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Beira Baixa: Roads Less Traveled

Editor’s Note: In this PART I of “Beira Baixa: Roads Less Traveled” we delve into the area’s challenges while highlighting its largest private wine producer in the Cova da Beira wine region. In Part II, we’ll explore more about its wines, and pair two with a regional dish.  

I have this fear that one day the primeval hamlet of Bemposta do Campo, in the Beira Baixa region of Central Portugal where my mother’s family is from, will disappear. Sometimes, I feel as if it was a mirage to begin with or that it’s a top-secret destination that my family guards and sustains simply with love and memories. I may sound mad, but there is somewhat of a basis for my fear. For the last 30 years or so, there has been a significant decline in population in these villages from North to South and in between. There are some with only 70 to 200 residents and most of them elderly folks. This has led to closing of schools and lands left uncared for. There are times I think all of Beira Baixa will fade into nonexistence.

There are, of course, endless socio-economic factors and such at play here. And though the scenario has been grim at times as tourists opt instead for coastal experiences, for example, or residents migrate to the big cities or abroad, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Tourists in the recent past have been seeking more authentic rural lifestyle-based escapades that these interior villages can provide, coupled with centuries of history and gastronomical one-of-a-kinds. Younger generations choked by the high-cost living in urban areas have sprung up in these forgotten lands as well, taking advantage of quality living far from traffic jams, more space and in many cases a manageable two-hour drive to the cultural hubs of Lisbon and Porto. Some have started up businesses, while for the first time in their lives taking a stab at farming on fields, usually inherited from their grandparents. Case and point is my cousin Nelson, who moved his family from Vialonga in the outskirts of Lisbon, to open up a car repair shop in Idanha-a-Nova, one of the more prosperous Beira Baixa villages, and has planted fruit trees and vines in a nearly abandoned piece of land in Bemposta that belonged to our grandparents. His parents have retired in Bemposta, too, building a home where our grandparents’ stables used to stand. My parents are immigrants living in America, but own a vacation home in neighboring Pedrogao de Sao Pedro and twice a year return, taking care of a picturesque piece of land my grandfather grew his vineyard on. My other cousin Paulo Jorge, an executive living in Vialonga, is building a summer home smack in the middle of grounds that I and my nearly 30-something cousins played on as kids while our grandparents planted, watered and picked crops.My uncle, who is retired from the Portuguese Navy, has also built a vacation home and planted vines in Bemposta. His son, Bruno Caldeira, has promoted Bemposta through the “Bemposta on the Road” photo exhibit that has visited London, Helsinki, Tallinn and Compostela de Santiago. It’s a beautiful thing. Is it enough though? I’m not sure. But it’s something.

The villages in the enigmatic Beira Baixa are probably at even greater risk than say the interior villages of the sought-after Alentejo in the south where Lisbonites and others have been purchasing traditional country homes called “montes” as the trend picked up in recent years. Beira Baixa, however, may share blame for not always marketing itself enough, which is thankfully gradually changing. The big success story is the push for the coveted cheese from the Serra da Estrela, which has helped the national park and the villages it cradles stand out. But Serra da Estrela villages fall both under Beira Baixa and Beira Alta. Confusing, I know, which is why calling either one just Beira Interior, as it’s sometimes done, can be messy. They’re distinctly divided as North and South, similar to Upper and Lower Alentejo. But in terms of wine, to distinguish it from the established Dao wine region in Beira Alta, the three wine sub-regions (Castelo Rodrigo, Cova da Beira, and Pinhel) in Beira Baixa are denominated Beira Interior D.O.C.

There have been more efforts by locals and national celebrities, like Catarina Furtado, touting her Beira Baixa origins on TV, which helps educate about the region. Her roots are in Penamacor, considered the county Bemposta belongs to. The district is Castelo Branco, the main city in the area. In general the Beira Baixa remains an anomaly to most. Even the accent is unique with a lisp-like “sh” similar to our Spanish cousins, but without switching the “B” for a “V” and vice versa as they do in Beira Alta, which helps pinpoint more quickly where those folks are from. There’s also the Beira Litoral (to make matters more complicated) which completes the three Beiras. But the latter is coastal and home to the heralded Coimbra University, Figueira da Foz beach and the “Venice of Portugal” Aveiro, so it gets plenty of play.

The confusion crosses oceans, too. In Portuguese communities in America, it’s a rarity to bump into someone from Castelo Branco among the vast regions represented. Tell them you’re “Albicastrense” and watch the blank stares widen. Hardly any immigrants I have met here realize that those born in Castelo Branco district are Albicastrenses. The stares lessen when you simplify that you’re near Serra da Estrela, whose residents have built a name for themselves in these communities.

This identity crisis spills over into the wine industry in the Beira Baixa. In 2009 when the RTP network’s wine show “Hora de Baco” visited Quinta dos Termos in Enguias in the county of Belmonte, which is one of the larger and very delightful Beira Baixa villages with the greatest Jewish community in Portugal and the birthplace of Pedro Alvares Cabral who discovered Brazil. It’s also where my father’s paternal family is originally from. The show interviewed the then oenologist Virgilio Loureiro as well as the proprieter and wine producer Joao Carvalho at Quinta dos Termos, the biggest private producers of the Cova da Beira wine region where there are many more other wines to discover. But Quinta dos Termos Seleccao 2007 red was the only Beira Interior wine named to Tom Cannavan’s 50 Great Wines of Portugal in London this summer.

In some ways, the Beira Baixa shares the same challenges Portugal has faced all along when marketing its brands internationally.  Often overshadowed by more easily identifiable countries, like Italy, Spain and France, as wine quality has increased and the marketing gained momentum in the last few years, it’s finally getting some attention. The hope is that Beira Baixa’s story will unfold similarly. But it may face an even greater hurdle that Loureiro poignantly underlined. He lamented that the Beira Baixa is practically undiscovered by the Portuguese let alone the world. A shame, Loureiro argued explaining that the Beira Baixa’s hilly landscape is special and unlike any other in the country. Its lands are wrapped by the Serra da Estrela and Gardunha mountains and peppered with wild pine forests and a soil rich in granite. It’s also where rivers like the Zezere begin before flowing into the Tagus River in Lisbon. And, it has a continental climate with scorching summers and very cold winters, a winning recipe for some of the most notable wine-producing regions in the world. One great example is France’s Burgundy wine region.

And as we come full circle, I tap my original point that it’s the returning native sons and daughters that are breathing new life into the villages of the Beira Baixa, which also applies to local wine success stories like Quinta dos Termos. This venture has thrived because Carvalho invested the fruits of his day job labors in a vineyard that at its core is the house he was born in.

In Part II of our travels through the Beira Baixa, we’ll taste two Quinta dos Termos’ reds my father was kind enough to bring back from one of his trips to Portugal. We’ll pair them with a regional dish that I prepared with my mother. We spent long hours in the kitchen, which transported me to the bygone days when my late grandmother’s daughters—my mother and her five sisters came together to prepare rustic meals for the whole family, while we kids peeked inside in between the commotion we caused playing along the narrow, cobblestoned streets that in despite of my fears haven’t disappeared.

Cheers,

Sonia Andresson-Nolasco

 

 

 

  • Troy

    thanks so much for posting this…the saudades are incredibly strong.  my first month-long visit was in November and I learned not to take for granted that the villages I visited would actually be inhabited.  I hope people like your family give these villages a future.

  • http://twitter.com/reddishSonia Sonia Nolasco

    Thanks (obrigada) for reading Troy!!!! I had hoped to visit this November. I love the Beira Baixa in November. It’s mushroom season! There are all sorts of mushroom festivals, and a large one is in Fundao, another lovely Beira Baixa village, home to the best cherries in the country; some say the world! My trip, unfortunately will have to wait until the spring though, but there are other wonders to enjoy then. 

  • http://twitter.com/AndreaInWine AndreaInWine

    Wow, look at all the info! Thanks so much Sonia, I’ll definitely check these out and see if I can plan a trip late next month!

    • http://twitter.com/reddishSonia Sonia Nolasco

      You’re very welcome, Andrea!

  • http://twitter.com/sinnercitizen Pedro Almeida

    Sonia, much like you i have a umbilical connection to the Beira Baixa region… my father is from a small village, some 15 kms north of Belmonte. So i spent much of my summers there, even tough i resided (and still do…) some 310 kms south, in Setúbal! The village is much like those you described, few permanent residents and very old age. This summer i met a very old lady, some 100 years old(she couldn’t be accurate!!) that had a sharp as razors mind, even tough her eyes just couldn’t keep up. I discovered that she was also the midwife (i guess this is the accurate word for parteira, in english…) of my youngest aunt. And she is almost 60 years old!! Speaking of the wines, Quinta dos Termos, i visited the vineyards and the aging cellar September last year. I was surprised to learn that they didn’t even started the harvest, when most of the country (i was at Niepoort’s only a week early..) was full steam ahead. “No, we here take it slowly. It’s only 900 meters of altitude so things here take its time”, so said the very nice lady who showed us around. Those two wines you show in the picture i bought them on site, as well as the unbelievably good sparkling wine. 100% Baga. My God, what strenght and character… and for those tempted to give it a go at this almost forgotten region of Portugal, i say this: go to the small villages around the Estrela Valley national Park, visit Guarda and its Cathedral, dine in Valhelhas or have a dip in the natural swimming pools of the Valhelhas Camp site. Or go to Foz Coa and try to enter Vale Meão. I know i tried!!

    • http://twitter.com/reddishSonia Sonia Nolasco

      Hi Pedro! Thanks so much for reading and for sharing your own Beira Baixa experiences. What an incredible story about the midwife (you got it, that’s how you say it in English). I’m always amazed at what I learn when I engage in conversations with these ancient natives. Oftentimes they can’t read or write, but are innately savvy. That’s how it was with my grandparents. My grandmother was a tremendous businesswoman but couldn’t spell her own name. I will dive a bit more into the two bottles of wine from Quinta dos Termos in Part II, and when I return to Portugal I hope to visit them as well and taste more of their offerings. And thanks for your visiting suggestions, they sound like true adventures!! By the way I’m a fan of Setubal. My husband’s grandparents, originally from Alentejo live in Palmela, and we love Adega do Ze in Setubal for some migas and chocos.

      • http://twitter.com/sinnercitizen Pedro Almeida

        Regarding the unliteracy (there is a lot, everywhere in Portugal) the story that runs in Seixo Amarelo(that’s the name of the village, by the way…) is that one day, a goverment appointed teacher to the region fell in love with a guy from there and decided to live in Seixo. So when they went looking for a new teacher, they didn’t had to look very far. Every single kid in that village, that was in school age at the time ( we are talking here, mid fifties, early sixties), no matter the fact that most of them helped the family in the surrounding farms and what not, learned to read and write and were one of the highest achievements in the district at the time, when EVERY single one of them passed the fourth grade exam, which at the time was a huge achievement! So, many kids, these days grown up men, most of them fought in the colonial war still remember that specific teacher. I know my father does. He endlessly talks about the many times he got “hammered” with the giant wooden ruler!

        As for your love of Setúbal, well… you know that place you liked so much, MXL(yes, i read your other posts…) its now closed. But it still his one of the best places, south of Lisbon to eat. And the beaches are still some of the best in the country. To me, one of the best places to eat in Setubal is right at the end of the Todi Avenue, towards the Arrabida beaches. For choco and some other specialties i always go to “O Convés” restaurant. It has this Seafood Cataplana … i lack the words… 

        • http://twitter.com/reddishSonia Sonia Nolasco

          Thanks Pedro for another Beautiful story….Full of character! I bet my father knows where Seixo Amarelo is since he has a lot of family in Belmonte and spent time there as a kid vacationing (time split between Mangualde) when he would visit from Angola where he was born. It was actually my fellow Catavino contributor Andrea Smith who wrote about MXL…but it did sound like a really nice place. Too bad I won’t get to see it. Thanks for reading our stuff in general though :) I will certainly look for “O Conves” when we’re in Setubal next time. Seafood Cataplana is right up my alley. I also liked going to Sesimbra and want to return again. Last time we went to O Velho e o Mar. But I wanted to try this other place off the beaten patch called PraiaMar. Ever eat there?

          • http://twitter.com/sinnercitizen Pedro Almeida

            Sonia, you can’t miss Seixo. If you are on top of Belmonte’s castle and face north, you will see a series of eolic towers on top of the mountain ridge. The first village bellow the towers is called Gonçalo and the other tiny spec of people on the right and a bit higher is Seixo. There isn’t much to see in Seixo, but you can always taste the magnificent water and newly refurbished church.

            In Sesimbra i have never eaten in either places that you mention , but i have heard good things of both. In Sesimbra and surrounding areas i prefer Meco or Alfarim to eat. Sesimbra is much too small, crowded and with non existent parking for my taste.

          • http://twitter.com/reddishSonia Sonia Nolasco

            When I’m in Belmonte I will face north :) Other than a cold beer from time to time and a gingerale when I MUST drink soda, my two favorite drinks in the world are wine and water, so if Seixo’s got magnificent water that’s music to my ears. As for Sesimbra, we went at night, pretty late, so there weren’t any crowds. I also think it was a week night, so maybe that had something to do with it. Maybe we’ll just keep doing it that way to avoid all the commotion you’re referring to.

          • http://twitter.com/sinnercitizen Pedro Almeida

            Trust me, in the summer(or any other time of the year), week nights is the time to go, if you must go to Sesimbra. Other than its great fish and shellfish restaurants, i lack to see the fun or charm in Sesimbra… But then again its maybe just me!

            I forgot to mention this one place i ate, that isn’t too far either from Setúbal or Sesimbra. The easiest route, if you’re coming from Setúbal is to take the EN10, towards Azeitão and just after you exit the mountain range of Arrábida and you see the Bacalhoa Palace, take the very first street to its right, immediatly before the Palace. I cant remember the name of the place (it has something to do with Vinho…) but they had the most magnificent rack of lamb  in the world, seared with honey and Moscatel… that same lamb had been slaughtered at dawn that very same day… the restaurant had no refrigerator, it was the freshest meat and vegetables i ever had in my life! I remember my wife had the Dourada grilled with tomatoes and oregaõs… 

          • http://twitter.com/reddishSonia Sonia Nolasco

            My goodness that Lamb with Moscatel sounds mouthwatering. If you happen to remember the name let me know, but I will try to find it anyway. I roast my duck with moscatel but I have never had lamb with moscatel. Thanks for the suggestion!

          • http://twitter.com/reddishSonia Sonia Nolasco

            Pedro, I did an online search and based on your description a restaurant called “Pe de Vinho” came up. Does that sound right?

          • http://twitter.com/sinnercitizen Pedro Almeida

            That’s it!! Pe de Vinho!! I remember the owner was serving the tables, was a bit tipsy, because he had just bought a 20ft ship container, filled with italian sparkling wine!! Never saw a happier man, waiting tables!

          • http://twitter.com/reddishSonia Sonia Nolasco

            All that wine would make a waiter (or anybody for that matter) a happy man!!!!! Thanks again for the suggestion, it’s on my list for our next trip for sure. Have a nice weekend.

          • http://twitter.com/AndreaInWine AndreaInWine

            That’s right haha, and man do I miss MXL!!  It’s a shame what happened, the owners had an argument so it was shut down and now it’s been stuck in the legal process for a couple years now :(  My boyfriend Miguel, is from Setúbal and we just about go there every weekend to visit his family, I love going to the local restaurants to eat choco frito, one of our favorites is Rebarca, on the restaurant row at the end of Av. Luisa Todi across from the ferry boat.  Sesimbra is also great for shellfish, if you haven’t read my previous post about it you should check it out, the best place to go is Restaurante Praia Mar :)

          • http://twitter.com/reddishSonia Sonia Nolasco

            Oh what a treat to visit Setubal every weekend, Andrea :) Glad to hear Praia Mar is a good choice. I have been wanting to visit ever since I stopped by and it was under renovation. I’ll check out Rebarca too! I’m putting together a list of places to visit for our trip next spring. My list is getting super long ….

  • Zev Robinson

    Great post, Sonia, captured Beira Baixa and its history very nicely. Hope to get there in there not too distant future.

    • http://twitter.com/reddishSonia Sonia Nolasco

      Thanks so much Zev!