North Alentejo, Discovering Flavours
|Planning a gastronomic tour for visitors is not as simple as first appears. What are their tastes? What is the purpose for their visit? How much time do they have available? Are they on a package tour, or are they looking for freedom, for surprises, for new discoveries or, even, solitude? Well, reader, I have a little secret to confess: I am a permanent tourist in my land, Alentejo.
If you carry on reading, you will perhaps discover how I travel through these regions. If the city of Oporto is a nation, as they say in the Cidade Invicta ("Unconquered City"), the same can be said by those of us who inhabit one third of the Portuguese territory, an area nearly as large as Guinea Bissau or Belgium. Alentejo is a land of diversity and North Alentejo is a box of surprises.
It is tempting to belittle this region, lying beyond the Tagus, by painting it in terms of its plain, its slow, drawling chants and its dry, barren land, beaten by a merciless sun and fustigated by the cold winds of the Meseta. Happily, however, things are not so straightforward; the imposing choruses belong down there in the South, ebbing like a soft tide on the skirts of Serra d'Ossa.
Up here we sing "Saias" (musical monologues or dialogues accompanied by one or two instruments), and should you by chance end up in Campo Maior, you may have a stroke of luck and resonate to the singing of both simple and complex verses, sung in chorus to the accompaniment of castanets, "viola campaniria", mouth organ or even a harmonica or a concertina.
Like in the rest of the Alentejo you will still eat "arcordas" and "migas". It is at this point that you will encounter a "philosophical" conundrum: acorda is a soup whose consistency derives from large bits of bread (made from locally produced wheat) floating in a broth scented by wild herbs (coriander or pennyroyal) crushed with garlic and dotted with sprays of the finest olive oil. Is that it?
Well, if you start making enquiries, a month would not suffice to list all the possible side ingredients, ranging from the simple olive, through cod, whiting, barbecued sardines, to fruits such as figs and grapes. Or perhaps ...a mixture of one or more of these ingredients. Migas, also a winter dish, is a paste made from the same bread, wrapped and cooked in the fat of various fried pork meats, which will themselves be served with the migas, until it has the consistency of a ball or a roll.
|So, what is the problem? Well the problem lies in the fact that the rest of Portugal gives the name of ar;orda to some "thing" similar to our "migas" and insists on giving the nickname of "migas" to an insipid version of our "arcorda". Wars have started for less in other latitudes... And during the rigours of Summer you will have the chance to be delighted by that cold delicacy that goes by the name of "caspacho", both a phonetic and a culinary variant of the gaspacho that equally delights our neighbours in Spanish Extremadura and in Andalucia.
While it is all practically the same (throughout the region)...there are differences. I can think of three words to define true North Alentejo cuisine: precision, quality and originality. The precision is present in the preparation of dishes and the handling of products, with a special mention to the preparation of cheeses and cured meats and sausages.
The quality of the raw materials: pork, lamb and kid are outstanding in this respect, as is the quality of the olive oil. Originality is present, above all, in the creation of "petiscos" (side dishes) and small starters whose rich and surprising flavours win us over to the point that we do not finish them until the end of the meal. And sweets? AlvaroCunqueiro, the encyclopaedic Galician gastronome, wrote that there are only two European confectioneries in the field, Slavonic and Portuguese, with the only defect in our sweets being our immoderate use of egg!
We are happy with this verdict, licking those fingers that will help into our mouths the unsurpassable heritage left by the convents of Portalegre, Elvas, Monforte, Arronches and others which I am, as yet, ignorant of. All these delicacies have their origins in Alentejo, but throughout generations they have been refined, producing some subtle differences.
However, the reader who is unable to make such distinctions will be just as happy with the discovery and leave the rest for lay epicures, common food critics, now that there are no longer any abbots or abbesses. The one thing I cannot guarantee is that you will find these fruits of Paradise in an instant, but with determination you may find people willing to open some doors.
The local population (and here is a hint) must be convinced that the "researcher" is looking for the joy of discovery and that he respects local customs. On the other hand, there is no need to be too obvious or over-enthusiastic. For the Alentejano, some well-thought-out words, preceded first by silence, are worth more than many speeches. And there is no harm in looking people straight in the eye.
You may get the odd surprise, of course, as it is easy to find "emigres" from other parts who have established small communities, "refugees" from civilisation. Refugees from civilisation, eh? Or rather, should we say, in search of it... If this happens, there is nothing else to do but to say, from behind the wheel of your 4-wheel drive (paraphrasing the old English saying) "Mister Silva, I presume!..." But, let's get back to the subject of food.
Although some "modern" restaurants will serve you anything at any time of year, you ought to know that regional dishes are very much seasonal. Therefore, your choice of food must be compatible with the time of year in which you are travelling. So here is another hint: migas with pork do not mix with a temperature of 400 degrees in the shade, and the locals will purse their lips in bemusement if you insist on having gaspacho during the Christmas season.
You are not, ofcourse, expected to deprive yourself of cheeses, cured meats and sausages, although the quality does vary throughout the year. In the same way, you cannot compare Easter lamb with that slaughtered in August and September, especially if fate has thrown you a frozen piece of meat imported from some far-off place.
You should not forget, either, that you are in an area with some important reservoirs, and I am only telling you because it is worth your while looRing around the vicinity (sometimes right there on the lakeside) for certain places that are easily missed, where you will be served some excellent fish soups and some fine grills and barbecues. I know of one place where they barbecue carp and you won't find a single fish bone! And I will say one more thing.
The north of Alentejo is bounded, obviously, by the Tagus and, at least for now, you can still find fish, even lamprey. Nevertheless, it is time to leave the element of water and return to the countryside. Let us speak now, with your permission, of pig, pork, swine, piglet, sucking-pig and of a dozen other names with which this noble animal has been baptised.
Even if fate (or ill-fate, I should say) gives you a specimen reared in some industrial pig-sty, you ought to try the Iberian Pig, fed on acorns from the holm-oak. Just an observation, the meat is darker (but not quite as dark as boar) and has a great number of fatty layers. It is this that stands out in the ham or the paio de lombo (a type of sausage made from back) that is made from this type of pork. The texture is completely different from mass- -produced pork and it has a much more succulent flavour.
When you want to ask for this product, the common name is "porco preto de boloto". A bit more expensive, it is worth paying the difference. Let the reader imagine that instead of buying a lottery ticket he meets an independent sausage maker who still makes something called "Poio Bronco".
This is back, seasoned with just garlic and salt and then wrapped in "veils" (tiez of the pig) and cured out in the open air. While this technique is used throughout Alentejo, the area through which you are travelling has, in my opinion, unrivalled mastery of this produce. And it is as difficult to find as the Holy Grail, because the making of these things has received no encouragement.
Another rarity is "cobeca de xara", a type of "golontine" which reaches the height of perfection in Portalegre. It is true that I have eaten similar dishes in England (with plums), in Belgium (fromage de tete) and in France. Some women in Alentejo even call it "tete d'achard", trying to give themselves airs. It is an excellent starter, combining the meat from a piglet's head with spices and aromatic herbs (especially marjoram, sage and parsley).
You should, however, refuse particularly fatty slices, since this is a marketing trick to augment quantity. As far as cured meats and sausages are concerned; I am of the opinion that those from North Alentejo are unbeatable; poios. buchos. morcelos. forinheiros (don't forget the black forinheiro while it is fresh). It is almost an aphorism, but I would say that on this subject, in the Alentejo, the further North you go, the better it becomes...until you reach the Tagus.
But...Please, avoid the impulse of asking questions like "So, what is typical of the region?" Stop the car, greet people with a measure of humility and ask where you can get a quick bite, eat lingui~o, etc. If you like it, ask the man from the "vendo" (a typical roadside or village shop, with a tavern or bar next to it) where you can make a purchase.
It could even be that he will say "don't bother looking anywhere else -I'll sell you some myself. Hey! Leopoldina - get a linguica for this gentleman." This is unlikely in some elegant Portalegre or Elvas restaurant, but in a village or on the roadside...it is possible. With cheeses...it is the same.
Thanks to the Protected Denomination of Origin, everyone talks about Nisa cheese. But the area extends some way beyond that of the district council, and even outside the political boundaries, there are people here and there who rear sheep and goats, hand-milk them, and who curdle the milk with cardoon and wait the right length of time for the cheese to be cured before putting it on sale.
Here is another hint: you have stopped in Nisa, Alpalhclo, Tolosa, etc. And you would like some of "that cheese"? In that case, sidle up to that old man who is sitting there in the town square, cogitating philosophically, or who, in the evenings, is sitting on a chair by his door, and discreetly confess, as if a little ashamed, that you once tried a certain cheese...and that nothing like it ever passed through your lips again.
At first, the man scratches his head, strokes his three- -day old beard and says "ah, well, there's nothing like that nowadays." Do not give up -"Ok, never mind, but even something approaching it " The "interviewee" asks his neighbour for ideas -"Does Chico still make cheese?" "Which Chico?" "The one down there with the small plot!" "Ah!" (pause) "Don't know about that, maybe, wasn't he going round selling it on Wednesday?"
After this systematic bout of doubts and maybes (Alentejanos are only decisive on very special occasions) the information will be given out -"if you turn down that street, it's the red gate." Dear reader, you have paio, you have cheese (happily, bread is still easy to find).
Now you need some wine. Call this a problem? You are in the promised land. For convenience, all wines from this region are generically referred to as Portalegre wines. As may be. However, you can find good wine almost everywhere. In wine cellars, vineyards (vin de chateau, for those who like these things in French), even from the local, independent producer, whose wine, we concede, may be some way off the international palate, with high alcoholic content, full-bodied (even the whites), but also full of personality.
These are wines to savour with food, combining in the palate with the strong aromas and flavours of the cuisine. The golden rule here, as with everything else, is to keep on searching, as it could happen that you might not be served the best quality to start with. Sometimes our judgement is put on trial, to ensure we are worthy of tasting the divine nectar.
There are, of course, a number of well-established labels, about which there are no doubts, quality varying only according to the harvests. Reserve wines with legal guarantees as to length of ageing (and with the added guarantee of the honesty of those responsible for production and bottling and of wine co-operatives) are a sure bet. Some are a bit expensive, but what the ...! You will have paid a lot more for a Chateau-Lafitte. Earlier, I mentioned that North Alentejo dishes are seasonal. Here are some randomly-selected suggestions.
At the time of year when pigs are slaughtered (January -February), cocho/o broth made with pig entrails, pig's blood, fat, spices, eaten with bread and orange segments to mellow the taste. At Easter, sorapote/-lamb or kid, the blood of the animal, spices and the ubiquftous wheat bread -sheep brains and, in the country fairs on the Monday and Tuesday following Easter Sunday, roast young lamb or goat (normally the leg).
In the Summer, gaspacho and the endless side dishes, stews, fried fish and salads and home-made farmhouse chicken and tomato. In the Winter, the aforementioned orcordos and migos, the light broth "sapo de panes" made in the region with a turkey base and with mint added for fragrance. Now let us go on to the sweets: In Elvas, sericoio, or serico (a sweet originating in convents), although it can be found throughout the region. Queijodos (cheesecake) made from sheep's curd.
During Carnival, nogados (cakes made with nuts, almonds, walnuts, etc.), filhos (deep-fried dough), or as my grandmother and sister used to say: one filho, two filhozes, and boleimas (simple cakes). At Easter, leaven cakes and, from the same dough, folores (Easter pudding) moulded so as to represent various shapes and figures. Logortos (leaven cakes in the shape of a lizard) are obligatory and are stuffed with one or two boiled eggs.
They are decorated with coloured ribbons around the neck (a lizard with collar as if it were a small dog, this could only happen in Alentejo) and almonds down the spine. Even these days it is possible to see women at Easter-time carrying great trays made of leaves, full of leaven cakes and Easter puddings on their way to the baker's oven.
At Christmas, they make flounders, generally stuffed with chickpea and sweet pumpkin. Here and there, you can find tecolameco on the menu. I cannot torment you by promising that which you cannot find easily. Convent sweets have only survived, in the main, enshrined within recipe books passed from mother to daughter.
We must wait until local councils promote the disclosure of this information and for some interest from restaurant owners and confectioners. Should some family throw their doors open to you in a hospitable and great-hearted welcome, then you will certainly notice the difference between sericoio made for commercial consumption in restaurants and the real sweet (its original name is serico), that may still be placed in the oven in tin trays.
As I do not wish to seduce you with mere fiction, I won't promise you manjar branco or its variant, manjar real. I just cannot see the great-grandniece of some Clarissa nun from Portalegre patiently plucking the breast of a farmhouse chicken (and it does take so long to cook), grinding rice into a fresh, fine flour and, after this laborious preparation, offer the creamy spread on a porcelain platter, inherited from some Colonial India Officer... I have been told that they have started making sweets made from eggs again, just like in the fairs of my childhood... My only intention has been to sharpen your appetite and your interest in discovery.
And should you by chance meet some fellows dressed in blue capes and wide-brimmed hats, they are members of the North Alentejo Gastronomic Society. Ask them questions, as they will enlighten you. With this first trip you will lay the foundations for future journeys, which I'm sure you'll make. Because Alentejo, like an onion, has many layers to uncover.
Courtesy of Tourism Region of Sao Mamede