Black pigs. Porco Preto. Jamon Iberico de Bellota. This is why we came to Alentejo. Don’t get me wrong, Alentejo has so many beautiful things to offer… scenic landscape, hilltop towns, historical monuments… but as chefs, the main reason why Alentejo was such an attractive part of the plan, is because it’s the home to the breed of black pigs called Porco Alentejana. These pigs are better known to the western world as Iberico pigs (the Spanish title for them), with their end product of Jamon Iberico de Bellota being the single most expensive cured ham that money can buy. What most people don’t know, is that not all of this infamous pork is from Spain. Many of the pigs are actually raised in Portugal, in the Alentejo region where Cork and Holm Oak trees cover the landscape. Since this southern Portuguese climate is very much the same as the neighbouring Andalusia region in Spain (which it borders), the Spanish simply buy a lot of the pork they use for Iberico ham, from Portuguese farmers. Phil and I were lucky enough to visit one of the farmers today, and it’s an experience that is a rare opportunity for anyone visiting this region.
Rui Duarte lives with his family in Lisbon, but has two businesses in Redondo, Alentejo… about 30 minutes east from Évora. He runs a Repsol fuel and service station, but is also a farmer, raising the infamous Alentejo black pigs, as well as other pigs (such as Douroc, or mixed breeds), and sheep. According to Rui, he only runs a small operation, consisting of 150 sows for breeding (plus whatever babies they have), and 395 sheep. He also has some goats, but they are only there to produce extra milk for the lambs that don’t get enough from the few mother sheep.
We met Rui at his service station in the morning, and he then drove us to where the pigs are, on his 100 hectares (250 acres) of land just outside Redondo. Alentejo is a dry place. Most of the time, you see the pale yellow cereal grains and grasses for kilometres, but sometimes it can look like the moon. This is especially so, where the pigs have made quick work eating all the grasses in their area, and now it’s just a dry, desert landscape. It’s rough terrain to live and work in, Rui tells us. Midday gets extremely hot, the dryness makes the ground hard and rocky in some places. This is part of the reason why the black pigs are the specialty of this region. They’re pretty much the only pig breed that’s robust enough to survive the harsh climate. Rui tells us that the Douroc and mixed Douroc/Alentejano pigs that he raises are sold for Leitao, roast suckling pig that’s a specialty of the Bairrada region in central Portugal. These pigs are only about 45 days old when they’re sent to slaughter, the meat young and tender, and small enough to go on a spit for roasting. In extreme contrast, the Alentejano that are destined to become Iberico or Presunto ham, are raised for a tiring 1.5 – 2 years! That’s a serious time investment for a pig farmer. In Canada, the average market weight for a pig is about 220 lbs, which takes roughly 3-4 months. The Alentejano pigs reach a market weight of about 150 kg (330 lbs), and they must grow to that size naturally, which, to do it properly (and with in the strict specifications of the Jamon Iberico designation), it takes roughly 1.5 – 2 years. Then, once the cured ham processors take hold of it after slaughter, the curing process takes about another 2 years. That’s a 4 year investment overall! No wonder it’s such an expensive product.
Rui took us around the low-tech areas where all the pigs are kept, in large penned-off areas with plenty of space for them to roam around and eat the grasses, as well as the “maternity ward” which is where the pigs are kept when they are giving birth, and shortly after as the babies grow strong enough before being moved out into the larger areas. Once the pigs are about 3 months away from market weight, he then moves them out to other areas to unleash them into the expansive 100 hectares to roam around freely and fill themselves silly with the acorns that fall from the Holm and Cork oak trees. It’s this part of the process that gives them such a distinctive quality that no other ham has. After visiting some other areas of Rui’s land, where the pigs roam free, along with the sheep, we went to his favourite restaurant in town for lunch. Rui said he eats there almost every day that he’s in Redondo, and it’s apparent as he knows the owners very well. To start, they brought us out some local cheese, olives, and bread (as all Portuguese restaurants do, but it’s not free!), as well as a plate of the Jamon Iberico. It just melts in your mouth and is really the most amazing ham in the world. After the entradas (starters), we were brought out 3 plates – porco preto secretos (a cut of meat from Alentejano pigs that’s located between the shoulder blade and the loin), porco preto cheeks braised in red wine, and grilled lamb chops…. all the meat was locally produced… some of it by our friend, Rui. This was one of the best meals we’ve had since we’ve been here, and we’ve had some good ones so far! The key to this one was the simplicity of it. The high quality ingredients were allowed to stand on their own and really shine. The pork from the Alentejano pigs is truly amazing. Just like the highest quality beef steak, the Alentejano pigs have a much higher intramuscular fat ration than any other pig. The food at lunch was really spectacular, but the best part was perhaps the chance to get to chat with Rui, and to learn a lot from him, about Alentejo culture, the Alentejo pigs, the Cork and Holm oaks, and pretty much anything and everything about life here in the agricultural heart of Portugal.
Driving through Alentejo is beautiful. Yes, it’s wide open and flat, but it’s not really. The plains are rolling… undulating waves of yellow, and they are dotted…. no, spattered with the iconic oak trees, as well as olive trees. Sometimes you pass by a vast see of grape vines, and there’s even small hills every now and then. So, it’s not wide and flat like we’d see in our Canadian plains. It’s more interesting, there’s always something to catch your eye, like the flashes of bright red from the recently stripped cork trees. Looking off into the distance, in the middle of the vast Alentejo horizon, pops up the large hill on which the fortified town of Monsaraz stands. That’s where we’re headed, up there on top of that hill. That’s where we’ll spend the night.
Up, up, up the hill, higher we go. Up, turn, up, turn, up turn… oh! a parking spot! We have to park outside the city walls, as no cars are allowed inside after a certain time…. although you wouldn’t want to drive in there anyway. You don’t want the one to spoil the undisturbed historical feel that the city so well preserves. Our accommodation is just outside the city walls, in a small extension of the village, still atop the hill. It looks like it’s out of a medieval fairy tale, and the view of the surrounding Alentejo scenery is just pure magic. Our host who meets us to let us in, speaks excellent English, and is one of the friendliest people I’d ever met. She tells us about everything in the town… probably would’ve told us about everything in the world if she didn’t have to get back to her store. She runs a ceramic pottery shop in the main town inside the walls. Her pottery is amazing. They fire the plates, bowls, etc at a larger location they have down the mountain near the more modern town, but she paints them in her little shop up here in fortified Monsaraz. I love everything in there. The bright colours, the intricate designs, the style that honours the history of the area…. thousands of years of history. Neolithic peoples, Romans, Visigoths, Moors, and finally, the Portuguese. Phil and I walked around the town, from end to end and visited the Monsaraz castle, which is empty and unregulated. You can freely roam inside. I just can’t get over the views you see, looking out from any point in this town. The photos we’ll show won’t do it justice. It’s impossible to catch it all. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but what you see in person is worth a million. Everything shuts down early here, and it just so happens that today, most restaurants are closed as well, so we spent the night in, just eating snacks that we bought while on the road, and take an chill night in, looking forward to doing more exploring the next day.