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

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).

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