Tim and Julie recently traveled to Portugal where they visited the capital city Lisbon and toured around the Alentejo, the least populous part of the country, with Portuguese specialty food exporter Manuel Maia.
Summers in the Alentejo are hot and dry, but during our springtime visit the grass and trees were green and the weather alternated almost hourly between rainstorms and blinding sun in blue skies. Long stretches of land were periodically interrupted by small towns made up of houses painted a crisp white with a yellow or green border: the traditional colors of the region.
We stopped in a few of these towns to visit several artisans, including a producer of Azeitão cheese and a producer of an Amanteigado cheese.
Fernando de Oliveira Simões has been making Azeitão since 1992 along with butter and ricotta (requeijão). We watched as a small group of me n worked with their hands and a few simple tools to transform the raw sheep milk, salt and macerated cardoon flower into the pudgy little cheeses we have come to love so much. Our tasting included some unusual jams, including a bright orange pumpkin jam spread on freshly made ricotta — one of the flavor highlights of the trip.
At Monte da Vinha, owner and former lawyer Joana Fernandes oversees a group of women who work with the raw milk of roughly 500 sheep. They produce various sizes and ages of the same basic cheese, which at its best, has a smooth, pudding texture that is easily scooped out and spread on a piece of bread. The flavors are stronger than the Azeitão and during our tasting with Joana, we had to restrain ourselves from eating too much of the gooey deliciousness or run the risk of appearing gluttonous.
Throughout our stay in Portugal, we enjoyed each meal in its own way, from our first, seafood-centric meal of clams, octopus and bacalhau to the more meat-centric meals with goat stew and smoked meats. On our trip through the Alentejo region, we had our favorite meal in Estremoz, an old walled village with a large castle at the top of the hill.
We had lunch at São Rosas, a small restaurant with a simple, rustic menu where we tasted farinheira, a rustic sausage of fat from the pata negra or black pig, flour, pork, sweet red pepper and salt. The sausage was originally made in the 15th century with meats other than pork so that the Jewish people of the region could eat sausage to avoid persecution by the inquisition.
Lunch continued with açorda de bacalhau, cod fish stew and another typical Alentejo brothy soup with chunks of bread and egg, chopped garlic and fresh cilantro, pézinhos de coentrada (pigs feet in a coriander sauce), various chouriços and cuttlefish in their own ink.
After lunch, we drove deeper into the South Alentejo region, where we passed groves of cork oak trees, olive trees, pine trees and in some places, grapevines. Sheep and fluffy, horned cows grazed under the trees while beautiful black bulls ranged on their own, waiting selection for the local bullfights (Spanish bullfights end with the death of the bull but the Portuguese never kill them). At one point, I asked Manuel, “Why all the pine trees?” “Pine nuts,” he answered. We soon discovered that we were in the heart of the production zone for this prized Mediterranean seed.
The Mediterranean pine nut (pinhõa in Portuguese) is the seed of the stone pine tree that grows in the south-central region of Portugal. The species is well adapted to the heat of the climate and is an important part of the ecosystem as a home for many birds, mammals, insects and amphibians. Because the wood of the stone pine tree is not particularly valuable, pine nuts represent the greatest (and most sustainable) economic opportunity.
From mid-December to late March, the pinecones are collected and placed on open-air terraces where they are exposed to the heat of the summer sun. As they dry, the pine cones open up and are struck together to release the pine kernels. The nuts are then shelled, washed and sorted to ensure the highest quality. The spent pine cones and the kernel shells are sold to be reused as fuel in boilers for the biomass industry.
The Portuguese pine nuts were amazing — soft, full of oil and very piney. We tried them plain, in honey and in a sort of brittle. We learned that one of the biggest purchasers of Portuguese pine nuts is Italy, perhaps one of the reasons Italian pesto is so good.
Important Portuguese words:
Queijo – cheese
Requeijo – ricotta
Alho – garlic
Atum – tuna
Azeite – olive oil
Azeitones – olives
Chá – tea
Doce – sweet
Laranja – orange
Limão – lemon
Maçã – apple
Pao – bread
Peixe – fish
Vinho – wine
Velho – old