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Alentejo: A Gourmet”s Travel Guide

Welcome to Catavino’s Gourmet Guide to the Alentejo! This guide covers everything you need when travelling through the Alentejo, including the bites and the sites! If, however, you’re looking for a guided experience, check out our Alentejo food and wine tours or let us design a customized tour for you! 

Alentejo stole my heart a few years back. Vast, quiet with bright blue skies and fiery red sunsets, it made me weak at the knees. Dramatic coastline contrasted by vineyards, olive groves, bushy cork forests and golden plains in the interior, I was all about that! The dark night sky perfect for stargazing, the mysterious dolmens and menhirs, the ancient Roman ruins, and the castles and fortified villages perched on hilltops of times bygone got me. But it was those deep, bold red wines that age quietly in old cellars, that tasty porco preto, and the way the dense pão Alentajano absorbs all that beautiful extra virgin olive oil that finally won me over. I fell completely head over heels for this region and I think Alentejo felt the same for me, which is the reason I always go back.

Alentejo comes from the Portuguese meaning, “beyond the Tejo”, referring to the Rio Tejo (Tagus River). Located in central and southern Portugal, the region covers about one third of Portugal and has some amazing sights, incredible landscape, some of the best food in Portugal as well as the kindest and welcoming people, the Alentejanos.

Stretching from the Atlantic coast to the Spanish border, from the Tagus River to Algarve, there are many Alentejos: Alto Alentejo (travel tips), Baixo Alentejo (travel tips), and Alentejo Litoral (travel tips). From more mountainous topography to the north, plains to the south and 170kms of stunning coastline on the west, each area is slightly different making it an amazing place for different food and ingredients. Alentejo is home to the famous Iberian black pig that roams in the oak forests (montados). Cattle, sheep and goats also graze about in the endless pastures. Wine is produced widely and in large quantities in Alentejo, especially the robust red wines. Along the coast, the cool Atlantic breezes are perfect for making crisp white wines that go down real easy and pair amazingly well with the seafood and fresh fish in the seaside villages. Olive oil is a staple, like in much of Portugal, but Alentejo has some particularly good oil made from Galega and Cobrançosa olive varieties. And even though you can’t eat it, cork oaks (Sobreiros) cover Alentejo from top to bottom, from which corks are made (among other things) from the bark of said oaks.

The breadbasket of Portugal, most Alentejanos worked off the land, in agriculture and mining, for centuries but hard economic times in the mid-20th century pushed many to the Lisbon and abroad in search of work and better living conditions. A sparsely populated region, those that stayed continue to work off the land like their ancestors before them, carrying on with old traditions and reviving forgotten ones, like the Cante Alentejano, choral folk music sung without instruments. Despite their rough and tough demeanour, Alentejanos are some of the nicest human beings you will ever encounter. On the onset, they may appear cold or even suspicious as they try to figure you out. Walk through any small village in the Alentejo and locals will literally stop everything they are doing to stare as you walk by; inquisitive looks and blank stares with eyes that follow your every move. But behind all of that, they are kind, sweet, and enjoy the simple pleasures of life: food, wine, football. They take things slowly – de vagarinho – no rush, no stress, it’s the Alentejano way.

Alentejo Cuisine

Food is big deal in Alentejo, and even the pickiest traveler will find something that they’ll absolutely love in the Alentejano cuisine. Simple, wholesome food made from the best raw materials, Alentejanos know how to make the most of the ingredients they have, using them in imaginative ways and making sure nothing goes to waste.

Petiscos, those small shareable dishes, the Portuguese equivalent of tapas, are found in abundance in Alentejo and open up the appetite for the other dishes to come. Some typical Alentejano pesticos include torresmos (fried pork skin or pork belly), octopus salad, roasted mushrooms, pork ear, pork liver, chickpeas with bacalhau and many more little dishes to start you off.

There are fantastic cheeses to be found in Alentejo, made from goat and sheep milk and ranging from cured to creamy and everything in between. Three types of cheeses have DOP designation (strict production guidelines and location): Queijo Serpa, Queijo de Évora and Queijo de Nisa all of which you should definitely try.

Pão Alentejano, a dense wheat bread, accompanies every meal, is found on every table and sometimes is the main star of regional dishes such as the Açorda á Alentejana.  

We can’t go on talking about Alentejo food without mentioning the black pig, porco preto. The king of all meats, it reigns supreme in Alentejo and even has DOP designation. Fed off acorns and roaming freely through the forests of the south, the tasty and fatty black pork is absolutely delicious. You’ll want to taste your way through all of the different cuts, like lombinhos (pork loin), secretos, plumas (cutlets), entremeada, lagartos and so much more. Other meat dishes found in Alentejo include lamb (Borrego), costeletas (lamb chops), and ensopado de Borrego (lamb stew), while beef also plays its part in the local cuisine. Game can also be found on the Alentejo table, especially during hunting season, this includes rabbit, partridge and javali (wild boar). These tasty meaty products are usually served with migas (breadcrumb mix) and seasonal vegetables like wild asparagus, mushrooms, cauliflower and tomatoes.

Fish also has a spot on the Alentejano table. Coastal Alentejo has some amazing seafood and fresh fish, red bream, stone bass, sea bass, mackerel and sardines. Try the percebes (barnacles), mussels and clams. Also popular are rice dishes, risotto-style, with prawns, cuttlefish, and clams or many fish soups and stews, like caldeirada, and sopa de cação (dogfish stew). Inland, you can try some of the freshwater fish and lamprey.

While we’re on the soups topics, Alentejanos love their soups! From light soups for summer and heavier going, hearty soups for the winter, it’s almost universal to have soup during a meal. Some of the most common include sopa de tomate (tomato soup), codfish soup with sausage, purslane soup, and Canja á Alentejana (chicken soup), and even an Alentejo Gaspacho.

Finally, no Alentejo table is complete without wine. The second largest wine producing region in Portugal, wine flows freely and easily, helping to wash down all the tasty porco preto. Red wines usually have deep color and lots of red fruits popping out of the glass. They are typically blends made from Aragonez (you may be familiar with its Spanish name, Tempranillo), Trincadeira, Alicante Bouschet and Castelão. White wines are also made in Alentejo, from Antão Vaz, Arinto, and Roupeiro grapes. There are also international varieties you can find in Alentejo with Syrah doing particularly well in this region. For wine designations, there is Vinho Regional Alentejano and Vinho DOC Alentejo. The difference being that the DOC wines must come from 8 specific sub-regions of the Alentejo, and most follow certain criteria while Vinho Alentejano has different specifications. Both are equally good. Another cool thing to watch out for in Alentejo are vinhos de talha (clay pot wines/amphora wines). The Roman technique of storing wines in large clay pots is still an important tradition in Alentejo and has been maintained for thousands of years. Hundred year old amphorae can be found in adegas (wineries) of the Alentejo. Adega de José de Sousa in Reguengos de Monsaraz has the largest amphorae cellar (114 clay pots!) that are still used today. It’s a beautiful cellar that is open to visitors, well worth checking out.    

Must-try dishes in the Alentejo:

Caracois – snails, usually served in a garlicky sauce.

Ovos mechidos com espargos selvagens – scrambled eggs with wild asparagus or other seasonal vegetable.

Carne de porco à Alentejana – a Portuguese surf and turf, combining Alentejano pork and clams, with potatoes and coriander, marinated in a white wine and garlic sauce.

Açorda Alentejana – pão Alentejano bread soaked in broth made with garlic, olive oil and various herbs, cilantro and a poached egg on top.

Ensopado de borrego – braised lamb stew with a variety of ingredients and served on pão Alentejano to soak the soupy flavors.

Borrego assado – roasted lamb

Migas com carne de porco – migas translates to “crumbs”, the most common of which are breadcrumbs but there are tons of variations of migas, and usually served with Alentejano pork.

Favada real de caça – a hearty soup with fava beans, sausage, bacon and other cured meats, with local herbs.

Sweets, Pastries and Desserts

Alentejo has an abundance of sweet treats, known as doces conventuais, those that were made by nuns at the convents and usually consisting of egg yolks and sugar. Add to that some cinnamon, bread, milk, cheese, and almonds that are all plentiful in Alentejo and voila! you have the basis for many, many desserts. Here are some to try:

Pão de rala – an almond cake made with egg yolk and lemon zest.

Sericaia com ameixa – an egg pudding with sugar plums and cinnamon, best town to try this in Elvas

Toucinho rançoso dos santos – egg-and-almond dessert

Queijadas de Requeijão – made all over Portugal but Evora is known to produce these sweet cheese tart made from requeijão cheese (similar to ricotta), sugar and egg yolk.

Pastéis de toucinho – a small sweet pie stuffed with ground bacon (yes, bacon), almonds, egg yolks, sugar and cinnamon.

Alentejo Restaurants

Alentejo is such a huge region and there are so many good restaurants, tascas (taverns), small little cafes and hidden gems from top to bottom. However, there are many small towns that do not have restaurants at all, only the local café that may serve a few snacks here and there. You have more options in the bigger cities such as Evora, Estremoz, Elvas, Beja and Portalegre, and Vidigueira. Evora is probably the best city to start your gastronomic adventures with tons of restaurants to choose from and different range of prices. There are also many wineries than have restaurants on their estates, such as the Michelin starred restaurant, L’And Vineyards, as well as Herdade da Malhadinha Nova, Herdade dos Grous, Ribafreixo and Quinta do Quetzal.

On the coast, seaside cities and towns like Sines and Vila Nova de Milfontes are great options for some fresh-caught fish. Comporta also has some amazing restaurants to match those beautiful views, serving up rice-based dishes and seafood.

Dining Etiquette

Breakfast: is at home or in a café, and may include juice, buttery toast with cheese, or a pastry; multiples may be had throughout the morning.

When to Eat: Lunch is normally served between 12:30 and 3:00pm, but on weekdays, restaurants may close shop closer to 2:00pm. Dinner is served between 8:00 and 10:30pm.

Nothing Is For Free – Appetizers typically brought out at the beginning of a meal are not free! Even if you didn’t ask for them, if you eat them, you pay. However, the cost is minimal. If you don’t feel like partaking, simply request the waiter take them back at the beginning of the meal.

Dress Code: Dining out is often a casual affair, even in upscale restaurants. Regardless, it’s best to be respectful even in the hot summer months.

Festivals

Chestnut Festival, Marvão – held in November, this is the perfect opportunity to visit the beautiful town of Marvão and taste the best chestnuts in all of Portugal, coming from the Serra de São Mamede hills. During the week of the festival, local restaurants feature chestnuts in all their dishes. Wine, regional food, sweets and desserts, street performers in medieval costumes, Cante Alentejano, and of course, chestnuts in various forms.

Cozinha dos Ganhões, Estremoz – held at the end of November and first days of December, this food and wine fair is perfect for tasting regional products – wine, cheese, enchidos (cured meat) and olive oil, plus watch traditional dance, and listen to Cante Alentejano and Fado.

Easter – many towns host festivals and celebrations from Good Friday to Easter Monday, including processions, dance, live music and slaughtering a lamb (I know, crazy!), like the Easter celebrations in Castel de Vide.

Convent Sweet Fair (Feira de Doçaria Conventual e Tradicional), Portalegre – mid April, traditional Portuguese and Spanish artisans meet in Portalegre to showcase their doces conventuais (sweets, pastries and desserts).  It’s a pretty sweet deal!

Mértola Islamic Festival – happens every two years in May, the Islamic Festival is a celebration of the Islamic period in Portugal, combined with Alentejano traditions. The 4 day festival includes a street market with spices, food, arts, crafts and artisanal products for sale in the ‘souk’. And plenty of concerts, live music, and dance in this beautiful fortified town.

Feira de São João, Evora – end of June, this festival has been ongoing for over 500 years in honor of St. John the Baptist. Evora hosts one of the biggest festival in Alentejo to celebrate it.

Monsaraz Museu Aberto (open museum) – also happens every 2 years in July, Monsaraz is the place to celebrate Alentejano traditions through different activities, lots to eat, and the highlight is the Festa do Cante where various groups perform Cante Alentejano.

Flower Festival/People’s Festival, Campo Maior – an incredible experience, the Festa das Flores/Festas do Povo happens either in August or September, and only on the years when the residents of Campo Maior decide to have the festival. Paper flowers are made months in advanced and during the festa, all the streets are decorated with paper flowers of all colors.

Sightseeing

Time seems to stop in Alentejo and everything slows down. So much so that it feels like nothing has changed over the centuries and you can witness the cultural mosaic of visitors that once inhabited these lands: Romans, Visigoths, Muslims, Jews and Christians, the Portuguese of centuries before – the crown, the church, and everything in between. Each group of peoples left their mark in the architecture, gastronomy, culture and way of life. Roman ruins abound, Arabic gardens and patios, Jewish synagogues and quarters in many of the towns, and plenty of churches, chapels and castles dot the landscape.

Some places to include in your upcoming trip to Alentejo:

Evora – the UNESCO World Heritage city has so much going on: the Roman-Medieval walls that encircle the city centre, the medieval Sé (cathedral), Roman ruins galore including the beautiful Roman temple (Templo de Diana), the eerie but fascinating Chapel of Bones (Capelo dos Ossos), the impressive Água de Prata Aqueduct that goes on for 8.5kms, the narrow winding streets of the city center, Evora will give you a bang for your buck with so much to see in this small and beautiful city.

Megalithic Sites – stone structures dating back to the Neolithic period (5500-4500 BC), there are more than 10 megalithic sites in Alentejo, including Almendres Cromlech (Cromeleque dos Almendres) which is 2000 years older than Stonehenge! Other sites can be found around the village of Monsaraz.

Rota Vicentina – exploring Alentejo’s western coast by foot is an amazing experience. The Rota Vicentina is a network of hiking routes that go inland and along the beautiful coastline. Varying in length, there are 2 long distance routes that take you from Santiago do Cacem or Porto Covo all the way to end of the world, Cape of St. Vincent. There are also 8 shorter, circular routes that go through small fishing villages, with breathtaking views of the rocky cliffs, ocean, and pristine beaches.  

Beaches and fishing villages – there are so many beautiful, practically deserted beaches to choose from on the Alentejo coast. Near Zambujeira do Mar there is praia do Tonel, praia da Nossa Senhora, praia do Carvalhal. The small village of Porto Covo is sweet and charming with incredible beaches, including praia da ilha do Pessegueiro. Vila Nova de Milfontes is a quaint seaside town with beautiful winding streets and plenty of places to catch some sun, like praia do Farol where the Mira river meets the Atlantic. Comporta on the Troia Peninsula has sandy beaches that go on for days and swanky oceanfront restaurants.

Monsaraz – perched on a hilltop with impressive views, Monsaraz is probably one of the cutest Alentejo villages. Whitewashed houses, narrow streets made of schist, a medieval castle where you can watch the spectacular Alentejo sunsets or follow the medieval city walls, it’s easy to love this town. You can also hop over to the neighboring town of Reguengos de Monsaraz to visit the largest pottery center in all of Portugal, São Pedro do Corval, and buy some local crafts including Alentejano pottery, tapestry and blankets.

Alquelva Lake, Dam and Sky – the largest man-made lake in Europe, it covers 5 Alentejo municipalities where the beautiful lake can be explored and admired. The striking blue lake contrasts with the golden plains and green hills that surround it. It’s the place in eastern Alentejo for all sorts of water fun, and also the spot to stargaze since the Dark Sky Alqueva Reserve is the first site in the world to get Starlight Tourism Destination. Little light pollution in the neighboring towns allow you to get impressive night views so you can catch those falling stars.

Mértola and the Guadiana Valley Natural Park – another medieval village to check out, Mertola offers beautiful views of the Guadiana River and from there you can explore the peaceful natural park, perfect for hiking, birdwatching, and canoeing on the river.  

Museu da Tapeçaria de Portalegre Guy Fino, Portalegre – Portugal has a rich history in textiles and the tapestry museum showcases exquisite works of art by Portuguese artists, translating famous paintings into tapestries. Incredible craftsmanship, you can see the 7000 colors of thread used for weaving to create beautiful pieces.

Marble towns – Estremoz, Borba and Vila Viçosa, known as the princess of Alentejo, are beautiful cities worth visiting. Their historic centers have incredible palaces and other structures completely made of marble, a rock that is found in abundance in this part of Portugal. The Duke’s Palace in Vila Vicosa is breathtaking.

Alentejo Wineries – there are wineries all over the region that are open for visits, tours and tastings and other wine experiences. Around Estremoz, there are quite a few to choose from, one being Dona Maria Vinhos, a historic estate with fantastic wines. Evora also has some of the most well-known and oldest wineries of Alentejo, such as Cartuxa. Moving east, Esporão’s estate is beautiful, with a stylish café and plenty of vineyard views. From small to large, wineries abound in Alentejo, just make sure to book ahead and check opening hours.

Accommodation

There are tons of options for accommodation in Alentejo, from luxury stays in 5-star hotels, villas and resorts, to quaint B&Bs in small villages and towns, agriturismos at large estates, glamping in some beautiful spots such as on the Vicentine Coast or inland at Montargil Lake. Here are few recommendations:

Pousadas – historic buildings, such as palaces, convents, and medieval castles that have been restored into stylish and luxury hotels.  Located in some of the most beautiful towns and cities of Alentejo, like Evora, Estremoz, Marvão, it’s your chance to live like royalty for a reasonable price.  If you book early online, you can snag some good deals.

Wine hotels and resorts – Alentejo has many options if you want views of vineyards during your holiday. A few examples are Torre de Palma, Herdade dos Grous, Herdade Malhadinha Nova, and A Serenada Enoturismo, but there are many more.

Costa Vicentina – in coastal Alentejo, there are a series of cute fisherman villages, like Vila Nova de Milfontes, Zambujeira do Mar, and Odeceixe, with a variety of accommodation options, from glamping to luxury hotels.

Comporta (and Troia Peninsula) – sandy beaches, rice fields, and fishing villages, the Troia Peninsula has options for super-luxury villas and chic boutique hotels.

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