A description of the Alentejo, however short, would not be complete without a mention of the food on offer. It is possible to eat big, hearty meals in Evora and the surrounding towns without breaking the bank. It’s also very easy to eat well and healthily; not something that’s easy in many parts of the world.
For a start, the emphasis is on freshness and quality and dishes are typically simple. Good organic steaks, fresh vegetables, imaginative salads; the quality of a restaurant is determined as much by the freshness and taste of the basic ingredients as it is on the creative imagination of the chef. Neither it this a culture where fast food has taken hold. In fact you’ll struggle to find any familiar chain restaurants in this part of the world. Family run and unhurried are two descriptions that spring to mind.
We ate twice at Vinho e Noz in Evora. It was recommended by the receptionist at our hotel, and proved to be an excellent locally owned restaurant serving typical Alentejo dishes. On both evenings we arrived at 8pm and were the first diners; by 9.30pm the place was full. My favourite meal was a delicious garlic soup followed by migas, a dish made with leftover bread and served with meat. Heavy, yes, but full of delicious flavour. My wife on the other hand ordered a steak, which arrived raw along with a hot stone plate, on which she could then cook the meat to her liking. I had a little of this myself, and it was a top notch steak.
One tip when eating a meal is to be aware of the dishes that you will be offered as soon as you sit down. Often bread, various cheeses, olives and spreads are placed on the table. You will be charged for these if you don’t refuse them immediately. No offence is caused by turning them away, so if you don’t fancy anything that’s put on the table just tell the waiter straightaway.
Alentejo is well known within Portugal for its wines and it is starting to get noticed at last as one of Europe’s promising new wine regions beyond the national boundaries. While dining in Evora we were offered a glass of Graco by the owner of the vineyard who had come to town to offer samples to visiting tourists. It was an innovative approach for the vineyard to bring the wine to town in this way. It was not for sale at the restaurant, so the intention was purely for us to taste it and pay him a visit the next day. It was yet another example of the local businesses helping one another. I appreciate the opportunity to try the fruity red wine without an obligation to buy. While no wine expert I can certainly say it passed my taste test.
Driving through the Alentejo the rolling vineyards are easy to find. Regular signs for the region’s wine route are found on the roads and there is an established trail for those who wish to sample the best of the region’s wine. It might not be Europe’s best known wine region but it’s certainly one of the most picturesque. And if my limited experience is anything to go by, you’re sure of a warm welcome along the way.