Day 1 – Sunday 28 Aug 2011
Herdade dos Grous, Albernoa
We headed up a long drive, flanked by a blue lake, the deeply etched trunks of old olive trees, and up ahead was the pristine white and blue of the restaurant, startling against blue sky, an oasis set in acres of lush, manicured lawns and great pots of extravagant pink bougainvillea. This huge 730-ha estate is Herdade dos Grous – hotel, restaurant and wine estate.

The estate, which is over a hundred years old, has been massively restored in the last 30 years, and now offers Alentejo-style accommodation, a relaxed restaurant, and loads of outdoor activities including canoeing and boating on their 98-ha lake (manmade but teeming with birdlife), horse-riding and walks. We saw spotlessly maintained mountain bikes of all sizes (very good make, my cyclist husband informed me and I nodded, none the wiser). The lodges, each with its own private kitchenette and dining area, have cool terracotta floors, bathrooms lined with the blue, yellow and white Moorish azulejos tiles, and deep wooden furnishings. They open onto sunny verandas, just metres away from either of the two swimming pools. There’s a giant outdoor chess set for the aspiring Viswanathan Anands, and table tennis for those with less intellectual plans. A tiny chapel nestles in the grounds, light streaming through a small but lustrous stained-glass window above the alter.
We were drawn back to the olive trees, which had a particularly ancient beauty. These, we found out, had been rescued from the Alqueva Lake when it the dam was finally completed in 2001. The Alentejo authorities encouraged anyone who wanted an olive tree (or hundreds, as Grous clearly had) to come and get them, the only criteria being that you had to dig it out and transport it back yourself. Not really for anyone, in that case. Interestingly, we were to find this process of rescuing, restoring, protecting and recycling to be a fundamental aspect of Alentejo life.

Part of the small hotel chain, Vila Vita Parc, the Herdade dos Grous is owned by the German investment company DVAG. The main snag with this is not towels claiming sun loungers by the pool (there are more than enough to go round), but that the company books up the herdade most of the year for its employees and rooms are only available in the cooler months from November to March. However, the real reason to visit Grous is for the food and wine.

The vineyards at Grous were only planted from 2002 onwards and they produced their first wine in 2004. The 73 hectares are irrigated from their lake, and winemaking is pretty modern – mostly stainless steel, temperature controlled and selected yeasts with pumpover. 80% of production is red, but they do a couple of deliciously crisp clean white wines that go beautifully with food. One of their red wines is called Moon Harvested; 100% Alicante Bouchet, this is picked when the sap is rising (a phase of the moon, apparently, when it has maximum influence on the earth and results in a rounder wine) and is a dense blueberry and chocolate wine with an edge of herbs and a fragrant dusty finish. It was a particularly good match for the lamb that we had with our lunch. They also do a charming ‘illegal wine’, a no-name for a wine that cannot be called DOC Alentejo, Vinho Regional Alentejano, Vinho do Mesa or even dessert wine, for such a myriad of tripping-over-red-tape reasons that as the winemaker tries to explain, our eyes start rolling. Then my husband’s glaze over and I give up trying to write it all down. It’s 100% Petit Manseng, inoculated (wait for it) with botrytis cinerea flown over from Australia, and then sprayed from five o’clock in the morning until six o’clock in the evening. It clocks in at 13% with 165 g/l of residual sugar and its rich creamy candied fruit flavours would be absolutely divine with those luscious little doces conventuais (convent sweets, more of those later).

Grous also raise their own organic lamb, beef and pork on the estate, along with own organic fruit and vegetables. Much of this, in season, forms the basis of their restaurant menu.

Mariana Bexiga, manager of the hotel, explained to me that Alentejo cuisine has a distinctive character, one that has been defined by poverty. This vast region has, for generations, been shaped by a system of a relatively small land-owning aristocracy and their teams of poor peasant workers. Even today, the farms – usually owned by wealthy families – are huge. Traditionally, the farms grew wheat and other cereals, and infertile areas were wooded with Holm oaks, cork and olive trees under which black pigs, feasting on the acorns, roamed free. The workers who toiled day after day in the fields were often paid with produce from the farm. From this need for cheap robust food, using what was to hand, bread, olive oil, herbs and wine became the heart of Alentejo food, inspiring simple but unexpectedly delicious dishes like migas – a curious mixture of stale bread, salt and herbs, soaked in water and fried in olive oil – and tiborna – torn chunks of yesterday’s bread, drizzled generously with olive oil, rosemary, a tiny sprinkle of sugar and crunchy flor de sal, baked in the oven until just crisp, served piled up and piping hot and eaten just as they are. This latter dish has become a firm favourite with our friends since we brought it back to the UK! Of course, the key to these recipes is the Alentejo bread – a rounded homemade pale brown bread with lovely dense soft texture. No meal is complete without it, and it forms the backbone of many local recipes.

Lunch at Grous started with the tiny Galega olives and silky succulent slices of what was soon to become our greedy favourite. Presunto de Barrancos is an intensely flavoured cured meat from the black pig (porco preto), a PDO product which is pretty much the same as jamón ibérico , and made under very strict regulations as we were to later find out. Plates groaning with food kept coming out, lavishly generous portions which, to my shame, we did justice to. A dish of migas with sweet fresh tomatoes and cockles, beneath perfectly fried octopus and drizzled with bay-leaf-infused olive oil had our mouths watering. This was followed by tender spring lamb in a broth called ensopado de borrego, steaming with the fragrance of the herbs. We waddled from the table.

I find that I want to find these recipes, to get into those kitchens and watch them being made, to write them all down, to come back to the UK waving a cook book in my hands and saying, ‘Move on Spain, Portugal has arrived!’ I keep wondering why we don’t have more Portuguese restaurants in London…

It wasn’t just the food that absorbed us. Mariana, as so many of the people we met in Alentejo, was practically bursting with stories of the region, the history, the things to discover. April, we found out, is the most beautiful time of year when the dry tawny plains literally explode into colour as the spring flowers come out. It’s cooler, but the landscape is like as breathtaking as an Armand Guillaumin original. We start to understand, as the conversation buzzes round the table, the impact of the 1974 revolution, when the weight of the Portuguese empire, fighting a war on five fronts with poorly paid soldiers and with colonies, richer and stronger than their ruler in rebellion, took its toll. There is a lot beneath the surface of this quiet, slow, dusty place.

Tamlyn Currin