José Júlio Vintém was in hot pursuit of wild asparagus. On a warm spring morning, the self-taught chef was wading through the brush that rims the dirt road to São Lourenço do Barrocal, a hotel outside of Reguengos de Monsaraz, in Portugal’s southern Alentejo region. He stopped every few yards to collect the frilly asparagus tips or to inspect a plant: waist-high fennel, wild arugula with butter-yellow flowers and, creeping everywhere, poejo (pennyroyal), a potent variety of mint with hints of oregano. “It looks lush now,” he said. “But everything that grows in Alentejo is drought tolerant, and our cuisine is really the frugal genius of poor cooks.”
Vintém’s menu was inspired by Alentejo’s historical deprivation but it wasn’t stuck there. So, if his dried-fava-bean salad hewed to peasant tradition with slices of lightly spicy chouriço sausage, it was also garnished with red-through-and-through strawberries, their juices mixed with the estate’s olive oil to create a sweet-tart dressing.
As a cavalcade of terra-cotta plates and casseroles landed on my table, the obvious hit me. The red vineyards, the hand-painted earthenware (I had passed through São Pedro do Corval, one of Europe’s major pottery towns, on the way to Quetzal), the clay floor tiles, curved roof tiles and talhas, the traditional clay vessels some vintners still use here: Alentejo’s red soil figures in so many of its traditions.
Quetzal initiated me into Alentejo’s soulful cuisine and its sources. The same buttery, curry-inflected meat turnovers that show the lasting influence of Portugal’s spice hunting in the East Indies cropped up on menus throughout the region. So did peixinhos da horta (“little fish from the garden”). Portugal’s southern hinterland is far from the coast, so local cooks swapped out seafood for green beans, coating the vegetables in batter and deep-frying them. (Alentejano chefs will tell you the Japanese learned this cooking style from Portuguese traders.)
In the evenings after visits in the countryside, I dined in the region’s capital, Evora, home to a remarkable range of outstanding restaurants with excellent wine lists given that it’s a city of only 60,000. For me, Enoteca Cartuxa was a standout. The modern, red-and blond-wood space is operated by Evora’s Cartuxa winery, so the house’s crisp whites and fresh, fruity reds are on offer alongside a menu that’s an evolution and continuation of Alentejo’s culinary arts. It was a great spot to sample the region’s nutty sheep and goat cheeses and hand-sliced presunto do porco preto. Spain’s black-hooved pata negra pigs get most of the attention, but Alentejo’s forest-fed pigs also gorge on herbs, fallen fruits and acorns.
Like all Portuguese, Alentejanos love their bacalhau (salt cod). It’s a national passion that dates back to the 15th century, when Portuguese sailors crossed the ocean to fish for cod on the Grand Banks, then preserved their catch in salt for the voyage home. Enoteca Cartuxa caters to this centuries-long bacalhau mania with multiple preparations: in açorda—one of Alentejo’s most essential dishes—a humble soup of pennyroyal, garlic, olive oil and water thickened with stale bread; tossed with matchstick potatoes and fried egg; in a velvety chickpea soup with poached egg and spinach; or as an entrée with chickpea puree, pickled red onion and parsley-infused olive oil.
To end an already hearty meal, Enoteca Cartuxa served an updated version of toucinho do céu—literally translated as “bacon from heaven,” because this egg and almond cake was originally enriched with pork fat. Portuguese cooks deploy eggs, sugar and/or ground almonds and cinnamon in every possible combination. They’re called “conventual” desserts, because, in one justification, nuns had a glut of leftover egg yolks after using the whites to starch priests’ collars (although winemakers favor the explanation that the whites were used in fining wines).
I indulged in the region’s achingly sweet desserts, which required long constitutionals in Evora’s twisty streets, past whitewashed houses banded in ocher. I didn’t spot any wild asparagus sprouting between the cobblestones but at least I could stare off at the city’s floodlit Temple of Diana. It wasn’t hard to trace a line from the Ancient Romans to today’s talha wines, farms and olive orchards.photos by Tiago Caravana