Life and Love in Alentejo

The surprising thing about touching down at Lisbon airport is how fast, heading south in a car, you find yourself transported into deep countryside. I arrived on a mild October morning, was met there by my old friend Martin Earl, and within a few minutes was crossing the Vasco da Gama Bridge, longest in Europe, that stretches across more than 17km of the Tagus River estuary. Immediately thereafter we swerved off the highway and decelerated into the dreaming, older world of the Alentejo (the word literally means “beyond the Tejo” or Tagus).

For the next five days we’d travel among medieval whitewashed villages, rolling hills, mountain forts and a constellation of sparklingly modern vineyards. Long a destination for budget travellers, the Alentejo is rapidly becoming one of the world’s top wine destinations.

I was there to sample the landscapes and hospitality with my friend, who would also be my guide. Martin and I were part of a group of five guys, now middle-aged, who’d met in university and been star-struck by the dream of literature. Somewhat differently from the rest of us, Martin, a poet, had “gone native”, settling down with a local girl in Portugal and crossing into a life lived entirely – and permanently – in another language. I was eager to understand a little bit more what three decades of voluntary exile does to a person.

By now, 40 minutes from the airport, we were passing through sun-dappled alleys of plane trees with, beyond them, irregular row upon row of cork oaks. “I sometimes call this area Corktugal,” Martin said with a laugh. The cork oak is hand-harvested of its bark once every ten years. The forests themselves are a giant cash cow – 60% of the global cork trade originates in Portugal.

We stopped for a coffee in a sleepy, sun-blasted village called Montemor-o-Novo. There seemed to be a single café. But was it a café? The sign above it read: Grupo de Pesca Desportiva à Linha de Montemor-o-Novo. This was a local hand-line fishing club, Martin explained, devoted to the old, pure form of the sport in which the line is held in the hands, dropped to the bottom and jiggled in emulation of live bait. The cheerful potbellied locals seated outside waved us in.

An excited barista explained that they were about to celebrate something extraordinary. The traditional Cante Alentejano, a polyphonic singing unique to the region, had just been designated by UNESCO an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Better yet, one of the singers was right there and about to be feted.

We watched as a waiter presented the singer – distinguishable from the other patrons only by his dyed blond hair – with a tray bearing a white cube, roughly the size of a small brick.

“Lard,” Martin said simply. In Rome I had often seen ribbons of the stuff consumed like a kind of bacon sushi, but this was a block of pure porky fat and I watched amazed as the singer tucked a napkin into his collar and ­began forking pieces into his mouth with a great smacking of the lips.

We drank some of the deliciously bitter coffee and continued on our way. The route lay southeast, in the direction of Spain, and we took ­secondary roads, the better to savour our surroundings. With the windows open, the Fiat buzzed like a blender. Roadside eucalyptus trees sent a delicious tang through the October air.

Martin and I caught up while the tilled brown fields rose and fell outside the windows. Often we were stuck behind contraptions that resembled riding lawnmowers fitted with rudimentary car bodies. These slow, sputtering vehicles are known as mata-velhos – old person killers – because their tiny 50-cubic-­centimetre engines don’t require a driver’s licence to operate and because they are often driven – and crashed – by the elderly.

We turned off for lunch in a smallish town called Redondo and found a promising-looking place, Porfírio’s, with whitewashed walls and beamed ceilings. A tray of tasty appetisers, or entradas, was soon placed on our table: herbed and vinegared olives, breads, sausages and two kinds of fresh cheese. The lunch itself opened with an exquisite dogfish soup – the dogfish is a kind of shark, white-fleshed and sweet – followed by arroz de pato, or duck rice.

Portuguese cooking works through a process of concentration of essential tastes bolstered by fresh ingredients. Arroz de pato is a classic example of this magnification-through-reduction. The lid of baked egg atop the rice was dotted with broiled bits of incredibly savoury bacon and chouriço, a sausage similar to chorizo, both of them sourced from local pigs. Plunging your fork through the lid released a jet of flavourful steam, and below the rice, a vein of moist, darkly delicious duck.

But a last word about that pig. The animal reigns at the top of the food chain on Alentejo menus, consumed in nearly all its parts. The local ­specialty is porco preto, or black pig, fed mostly on the acorns that fall from cork trees and presented in sausage, bacon and chops and as an enriching agent in a variety of stews.

The animal’s intense depth of flavour is due partly to that acorn-heavy diet and, as a bonus, those acorns imbue the flesh with oleic acid, the same heart-friendly ingredient found in olive oil.

The next two days would take on an easy natural rhythm of eating, sightseeing and drinking the cheap, well-structured local wines. We stayed in the mountain towns Monsaraz and Marvão. Each was originally built as a fortified redoubt against invasion from nearby Spain and was visible from the valleys below looking like a kind of terracotta headpiece. Each was entered through several kilometres of switchbacks and inside the thickly fortified walls had an array of steep cobbled streets, a castle, a museum, shops, restaurants and panoramic views.

But it was in these showcase mountain towns, alas, that I felt the weight of the tourist trade wearing away some of the indigenous sparkle. The restaurants tended toward the tired, and the little ateliers and stores that honeycombed the alleyways seemed filled mainly with kitsch.

After two days we returned to the plains and began following signs for rota dos vinhos, or wine route. These soon brought us to the Adega Mayor winery, a hypermodern collection of cubes and cantilevers set out in the hills and designed by the famous Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza. We toured the ingeniously constructed building and sampled exquisite wines.

But it would be at lunch the next day that Portugal would finally offer up a truly world-class dining and drinking experience. It would take place at the Herdade dos Grous, a giant vineyard and estate in a village south of Beja, a town boasting a hotel and a restaurant whose services we sampled.

In the high-ceilinged dining room, with views over the vineyards and a man-made lake, we ordered the chef’s tasting menu accompanied by paired wines. The meal opened with a luxe version of typical entradas, the flavour of each small meat, cheese and vegetable dish as particularised as the panes of a stained-glass window. A lighter-than-air dogfish soup was followed by a veal medallion set in two swooshes of mustard sauce, served with fingerling potatoes, a topping of radish sprouts and roasted chickpeas.

The paired wines of Herdade dos Grous began with a delicate palate-cleansing white and accompanied the meal along an arc of increasing depth and complexity that ended with the cymbal crash of a 2011 Grous Reserva red. The net effect of this was one of great culinary transport.

Afterward, I talked with Luís Duarte, the man responsible for the extraordinary wines I’d just drunk and the only one of Portugal’s vignerons to have been named winemaker of the year twice. “I belong to the first class that studied winemaking in school, professionally,” he said. “Instead of working in the Douro” – Portugal’s traditional wine region, farther north – “I decided to head south to the unsung Alentejo. It was my good luck to get in on the ground floor of the worldwide growth of wine and ride that wave.”

When asked the difference between Portuguese wine and that of other ­nations, Mr. Duarte didn’t hesitate. “The wines of Chile and Argentina are too sweet,” he said. “You think Spain, you think the tempranillo grape. Well, we don’t use the same grapes everyone else does. We have 315 different grape varieties, many of them unique to us.” With a wave of the hand, he indicated the glasses on our table. “You want a velvety and well-balanced wine at a good price? Think Portugal.”

After lunch, we strolled in the nearby vineyards. It was late afternoon, the sun low in the sky. The air was filled with nostalgic aromas of earth and mown grass, and I found myself remembering my own near-exile in Italy, where I’d spent a total of eight years. Different from the Alentejo, Italy is long accustomed to being a sightseeing shrine of sorts, and its tourist treasures often have a kind of annealed feeling to them, as of having been visited so often that they’ve been buffed smooth by the experience.

But Portugal, and particularly the Alentejo, give an entirely different impression: that of a place – showcase mountain towns apart – still waking up to its own worldly importance and, as a result, still vivid and sparklingly fresh.

We were almost returned to the main building when we saw a golden retriever amble out to greet us. The dog was approached by a barnyard cat. Instead of fighting, the two touched noses. “Around here,” Martin commented, “everyone’s so happy that even interspecies enemies kiss and make up.” We laughed and turned back towards the car.

Back in the airport in Lisbon, I hugged my old friend goodbye. I was relieved to have found him at peace in his adopted country. There’s an essential melancholy in exile, a sadness from the severed connections to family, habit and what the poet Paul Celan called the “fatal once-only” of the mother tongue that can weigh on those who’ve made the move.

In Martin’s case these deficits were offset by a good marriage, his devotion to his art and a country whose ancient ways allowed him the kind of concentration that speeding New York would have almost certainly denied.

In the process, coincidentally, that country had offered me two things: a reassuring insight into the adaptability of human nature over time, and a tour of the hilly, magical Alentejo, with some of the very best eating and drinking of my life.

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