It’s fun to travel on well beaten paths, to those places in the world where there is little not to like, and where there is plenty to see and do between extraordinary meals. But, it’s also fun to get off of that route, into places where “nobody” goes, that is, nobody other than people in the know. One of these areas is the Alentejo Region, a mere couple of hours away from Lisbon by car (on good roads), known as the breadbasket of Portugal.
Recommended to myMEGusta by author Jean Anderson (The Food of Portugal, and numerous other books and articles including http://www.saveur.com/article/travels/the-food-of-alentejo-portugal ), Alentejo was a treasure trove of good eats and beautiful sights.
The Alentejo is a large (for Portugal) expanse of land east of Lisbon, traditionally a not-so-wealthy agricultural area, studded with ancient fortified hilltop castles and convents, many of which have been converted to “pousadas”, country inns in varying levels of luxury. The European Union’s funding of major highways make it easily accessible, and GPS is a good friend in navigating the back roads and byways.
It is the home of Porco Preto, the local breed of black pigs who spend their lives roaming around eating ample portions of acorns, and their rich, flavorful meat is a fixture on menus throughout the region.
As in other wine districts around the world, investors have created star worthy restaurants and elaborate estates amongst the vineyards here. Two particularly memorable lunches were at the Herdade do Esporao and Herdade do Grous. Speaking of porco preto, the star of lunch at Esporao was porco preto three ways: Roasted shoulder (like suckling pig), fork tender loin cooked sous vide, and slow cooked, then crisped, pork belly, garnished with their garden vegetables.
Some of the most memorable dining was in little village spots. One tiny place in Evora, every table taken by locals, did not have the most elegant of cuisines, but their pork cheeks in red wine were like the best beef bourguignon, although the sauce was richer (Thank you, big Alentejo reds!) and the meat totally succulent. The sign read (translated): “We may not have a Michelin star, but we have the best pork cheeks in the world.”
Pork “Alentejo style” – chunks with clams, cilantro and garlic – is also ubiquitous, although myMEGusta has to admit that a recent sampling of this dish at Ipanema Restaurant in Manhattan was at least as good as she had in the region. Although the piggy was surely a standard US breed, the amazing flavor was probably due to the pork shoulder having marinated for a very long time in garlic. The accompanying black beans and rice were a reminder that this was a Brazilian, not Portuguese, restaurant.
Preserved porco preto, like a good jamon Iberico or prosciutto, usually appeared as a “cover” (amuse bouche for which one is charged) at lunch and dinner, a perfect preliminary for any meal.
A few thin slices between crisp bread slices was also a great way to start the day.
More on beautiful Portugal in future postings!