Crouching so as not to bang my head on the low-hanging lintel, I peer through the tiny wooden double doors and ask if I’ve come to the right place. Yes, I’m told, this is it, please come in.
I’d expected Alentejo’s most famous bakery to be slightly more chichi. With just two tiny whitewashed rooms, Padaria Joana Roque (see details below), in the village of Vidigueira, is decidedly no frills, yet is the place to come.
Joana herself is now in her eighties and still going strong. Assisted by her daughter Grecinda, she turns out 50 loaves a day, using the same local flour she’s been using for the past 40 years and equipment as quaint as it gets.
The oven is a hole in the wall and bread goes in with the aid of an elongated olive branch. Sadly, this cottage industry is a dying one. The loaves sell for just €1.50 each and these days Joana and Grecinda make more money holding demonstrations and workshops for tourists.
Land of Milk and Honey
Soak up the scenery on this plantation in Herdade das Barradas da Serra
It makes up one third of Portugal yet hardly anyone outside the country has heard of Alentejo. Situated north of the Algarve, south of Lisbon and covering some 19,000 square miles, it is one of Europe’s undiscovered gems. To visit is like stepping back to the 1950s: sleepy, whitewashed villages dot the landscape and the roads, which seem to go on forever, are practically traffic free.
Alentejo’s softly undulating hills, sweeping plains and dense cork forests are fringed by a dramatic 62-mile Atlantic coastline, which stretches from the port of Sines in the north, along the Vicentine Coast Natural Park, to to Cape St Vincent in the south.
With its rich fertile soil the region is commonly known as the “bread basket” of Portugal and food and wine play an important role in the its cultural and economic life. Some of its most famous dishes include presunto (a dry cured ham), porco preto (Iberian black pork), creamy sheep cheeses and traditional sweet dishes such Elvas da Sericá, a baked egg and cinnamon pudding served with ripe plums.
City life got you down? Unwind in Alentejo’s countryside
Just outside the town of Grandola, about 15 minutes’ drive west of the Atlantic coast, is the Herdade das Barradas da Serra, a 1,200-acre cork plantation and sheep farm, run by husband and wife Luis and Elsa Dias.
The herdade (roughly translated as homestead) has been in the Dias family for five generations. In 2009, they started providing agriturismo-style accommodation to tourists after restoring the farm’s original buildings. It’s a working farm but life here feels simple, uncomplicated and unhurried.
In the morning, after a sumptuous buffet breakfast and a restful night’s sleep in a high-ceilinged room with cool terracotta flooring and a four-poster bed, Luis offers to show me round the estate.
We rumble over dirt tracks and up heart-stoppingly steep inclines, past a tranquil lake and cork trees that have been stripped in the centuries old way – by a woodcutter and his axe.
“It takes 40 years for a cork tree to mature and they can live to be hundreds of years old,” Luis tells me as I admire the view from the top of a hill. “We never cut the trees down which means the forest is home to lots of animal and bird species. We even have wild boar here.”
Luis waves me off as I drive back up the long dirt track to the main road. My next stop is Evora, just over an hour’s drive north east of Grandola, and the capital of Alentejo. A Unesco World Heritage site dating back to the Romans, this lively town is full of grand palaces and imposing marble buildings and has one of the most beautifully preserved medieval centers in Europe.
A Mecca of Home-Cooked Portuguese Delicacies
I’ve come for lunch at O Fialho, Evora’s most acclaimed restaurant. Founded in 1945 by the late Manuel Fialho, it specializes in simply prepared “home-cooked” dishes, such as quail eggs, with paio (a cured sausage), breaded prawns and pumpkin pie.
In the cosy dining room, with its stressed dark leather chairs, and tables covered in crisp white linen, waiters in smart maroon waistcoats and dickie bows glide around silkily. Mounted deer heads peer down from the walls, along with a photo of a grinning Tony and Cherie Blair, who both dropped in while on holiday in Alentejo in 1999.
“We were the first restaurant to promote the gastronomy of Alentejo,” Gabriel Fialho, Manuel’s daughter and current owner tells me, as I tuck in to wild boar tenderloins with apple, another of the restaurant’s signature dishes, washed down with a Reguengo do Souzão 2008 red wine.
In early 2014, an initiative to showcase Alentejo’s food and wine was launched with the aim of attracting more overseas visitors.
The year-round Festival of Food & Wine features the best of the region’s gastronomy and involves traditional restaurants, food producers and wine growers, who have collaborated to create three course lunch and dinner menus with English translations – not always easy to find.
Where to Detox and Unwind
Fancy a dip in the Convento do Espinheiro Hotel?
My last night is spent at the Convento do Espinheiro, a 15th-century monastery, now a luxury hotel and spa in the hamlet of Canaviais, just outside Evora. A one-time pit stop for traveling kings and nobles, this historic building and national monument was home to a closed order of monks and is built on the site of an apparition of the Virgin Mary.
Set in sumptuous grounds full of olive and cypress trees, inside, there are gothic arches galore, a gilt-festooned chapel and vaulted wine cellars, where guests can try out local wines and olive oils.
The 59 guest rooms are housed in a modern, (albeit sympathetic) extension to the monastery itself and their interiors are positively Baroque. My suite has an enormous carved wooden bedhead upholstered in damson-colored silk, a huge bathroom and an outdoor terrace that would comfortably accommodate my apartment.
Three days in Alentejo has more than whetted my appetite and I’m already planning my next visit.
TAP Portugal flies to Lisbon and Faro (the nearest airport), in the Algarve, from a number of US cities, including New York, Dallas, Los Angeles and Denver.