The roots of success for Portugal’s best restaurants lie in the country’s agricultural heart. We meet the farmers putting the finest produce on the menu.
It’s early morning at Hortelão do Oeste and the clouds are beginning to part, throwing streaks of sunlight across the fields and clumps of orchids. Ahead of us are corridors of leaves in every shape and colour, from olive green to purple, mauve and burgundy. Hortelão do Oeste is 50km north of Lisbon in an area of central Portugal that’s responsible for much of the country’s agriculture. Amid the acres of industrial-sized farms is this small plot of land, which is humble in size but fabulously ambitious in scope. Unlike in the surrounding fields of uniform crops, more than 600 species of plant are grown here. “You should come back during summer,” says Miguel Neiva Correia, who owns these this land with his brother Diogo, mother Maria and two sisters, Inês and Rita. “That’s when the magic happens, with all the bell peppers, chillies, cucumbers and tomatoes, which are our calling card – we have more than 200 types. It’s a real candy shop.”
The Neiva brothers are in their forties and are lean and strong from years of working the fields; both are dressed in khaki vests and matching ivy-coloured caps. Their eloquence and precision in explaining the natural world is something you might expect from a botanist; it’s enough to make you feel a little tongue-tied. “We are farmers but also collectors,” says Miguel with a laugh. Walking alongside them, between the rows of kale and tubers, is chef João Rodrigues of the Michelin-starred restaurant Feitoria in Lisbon. The trio stop in front of a cluster of budding leaves to appreciate the growth of a species of pea that the chef introduced to the Neiva brothers; it is eaten raw and, according to Rodrigues, tastes like a “honeyed, sugary explosion”. Hortelão do Oeste started supplying Feitoria with produce four years ago and exchanges such as this one have become ever more commonplace since the launch of Projecto Matéria, Rodrigues’s latest creation.
“When you have to wait for the correct season to eat these, it makes it all the more gratifying”
“How often do we think about the origins of what we’re eating?” says Rodrigues as he prepares lunch at Hortelão’s manor house. “Where it comes from, how it’s produced and the difficulties of the work. What about who the producers are? This information should – and has to – inform what we do in the kitchen.” Projecto Matéria is the result of a five-year investigation into quality and ethical producers in Portugal, culminating in 2020 with the launch of the platform’s website. “This is not just meant for chefs; I want this to be a tool that anyone can use to find special people and products,” says Rodrigues who, along with a small editorial team, scoured the country to map out and profile everyone from cattle ranchers to yoghurt-makers, edible-flower growers and algae harvesters. “Some of these people are doing incredible things and only selling internationally because we don’t know about them at home. There’s a lot of work to be done between producers and consumers, and among producers themselves.” The website also has a section for like-minded projects that relate back to dining, including organic-farmers’ markets and small-scale ceramicists.
Hortelão do Oeste
After a stint in the kitchen, Miguel Neiva Correia turned to the land. Along with his brother, Diogo, he grows 600 species of vegetables and aromatics, which are sought-after by the country’s top chefs. The orchard’s calling card is its tomatoes – more than 200 types are grown here.
Rua da Liberdade 24, Runa
1351 914 951 214
This bucolic farm is home to some of the finest Alentejo pigs. Francisco Alves and his father have developed a unique farrowing system for the sows that is less cruel than those undertaken by larger-scale producers. They also implement regenerative soil management that keeps the grasses greener.
Herdade de São Luís, Serra de Monfurado, Évora
1351 939 858 934
Célia Rodrigues’s tanks of sealife in the Sado estuary supply restaurants with more than a tonne of oysters every month. They are grown in an integrated aquaculture system that uses non-intensive production methods: the oysters are provided with more oxygen and food than those at other farms, which enables them to develop with a premium quality.
Largo António Joaquim Correia Nº13, 3º, Setúbal
1351 915 099 510
Lugar do Olhar Feliz
Ann Kenny and Jean-Paul Brigand traded Paris for Alentejo, where they created their own small Edenic plot. The couple grow exotic species, such as Javanese turmeric and kaffir lime, as well as pomegranates, mulberries and rare varieties of ginger.
Cercal do Alentejo
1351 968 461 495
The 73-year-old Dona Octávia and her family have earned a reputation among the finest delis and restaurants in Portugal for their premium charcuterie. By smoking Portuguese pigs in open smokehouses using aromatic herbs from their own garden, this family is stoking interest in one of the country’s longest-held culinary traditions.
Rua de São José, Cano, Portalegre
1351 268 549 203
Projecto Matéria has been largely self-funded by Rodrigues but has recently won the support of Portugal’s tourism ministry, which saw the potential of a project talking up the country’s diverse regional food producers. “It’s about people who are passionate about what they do and who are guardians of wisdom and the land,” says Rodrigues as he dices the freshly picked parsley he is using to season turbot. Another simple yet entirely relevant gesture on Matéria’s website is the inclusion of a seasonal calendar for different produce. “When you have to wait for the correct season to eat these, it makes it all the more gratifying,” says Diogo, holding a bunch of radishes. “I don’t know why this stuff isn’t taught in schools.”
At Herdade de São Luís, in the region of Alentejo in central Portugal, is another process that you won’t have learned about in school: Francisco Alves is helping a cow to give birth. Alves and his father own Porcus Natura, an Alentejano farm that specialises in pigs and is also involved with Projecto Matéria. “Every animal species has its role in the ecosystem,” says Alves, who started using regenerative farming methods at his property four years ago and has since become a fierce advocate of its benefits. “By working with the animals, you can improve the soil too. The more people become adept and support this kind of farming, the better it is for all of us.”
Herdade de São Luís is a bucolic expanse of soft rolling hills, plains and areas shaded by the native sobreiro and azinheira whose acorns, known here as bolotas, are an essential part of the pigs’ diet and confer the Iberian ham with a nutty taste. The grassland is divided into plots for cows, goats, sheep and pigs; each species is kept on a strict grazing rota that optimises the soil. “Cows tend to eat grass but not the weeds, which in turn makes weeds stronger,” says Alves. “That’s why we bring in the goats to eat invasive plants. Pigs dig up roots and till the soil, which is great for sowing new seeds without using tractors.” This kind of knowledge allows Alves, his father and their one other employee to manage the entire 700 hectares of land without using fertilisers, pesticides or heavy machinery. “We are working with nature rather than against it,” says Alves.
Célia Rodrigues, another of Projecto Matéria’s producers, has an exceptional thirst for knowledge rivalled only by her energy and sharp tongue. “Most people don’t know what they are doing around here,” she says. “They want to invest in the idea of oysters but don’t realise the work that goes into farming them.” Having worked in pisciculture, raising and farming sea bass and sea bream, for more than 10 years, she turned to the bivalve and founded Neptun Pearl in 2011, near the region of Setúbal. Célia is an oyster pioneer in Portugal: she was the first person to cultivate the native angulata species. Her tanks in the estuary of the Sado river supply restaurants and international buyers with more than a tonne of oysters every month. “I don’t have children but this is my maternity,” she says with a wry smile.
“Pigs dig up roots and till the soil, which is great for sowing new seeds without using tractors”
Sporting a bright red jumper under rubbery waders that come up to her chest and a traditional fisherman’s headscarf, Célia is sorting through boxes of shellfish. “See this? This is the Fine de Claire,” she says, holding an abnormally large oyster – it’s the size of her palm. These are renowned oysters, rarely grown outside France, which gain their heft by spending the latter stages of their growth in shallow clay ponds. But rearing Fine de Claire is only one of several projects and ideas that Célia is invested in. When she’s not wading through the silty shallows or spending time waist-deep in her tanks, she’s also investigating the demise of a certain Portuguese clam, researching oyster fossils in Portugal and growing edible halophyte plants (sea rosemary and salicornia) for a growing roster of curious chefs. “We don’t do this for the money,” she says, surveying the river. “It’s really a labour of love.”
Roast turbot with potatoes and aromatic herbs, from Hortelão do Oeste
1 turbot (about 2.5kg)
6 large potatoes, diced
50g smoked bacon, cut into thin strips
4 large onions
4 tomatoes, chopped
4 garlic cloves, sliced
1 bay leaf
1 tsp paprika
Zest of 1 lemon
Coriander, to taste
Pennyroyal, to taste
Fennel, to taste
Parsley, to taste
Glass of white wine
- Preheat oven to 180c.
- Season the turbot with salt, stuffing the aromatic herbs (coriander, pennyroyal, fennel, parsley) and lemon zest into the fish’s cavity.
- Place the turbot on a baking tray.
- Put the diced potatoes, sliced onions, bay leaf, garlic and tomatoes in a bowl.
- Season the vegetables with the olive oil, salt, pepper, white wine, smoked bacon and paprika. Add some parsley branches and mix.
- Place the vegetables around the turbot on the tray and drizzle whatever seasoning is left onto the fish.
- Cook for 35 to 45 minutes. Keep an eye on the fish and, to avoid it drying out, baste it with the cooking juices. Once ready, serve immediately.