I can't abide whistle-stop tours. I prefer getting to know places and seeing what lies beyond the usual entrapments of ubiquitous tourist trails; although I will happily lap up the many conveniences of big resorts when the mood takes me. Who doesn't enjoy stepping out of a hotel foyer directly onto a bustling street filled with countless cafés, bars and restaurants?
Before I first visited Portugal, I was partial to exploring Ireland (mainly the Republic opposed to the North). I started off around Dublin, then went off to explore County Wicklow (the 'garden of Ireland'). I adored the rugged Wicklow mountains and the incredible views which occasionally even yield glimpses of the Snowdonia mountains across the Irish Sea, back in my native Wales. After that, I discovered the West of Ireland, the Ring of Kerry, Killarney, the Dingle Peninsula and the gloriously scary cliffs of Eiréann's Western shores. This is the only place I've visited where the churning seas are even more wild and forbidding than those of Portugal's silver coast.
My first taste of Portugal was from the seats of classic Volvos, namely a 144 and latterly a PV544. The Expat owner had very particular and very strongly held views about what was good and what was not so good about Portugal. He tailored our trips to specifically avoid the more touristy Portuguese enclaves, doing his utmost to introduce Portugal in an authentic light. Anywhere that had an abundance of Brits (Expat or otherwise) seemed to be on his 'PLACES TO AVOID' list! This meant that my first tastes of Portugal were distinctly rural and quite rustic in nature. The places we visited seemed a very long way from the Algarve, especially when traversing the hot, shimmering plains of Alentejo in 50 year old Volvos which had no air conditioning!
I thoroughly appreciated those 'authentic' first experiences of Portugal. I have to confess, it always amused me when my friend and I consistently seemed to bump into our fair share of British people, no matter where we went in Portugal! This scenario suggested that my old pal hadn't moved quite far enough from dear old Blighty to permanently rid himself of the people that he confessed he'd moved to Portugal to avoid! Perhaps the deepest recesses of the Amazon basin would have been more suitable for him?
I guess that my first truly authentic taste of Portuguese life came, perversely, on the day my hired car broke down just outside a very rural village called Pé da Serra in the Alentejo region. Having travelled extensively around Portugal in 50-year-old Volvos, I was eventually let down by a four-month-old Jeep Grand Cherokee with a very rough-sounding diff. But the experience didn't turn out to be a negative one. The tale morphed into one of meeting some very helpful and hospitable local folk who were the very epitome of Portuguese 'chill'.
"Calm down, you'll get your car sorted out soon enough," declared one elderly gentleman who'd been watching as I irritably paced up and down the narrow cobbled street struggling to get a reply from the breakdown assistance team in Lisbon. "Look, we have plenty of good food, good cold beer and lots of decent Alentejo wine, you'll not perish." He chuckled, before shouting out to a bunch of guys whom I'd noticed milling about beneath a corrugated veranda annexed to a row of whitewashed cottages, "Get this guy a cold mini!" Suddenly, I had a bottle of Super Bock in my hand and I didn't feel quite so stranded.
The "plenty of good food" turned out to be a very freshly butchered lamb and an equally recently deceased cockerel who'd clearly never again be disturbing anyone's morning slumber. The four fellows milling around beneath the veranda were dealing with various elements of the butchery process. Nothing appeared to be wasted. Even the offal was distributed between them in plastic supermarket bags. Other gubbins were tossed into a large aluminium pot and boiled up alongside some onions, herbs and vegetables to create a rich stock.
In another corner, a large pot of long-grain rice was simmering away. There were some chunks of fried off fatty meat (presumably lamb) placed on a large metal plate. I watched as the meat was carefully placed into the pot of steaming hot rice alongside generous handfuls of freshly chopped herbs. It was all finished off with a kind of thin gravy made in a metal jug from the cockerel's blood, some of the boiling stock, a cup of red wine vinegar and some more freshly chopped herbs. It smelled awesome.
“The real deal”
"You may as well have some wine, you're not going anywhere today Amigo," said the massive fellow who'd been doing most of the cooking. "You'll not find food or wine like this in Lisbon!" he joked, "This is the real deal, it's what us proper Portuguese people eat and drink. We keep all the best stuff for ourselves right HERE where it's all produced!" Everyone laughed and agreed that I'd not be heading anywhere near Lisbon until the morning at the very earliest, not that I'd been planning on heading anywhere near Lisbon. They presumed that I was from the capital and I simply didn't have the heart nor the inclination to correct them.
Before the big pot of meat and rice was brought to the table, a large round (sponge cake-sized) portion of cheese was brought out along with a freshly baked (warm) Portuguese loaf.
"It's goat's milk cottage cheese that I made earlier! It's less than an hour old," said the chef. I commented that it reminded me of Indian paneer. "Exactly," he smiled, "It's like paneer for a very good reason because it's us Portuguese who introduced this type of cheese-making to the Indians in Bengal. In India they use buffalo or cow's milk but right here in Portugal we still use locally sourced goat's milk and sometimes even ewe's milk. Taste it, it's a sharper, fresher taste than paneer. It's sweeter too. We even drizzle it with runny honey for breakfast. It's more Portuguese than old João over there." He pointed to an old chap making his way gingerly up the street to partake in this manly feast. João was 92 years old.
As the evening wore on, I lost count of how many bottles of wine we shared but no one was counting. The rice dish might sound simple but the flavours were subtle, complex and utterly delicious. We ended the evening with Port and Medronho. We all concluded that all we'd missed out on during our all-male gathering was some exotic Brazilian female company!
Despite my hire car being replaced by lunchtime the following day, I stayed on in this lovely village for 2 more days. It was a truly memorable taste of life in rural Portugal.