We strolled around in Campo Maior, a small town in Alentejo close to the border with Spain, looking for a place for lunch. We noticed a tavern called O Ministro (the minister) which was full of locals. There was a bottle of Caiado–the wonderful entry wine from Adega Mayor—on every table. Encouraged by these favorable omens, we decided to enter.
Traditional music played in the background, mostly fado tunes about the travails of love and the fickleness of life. Every now and then, a folk song from Alentejo came on and the locals raised their voices to sing along.
A plate with codfish cakes, slices of sausage, and green olives arrived at the table. We ordered “migas” made with bread and turnips and fried cação, a small shark that somehow manages to swim from the coast to the menus of Alentejo. We also ordered “carne do alguidar,” marinated pork loin. We were astonished by the quality of everything that came to the table. It was delicious and deeply satisfying food, with a perfect sense of time and place.
João Paulo Borrega, the chef and owner of this magical restaurant came out of the kitchen, and stoped by each table to ask whether people liked his food. “The food is fantastic,” we told him. “Can we make reservations for dinner and arrive a little early to talk to you?” Sure, he said with a bemused smile.
Late in the afternoon, he sat down to talk with us. Like most Alentejo cooks, he learned cooking from his mother and grandmother. His restaurant opened in 1989 and has changed location over the years. It is named after João Paulo’s father, a man whose role in the revolutionary days after April 1974 earned him the nickname “the minister.”
João Paulo tells us that the current restaurant location is ideal. “I want to cook by myself, and this space has the maximum number of tables I can comfortably handle.” He talks enthusiastically about his favorite recipes: fried rabbit, toasted chicken, chickpea soup, and ensopado de borrego (lamb stew).
“Why does your food taste so good?,” we asked. “I am going to show you my secret,” he said, inviting us into the small kitchen. He pointed to an old, tiny refrigerator. “Everything I use I buy fresh every day. That is why I have no freezer, just this small refrigerator. At the end of the day I give away any leftovers to my friends. The next day I start everything from scratch. Meats, fish, vegetables, herbs, sauces, everything has to be fresh.”
All his products are local and seasonal, produced by people he knows. He rattled off the names of the friends who supply him: the olive-oil maker, the farmer who plants the potatoes and onions, the person who chooses ripe melons for his table; the list goes on. The quality of his sourcing would make many three-star chefs envious.
João Paulo talks with great knowledge about the details of the different recipes and the properties of various herbs and spices. “People often use too much laurel. That is a mistake,” he says. “Laurel is very powerful and can overwhelm other ingredients.” “The cuisine of Alentejo does not require much fussing around,” he explains. “But the ingredients need to be first rate and the last flourishes before the dish is brought to the table have to be perfect. Some dishes are finished with white wine, others with vinegar, herbs play a key role.”
We sat down for a wonderful dinner. It started with toasted chicken perfumed with vinegar and prepared with olive oil, garlic and parsley. Then came a steaming chickpea soup with Alentejo sausages, Savoy cabbage, carrots, and mint. Next, we tried the fried rabbit. The meat had been marinated with rosemary, thyme, pepper, white and red wine. Then it was stewed to perfection in a large iron-cast pan with olive oil, garlic, and some more wine. Delicious slices of ripe melon brought this memorable meal to a sweet finale.
No matter how much you travel, it is hard to find food that is as simply satisfying as the one served in this little tavern in Alentejo. If you have a chance, come to Campo Maior to dine with the minister.
Taberna O Ministro is located at Travessa dos Combatentes da Grande Guerra
Campo Maior, Portalegre, tel. 351-965-421-326.