Postcard from Portugal

Wed 19 May 2010 @ 15:16
Author Paul Dring

Last weekend I was in Portugal, for the inaugural Alentejo Mediterranean Gastronomy Festival. Alentejo is a rural province that lies to the south of Lisbon and straddles the country from the Atlantic coast all the way to the Spanish border. The event ran over two nights in its capital, the beautiful walled, medieval city of Evora and was a great showcase for the province's rich culinary heritage.

The tourism board are hoping to make this a yearly event and had put in loads of work to make sure it was a success, drafting in food producers, wine makers and chefs from all around the region and beyond. There were cheesemakers, such as Joana Garcia of Queijaria Monte da Vinha, who left a lucrative career as a lawyer in Lisbon to produce the small, round, raw ewe's milk cheeses distinctive to the region, some of which have runny centres and are eaten with a spoon. Among the winemakers – and, dear reader, I tried the produce of them all – I liked the wines produced by Antonio and Susana who run Solar dos Lobos.

As for the chefs, I attended a demonstration by Francisco Ferreira (above left) of Vilŕ Gale hotels, who made short work of preparing a trayful of braised pig cheek in filo parcels, and José Júlio Vintém (above right) of Tomba Lobos restaurant. Apparently, José is well known round these parts for his evangelical nose-to-tail approach and likes nothing better than to cook up a delicious-smelling meaty concoction, garner the oohs, mmms and aahs of contented tasters, and then reveal precisely which infrequently used part of the animal they've just been enjoying.

He did just that at the demo I attended, frying some rather anaemic-looking bits of lamb. These he served with eggs, which were cooked very slowly in a bain marie with some chopped wild sprue asparagus, and migas, which is a thrifty preparation of flavoured, stale breadcrumbs and is perhaps the quintessential Alentejo dish. The meat was delicious, tender and beautifully browned, and I didn't enjoy it any the less for discovering the cut in question was 'amygdalas'. This I had originally thought was a part of the brain, though after a while I found out that I had, in fact, been chowing down on a plateful of baby baa-lamb tonsils.

In fact, the only thing the hard-working organisers couldn't have accounted for was the weather. Alas, rainstorms biblical in their fury meant that turn-out was not what they had hoped for. Shame. I had a lot of fun, as did the others who braved the elements. I wish them success - and better weather - for next year.

You can find out more about Alentejo on the tourist board's website.

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