Alentejo: Portugal’s Bread Basket

The earthy coloured plains of the Alentejo are known as the ‘bread basket’ of Portugal and the land of the Iberian pork.

The Alentejo region is located inland and south east of Lisbon. It is arid and rocky with one of the poorest Mediterranean soils.  The baking hot summers and cold winters are perfect for olive trees, oaks, vineyards and cereal production.  Try to grow anything else, and you’ll have a battle in your hands.

There are a lot of farms in the Alentejo where you can  stay.  A typical farmers breakfast includes coffee, cheese, wild pig salame, pork blood sausage and smoked wild pig ham.

Many farming families have been here for for generations  although land was expropriated by the Portuguese government after the Revolution in 1975.  All the land in Southern Portugal was nationalised and made into big cooperatives like in Soviet Russia.  However the land was handed back  15 years later.

The natural ecosystem of woodland and pasture here has been adapted for farming in a sustainable way for more than a thousand years.  Typically the pastures under the trees are grazed and where there are patches of better quality soil land owners have traditionally grown olives,

With poor soil, very hot summers with long periods with no water, and irregular weather, the pig has been both an  important food and and product.

Thd  Portuguese have always been massive meat eaters.  Portuguese say ‘Fish doesn’t pull a cart’. Energy according to the Portuguese can only come from meat.  And so the  pig in these parts is king.

To get to the heart of Alentejo cuisine you have to go to a traditional bakery where you can buy ‘Pao Caseiro’, classic homemade bread. Bread is the staple food in the Alentejo.

Like the French and their baguettes, the Portuguese like their bread simple and regular.

Plenty of bread turns up on one pot dishes such as ‘acordas (bread soup with garlic, coriander and olive oil), migas (side dishes with olive oil and garlic) and ensopados (stews with toasted or deep fried bread). This is a cuisine where nothing is wasted.  Very often the bread they use in these dishes is just old bread.  Instead of throwing it away, they make it into a great dish.

Traditionally all meals were served on slabs of bread instead of plates, and the bread soaked iwth juices was given to beggars or dogs.

It’s little wonder the Alentejo is known as the bread basket of Portugal.