I try to keep an open mind about Portuguese food, really I do. Despite more than a few disappointing if not disgusting experiences, I continue tasting different dishes hoping to understand what makes the Portuguese so proud and fond their cuisine. Sometimes, I’m rewarded with a tasty treat but this is by no means guaranteed, as my Alentejan experience reminded me.
Note: Find out which Portuguese food I really love in this article.
Local specialities in Elvas
Before setting off for a weekend in Elvas, I dutifully researched the local speciality dish and found that it’s bacalhau dourada (golden cod). From the picture on the municipal website, I had a sneaky suspicion that it would be the chipstick and shredded fish creation I’d read about on another blog but since Piglet had liked it enough to want to recreate it at home, I thought I’d give it a go.
After traipsing around deserted streets looking for signs of life and restaurants, we ended up back outside the city walls at Restaurante Flôr do Jardim (Garden Flower Restaurant) which is set in the grounds of a park. It looked okay, if a little overpriced, and by this point, we were too tired and hungry to search for an alternative. Plus, their menú turística (set menu) included the option of bacalhau dourada, which settled it for me.
The importance of presentation
Sometimes, I despair of Portuguese restaurants. I imagine it’s quite difficult to pretty up a sloppy mass of fish flakes, soggy chipsticks and egg but I was not expecting it to look quite so unappealing. This is exactly what the waiter put in front of me.
Presentation aside, my biggest complaint about the way my meal was served was the total lack of accompaniments. No salad or vegetables. Not even a sprig of parsley to brighten things up a little.
Bacalhau dourada is actually quite tasty; the slightly salty cod is offset by the egg and potatoes and the occasional chunk of garlic. The trouble is, it’s incredibly rich and desperately needs something refreshing to go with it.
Mike’s meal looked appetising enough and had not one but three accompaniments: rice, chips and salad. He took pity on me and donated most of his salad but I still couldn’t manage more than a third of the bacalhau.
Just to be clear, I won’t be making this at home!
Stick with the local desserts
Feeling bloated, I almost skipped the desserts but I’m glad I didn’t.
I got to try both of the sweet dishes that Elvas is famous for; ameixas de Elvas (preserved plums) and sericaia, a very sweet, surprisingly soft cake. The plums were crunchy and slightly tart but worked very well with the sweet syrup.
Now these, I can recommend.
The only thing left on my list of local culinary experiences to try were the unnervingly green Elvas olives so I was happy when they were brought, unsolicited as usual, to the table when we had lunch the next day.
Whatever curing and marinading process they use around here works very well indeed. I found them a little bitter on their own but with fresh crusty bread to take the edge off, they’re very tasty.
Regional differences presented through migas
Sadly, the Alentejan migas (breadcrumbs) were not what either of us were expecting. Round our way, in central Portugal, migas tend to be more like soft croutons mixed with shredded kale, small chunks of chouriço (spiced sausage) and possibly black eyed beans.
Not a dollop of solid bread sauce decorated with slices of chouriço so hard that Mike nearly broke a tooth on them.
At least my bacalhau com natas (cod with cream) was served with a salad at this restaurant.
Saving the best until last? Bacalhau com todos
I’m happy to report that our last meal in the Alentejo was by far the best bacalhau dish I had during the trip.
We stopped at an unassuming restaurant on the way into Alter do Chão and had the dish of the day, bacalhau com todos (cod with everything). ‘Everything’ turns out to be boiled potatoes, onions and shredded egg.
This restaurant managed to make a lumpy fishy mass look appealing simply by scattering a few olives and giving it a side salad. It tasted good, too.
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