The largest city in the Alentejo region of Portugal, Évora, is one of those places that I love to visit in any season. We’ve spent many nights here on our way to the Costa Vicentina in the summer months or on our way to Lisbon during the winter holidays. It’s beauty and charm stands strong regardless of the harsh weather. The 1st Century Roman Temple here never ceases to leave me in awe as I walk up to the Convent dos Lóios where I stay with my groups. Centuries of history always rush through my mind and leave me a bit speechless.
Alentejo is known for its wine, excellent food, olive trees, cork and very relaxed way of living. That is just to name a few things. We have probably covered every inch of it throughout our travels in Portugal. Beautiful wineries, small towns with excellent food, and fascinating history is to be found everywhere. Being here during the grape harvest is extra special. At some wineries the grapes are still crushed by foot. The local food varies throughout the Alentejo from hearty meat dishes and soups in the interior to excellent seafood along the coast. One thing you must try while in the area near Évora is the black Iberian pork. These black pigs are raised happily, grazing on acorns from the local oak trees.
There is a restaurant in Évora that I have been wanting to try for an eternity. Tucked away in the old Moorish neighborhood you will find Botequim da Mouraria with seating for 9 people, no reservations accepted. It is owned by a lovely man named Domingos, who runs the front of the house and his wife Florbela, who is the miracle worker in the kitchen. I could only order one item off the menu since I was alone. But, I enviously watched my dining neighbors enjoyed grilled mushrooms, prawns drenched in garlic and butter, ham and melon, and grilled fish. My heart told me to go for the grilled filet of black pork and it was divine. There is no other word to describe this dish. It was served with a green salad tossed in front of me and homemade potato chips. Domingos was slightly annoyed that I didn’t eat the potatoes but the pork and salad were perfect together. If you go, you should really eat their fresh chips!!
I love the set up of the restaurant. Everyone is seated around the “bar” like a family. You can see all the fresh products they have on display along with the gorgeous wine selection. Domingos is kind and honest about how much you should order. It feels like a fine dining experience in an incredibly relaxed atmosphere. By the end of my meal I had taken up pleasant conversation with the Japanese couple to my right and the Irish Thelma and Louise to my left. Everyone was obviously as thrilled as I was to have gotten one of the lucky seats for lunch that day!
When Domingos served my beautiful pork I kindly asked him for some “piri piri” or spicy sauce. One of my favorite things about good Portuguese restaurants. He brought out this jar of fiery oil made with the spicy malagueta peppers used in Portugal, Brazil and Africa. Within 2 minutes the jar was being passed about the bar to the other guests. There is nothing like a piri piri made with love.
Domingos forced me to have dessert since I did not eat my potatoes. There are moments in life when you just can’t say no, like with my Nana Lena. She would have been appalled if we said no to any homemade dessert of hers! Siricaia is an egg custard traditionally served with candied plums that come from the beautiful town of Elvas right on the Spanish/Portuguese border. The perfect end to a perfect meal!
“A sigh isn’t just a sigh. We inhale the world and breathe out meaning. While we can. While we can.” Salman Rushdie, The Moor’s Last Sigh.
It would be impossible to count how many times I’ve told the story of Boabdil, the last Nasrid King of Granada or Garnata al Yahud; Granada of the Jews. There are many legends and stories connected to Abdullah Mohammed Xll, the man who handed over the keys of the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian Peninsula to Isabel and Fernando in 1492. He referred to these keys as the “keys to paradise”. As he left the city of Granada to go into exile to the Alpujarras (southern part of the Sierra Nevada mountain range) he paused at a mountain pass which is now named, The Sigh of the Moor, and shed tears over ending of 800 years of of Muslim rule. His Mother, Aixa, who was with him on this journey into exile said, “Do not weep as a woman for what you could not defend as a man.” Hence, the legend of the tears of Boabdil.
We have a dessert in Granada named after this legend. It is called “Lágrimas de Boabdil”. This dessert, with an obvious Moorish/Jewish influence, is unfamiliar to most people but they serve my favorite version at the restaurant next to my house. It has a buttery almond base topped with carmelized crunchy almonds and a raspberry glaze. It pairs well with a local red wine from the Señorio de Nevada winery.
Boabdil’s tears are understandable to anyone who has been to Granada. Not only did handing over Granada to the Catholic Monarchs signify the end to one of the most important examples of religious tolerance, Boabdil was forced to leave his home and one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Washington Irving speaks well of this in his last paragraph of Tales of the Alhambra, and I can also share this sentiment as I have been unable to live anywhere else for the past 25 years.
Winters in Granada are not as horrible as they can be other places I realize, but nonetheless I get tired very easily of the cold. I prefer heat, hot sun, sand on my body and a cool drink in my hand. So, after all too many days of battling a nasty winter flu I have been dreaming of summer. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, sweet and enjoyable summer. I have many food and cultural posts still for winter but today I need to feel the hot sun on my skin. If only through a blog. So, my dreams take me back to Asturias where we enjoy spending a bit of each summer vacation. Hard cider, great food, and a sunny day on a pristine beach are what brings us back year after year. The sunny day can be a give or take since Asturias tends to be fairly rainy. But, we usually luck out with sun for 90 percent of the time.
Each year we return to the same rural hotel (another post) where we always feel welcome and have a chance to decompress between campground and campground. From this beautiful home there are hiking trails that will take you to different towns, beaches, restaurants, and the breathtaking look out at Cabo Penas. One of our favorite beaches to walk to is Verdicio. First we stop at a nearby restaurant along the national highway and then we make our way down to the beach area which kindly offers a small hut serving hard cider whenever you feel the need.
We had a fantastic meal at a cider house, La Fustariega before heading down for a swim. French fries ( or chips) smothered in a sauce made with the best cheese in Spain, Cabrales. Cabrales in its pure form will make your eyes water, nose run and your stinky tennis shoes smell like roses. It is delicous. A raw milk cheese that is cured in an extremely humid cave in the high Picos de Europa Mountains until it is covered in mold and striped with lucious blue veins. Asturias is famous for its cheese and Cabrales is one that is honored in competitions each year.
The other typical dish that we devoured before ordering desserts was Pastel de Cabracho. According to gastronomical history this dish was first prepared by the famous Basque Chef, Juan Mari Arzak. The fish (black scorpian fish) is boiled first in a stock, deboned and then mixed with a mixture of tomato, heavy cream and sometimes leek and carrot. It is formed into a pudding and cooked in a double boiler. It is normally served as an appetizer with homemade mayonnaise. When it is prepared well, Pastel de Cabracho is not to be missed.
We ended our meal with two mouth watering desserts. Simple and delightful. A creamy rice pudding topped with cinnamon and a typical Asturian cheesecake. It was the perfect meal to fuel us for our short walk down to the beach where the sun and a cold bottle of hard cider awaited us.