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Hearty food for hearty people

By Helga and Larry Hampton [email protected]

Helga and Larry Hampton, a German-American couple, have had a villa in the Algarve since 1972 and since 1990 have spent the majority of their time in Portugal. One of Helga’s major interests is cooking. One of Larry’s main interests is eating, and finding lovely wines to complement, Helga’s meals. In their new monthly column, the couple share their passion for good food and wine with our readers.

As summer disappeared so did your house guests and now you have a bit more time for yourselves. Take a few of these blissful, bright autumn days and motor up into the Alentejo.

Just on the other side of the Serra do Caldeirão, where the Algarve’s profusion of holiday urbanisation finally gives way to a parade of rolling hills, the road straightens out and, voilà, the open plain of the vast Alentejo.

The horizon flees in all directions and it seems that the only inhabitants are sheep and cows, kitchily decorating the bucolic landscape picture that presents itself to you of sturdy cork- and holm-oaks on the velveteen new green that has begun to rejuvenate the summer-burnt fields after the first rains.

It will not take you long after you have left the motorway in the direction of Beja to see signs inviting you to visit this “adega” or that “enoturismo”.

If you resist and persevere, a little further north and east you will soon reach the heart of Alentejo wine making: Redondo, Borba, Reguengos and Estremoz. Here you have some of the largest wine-making outfits with the latest in technology and oenological know-how right next to very small, family-run and still foot-operated vintners.

And this is the time to pay them all a visit and to do some tasting. October and November are the times of rest, both for the new wine in its vats and the hands (and feet) that transferred the grape juice there, so that, magically, at not always pre-ordained times, beautiful wine will have been created.

Let them tell you about their philosophy and sample some of their very particular elixir. You can also buy, gladly!

Don’t be surprised when during your sampling of the fruity whites and the oaky reds you will be asked whether you would also like to try their olive oil. It has transpired that in the shortest time imaginable the olive groves that only three to four years ago looked like huge tree kindergartens are now bearing fruit and as a result more and more labels of “extra virgin” olive oil are joining the health-fad.  Fascinating to see the process of tractors rolling up, bringing a load of freshly picked, shiny green and burgundy red olive berries to the fully automated conveyor belt, and then following the pressing process all the way to the fragrant green oil being filled into bottles. Hardly a human hand involved.

However, no matter how much modernity has invaded this often combined booming business of wine and olive making, the people involved are astutely and proudly safe-guarding and promoting their cultural traditions in the widest possible sense. I am speaking about food.

Even in the most modern enotouristic restaurants – often attached to a winery – the menu will reflect what is available on the local market and what is on offer seasonally.

Of course, finding a local restaurant – and the best way to do that is to ask the local people – will give you culinary experiences never before had.

In a restaurant it is always a good idea to home in on the specialities of the house or to ask for the suggestions of the day.  We were surprised to see on the main course page “Sopa de Tomate” and “Sopa de Cação” at the full price of an entré. Curious, we were talked into trying and that meant receiving instructions as to how to eat such a “sopa”, because it is a full meal with a difference.

Delicious tomato soup
Delicious tomato soup


Your deep soup plate will come warmed and you are asked to line the bottom with some of the thin slices of brown (caseiro) bread, baskets of which had been placed in the middle of the table.

Then pieces of porco preto, freshly grilled and nicely spiced, will be added to the bread. Cut this into edible chunks for now the rich, herbed tomato soup, steaming hot, will be poured over, and to this will be added one or two poached eggs. A sprinkling of freshly chopped coriander finishes this dish. Yummm!


Tasty Sopa de Cação (shark-like, white meat fish)
Tasty Sopa de Cação (shark-like, white meat fish)

Cação is a shark-like, white meat fish, i.e. it has a thick, flexible, backbone and almost no spiky fish bones. A safio (conger) is also used sometimes for this dish.

The procedure is pretty much the same as above, except the soup is made from the spiced and herbed broth in which the 1 inch thick slices of the fish were cooked together with a few peeled potatoes.

The broth together with the boiled potatoes will be quickly put through the food processor and thickened with a bit of flour. On your plate, pull the pieces of fish apart and distribute over the bread slices. The soup will be poured over amply, the poached eggs added and some fresh lemon halves and white pepper will give the finishing touches to this hearty meal.

One can see how these dishes are appreciated by both the cook, who has a way of using up some dry bread, and the hungry worker and/or traveller who has come in from the cold. Tasty too and not so heavy as the usual açordas (bread-based stew).


Hearty food demands a hearty wine, and one of the best producers of hearty Alentejo wines is the José de Sousa Rosado Fernandes winery in the heart of the town of Reguengos.

This little town has one of Portugal’s largest co-ops, producing over 20 million litres of Reguengos and Monsaraz wine. But José de Sousa is a completely different story.

This winery was established in 1878. The legendary vintage of 1940 José de Sousa is still talked about reverently by aficionados. In 1986 the operation was acquired by José Maria de Fonseca, but traditional winemaking methods are still followed, albeit with some modern twists as well.

There are two lagares (open tanks) for treading the grapes by foot and 114 large clay amphorae (each of which holds 1,500 litres) for initial fermentation. These stand alongside the modern stainless steel tanks necessary for finishing off some truly excellent and rather unique wines.

We were fortunate enough to be shown around by the oenologist, Paulo Amaral, who introduced us to his three outstanding reds.

The José de Sousa is a blend of Grand Noir (45%), Trincadeira (35%) and Aragonês (25%).

The Grand Noir is a rather rare French varietal, seldom seen in Portugal. But Paulo makes big use of it. And it adds a lot. After fermenting a few days in amphorae, this wine is aged 8 months in oak and a further 9 months in bottle. With a production of 50,000 bottles and a retail price of about €8.50, this wine is perfect to complement your hearty tomato soup, game or cheese on a cold Alentejano day.

An even meatier wine is the José de Sousa Mayor, made from Grand Noir (63%), Aragonez (22%) and Trincadeira (15%). Its objective is to reproduce as closely as possible the famous 1940 vintage. Its grapes are trodden by foot in the lagares, fermented in clay amphorae for 10 days and stored in new French oak for 10 months.

The result is … well, judge for yourself. There are only about 11,500 bottles produced, but Intermarché carries it at €19.

The absolute top of the range is “J”, a blend of Grand Noir (52%), Touriga Franca (38%) and Touriga Nacional (10%). Only 2,300 bottles are produced, and the wine is pricey at about €40, but frankly it is sensational and worth every penny.

For your special Alentejano meal be sure to decant “J” well before you serve it – let it breathe and come alive. You won’t regret it.

Helga’s tip of the day: Don’t throw out all that leftover wine: freeze it into ice cubes for future easy addition to casseroles or sauces.