It's late afternoon on a Monday and our tiny European car is winding its way through the narrow, maze-like streets of the village of Beja, in southern Portugal's famed Alentejo region. The road is cobblestoned and the vibrations are jarring, waking us out of the stupor induced by our previous hours spent traveling on the smooth national highways. During the drive to Beja, we watch the forests of the central region of Portugal slowly give way to rolling bucolic pastures that seem as if they would be perfectly at home in any Andrew Wyeth painting. In all directions there are now vast open fields, dotted with livestock and agriculture, and tiny villages of white stone houses with red terracotta roofs. We distinctly feel the heat increase. The air seems to get thicker somehow. Heavier. Urgency, in all things, seems to evaporate. We are now on Alentejo time.
The small city of Beja is lovely, just like so many other similar villages and towns that make Portugal such an achingly compelling destination for seasoned travelers. It sprawls in all directions, with an ancient stone castle dominating its center. The streets look and feel like they haven't changed since the time of Portugal's dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar, who held the country in his iron grip until the 1970's. One can't help but wonder if there isn't still something holding this place firmly, commanding it to be still, because even the breeze seems unwilling to move, leaving dust and leaves unmolested in little piles on the stone sidewalks and streets.
We are greeted somewhere in the labyrinthine streets of Beja by Hetty Wonnink, a woman of impressive stature, with a warm smile and gentle ease. She helps us guide our car through the last difficult turn, a maneuver she jokingly assures us that only women can make competently. Along with her husband, Eric, Hetty owns Vovó Joaquina, the restaurant we've come to see. Transplants from the Netherlands, Hetty and Eric chose the town as their home back in 2003, seduced by its raw beauty, easy pace, and quiet charm. Along the way, they also somehow managed to transfer and resettle an entire complex of stables, and now raise and train horses as well. Eric maintains business concerns in his home country, but when we meet it is the restaurant that has his focus. “It was never our intention to get into the restaurant business” he assures me, as we snack on fresh Alentejo bread, presunto, paio, local goat cheese, and beer at a lonely roadside cafe.
We've just come from a day visiting the horse stables and taking in the breathtaking scenery of the local countryside, where Eric pointed out the different farms that supply vegetables and herbs for the restaurant. Two tables away from us, a woman shells peas slowly into a plastic bowl, moving at a distinctly Alentejan pace. Every few minutes, another car drives down the road, sending small clouds of dust floating through the warm air.
I ask Eric how he found himself in the restaurant industry, in a region of the country known simultaneously for both its food and economic troubles. He explains that they had been visiting the restaurant as customers for years, but watched as the consistency and quality of the experience declined over time. Since the owner of the restaurant (and grandson of Vovó Joaquina herself) was a friend, and they didn't want to see the business fail, the couple bought majority ownership of the business and began making changes.
“I had a friend who needed help, so I helped him.” he tells me, between bites of richly marbled cured meats and crusty, chewy bread, “The next thing I knew, I was helping more and more, and before I knew it, I had become deeply involved.”
“Now you have a restaurant,” I say.
“Now I have a restaurant,” he agrees.
The culinary heritage of the Alentejo is one that nearly every restaurant in Portugal that serves comida Portuguesa pays homage to. From Secretos de porco preto, to Açordas, to Migas, everyone knows and loves the dishes of the Alentejo. And when one considers that it's also Portugal's largest and oldest wine region, the idea of opening a restaurant there seems like a no-brainer. Until you try to staff it.
“It's nearly impossible to find the people you need here,” Eric tells us, now tucking into a slice of one of the region's local cheeses, “Many people who have talent or drive, eventually leave for the cities of Lisbon or Porto, or even other countries, where it's more exciting and there are more opportunities. And to find someone willing to give that up, and come to work in Beja, has been very challenging.” In fact, it has been nearly a year of false starts and frustrations to get to something that was not only stable, but up to the Wonnink's expectations. As we shortly experience for ourselves, Vovó Joaquina rises to this challenge superbly.
The next day begins at the restaurant. Bright blue doors to the street push open and we walk through to a tall, airy room with skylights that illuminate a dining area and a large wooden bar. The décor is vintage eclectic, a few carefully chosen antiques with a collection of ancient portraits of people who must be someone's great-grandparents. The effect is one of stepping back in time about 80 years, and one expects someone to start playing a lively song on the black piano in the corner.
We meet Xavier Sabate Moreira, the chef and main creative force behind Vovó Joaquina's menu. He is a tall, thoughtful man, who despite his younger age boasts an impressive resume, having worked at several Michellin starred restaurants in Spain including Moments, Azurmendi, and Quique Dacosta as well as Portugal's oldest restaurant, Tavares Rico. After graduating from Lisbon's Escola de Hotelaria e Turismo, he interned for 2 ½ years with Portugal's Top Chef Alexandre Silva – a famed culinary wizard known for his creativity and refusal to play by the rules in a country that tends to object to seeing its traditional dishes altered in any way. Judging from the multitude of recipes we witness being created - and later have the opportunity to taste - breaking from strict culinary traditions is an idea that continues to resonate with Moreira.
Despite his inclination towards innovation, Moreira has a lot of respect for the standard dishes of the region. We begin the meal with a classic: Amêijõas à Portuguesa featuring fresh clams caught off the coast of the Alentejo. The slightly sweet and briny morsels are pan seared with white wine, diced herbs, and thin curls of pork fat to impart a bit of saltiness. The dish is topped with purple garlic flowers, and a large slab of house-made roasted bread that manages to be both crunchy and soft as it soaks up the clam liquor and marinade.
The second appetizer is a cold Salada de Polvo, or Octopus Salad, tender tentacles of octopus paired with sliced sweet potatoes in a bright vinaigrette. The salad sits atop dijon mayonnaise, sprinkled with smoky red pepper powder, and topped with sprigs of watercress and flower petals.
Moreira brings a soup next, a chilled creamy courgette puree, decorated with swirls of crème fraische and drops of mint oil, which punctuate the cooling qualities of the dish. A savory rosemary cracker made from massa folhada, Portuguese pastry dough, imparts the a crunchy contrast to the soup's velvety smoothness.
The soup is followed by a juicy Alentejo-raised Rosbife (roast beef) next to a cold salad of potatoes and broccolini tossed with dijon mayonnaise. Potatoes are ubiquitous as side dishes in meals throughout Portugal, but they're not usually served in a cold salad form. It is a side that seems like it would fit in perfectly at an American barbecue, and feels like the ideal complement for the hot summer nights of Beja.
Secretos de porco preto is one of the Alentejo's most popular dishes, and it can be found in restaurants across the country. Porco preto, or the black Iberian pig, is native to the Alentejo region of Portugal and parts of Spain. Its heavily marbled flesh and particular diet of acorns give it an exceptionally flavorful and succulent consistency. It has one of the most independent and happiest lives of a stock animal, because it will only flourish in completely free-range conditions. Porco preto is also high in omega fatty acids which make it a much healthier option than traditional pork. Moreira's version is a thin slab of this succulent meat, hot from the grill, and served on a wooden cutting board with a swash of dijon mayo and a stick of sweet Azorean pineapple. The flavorful, almost buttery meat pairs nicely with the acidic juiciness of the tropical fruit.
Next, we are introduced to the Carré de Cordeiro, which is displayed like a work of art on a wooden board. Several perfectly cooked herb-encrusted roasted lamb chops, topped with pickled whole grain mustard, are fanned out next to daubs of Greek yogurt decorated with cumin powder and flower petals. This is an unforgettable dish, all the flavors singing together, and possibly the most delicious thing we try.
Moreira next brings a deconstructed lemon tart, which - he informs us - originated from a kitchen disaster that resolved itself into a tasty conclusion. Apparently, while preparing the tangy sweet and sour dessert for several customers, the sous chef David Anjos accidentally dropped the whole pie, causing it to be damaged, but still edible. Not wanting to disappoint anyone, the chefs re-plated the dessert, topped it with house-made cookies and creamy toasted meringue spirals and served it to the waiting guests. They loved it so much this way that the restaurant decided to always “break” the lemon meringue tart in the future, renaming the dish Ups, Parti a Tarte de Limão (Oops, I Broke the Lemon Tart). And we're glad for it, because the dish is a bright and clean penultimate note to a highly memorable meal.
Finally we watch as Avelino Piçarra, the pastry chef at Vovó Joaquina, carefully constructs another dessert, something he calls The Fruit Salad of the Future. Piçarra practically grew up in a traditional Portuguese bakery, as his father was the owner of an established padaria, but today he focuses on modern technology to create a sweet masterpiece. Using a pair of tweezers, Piçarra and Anjos carefully dip slices of fruit that have been subjected to a vacuum environment (to intensify their flavors) into various powders, imparting them with additional complementing tastes. This salad incorporates the natural flavor and juiciness of seasonal fruits with the delectable alchemy of modern molecular gastronomy. Today's version of the dessert features vacuumed wedges of melon and pineapple covered with menthol dust, flash frozen oranges and strawberries, surrounding a pool of pineapple juice topped with fennel dust and mint oil.
As we leave Vovó Joaquina, we pass by the portrait of the woman whose name it carries, hanging above a bar filled with wines from the region of her birth. She stares stoically into the distance, her face a mask of resoluteness and unreadable emotion. I can't help but wonder what she would make of the innovation and experimentation transforming the traditional Alentejan cuisine in the space her portrait hangs, but I'd like to think it would make her smile.