Alqueva Part 2 – The Food

I am not a travel writer, I am a cook and a food enthusiast. Nevertheless, I think I might start sharing my adventures around a few places, but I assure you it will always include food. If I’ve never been down this road before it’s because of:

A) Up till last year I was a mear culinary student (students don’t usually have much resources to travel – well, me at least).

B) Being from the Algarve, my only time off (summer) was spent working.

C) Surely, through any spare time I could find, I would cook and photograph and plan how to write a blog.

Anyhow, a year has passed, I gained (some) professional experience, saved up (some) money and decided to, instead of enrolling into a masters degree or something that would pin me down (financially and geographically), take interesting short-term courses to enrich my mind, body and soul (oh, and don’t forget, my belly) – I will surely post these whenever I start my adventures through wherever I go. You will find out soon enough! For now, here goes take 1.

This year, my parents were so kind I was actually invited to go on a four day trip to Alqueva. Check out my intro, aka Part 1 – The Trip!

I was bewildered (because they usually travel without the kid) yet grateful for the opportunity. Grabbed my bikini, Anthony Bourdain’s – A Cook’s Tour, my camera and hasta la vista world, here goes Mel to enjoy some silence, on a boat, in Alentejo.

I blame my mother for getting me into this post in the first place (in a good way obviously): besides introducing me to great travel writer such as Bill Bryson and handy Lonely Planet books, I think she knew I knew I had what it took to write an interesting point of view about our adventures on a boat through this unique place in Portugal. Heck, the world! She is also the best travel planner I have ever known. She does it at least twice a year and already has a first-name basis relationship with international airports and airlines (just kidding – but, if this were true, I wouldn’t be the least surprised).

Before you start mouthwatering on the other side of the screen, let me give you some basic info you might find useful:

  1. Amieira Marina is where you rent the boat. They provide a map, a big one. If you lose it, there is one stapled to the inside of the boat. Plus, GPS system is easy to get used to. Big big plus side? You don’t even need a boat license! You get a two hour tops lesson on how to drive it, float it right and, eventually, not sink it.                                            IMG_6923
  2. They provide elevator trolleys so you don’t have to carry heavy baggage. Yes, this means take as much food and booze as you possibly can.
  3. Kitchen completely equipped – even a BBQ you can set up! Stove and oven are gas run. Portable water and separate dam water taps (non consumable). Good sized fridge and regular freezer, plenty of cute plates and bowls, tea towels and table cloths, complementary basket with an Alentejano bread loaf and cured goat cheese. Now this is quality of life people! The only thing I could complain about was the amount of time the fridge took to cool my drinks (very hot, can’t blame floating technology) and the lack of sharp knives. I suppose my cooker self should have anticipated such a fact. Now I know never to travel without my kit again.
  4. PET FRIENDLY! Yes, for a small fee of 40€ you can take your dog. Make sure you buy a float jacket ahead of time and spend your peaceful moments teaching him how to fetch the tennis ball into the vast waters. Just tell him it’s a big pool – it worked for us!

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So, as you can imagine, I was the private chef on the boat! I basically cooked and served whatever my dear mother thought we needed most. I can assure you, we could of survived another week, easily and comfortably, without starving. Here you have it:

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Petisco lunch: veggies from our farm (cherry tomato, cucumber, green pepper, onion and cilantro with a balsamic + red wine vinegar combination), assorted deli such as Presunto, honey roasted ham, Queijo de Azeitão, healthy seedy crackers, bread, tinned preserved fish and, of course, beer! A 15 minute gathering of ingredients so we could make the best of our first day, with little hassle.

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Do you like my smoked mackerel cracker bruschetta?

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Waking up to this? Could get used to it, easily.

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Breakfast with a view! Eggs, cheese, portuguese bread and butter. Some preserved asparagus – ovinhos com espargos is a very traditional Alentejano tidbit.

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Stopped in Campinho on our second day where we found a park with tables, benches and embedded BBQ’s through the so called park. Plenty of friendly families who shared their burning coals so we could make a grilled veggie salad and some chicken breast marinated with pimentão doce (paprika), bay leaf, olive oil, salt, pepper and white wine.

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Once we arrived at Monsaraz, so much art and unique features. First of all, if you want to go here, talk to Amieira Marina. They know a guy who knows a guy that owns a B&B who will gladly pick you up at the nautical club (where you will have to park your boat) in his private car so you can have a nice meal, a stroll and will even take you back. For half the price that a regular taxi would charge, this is the best solution as taxi’s will usually come from far away and will rip you off with a 60€ trip (even if it’s 20 min back and forth).

Dinner at Templários Restaurant:

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Charcuterie plate with top notch cured pork.
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sem título-378Goat cheese gratin with olive oil and oregano. Plenty of bread to dip!

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Cabrito assado com batatas – young goat roasted in the oven till tender, with likewise accompanied potatoes.

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Octopus with olive oil and cilantro.

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Back in Aldeia da Luz, our final day. This town was completely rebuilt somewhere else – they even moved the cemetery and respective carcases. Otherwise, the town council wouldn’t have agreed with the move. Check out their museum for some historical facts.

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Traditional Bakery Sign. Got there just in time (before 1pm as it shuts for lunch till 3pm) to buy a loaf and some almond and egg cream pastries.

Translation: The bakery belonged to the parents of the current owner, who still baked bread in a traditional brick oven. When he inherited the bakery, he continued to bake bread in the traditional way, only ceasing to do so when the family moved to the new village. Here you can find regional Alentejo bread and cakes. The bakery owners are Albertina and Manuel Godinho.

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Alentejano excursionists arguing what they were going to have for lunch. Out of both options shared through what seemed to me loud roars of hangry (for more info about this human state, click here) they stood for at least 10 minutes discussing the pros and cons of choosing:

  •  carne de alguidar: when we make chouriço, we put everything in a bucket, season it well with salt, pepper, vinegar, olive oil, bay leaf and paprika, but instead of stuffing the chouriço we can also make a meal out of it. It actually goes by the name of bucket meat.
  • Churrasco – our grilled meat, you can call it our barbecue but without the american sauce. Simple is best with a tad of lemon juice topped after being grilled, to cut the strong flavor of the fat and smoke drenched meat.

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Our last evening on the boat.

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Preparing some roast veggie salad and local chouriço to put on the grill for our last floating meal.

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Once back home, I couldn’t help myself by making a friendly petisco with my edible souvenirs. I brought three cheeses:

Cured sheep milk cheese – Sapata from Reguengos de Monsaraz

Cured sheep milk cheese – Lactobelavista from Rio dos Moinhos

Mixed sheep and cow milk cheese – Belqueijo from Nisa

I also brought back a black pig chouriço. Let’s just say it was too damn yummi, it didn’t survive before the photoshoot.

All in all – one of the best trips ever. Four days isn’t enough to cover the amount of territory you can explore. The people, the food, the peace and quiet, the warm still waters and the everlasting floating. After two days, I would step on land and feel like I hadn’t stopped floating – this is normal and a pretty cool thing to experience!

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Alqueva Part 1 – The Trip!

My very first “alentejano” experience was twenty years ago – I was a mear four year old waking up to the godawful sound of a pig being murdered. I hated every bit of it: the sqwelling, the blood, the smell of burnt hair, the guts held in buckets through the hallway floors. The years passed by and I learned to appreciate it. After all, it always ended up in a fiest (literally speaking).
Returning to Alentejo brought back those memories, and while I read Anthony’s experience, I couldn’t help but laugh and be thankful that my nanny dragged me along during her weekend visits to Odemira. Childhood trauma apart, it just made me become a little more portuguese than I already was about to become. This time, I didn’t see swine torture, but I was introduced to something much more mind blowing about this part of the country.
Just to get you started, Alentejo in the summer is known for it’s hotness, the umberable kind that will make you want to look for shade and never think about sun bathing again. It is just that hot. After being in the Algarve for most of my life, being hot never seemed to be a problem – you have the sea, the fresh breeze, the not so hot heat. In the countryside you won’t find salted water, maybe a river now and then. But now Alqueva has Europe’s biggest artificial lake. For more info about historical facts and why the dam was constructed, consult wikipedia’s wise knowledge here.
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The most peaceful sunset I have seen in all my existence.
So this was the trip – renting a boat, sailing what once was vast pastured land. The most peaceful experience I have ever had since I could remember. Ghostly territory, non urbunized islands, stranded trees, slightly sloped bays and plenty of still waters.
This was such a cool idea, I just have to tell the world about it and recommend it to everyone.
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Getting to know small villages, local living, plus, far away from busy civilization and mass tourism confusion – this is what this trip was all about. This one is Estrela – no restaurants, one simple café and you can’t find packaged orange juice anywhere. When I asked what this was all about, while I had been shopping for it because my mother needs it more than she needs coffee in the morning, a lady simply answered “If we want orange juice, we will squeeze oranges”. True wise words, natural is best!
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Monsaraz view from this quaint B&B. Amazing and unusual town – I highly recommend visiting this unique spot.
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Aldeia da Luz scenario – One of the villages that had to be reconstructed because of the increase in water altitude.
While we were wondering the hot and haunted roads of this recent location, we found a table to sit down and have a refreshing mini (a small sized beer – 25cl to be precise). Checking out the inside of the so resembled tavern, I realized that for snacks, men were standing around the counter, with peeled boiled potatoes, some slices of fresh tomato, a few peanuts and each one of them had their own pocket knife to nibble. Wow, I need to get one myself! Astonished yet lights flickered in my mind as I started to understand what Alentejo’s lifestyle is all about – simplicity, at best, and humble practices gained by generations of getting by with whatever was available.
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When my dog found a stray goat, and followed him just to watch.
Next – Part 2 – The Food!