Day 2 – Monday 29 Aug 2011

Malhadinha Nova, Albernoa
Tranquillity. Alentejo redefined the word for me. Bouncing along a bone-rattling dust track, seemingly no civilisation in sight, even our trusty satnav had given up telling us to ‘turn around where possible; you are not on a road’. Suddenly there were vines: green and lush and startling against the canvas of dry-gold grass and red earth, clusters of black grapes nestling in their underbellies. Then the gates reared up, white, dramatic and a deep-pink splash of bougainvillea tumbling out of giant urns. We had arrived at Malhadinha Nova.

The welcome was warm and immediate. We were on the top of a small hill with a glorious view of the vineyards below and then, further, a craggy escarpment dotted with dark green, hunch-shouldered azinheira (Holm oak) trees. It was bathed in silence and light so soft and so deep that it wrapped around us like goose down. The low-lying herdade, converted from a crumbling ruin, is painted pale blue and white, surrounded by slender olive trees and sweetly scented herbs. Inside, away from the squinting sunlight, the flag-stoned floors are cool and the smell of lavender lingers (it’s Portugal’s national flower, growing in purple-misted profusion here at Malhadinha). The rooms are simple, airy, draped in calming white; rustic farmhouse elegance. Bvlgari toiletries in the bathroom nestle against piles of thick white towels. Bowls of fat, juicy pears, grapes, oranges, peaches and figs are interspersed with glossy books and magazines on everything from architectural wonders of the world and interior design to the cuisine of Alsace.
In the late afternoon, we stepped into the subterranean spa for a dreamy, deeply refreshing couples’ massage, and then, fresh-herb tisane in hand, sat in the quietly bubbling jacuzzi – all within a plush-white-bathrobed dash from our rooms. Afterwards, we walked barefoot over the cool green grass and from the edge of the blue infinity pool we watched the sun set, a glass of crisp Antao Vaz wine in hand.
I’d come across Malhadinha before, in the form of a bottle amongst at least 60 other Alentejo wines, lined up on a table in Évora for a hasty tasting at the end of a dizzyingly fast, packed trip round Portugal. We literally had time to swirl and spit each wine before dashing for the bus. When I got to the Malhadinha however, I stopped. It was gorgeous. It lingered in my memory, made even more distinctive by the quirky child’s sketch of a spotted cow on the label. Now here I was, two years’ later.
The Soares family is not new to wine, although they only bought this estate in 1998. They own and run the well-known Garrafeira Soares chain of 14 wine shops in the Algarve and have spent nearly 30 years buying, selling and distributing wine, visiting winemakers the length and breadth of Portugal, absorbing the different methods of production, philosophy and knowledge. They started with 200 abandoned hectares, several ruined buildings, no electricity and no water. Today, with an additional 250 hectares bought in 2005, they have a sprawling family farmhouse (an escape from the Algarve, I’m told), a smart modern winery, a restaurant, a tiny 10-bedroomed boutique hotel, and 27 hectares of vineyards.
The farm is much more than an exclusive country house or winery. We clambered into an old sturdy gear-grinding Land Rover with Rita Soares and headed out to explore the stony beauty of their land. There was a luminous golden sheen to the ground around us and as we drove closer I could see carpets of yellow wild flowers (thorny unfriendly little things they turned out to be!) The land supports a herd of Alentejana cattle (rare, undomesticated, strictly controlled by Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) rules and astoundingly delicious as we later discovered), as well as the famous black Iberian pigs, horses for family and guests to ride, olive trees, and a garden that yields lavish amounts of fruit and vegetables for the hotel and restaurant kitchens. In the two short days we were there, we ate figs, grapes, melons, pears, nectarines, strawberries, tomatoes, mint, rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage, salad leaves, lamb and beef grown organically on the estate. It was some of the best food we had on our trip.
We learned some fascinating things about these skinny-legged, rather ugly porco de raça Alentejana (Iberian black pigs) and the exacting requirements for the production of the deep ruby cured ham called presunto ibérico Barrancos. With a wink and a lowering of voice, we were told that most of the pigs are bought by the Spanish, and taken across the border to be slaughtered and cured, before being packaged up as jamón ibérico or sent back to Portugal as presunto ibérico. The breeders must provide paperwork and evidence to prove that they have one hectare of land, and at least 20 of the special Quercus ilex acorn trees per pig – each pig is supposed to consume six or seven kilograms of acorns a day. Apparently, the Spanish inspectors come out and count the trees every now and then! The acorns of these oak trees are sweet and rich in oleic acid – the same chemical found in olives and very good for lowering cholesterol. It’s this oleic acid which is absorbed by the fat and imparts the unique flavour to the pork. When the buyers come to collect the animals every year, they do a biopsy on the fat, looking for a high percentage of the oleic acid. The pigs also have to reach a minimum weight of 160 kg. It’s a lot of eating.
The estate came with 60 hectares of very neglected olive trees, which they nursed back to health, and with new plantings they now have 100 hectares. Galega olives are traditional to Alentejo – small, intense and fruity. They have started picking, by hand, much earlier than most to get more freshness. Their olive oil is unfiltered; it’s thick, unctuous, with a cloudy golden-green appearance and deep green-fig and grassy notes. I was slightly surprised to see it is bottled in a squat clear glass bottle, which looks very chic, but is awkward to pour and vulnerable to light damage if not used within a couple of weeks.
We drove past a flock of sheep, lying under the huge umbrella shade of an ancient acorn tree not far from the most peculiar battered trailer, raggedy objects hanging from a wire strung between two trees and a cooking pot over an open fire. ‘We have a shepherd who thinks he’s a sheep,’ Rita remarked wryly, ‘he’s not of this world. A (what you call it? Ah) a wild man.’ The trailer, looking for all the world like a very large and rusty corned-beef tin can, goes everywhere with him.
Despite the relative newness and obvious ambition of this enterprise, with its carefully managed, super-competent designer fusion of old and new, rough and polished, we still find fluttering fragments of history. Rita tells us about an old woman in the village who is 96 and still remembers when she worked at the ‘big’ house when she was 11 years old, in 1926. It was a huge wheat farm then, and the landlord owned the first car in the village. Her daughter, now in her 70s, also worked here. They were paid in food and housing. In a neat circle, the present guest lodge used to be a coach inn for travellers on the long road from the north to the south.
The food here (yes, I sound like a stuck record!) was out of this world. Without doubt, Malhadinha serves the best breakfasts I have ever eaten, anywhere. It’s a late one – if you’re up before 9am, you’ll have to stave the hunger pangs with a pear from the bowl on the bar. But it’s worth lying in for. We sat on the sunny patio, the scent of rosemary blowing across the garden. Kicking off with fresh watermelon juice and rich dark coffee, we then gorged on a riotous hedonistically juicy array of fruit: black figs oozing with sweetness, golden mango slices, kiwis, deep red strawberries, apples, huge yellow peaches and crimson nectarines, pale creamy pears, black and green grapes, pineapple, green melon, pink watermelon. I counted no less than 15 cheeses (seven of which were local, and definitely the best), four types of charcuterie, four different breads, bowls of nuts and dried fruit, their own honey and homemade jams and curd cheese. For the heathens, there was cereal and the option of a cooked breakfast. We had no room to even contemplate either.
Dinner, when the restaurant is closed, is served at the guesthouse – on the veranda when the weather is good (most of the time, then). Trilling cascades of tiny birds darted quicksilver in and out of the olive trees, and firefly lanterns cast soft shadows across the lawn. Malhadinha’s ‘gourmet team’, as Rita described them, aims to showcase Alentejo’s distinctive local cuisine, interspersed with specialities from other regions, giving the simple but deep flavours of the peasant traditions a more modern European expression. The cool melon and mint soup starter, made with homegrown melon and mint, was garnished with crispy presunto ibérico, and a tuna carpaccio on peppery salad leaves was delicate yet densely packed with sweet and tangy flavours. A main course of their own Alentejo beef fillet had me putting my knife and fork down and closing my eyes as it melted in my mouth. Another daring but arresting dish we tried was lamb carpaccio on a bed of rocket, pine nuts, nectarine and parmesan with candied peel and mango vinaigrette; it literally sang in harmony with the Malhadinha Branco 2009, a creamy powerful wine, chock full of fennel, honey and lemony herbs. Not noticing the chilly evening air, I must have been shivering because I felt something soft slipped around my shoulders – Claudia, the eagle-eyed hotel manager, had quietly brought a white shawl to keep me warm.
Wine tasting here is a joy. These are seriously good wines, made with the same evident care and detail that has gone into the hotel, stamped with the same telltale fingerprint of modern polish, ambition and Portuguese spirit. The labels of all their wines follow the same theme of the cow – totally random (but very cute) sketches by their four children. Look for a cheery turtle, a land rover, a pensive sheep, a happy snail and a particularly long-tailed cat. ‘We wanted our kids involved,’ says João, ‘we had no tradition but we wanted to create a heritage.’ It was a risky move. Cynical wine critics are often extremely disparaging about self-consciously droll labels, and even more likely to dismiss childish drawings as the brand of a commercially appealing pr-dependent brand (certainly not something for a ‘proper’ wine). But Malhadinha, with the reckless confidence of the already successful, seems to have pulled it off. To their further credit, they are not relying on large percentages of safe, international grape varieties, but they are making wonderful blends with Antão Vaz, Arinto, Tint Miuda, Aragonez, Alicante and Touriga Nacionel. Small plots of Viognier, Chardonnay, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon add a familiar beat to the melody of the castas portuguesas (Portuguese grape varieties) but I was so glad to see that, for the first vintage ever, Malhadinha tinto 2009 had absolutely no Cabernet Sauvignon in it.
For those who don’t drink wine, although I would normally counsel you to seek another holiday destination like Mount Everest, there is a very interesting and long list of teas. I counted 21, all with medicinal qualities, including: green tea, lime leaf, chamomile, cidreira (lemon balm aka melissa), tilia (linden flowers), carqueja flor (gorse flowers), laranjeira flor (orange blossom), hortela-pimenta (peppermint), erva principe (lemongrass), pes de cereja (cherry stems), jasmine, anis (fennel) and oliveira (olive leaf), and they will do a tea tasting with you – at a price of course.
Before anyone starts to think that I am employed by Malhadinha to write their marketing brochure, I will mention the small imperfections. The cooking workshop was indescribably dull. We were issued with neatly folded, tent-like aprons and white chef hats. I looked much like a gnome in safari gear with a pillow case on my head. We then proceeded to watch for 20 minutes while the chef threw together a rather ordinary dish and a mixed up a chocolate cake, which she stuck in the oven for our dinner (and everyone else’s) that evening. We did look at each other and, slightly baffled, mouth, ‘is that it?’ My advice is to come here to eat, not learn how to cook. We also ventured out on the bikes for a cycle round the estate. Bad move. The bikes were seriously rusty, and all of them had flat tires. It took some scrounging for a member of staff to find the pump and get two of them working. Five minutes’ in to the ride (on extremely hilly, stony, dust roads) we realised that my bike had no brakes at all, and the gears on both bikes were in desperate need of a service. We’re both quite sporty, and my husband is intrepid, but here walking is a safer option. Still, they do offer ballooning, fishing, game drives, cheese making and picnics, although we didn’t try any of these options. but if I came back, I’d want to do one of the painting of photography courses, and I’d definitely head out on a picnic on some remote part of the farm, with super-chilled bottles of their fragrant lime-zipped mineral-laden Antão Vaz.
I’d come back to Malhadinha Nova in a heartbeat. If I’d just got married, I’d come here on honeymoon without a second’s thought. It’s a place for lovers. It’s a place for those weary in body and soul, a place for someone who needs space to think, to read, to write, to dream, to breathe again.

Tamlyn Currin