Sleeping in a medieval castle by the Sado river

Composite Alcácer

One hour away from Lisbon, you can stay in an historical hotel that occupies a medieval castle with wonderful views of the Sado river and the rice fields of Alcácer of Sal. It is a place where people have gathered since the Iron Age to worship the gods above.

For more than 2,000 years, people came to Alcácer do Sal to farm the land, tend to herds of sheep and goats and produce salt on the marshes of the Sado river. The Sado made it all possible, its waters bestowed fertility on the land and carried boats loaded with agricultural products to far away lands. Underneath the pousada there are remnants of Greek pottery and Egyptian jewelry, foreign luxuries purchased with the fruits of the Sado river.

In the 2nd century BC, Alcácer was conquered by the Romans who made it a center for the production of wool and salt. With their penchant for grandiose names, the Romans named the city Salacia Urbs Imperatoria.

In the 6th century AC, the Visigoths conquered the territory that is now Portugal. But life did not change in Alcácer until the moorish conquered the city in the middle of the 8th century AC. They built the caste and made the town an important trading outpost.

The first king of Portugal, D. Afonso Henriques, conquered Alcácer in 1160. But the moors fought back and it was only in 1217 that Alcácer became a permanent part of the Portuguese territory. The castle was then converted into a monastery occupied by the order of Saint James.

In the 17th century, the old monastery was adapted to welcome the nuns of Saint Claire of Assisi. The new building was called the Convent of Her Lady of Aracaeli.

The Pousada is a magical place. Every window frames a beautiful landscape. Every step reminds us that we are on hallowed ground. But hard decisions have to be made: should we stay by the spacious hotel pool relaxing or go see the gorgeous beaches of the coast of Alentejo?

Here’s a link to the pousadas’ website. You can find a large collection of photos of the pousadas at www.mariarebelophotography.com.

Stopping for lunch on the way to Algarve

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If you’re traveling on the highway from Lisbon to the Algarve, resist the temptation to have a quick bite at a highway stop. Drive instead the 9 km from the highway to Grândola, a town in the middle of Alentejo, to enjoy a proper meal at “A Talha de Azeite” (the Olive Oil Amphorae). The restaurant is run by a couple with a reserved demeanor, Celina and Luís Gonçalves. Celina heads the kitchen and Luís manages the dining room.

Grândola has been famous since ancient times as a hunting ground. Luís used to organize wild boar hunts. Celina prepared such appetizing food for Luís to eat in the middle of the day that the other hunters pooled some money and asked Celina to cook for everybody.

These hunter lunches gathered fame and the couple decided to open a restaurant. Twelve years ago, they found a room with an old olive press inside a shopping center. They converted it into restaurant, using the red amphoras that once stored olive oil for decoration.

A Talha de Azeite serves home-cooked meals prepared with the traditional recipes from Alentejo. We tried codfish with “migas gatas,” a delicious bread preparation. It was followed by arroz de canivetes (razor clam rice) that combined the briny taste of the seafood with the earthy flavors of red and green peppers. Finally, we had grilled “secretos” a fatty cut of black port thinly sliced and seasoned to perfection.

When we asked for the check, Luís told us it would be a mistake to leave without tasting Celina’s famous baked chocolate mousse. The mousse was indeed delicious. He also recommended that we come back for the wild boar and the fried eels when they are in season. We dully marked our calendars.

A Talha de Azeite is located at Rua Dom Nuno Álvares Pereira Loja 17 C.C. in Grândola, tel. 269 086 942.

 

Quinta Dona Maria

Quinta D. Maria Winery

Estremoz is a town in Alentejo famous for its white marble. The same geological conditions that fashioned its pristine stones created limestone soils perfect for wine production. So it’s no wonder that there are so many wineries around Estremoz.

The prettiest of them all is Quinta Dona Maria. The estate, which dates back to 1718, was purchased by King João V and offered to Dona Maria, a courtesan with whom he fell in love. In the 19th century, the estate was bought by the Reynolds, a family of British merchants who came to Portugal to produce cork and wine. The current owner, Julio Bastos, inherited the estate from an aunt who married into the Reynolds family.

Bastos got his passion for wine from his father. Every year, father and son came to the harvest so that young Julio could be initiated into the mysteries of wine making. Bastos is particularly fond of Alicante Bouchet, a varietal brought to Alentejo by his family in the 19th century.

Eager to produce extraordinary wines, Bastos entered into a partnership with Lafite Rothschild. But when the Rothschild team started uprooting his old family vines to plant French varietals, Basto decided to go his own way.

He nurtured the old vines and used 17th century marble tanks to tread the grapes. The result are wines with a unique personality: rich and earthy with elegant aromas and a smooth finish.

Production volumes are low, so these wines are hard to find. If you’re traveling in Alentejo, stop by Quinta Dona Maria and take home these exquisite wines made in soils nourished by the love of the land and blessed by the richness of marble.

Click here for the website of Quinta Dona Maria.

A perfect blend in Alentejo

Composit Monte da Ravasqueira- 2Sometimes you have to look far to find what you have near. The enologist Pedro Pereira Gonçalves left his homeland in search of a new world, first in Australia and then in Chile. But he found his calling back in Portugal at Monte da Ravasqueira, in the heart of Alentejo.

The estate was purchased by José Manuel de Mello, a successful entrepreneur, in 1943. He turned the 3,000 hectares into a family retreat where he bred Lusitano horses and planted vines, cork and olive trees.

What attracted Pedro to the property, still owned by the Mello family, are its unique virtues. Twelve dams help create a micro climate with cooler temperatures.  And even though the Atlantic Ocean is 120 km away, it cools the nights because there are no mountains in its way. While most of Alentejo is flat, Ravasqueira has slopes with different sun exposures that produce diversity in sugar and acid levels.

Pedro uses high-resolution aerial photographs to study each individual vine so that grapes can be combined into ideal blends. The result is wines that are truly made in the vineyard.

We tried some great examples. An enticing 2015 dry premium rosé with delicate fruit flavors and rich minerality. A 2014 premium white, aged in contact with the lees, that combines freshness with complexity. An elegant 2014 red called Vinha das Romãs, made from vines planted where an ancient pomegranate orchard once grew. The pomegranate roots are still there, lending the wine unique flavors and aromas.

Our wine tasting was followed by an appetizing lunch during which the Ravasqueira wines proved their ability to pair perfectly with food. The feast started with a gazpacho and continued with two traditional main courses: codfish with cornbread and roasted goatling.  The finale was a “mille feuilles” layered with artisanal jams made on the property, accompanied by exuberant port-style fortified wines.

Monte da Ravasqueira is a perfect blend of passion and technique, of tradition and modernity. It is a place where the Atlantic breezes join forces with the Alentejo sun to create exquisite wines.

Monte da Ravasqueira is located near Arraiolos, tel. 266-490-200, email ravasqueira@ravasqueira.com. Click here for information about how to schedule a visit.

Serra d’Ossa

Composit Serra D'Ossa.JPG

It was an act of bravery. We drove up the serpentine road to Serra d’Ossa to dine at a restaurant we couldn’t find on trip advisor!  But a trusted local source told us that this was the place to go if we wanted to taste the rustic food of Alentejo. And so we went.

We were welcomed by Paula Patinho who owns the restaurant with her husband Francisco. Her mother cooks and her father makes the house wine. We were surprised by the menu prices: they were half of what we would have paid in Évora or Estremoz.

Francisco suggested that we start with “sopa de cação” (dogfish soup), continued with a tomato and fried meat soup, and ended with “lagartos,” thin strips of black pork grilled to perfection. The flavors are bold but harmonious perhaps because all the ingredients were local, cultivated in the same lands by the same people.

The house wine is staged in stainless steel. It tastes pure and smooth and pairs perfectly with the food.

We asked Francisco what makes the food taste so great. “There is a deceiving complexity to the cuisine of Alentejo,” he explained. “The preparations look simple but pushing the flavors to a higher level takes time and requires many ingredients.”

Our audacity was greatly rewarded. We discovered an inexpensive restaurant that does justice to the rich culinary tradition of Alentejo.

Serra d’Ossa is located on Rua Principal, 77, Aldeia da Serra D’Ossa, Redondo, tel. 266-909-037.

A white palace in Estremoz

Composit Estremoz

Estremoz is a village in Alentejo built on a hill by king Dom Afonso III in 1258.  It was once an important citadel that guarded the Portuguese kingdom from potential aggressors.

In 1360, king Dom Dinis built a royal palace in Estremoz for his wife Isabel of Aragon. It was in this palace that king Dom Manuel appointed Vasco da Gama as the commander of the fleet that sailed to India, beginning a new chapter in world history.

The palace, converted into an historical hotel, is sumptuously decorated with antique paintings and furniture. Corridors and stairs are covered with the famous white marble excavated from local quarries.

The war trophies that hang in the dining room reminded us of the momentous decisions made in this palace. And they made us appreciate even more the tranquil days we spent with only one difficult decision to make: which of the 22 wineries in Estremoz to visit.

Here’s a link to the pousadas’ website. You can find a large collection of photos of the pousadas at www.mariarebelophotography.com.

Sainthood is great but so are partridges

Perdiz Escabeche

We had lunch at the São Lourenço do Barrocal restaurant in a beautiful room overlooking the fields.  The house wines, produced on the property by Susana Esteban, a Spanish enologist who fell in love with Portugal, are interesting and full of character.

The food is simple but delicious. We tried the grilled beef with “migas” and the wild boar. The desserts are delightful:  traditional “gadanhas,” lemon and olive oil pudding, and a cake made with nuts and honey.

The highlight of the meal was the marinated partridge. The texture was perfect and each bite had layers of tangy vinegar and wholesome olive oil.

We were reminded of Saint Teresa of Ávila who once accepted an invitation to eat partridges. When people expressed surprise that a nun known for her poverty vows agreed to a luxurious meal, Teresa explained that “santidad es santidad mas perdices son perdices,” meaning sainthood is great but so are partridges.

The partridges at São Lourenço do Barrocal are prepared according to a recipe written by the great-grand mother of the owner of the estate, José António Uva. The recipe is on display in the dining room, next to a precious 1875 bottle of fortified wine from Reguengos de Monsaraz. It is a privilege to share this treasured recipe from the heart of Alentejo with you, dear reader:

Marinated partridges

Cut the partridge in pieces and cook it in strong white wine vinegar, olive oil, a small amount of water, and plenty of onion slices (use more olive oil than water). Season with whole black peppercorns, cloves and bay leafs. When the partridge is cooked, remove it from the pot and place it in a deep dish. Reduce the sauce left in the pot, strain it and pour it over the partridge.

Click here for the web site of São Lourenço do Barrocal.