Sunday, April 29, 2012

Porco à Alentejana in Portugal

Porco à alentejana is a favorite in both cafés and high-end restaurants
The Alentejo region, a vast area between Lisbon, the Tagus River, and the Algarve coast, is Portugal’s agricultural heart – a giant patchwork of olive and wine estates, wheat and corn fields, rooting pigs, and grazing cattle. The regional cuisine is typically rustic, and boasts one of Portugal’s best-loved dishes, the unusual meat-and-shellfish combination of porco à alentejana.

Any journey from Lisbon to the Algarve cuts right through the dramatic rural landscapes of the Alentejo, which has been the “bread-basket” of Portugal since Roman times. It’s a land of burning summers and freezing winters, where a string of walled, medieval hill towns in the north gives way to endless, rolling plains that characterize much of the region.

In Baixo (Lower) Alentejo, quiet country roads run past shady stands of cork trees, isolated farmsteads, storks nesting on posts, and mile after sprawling mile of olive groves and vineyards. Among the few towns there’s occasionally a magnificent surprise, like the so-called “marble towns” of Alto (Upper) Alentejo, whose buildings, roads, and monuments are all constructed from the same locally quarried pale stone.
But there’s only really one must-see historic destination in the region: the northern city of Evora, which boasts a stunning Roman and Moorish legacy, a fascinating tangle of late-medieval alleys, and a famous monthly open-air market showcasing local crafts and produce.
In such a rural area, it’s hardly surprising that the local cuisine relies heavily on hearty peasant produce. Corn bread is used in many traditional recipes, crumbled into thick soups with fresh, aromatic cilantro (these dishes are known as açordas) or soaked, mashed, and fried with spicy sausage and paprika (migas). Sheep cheese from the walled market town of Serpa is highly prized, while pork from the acorn-fed Alentejo porco preto (black pig) is fêted for its rich flavor.
It’s loin of Alentejo pork that’s at the heart of the one truly outstanding regional dish, porco à alentejana, which uses cubes of this fine meat marinated in a mix of white wine, garlic, paprika, and bay leaves. The twist in the recipe comes with the addition of clams, a surprising ingredient in a largely landlocked region, but explained by the ease with which (in pre-refrigeration times) shellfish could be transported from the coast and kept alive in buckets or trays until needed. Add cilantro, fried potatoes, and sometimes a helping of pickled vegetables, and you have a distinctive taste combination that has seduced the entire country.
Best Places to Eat Porco à Alentejana
O Fialho
O Fialho is the best place to sample Alentejan cozinha típica (regional cuisine) in Evora.
Loved by locals for its easygoing charm, and considered a find by in-the-know visitors, the restaurant has been in the safe hands of the Fialho family since the late 1940s. It’s a cozy and comfortable place to dine, with locally sourced ingredients and produce – cheese, olives, cured meats, seasonal vegetables, Alentejo pork, and game – at the heart of a typically rustic menu that demands a large appetite. While you might choose a hearty meal-in-itself soup, an unusual rice dish (with shredded hare, for example), or roast mountain lamb, this is undoubtedly the place to find out what porco à alentejana is all about. O Fialho serves a classy version of this classic dish, but even this more refined serving proves too large for many people – much to the disappointment of the restaurant staff, who offer an array of rich and creamy Portuguese desserts to follow.
Travessa das Mascarenhas 16, Evora; open 12:30–3:30 PM and 7:30 PM–midnight Tue–Sun;
Also in the Alentejo Region
The road east from Evora to Spain passes through the attractive border town of Elvas, where Restaurante O Lagar (www.; inexpensive), sited in a former olive-oil mill, is an excellent choice for porco à alentejana and other local dishes. In historic Beja, the capital of Baixo Alentejo, there’s fine regional dining in the garden restaurant of the Pousada de Beja (www.; expensive), a splendid hotel fashioned from the former São Francisco convent.
Also in Portugal
The best place for Alentejan dishes in Lisbon, the Portuguese capital, is Casa do Alentejo (www.; moderate), an Alentejan cultural center and restaurant with a palatial courtyard and impressive tiled dining room.
Borrego (lamb) is also an Alentejan specialty, and the menu offers grilled costeletas (chops) served with rice as well as a typical lamb ensopado, a soupy, stewlike dish.
Around the World
It’s rare to find the specific combination of pork and clams anywhere other than in a Portuguese restaurant, although the northeastern Catalonia region of neighboring Spain has a chicken-andshrimp dish that mixes meat and shellfish in a similar fashion. To sample a true porco à alentejana in unexpected surroundings, visit the former Portuguese colony of Macau (now in China), where a score or more restaurants offer authentic Portuguese dishes. Restaurante Litoral (; moderate) has a loyal local following.
Alentejo Wines
The Alentejo is one of Portugal’s best-regarded wine-producing regions, especially for reds.
There is a long history of winemaking here, especially around the towns of Borba, Reguengos, Redondo, and Evora, but it’s only since the 1980s that Alentejo wine has gained an international reputation – in particular since many Alentejo vineyards started producing gutsy modern wines in a “New World” style (some even have Australian winemakers on board). Herdade do Esporão ( produces the Esporão Reserva, Monte Velho, and Alandra wines you’ll find in restaurants and shops across the country, and offers tastings and wine courses. In Evora, there’s a visitor center that provides information about all the winery tours along the Alentejo wine route (Rota dos Vinhos do Alentejo;
Day in Evora
Evora is the single most interesting destination in the Alentejo and it’s also convenient for the nearby carpet-making town of Arraiolos and the elegant “marble towns” of Estremoz, Borba, and Vila Viçosa.
Visit the daily Mercado Municipal (municipal market) for Alentejan produce, but if possible, also go to the even more impressive open-air market held in Rossio square on the first Tuesday of the month. In the old town, don’t miss the majestic Sé – the largest medieval cathedral in Portugal – or the Corinthian Templo Romano just a short walk away.
Cafés line the central square, Praça do Giraldo, and after coffee and cakes, you can stroll to São Francisco church to see its macabre Capela dos Ossos, a chapel lined with the skulls and bones of former monks. The pretty public gardens lie beyond.
Watch the sun set from the outdoor café by the Templo Romano before investigating the traditional taverns and local restaurants hidden in the city’s medieval alleys.
Getting to Evora
From Lisbon international airport it’s a 90-minute drive east to Evora. If you don’t want to rent a car, there are direct buses and trains from downtown Lisbon.
Where to stay in Evora Portugal
Residencial Policarpo (inexpensive) is a charming if modest pension in a 16th-century manor house. Albergaria do Calvário (moderate) has boutique-style rooms in a former olive-oil mill.
Pousada de Evora – Lóios (expensive) is an elegant hotel in an ancient convent building, situated next to the Templo Romano in the center of town.
Praça do Giraldo 73; +351 266 777 071

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