Chef Leandro Carreira on the flavours of Portugal's Alentejo region

The southern Portuguese region is home to a fascinating food culture, from charcuterie to convent sweets.

By Leandro Carreira
Published 16 Mar 2022, 17:00 GMT, Updated 17 Mar 2022, 09:30 GMT
Açorda de bacalhau.

Açorda de bacalhau.

Photograph by Mário Ambrózio and Rafael Rodrigues at Raw Studio

Bordering Spain to the east and the Atlantic to the west, the largely flat, southern region of Alentejo is the largest in Portugal. It’s home to the most highly prized pig, the free-range pata negra (‘black foot’), one of the Iberian Peninsula’s most sought-after gastronomic treasures. These pigs are acorn-fed and roam in the oak forests on the Spanish border — a diet and lifestyle that accounts for their exceptional flavour and high price. 

It’s in this region that Portugal’s strongest charcuterie culture exists, including the making of chouriço (chorizo), paiolas (a traditional sausage) and presunto (cured ham). But there’s more than just meat to Alentejo’s cuisine. With its long coastline, Portugal offers some of the most remarkable diversity of fish in the world, and air-drying is a traditional means of preservation.

Alentejo also enjoys an outstanding variety of sweet pastries, many of which originate from convents. Most nuns in medieval Portugal hadn’t followed a spiritual calling; the convent population consisted of the second daughters of the rich, as well as single heiresses, widows and orphaned teenagers. 

Many nuns even had their maids with them in the convent. These maids were crucial to the invention of convent sweets, as most of them were used to cooking in sophisticated environments. They’d use the surplus of egg yolks (the whites being used for export and as a purifier in wine production), native almonds and imported sugar to create rich sweets — often selling them. Examples in Alentejo include broas doces de banha (cookies made with pork fat), azevias com grão (sweet chickpea pasties) and rebuçados de ovo de Portalegre (egg yolk sweets).

This is an edited extract from Portugal The Cookbook, by Leandro Carreira, published by Phaidon (RREP: £39.95).

Leandro Carreira is executive chef at The Sea, The Sea in London and the author of Portugal: The Cookbook.

Photograph by Leandro Carreira and Phaidon

Three must-try dishes

1. Açorda de bacalhau
A ‘bread porridge’ combining pennyroyal and coriander mashed with garlic, combined with bread soaked in broth, açorda has many variations. Look out for a version featuring bacalhau (salt cod) and poached egg, creating layers of texture.

2. Perdiz de escabeche
For this dish, partridge is soaked in a mixture of wine, vinegar and aromatics for a couple of days to tenderise the meat and infuse the aromas. After cooking, you’re left with a slightly zingy sauce for the meat, which should be mopped up with toasted bread. 

3. Sericaia
Adapted from an Indian (or Brazilian, depending on what you believe) recipe by nuns in the town of Elvas, this creamy, bouncy baked pudding has a milk base enriched with cinnamon, lemon, eggs and flour. It’s often served with plums preserved in syrup.

Published in the April 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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