Portuguese Cuisine 101:
An Introduction to the food of Alentejo
Replete with everything from seafood to sweets, the cuisine of Portugal’s Alentejo region has more than enough diversity to satisfy your palate—and more than enough salted cod to challenge it, too.
Garlic, Coriander and Poejo
The basic ingredients of Alentejan cuisine are garlic, fresh coriander and poejo, which is similar to mint but with a very high vitamin content (it takes some getting used to). The Alentejan eating experience begins as soon as you are seated at the table. Olives, bread and a plate of either queijinhos frescos (fresh cheeses) or queijo seco (dry cheese) are served instantly. The fresh cheese is a curd and is eaten with a sprinkling of salt and pepper with bread. The dry cheese varies in age and can be as soft as cheddar or as hard as parmesan. Be careful not to fill up on these tempting appetizers or you won’t have room for the meal itself!
More Delicious Than its Description
Vegetables are often taken in the form of soup and are frequently developed into a main dish. The most famous of the Alentejana soups is the açorda, made with stale bread in a flavourful broth of water, olive oil, salt, garlic and fresh coriander topped with a poached egg and if desired, a slab of bacalhau (salted cod) on the side. You will enjoy the soup’s rich flavour more than its description! The seafood açorda is another appetizing alternative, itself the main course.
Portugal’s National Dish
This brings us to the sensitive topic of bacalhau, or salted cod. This dried and preserved fish is Portugal’s national food—which is hard to believe, considering that cod lives not in Portuguese waters but in those of Canada and the United States. The origin of bacalhau dates back to the age of discovery when the Portuguese ruled the high seas. The sailors, in need of non-perishable food, discovered on their journeys to the New World cod’s versatility as a welcome addition to their meagre diet. Today, cod is an omnipresent dish in Portuguese homes and restaurants, and is said to be prepared in 365 ways, one for each day of the year! Salted cod is an acquired taste, whichever way it is prepared, but you cannot leave Portugal without at least trying one version. No need to worry though—bacalhau is not the only fish on the menu. The Alentejo receives excellent fresh seafood from the coast several times a week.
Meat Lovers Welcome
Meat lovers are also welcome in this region. The Alentejo is a land of sheep and goats, so borrego (lamb) and cabrito (kid) appear on all menus prepared in several succulent ways. One of the most renowned regional dishes is the Carne de Porco a Alentejana to satisfy the lover of both meat and seafood. This unlikely, but fabulous, dish includes marinated pork stewed with clams. Alentejana cuisine is simple but hearty fare, using only the freshest of ingredients (except for the bacalhau!) that results in mouth-watering dishes. We recommend that you request food prepared with little salt. As bacalhau confirms, the Portuguese love their salt!
Portugal’s Sweet Tooth
The Portuguese have an insatiable appetite for extra-sweet desserts, and the Alentejanos are no exception. The main ingredients are gemas (egg yolks), sugar, and almonds dusted with canela (cinnamon). The origin of gemas in desserts comes from the monks’ winemaking process—they used egg whites to refine the impurities of their wine, leaving all the yolks. Hence the birth of the “nun’s tummy,” one of the many dishes requiring up to 24 egg yolks! Another favourite, tiborna, is a kind of cake made with the same ingredients, but which resembles a nest of angel hair studded with cherries. If you have a sweet tooth and no fear of cholesterol, you should try either or both of them. Leaving the gemas behind, the Alentejo introduces us to another unusual sweet, the ameixas d’Elvas. Otherwise known as the Elvas Plum, this is the ultimate after-dinner treat. The incredibly laborious recipe of candying plums remains a traditional craft continued by the Conservas Rainha Santa.