The Undiscovered Inland Cuisine of Portugal – Part I
The interior of Portugal is, unfortunately, often overlooked. That’s too bad, especially for foodies searching for unique eats beyond the mouthwatering fish and seafood on the coast and the regional dishes that the bustling cities recreate.
Granted, I understand that driving into the mountains of Portugal or through windy, ancient villages isn’t as easy as getting around major hubs, but as tourism continues to pick up in this plentiful country, more is being done to promote these areas. And there should be—because it’s at the heart of it that you’ll get some of the best stories and biggest surprises on your plate. Some of these dishes are so regional, that I would bet that even some of the Portuguese don’t know about them. Most of my family happens to be from the interior of the country in a sub-region sandwiched between the Serra da Estrela (Portugal’s highest mountain) to the north and the Ribatejo and upper Alentejo to the south with Coimbra to the west and Spain to the east. Called the Beira Baixa (Lower Beira) as well as Beira Interior Sul, it’s the southern section of two other sub-regions that share the Beira name – the Beira Alta (Upper Beira) a.k.a. Beira Interior Norte (northern) and Beira Litoral (coastal). Essentially, these three are what’s considered the Centro region, the “heartland” if you will, in a country loosely divided up into North, Center and South. (photo by Tiago Pereira)
Consider the Beira Baixa a bridge – it’s the place where the transition from north to south begins. You see it not only in its hybrid cuisine and landscape, but also in the language with its hints of the “sh” sound of the north but typically without the swapping of “Bs” for “Vs” and vice versa, an influence of the south. Therefore, you’ll undoubtedly pick out resemblances to both its neighbors to the north as well as those to the south. Personally, this is both gratifying and frustrating. On the one hand, it’s instinctive for me to have a good grasp on other regions given their impact on mine. On the other, it’s tough to define and neatly package up this area for others to understand, precisely because of its complex hybrid characteristics. In the end, we can say that my identity suffers slightly from “misunderstood middle sub-region syndrome”– YES, of course this exists!! Like middle children overshadowed by older or younger siblings, the Beira Baixa – and in great part, the interior in general – has for years gotten the raw end of the deal. You see, this “interior issue” doesn’t merely apply to the heart of the country; in fact, it applies to even the most coveted tourist destinations in Portugal like the Algarve. Yes, the Algarve has an interior – it’s not just coastal folks – there is an inland and even mountains! Actually, Portugal is packed with mind-blowing mountains throughout. Maybe one day, there will be as many hikers talking about Portugal as there are surfers today. Alas, I’m more of an eater than an athlete – NO revelation there! So, what I love most about Portugal is the surprises in the food, and there’s no better way to taste it and understand it than by visiting each nook and cranny of the country.
As for the Beira Baixa, it’s packed with unique eats – everything from “Jewish breads” and award-winning cheeses to meat pies swimming in saffron sauce and root vegetables that inspire festivals, make it into desserts, and substitute fish as a pair to Portugal’s Arroz Malandrinho (saucy rice). Is your gluttony-o-meter rising?! Well then – let’s explore a bit more of this lovely cornucopia where a mix of abundant mountains, hilltops, rivers and vast gilded plains covered in cornfields, cork forests, olive groves, orchards and vineyards deliver to the table a diverse spread that boasts some of the country’s richest cheeses and finest fruit.
Let’s start with the “enchidos” (charcuterie) and cheese that pair so appetizingly with the region’s bread:
Cheese is the Crown Jewel
Cheese lovers will have no shortage of choices in Portugal – and here they’ll find some of the country’s best cheeses, like the award-winning Amarelo da Beira Baixa (Yellow of the Lower Beira). Distinctly yellowish, it’s made from raw sheep and goat’s milk and aged 45 to 90 days – longer results in the velho (aged) version. Don’t let its intense aroma stop you, because each bite is lightly tart and delightfully earthy. One of Portugal’s most prized cheeses, the Serra da Estrela cheese, is produced throughout villages, towns and cities in and around the Serra da Estrela mountain, one of which is part of the Beira Baixa. It’s the city of Covilhã, an exit point from the mountain if traveling from the north or an entry point if traveling from the south. Covilhã is home to the cheese museum, where you’ll learn about the variations of Serra da Estrela cheese – the most popular is an oozy version called Amanteigado (buttery) that gets the top of its rind cut off for ease of scooping and spreading. The Beira Baixa is also known for its fresh cheese, Requeijão (Upper Beira also has its own), which is DOP – a label, that like wine’s DOC designates that the product is produced in its traditional area. A more liquefied fresh cheese is called Travia. Pair these with honey or jams and you have a perfect snack or dessert! (photo by Turismo da Serra da Estrela)
Bacon is Butter Here
One of the many vivid memories I have of my maternal grandfather, Manuel, is of him rubbing a thick piece of pork belly (touçinho) on his toasted bread as if it were a stick of butter. That’s likely why I jump for joy any time I see pork belly on a menu! These pork products are a big deal in rural Portugal, and the Beira Baixa is no exception. Families traditionally fattened up a pig to slaughter in late fall, a ritual called the Matança do Porco, which gathered friends and family to feast on pork dishes as well as to make cured meats (enchidos) that were smoked over a bed of oak branches and eaten throughout the year. My favorite is the Farinheira, a smoked sausage that like the Alheira of the North is said to have been invented by the Jews during the 15th century to pass for converted Christians and deceive the Portuguese Inquisition by making believe they were eating pork. Made of wheat flour, seasonings, white wine, paprika, salt and pepper, today’s version contains pork. I’m a fan of removing it from its casing and scrambling it with eggs, asparagus or mushrooms – recipes that you’ll find in both the lower and upper Beira. And if you can stomach it, try the Bucho Recheado, pig’s stomach stuffed with a mixture of ground pork, bread, eggs and parsley, boiled in a broth infused with marjoram, wine, onions, bay leaves and cloves. Versions vary, but the most famous is from the village of Sertã.
Beyond Crusty Loaves …
You can’t have charcuterie and cheese without bread! And like all of Portugal, bread is integral to life here. Crusty rye loaves (Pão de Centeio) and cornmeal breads (Broa) are common, but one uniquely regional bread is the Bica de Azeite a.k.a. Bica da Beira Baixa. With olive oil (azeite) as a main ingredient, this bread truly tastes “caseiro” (homestyle). Influenced by its once large Jewish community, still quite evident in the village of Belmonte, the Bica is an unleavened loaf that’s fantastic eaten with spreads but just as well on its own. Beyond pairing with niblets of cured goodness, bread is also transformed into Migas, a play on Migalhas (crumbs). With the influence of the Alentejo (a.k.a. Portugal’s breadbasket) to the south, the Beira Baixa has its own savory bread dishes inspired by its neighbor’s Açordas and Migas. One of its most traditional is the Migas com Todos (Migas with Everything) in which crumbled bread is toasted with olive oil in a pan, à la stir-fried rice, and then garnished with cured meats.
Now that we’ve nibbled a bit, next up we’ll explore the main dishes brought to us by vast lands peppered with a hodgepodge of herds as well as clear, fertile rivers. (photo by josemariamorenogarcia)
Stay tuned …
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