Fancy a jaunt along the newly launched Festival of Food & Wine route in Alentejo? Chris Wiltshire is your guide.
Her deep brown eyes surveyed the dusty, sun-kissed plains and suddenly caught my gaze. Slightly startled, she stood transfixed for what seemed like an age, curled one of her long eyelashes into a wink and appeared to nod in my direction.
Now I understood the attraction of the rare Garvonesa cow. The beast is, indeed, a beauty.
Fortunately, Barbara Thomann and her husband Georg felt the same thing when they clapped eyes on the breed 19 years ago. If they hadn’t, the chances are the iconic cow would have been wiped off the face of the earth.
Barely 100 Garvonesa were left when the Swiss couple decided to sell up their brewery business in Winterthur and buy 70 hectares of farmland in Portugal’s Alentejo region, 20 miles south of Evora, to fulfil a dream.
They bought 10 cattle, with their distinctive black faces, horns and reddish brown skin, and set about breeding them at their Herdade da Mata farm, alongside other endangered species.
Now they have close to 100 Garvonesa, with 500-plus cows at other Portuguese farms, and it’s fair to say the future of the breed looks assured. A welcome byproduct of the Thomanns’ actions has been to help beef up Alentejo’s little-known food and wine scene.
The Garvonesa meat, once traded at the famous Garvao Fair – from where the cow derived its name – is now marketed under the Estremoz Carne brand. The choicest meats invariably appear on menus at restaurants taking part in the Alentejo Festival of Food & Wine, a year-long series of festivities taking place throughout this sparsely-populated region.
To taste the fruits of the farm’s labours, it’s best to head into the beautifully preserved medieval town of Evora – a Unesco world heritage site – where restaurants abound inside the 14th century walls. But before tucking into the renowned black pork, salt cod, wild mushroom and asparagus dishes, it’s a good idea to get an understanding of the wide variety of wines on offer.
Knowledgeable staff at the modern wine route office in Evora, where the region’s 260 producers have their products certified, will happily impart their knowledge of the rapidly-growing wine scene. Each week, a selection of red, white and rosé wines are available for tasting and bottles can be bought for as little as 3.5 euros (£2.80).
The region’s hot summers and cold winters are said to contribute to a wide selection of sought-after wines, with the fruity and full-bodied reds forging Alentejo’s reputation among connoisseurs.
Just like the Italians, the Portuguese take their meals seriously and no more so than in Alentejo because of its abundance of produce. For good reason, it is known as the breadbasket of the country.
Cafe Alentejo is “typico” of the region’s small, unpretentious restaurants and quickly fills with locals and tourists from all parts of Europe. We opt for one of the set menus that features in the Festival of Food brochure. Meals featured typically cost in the region of 17 euros per person (£13) and include a bottle of house wine.
Our table is soon covered with lashings of olives, cheese, black pork, garlic butter, warm bread and tiny squid. Then it’s on to the ox cheeks, the restaurant’s speciality, for the main course, which are tender and juicy.
Finally we tuck into some of the famous sleep-inducing manjar celeste (heavenly sweets), packed with egg yolks, sugar and almonds.
Fortunately, there are plenty of wonderful sites in Evora to visit and walk off such a delicious meal, such as the second century Templo Romano, more commonly referred to as the Temple of Diana, the fabulous aqueduct that sweeps around the town and the gruesome Capela dos Ossos – Chapel of Bones – a room adorned with the bones of more than 5,000 monks from the 16th century.
To get a feel of the real Alentejo, head south from Evora, through the cork oak trees and along the dusty lanes to the delightful Herdade da Malhadinha Nova Country House & Spa, near Beja.
An excellent equestrian centre, led by English-speaking staff and catering for all ages and abilities, is attracting visitors in increasing numbers in the spring and autumn months, when temperatures are more palatable.
Further north, the landscape becomes hilly and altogether more interesting, with picturesque, whitewashed towns and imposing fortresses.
On the way, we stop off to sample the fruits of the family-run Almojanda olive oil business at Herdade da Almojanda, near Portalegre. The previous summer, I had spent time in the Puglia region of southern Italy, which produces 80 per cent of Italy’s olive oil, but its flavours would struggle to match those of the Almojanda.
Owner and new mum Teresa is proud to show us around her rustic farmhouse and ancient olive groves, which produce an intensely flavoursome yet smooth extra virgin olive oil.
It’s no surprise that numerous awards decorate the homely shop that doubles as the company’s office and where other Almojanda products are sold from the farm’s productive lands, including olive pate, honey, jams and vinegar.
Further north, in the foothills of the garrison town Marvao, you can find products of Alentejo organic food company Terrius, which was launched by young farmers keen to promote and protect the biodiverse region.
It’s another good reason to tear yourself away from the Algarve beaches, if only for a few days. After all, one of the local beauties might just catch your eye.
• Chris Wiltshire was a guest of Sunvil Discovery (020 8758 4722; www.sunvil.co.uk) which offers tailormade itineraries across the Alentejo. His trip cost from £684pp (two sharing) including return flights from Heathrow with TAP Portugal (www.flytap.com), two nights at the Herdade da Malhadinha Nova, one night at the Pousada de Arraiolos and one night at the Pousada de Marvao and car hire.
For further information about the Alentejo, see www.visitalentejo.pt/en/
For more information on the Alentejo Festival of Food & Wine visit www.sunvil.co.uk/discovery/portugal/alentejo/holiday-ideas/alentejo-festival-of-food