Alentejo through the eyes of Nuno Mendes
Internationally celebrated star chef Nuno Mendes spent part of his youth on a farm in the Alentejo. His culinary style and his personality remain to this day strongly influenced by the time he spent in the region.
Photo by Georges Desrues
It is a breathtaking view looking out from the village of Monsaraz, over the wide open and seemingly endless landscape of the Alentejo – Nuno Mendes is seized by an emotion that the Portuguese refer to as saudade. The term refers to a unique and particular mixture of melancholy and longing, one that is said to be experienced only by the Portuguese.
‘Saudade describes this feeling the most accurately’, says Mendes, ‘because the time I spent here as a child and an adolescent had the greatest influence upon me as a person.’ In boyhood days the chef was a frequent visitor at his grandparents’ farm, where he drank warm milk fresh from the cow and feasted at pigpickings, before venturing out into the world to begin his successful career as a master of the culinary arts. Today he runs a number of eateries in London – and with the Chiltern Firehouse one of the most highly lauded and popular restaurants in the British capital.
‘This direct contact with the animals and with nature was essentially my jumping-off point for exploring the world of foodstuffs and their preparation’, says Mendes, ‘and then there are the early experiences of flavour I had here, like fresh Alentejano sourdough bread, at the same time crisp and succulent, which I dipped in the local olive oil – along with the typical hearty sausages and the smell of pine logs from the fire on the hearth – all of that made a lasting impression on my personality and my style of cooking’.
And above all it was the outstanding olive oil of the Alentejo that was omnipresent at the time, Nuno Mendes tells us. In his early years he frequently consumed great quantities of it, preferably fresh and direct from the press with its fruity and intensely herbaceous notes, on a thick slice of toast. ‘The combination of olive oil and bread is something that I use to this day, for example in the preparation of traditional Alentejano dishes like migas or açorda.
Here it is all about the typical rustic cuisine of the region, dishes all based on bread, which is either formed into a mass with olive oil and sundry other possible
ingredients – as is the case with migas – or is used in preparation of the typical bread soup açorda.
Mendes cherishes vivid memories of the festivities in January when farm animals were home-slaughtered, on cool days when hogs were butchered and worked into sausages like black pudding, spicy chouriço or the milder farnheira. Their flesh and offal found their way in to hearty stews – and once more olive oil was used to sauté the vegetables – the onions, carrots & celery – to form the base that is called refogado.
‘At this point, I also became acquainted with the unique and distinctive wines of the Alentejo’, the star chef continues. ‘Back then practically every family had an amphora called a talha in the house – the large clay pot, in which wine was fermented and stored’.
In Mendes’s youth, these talha wines were mostly rather light, or got racked into wooden casks where they frequently stayed too long on the skins, perhaps becoming rather heavy in texture and less expressive.
‘But those times are gone. Sine then, numerous winegrowers in the Alentejo are producing much more flavourful wines, which faithfully reflect the terroir of the growing region’, Mendes tells us. In addition, sustainable and organic methods of viticulture and vinification have fortunately begun to play a far more important role than before, allowing the natural character of the wines to develop.
Additionally, one observes here an impressive resurgence of amphora wines. A number of adventurous young growers have emerged in the meantime, winemakers who focus on this ancient method of production and achieve marvellous results with it. Even if this is a development not viewed charitably by a few conventional and technologically inclined viticulturists. ‘Times have definitely changed’, says Mendes, ‘and the Alentejo with them’.
Still, the region – with its slower-paced rhythms, with its relaxed and near-to-nature lifestyle – stands to this day as a counterpoise to the hectic daily routine that prevails in a metropolis like his chosen home in London. ‘When I was growing up, a lot of folks were moving away, but since then there are many young people who remain here, who remain faithful to their cultural heritage and their culinary traditions and contribute to progress in the region, which is certainly a positive development, says the 44-year-old Mendes.
Last but not least, Mendes is always delighted when he has the opportunity to come here once more, to take stock of the many changes and recover a bit from life in the big city. ‘I find it quite inspiring here, the way you stride into the future on one hand, but on the other have such a wealth of tradition and intangibles to look back on and build upon’, he adds.
And of course, Mendes would be really happy to be able to return some day, to enjoy life here and to cook – using the local produce with its solid connexion to nature – to return to his roots. ‘This has always been my dream. Perhaps it will come true some day’, says Nuno, looking out once more with an element of saudade in his eye, out over the old fortress walls of Monsaraz, over the open plains of the Alentejo.
Article by Georges Desrues.