
To this I add creamy young cheese with watercress and olive oil, and a fruity red wine from the nearby São Lourenço do Barrocal estate. And, as I start feeling a little full, Isabel appears grinning, imploring me to eat more.
For my main, I order one of the region’s most popular exports: migas, a savoury bread pudding made using day-old bread soaked in the juices of either pork or bacalhau (cod), then mixed with olive oil, garlic and coriander, plus the meat or fish. Isabel’s version — migas gatas com bacalhau — arrives steaming, the flaky cod and bread oozing garlicky olive oil. It comes with black pork medallions in a rich gravy with sweet baby onions and rice with sultanas.
Having eaten what seems a mountain of food, I go to pay but find myself hovering over the dessert counter, contemplating a custardy flan that Isabel identifies as sericaia, a regional egg pudding. Within seconds, she cuts me a huge wobbling slice and ladles over plums in syrup. But she’s not finished yet. After dashing over to a cupboard, she pulls out a bottle of light green liquid, her own pennyroyal liqueur. “Saúde,” she says, giggling as she hands me a brimming shot.
4. A tale of two ‘talhas’
Following Ricardo’s lead, I swill a light, peachy coloured liquid around my glass. Floral aromas give way to a crisp, fruity flavour and a buttery aftertaste that spreads warmly.
The grape under the spotlight is touriga nacional, one of Portugal’s best-known varieties, which can be used for making reds, rosés and sparkling wines. “It’s one of the few varieties in the world that brings both fruity and floral characteristics,” explains Ricardo.
Right now, it’s also the perfect antidote to the 35C heat beating down on the rows of vines at Herdade das Servas. Ricardo Constantino, the head winemaker, and the vineyard’s owner Carlos Serrano Mira, guide me through half a dozen bottles at a shady table. We rove from citrussy whites with hints of apple towards deep reds that remind me of blackcurrants, then back to the touriga nacional, this time in the guise of a red. In fact, it’s not just red but dark as black treacle, with the taste of red berries, violets and cinnamon, and a soft, malty flavour to finish.
In this part of Portgual, it’s so hot that at Herdade das Servas, the grapes are harvested under moonlight and transferred to the winery before natural fermentation can take hold in the fields. Thankfully, Alentejo has many grape varieties that have adapted to these conditions, which generally produce wines with distinct, ripe, fruity flavours.
After the tasting, I tour the winery, an impressive warehouse with stone baths for crushing grapes by foot, tall steel fermenting vats and a cellar of oak barrels. People have been making wine in Alentejo for more than 2,000 years, and while it’s not as renowned as the Douro Valley, it produces some of Portugal’s best bottles. Carlos and his brother Luís are the 14th generation of their family to make wine; their ancestors used huge clay pots called talhas for fermentation. Two such talhas, belonging to the family and dating to the 1600s, now stand outside the vineyard’s office as symbols of this heritage. But, with 350 hectares, eight terroirs and a large modern winery, this winemaking enterprise has certainly embraced the modern age.
5. Historic herbs
Whether it’s cured cheese rolled in oregano or pork migas infused with coriander, Alentejo’s food is brought alive by the herbs found in gardens, in hedgerows and along riverbanks. These herbs are also farmed, as I discover at Be Aromatic, a three-hectare holding near Évora, where I walk in the evening light between rows of lavender, lemon verbena and sage.
“We have a bit of everything here,” says Rute Porto, the farm’s owner, indicating a sweep of silvery plants blooming tiny white flowers. “Pineapple sage, peppermint, lemon grass…” She dives into a low bushy plant and retrieves a sprig. “It’s oregano marjoram.” I rub the leaves, which release a punchy, citrussy aroma. We continue down a dirt path, Rute picking stems as we go: there’s lemon thyme that smells like sweet lemonade, peppermint so fresh it takes my breath, and common thyme, which has hints of liquorice and honeysuckle.
With each offering comes a tip: savory should be cooked with beans to aid digestion; French lavender will bring out sweetness in desserts; tomilho bela-luz boosts flavours and reduces the need for salt. “We use herbs a lot because we don’t have money for anything,” says Rute. “So we cook with herbs and what’s in the fields — just water, garlic and herbs can be the basis of a good soup.”
Before I leave, I sample Rute’s ‘medicinal syrups’ — homemade herbal liqueurs. The first includes pennyroyal, a minty herb; it reminds me of sweet coffee. The second, an amber-hued lemon grass tipple, tastes of tangerines and sunshine.