Appetite for the Alentejo

A street in Evora, Alentejo, Portugal
A street in Evora, Alentejo, Portugal

Her deep brown eyes surveyed the dusty, sun-kissed plains and suddenly caught my gaze.

Slightly startled, she stood transfixed for what seemed like an age, curled one of her long eyelashes into a wink and appeared to nod in my direction.

The Portuguese stunner then stretched her long, shapely legs and began to saunter off through the scrubland, the late afternoon sun reflecting on her perfectly tanned skin.

Now I understood the attraction of the rare Garvonesa cow.

The beast is, indeed, a beauty.

Fortunately, Barbara Thomann and her husband, Georg, felt the same thing when they clapped eyes on the Garvonesa breed 19 years ago. If they hadn’t, the chances are the iconic cow would have been wiped off the face of the earth.

Barely 100 Garvonesa were left when the Swiss couple decided, with predictably perfect timing, to sell up their brewery business in Winterthur and buy 70 hectares of farmland in Portugal’s Alentejo region, 20 miles south of Evora, to fulfil a dream.

They bought 10 cattle, with their distinctive black faces, horns and reddish brown skin, and set about breeding them at their Herdade da Mata farm, alongside other endangered species.

Now they have close to 100 Garvonesa, with 500-plus cows at other Portuguese farms, and it’s fair to say the future of the breed looks assured.

A welcome byproduct of the Thomanns’ actions has been to help beef up Alentejo’s little-known food and wine scene.

The Garvonesa meat, once traded at the famous Garvao Fair - from where the cow derived its name - is now marketed under the Estremoz Carne brand and sold throughout the country.

The choicest meats invariably appear on menus at restaurants taking part in the Alentejo Festival of Food & Wine, a year-long series of festivities taking place throughout this sparsely-populated region.

Guests can stay in the farm’s guesthouses, ride horses at the impressive equestrian centre and immerse themselves in the country life.

To taste the fruits of the farm’s labours, it’s best to head into the beautifully preserved medieval town of Evora - a Unesco world heritage site - where restaurants abound inside the 14th century walls.

The region’s hot summers and cold winters are said to contribute to a wide selection of sought-after wines, with the fruity and full-bodied reds forging Alentejo’s reputation among connoisseurs.

My wife, Carole, and I find the Conde D’Ervideira Reserva particularly agreeable, which sets us up nicely for lunch at Cafe Alentejo, just off the town’s central square.

Just like the Italians, the Portuguese take their meals seriously and no more so than in Alentejo - which means Land beyond the Tagus (the longest river on the Iberian peninsula) - because of its abundance of produce. For good reason, it is known as the breadbasket of the country.

Cafe Alentejo is “typico” of the region’s small, unpretentious restaurants and quickly fills with locals and tourists from all parts of Europe.

We opt for one of the set menus that features in the Festival of Food brochure. Meals featured typically cost in the region of 17 euros per person (£13) and includes a bottle of house wine.

Our table is soon covered with lashings of olives, cheese, black pork, garlic butter, warm bread and tiny squid. Then it’s on to the ox cheeks, the restaurant’s speciality, for the main course, which are tender and juicy and more than enough for the two of us.

Finally we tuck into some of the famous sleep-inducing manjar celeste (heavenly sweets), packed with egg yolks, sugar and almonds.

To get a feel of the real Alentejo, head south from Evora, through the cork oak trees and along the dusty lanes to the delightful Herdade da Malhadinha Nova Country House & Spa, near Beja.

An excellent equestrian centre, led by English-speaking staff and catering for all ages and abilities, is attracting visitors in increasing numbers in the spring and autumn months, when temperatures are more palatable.

Further north, the landscape becomes hilly and altogether more interesting, with picturesque, whitewashed towns and imposing fortresses.

On the way, we stop off to sample the fruits of the family-run Almojanda olive oil business at Herdade da Almojanda, near Portalegre.

The previous summer, I had spent time in Puglia, southern Italy, which produces 80 per cent of the Italy’s olive oil, but its flavours would struggle to match those of the Almojanda.

Owner and new mum, Teresa, is proud to show us around her rustic farmhouse and ancient olive groves, which produce an intensely flavoursome yet smooth extra virgin olive oil.

It’s no surprise that numerous awards decorate the homely shop that doubles as the company’s office and where other Almojanda products are sold from the farm’s productive lands, including olive pate, honey, jams and vinegar.

It’s another good reason to tear yourself away from the beaches of Portugal’s Algarve, if only for a few days.