Hidden Portugal

A Generic Photo of a street of Evora, Alentejo, Portugal. See PA Feature TRAVEL Altenejo. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/thinkstockphotos. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature TRAVEL Altenejo.
A Generic Photo of a street of Evora, Alentejo, Portugal. See PA Feature TRAVEL Altenejo. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/thinkstockphotos. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature TRAVEL Altenejo.

Barely 100 Garvonesa cows were left when Swiss couple Barbara Thomann and her husband Georg decided, with perfect timing, to sell up their brewery business in Winterthur and buy 70 hectares of farmland in Portugal’s Alentejo region 19 years ago to fulfil a dream.

They bought 10 cattle, with their distinctive black faces, horns and reddish brown skin, and set about breeding them at their Herdade da Mata farm, alongside other endangered species.

Now they have close to 100 Garvonesa, with 500-plus cows at other Portuguese farms, and it’s fair to say the future of the breed looks assured.

A welcome by-product of the Thomanns’ actions has been to help beef up Alentejo’s little-known food and wine scene.

The Garvonesa meat, once traded at the famous Garvao Fair - from where the cow derived its name - is now marketed under the Estremoz Carne brand and sold throughout the country.

The choicest meats invariably appear on menus at restaurants taking part in the Alentejo Festival of Food & Wine, a year-long series of festivities throughout this sparsely-populated region.

Barbara, a modest and friendly mother of three girls who reminds me of Born Free actress Virginia McKenna, is rightly proud of her achievements. She lets the cattle roam the fields throughout the year and supplements their diet with a mix of herbs grown on the farm.

It is her dream to one day be able to serve up “the finest cuts you could taste” at her own restaurant within the estate.

But, for now, she is content with helping to rear other endangered animals such as Serpentina goats, Sorraia and Lusitano horses and delightful Miranda donkeys.

Guests can stay in the farm’s guesthouses, ride horses at the impressive equestrian centre and immerse themselves in the country life.

To taste the fruits of the farm’s labours, it’s best to head into the beautifully preserved medieval town of Evora 20 miles away - a Unesco world heritage site - where restaurants abound inside the 14th century walls.

But before tucking into the renowned black pork, salt cod, wild mushroom and asparagus dishes, it’s a good idea to get an understanding of the wide variety of wines on offer.

Knowledgeable staff at the modern wine route office in central Evora, where the region’s 260 producers have their products certified, will happily impart their knowledge of the rapidly-growing wine scene.

Each week, a selection of red, white and rose wines are available for tasting and bottles can be bought for as little as 3.5 euros (£2.80).

Just like the Italians, the Portuguese take their meals seriously and no more so than in Alentejo - which means Land beyond the Tagus (the longest river on the Iberian peninsula) - because of its abundance of produce. For good reason, it is known as the breadbasket of the country.

Cafe Alentejo is “typico” of the region’s small, unpretentious restaurants and quickly fills with locals and tourists from all parts of Europe. We opt for one of the set menus that features in the Festival of Food brochure.

Fortunately, there are plenty of wonderful sites in Evora to visit and walk off such a delicious meal, such as the second century Templo Romano, more commonly referred to as the Temple of Diana, the fabulous aqueduct that sweeps around the town and the gruesome Capela dos Ossos - Chapel of Bones - a large room adorned with the bones of more than 5,000 monks from the 16th century.

To get a feel of the real Alentejo, head south from Evora, through the cork oak trees and along the dusty lanes to the delightful Herdade da Malhadinha Nova Country House & Spa, near Beja.

It’s advisable to have a good GPS navigation tool and to arrive by daylight, as signposts are few and far between, but it’s worth the effort as the large, beguiling estate oozes class.

Here they breed horses, Alentejo cattle and black pigs, which feed on acorns from the cork trees, and if you can tear yourself away from the pool and underground spa, it’s worth a walk around the vast vineyards and winery.

An excellent equestrian centre, led by English-speaking staff and catering for all ages and abilities, is attracting visitors in increasing numbers in the spring and autumn months, when temperatures are more palatable.

We follow a large coach party of German visitors who are on a 40-day wine-tasting jolly - presumably ending with a visit to a drying-out clinic! - into the estate’s winery, where we find the Malhadinha, Peceguina and Marias da Malhadinha wines (with labels featuring children’s drawings) - the best of an illuminating trip.