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Setubal: Dessert wine and dolphins

Setubal: Dessert wine and dolphins
Anna Maria Espsater: Alentejo, the little-known region of central Portugal, tucked in between Lisbon and the Algarve, firmly embodies my somewhat romantic notion of the meaning of the word ‘rustic’. There is plenty of rural charm, complete with olive groves, vineyards and simple farmsteads, towns and villages steeped in history, crumbling gently and, best of all, larders of hearty food and wine in “working-hard-outdoors portions”.
Alentejo’s produce isn’t exactly for the diet conscious – although healthy enough, the sheer abundance of tasty fare is enough to make you want to constantly stuff your face on hams, sausages, cheeses, breads, olives, seafood from its Atlantic coast and pork, lamb or beef dishes from the inland, all to be washed down with copious amounts of rich reds. Literally meaning below or beyond the river Tagus, Alentejo hasn’t reached the international renown of its southern neighbour, the Algarve and there’s a quiet, slightly ramshackle feel to its towns and villages, all things moving at a slower pace – food being no exception. There’s time taken to prepare a good meal and just as much time set aside for enjoying it.
Setúbal, on the coast and my first stop, famed for its dessert wines, but it seems ever so slightly sacrilegious to head straight for the wines at this early hour, so I aim instead for Setúbal’s second claim to fame – dolphins. Not to sample of course, just to view. As though they know they have an audience, the dolphins put on quite a show – in fact some of it would have needed censoring for family viewing, but luckily we are all adults.
Clearly the dolphin spectacle has made us peckish and what follows is a lunch of unprecedented proportions in the charming town of Grândola. The local red is flowing, there are sausages
Setubal: Dessert wine and dolphins
and hams, melt-in-the-mouth sheep’s cheese repeatedly arriving at our table and as soon as we’ve finished one plate, another follows.
I’m thoroughly enjoying this wonderful stuffing session when it dawns on me that this is in fact just a starter.
Somewhere between horror and delight, I watch a main course of veal stew, rice and beans, being placed in the middle of the table for us to share. This seems to be a lovely tradition all around Alentejo – large pots and plates of goodies to share. If after this feast anyone still has room left, the desserts are no less to die for – heavenly chocolate cake and goat’s cheese with sweet pumpkin. Time to dispense with my belt altogether and wear something more loose-fitting for the following day.
After spending the night at Vila Galé in the heartland of Alentejo’s vineyards, visiting nearby Santa Vitória winery, the gastronomy tour continues to the historic town of Beja, dating back to Roman times. I visit the impressive castle and amble the town’s old quarter to explore a couple of Beja’s convents. The latter were, in the past, often the abode of rich ladies more interested in knights and noblemen, cakes and chocolate, than the holy vow. Not to be outdone by these ladies of leisure, I make sure I sample Beja’s convent cakes, still made on the spot, and also the delicious chocolates from the nearby chocolatier – truffles with potent brews on the inside could be considered a religious experience.
The time has come to walk it all off, burn those calories, exercise those muscles, in Noudar Nature Park, in the very eastern part of Alentejo, near the Spanish border, but luckily heavy rains put a stop to that plan and we settle down to lunch instead, after gently shaking our way along a dirt track to Noudar’s only hostel and sharing plates of cured hams, goat’s cheese, squid with onion and coriander, pig’s ears, courgettes and aubergines in batter, chunks of bread and a hearty red.
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12 August 2014
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