In an Alentejo bakery, the way of family

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Alentejo bakery

Portugal food stories are all about traditions, and very often, family traditions, emanating from home kitchens. And those stories can be found in the most unlikely, out-of-the-way places. In an Alentejo bakery, we had an opportunity to meet three generations of a family whose baked goods start out small and travel big, making the journey from Portel to Lisbon and beyond.

María Lurdes Esturra has been making a variety of regional baked goods for more than thirty years, with products based on family recipes. An entrepreneur with a knack for baking, she developed authentic flavors in her home kitchen, and from her household oven, created a brand and grew a business. Today, the family bakery delivers baked goods to supermarkets in the capital. We were there at low season, with just mother, son and two bakers on hand. At Christmastime, the entire family comes in to work in the bakery, to handle the load.

Alentejo bakery
Casa das Sabores Regionais is a family-owned and operated business, with a limited range of products, produced in volumes required to market through supermarkets in Lisbon.

The bakery produces about one million popias, a traditional biscuit from Alentejo, per year. Half of them are made traditionally, using lard, and half with olive oil. All are rolled and shaped by hand. When we visited, the bakers were making the teardrop-shaped  cookies. With their hint of cinnamon, popias are not overly sweet, and are great with coffee or tea.

A hands-on experience

As soon as we arrived at the bakery, Tom and I were welcomed warmly, handed plastic aprons and caps, and asked to wash up. Very soon, I was standing at a tall table with María Lurdes, where she and bakers Mayanita and Francisca were already working.

Alentejo bakery
The bakers of Casa dos Sabores Regionais quickly put me to work, handing me small balls of dough ready to roll into “pencils” and form into teardrop shapes for baking. It was a time of camaraderie without shared language, except for a hodge-podge of Portuguese, Spanish and the universal language of good will.
Alentejo Bakery
Popias fresh from the oven. The biscuits are 100% traditional and regional. Not overly sweet, they are made according to a family recipe, developed by María Lurdes’ mother, and tasted even better, knowing the hands that made them.
Alentejo Bakery
The bakery’s popias recipe originated with the matriarch of the family, who came out to meet us, and join a group photo. “I’m 86,” she said more than once, and “so proud of my daughter!” Familial pride and affection shone through every aspect of the day at Casa dos Sabores Regionais.

I felt honored to be allowed to join the bakery team, even for a short while. We spent an hour up to our elbows in dough, the aroma of cinnamon and fresh biscuits wafting around us. It was an easygoing introduction to the bakers’ work, which is undoubtedly harder than it looks!

Now, when I go into a cafe for a cake and coffee and make my choices from an array of simple cakes, pastel de nata and other baked goodies, I can picture all the María Lurdes Esturras–and their mothers– of Portugal’s artisanal kitchens.

Castles and olive groves

Portel is not exactly on the tourist circuit. However, it boasts a castle, a couple of pretty museums and a manor house, now a comfortable hotel. The town is at a crossroads, where highways connecting Evora, Beja and Moura converge. Portel proved to be a fine base for exploring this part of Alentejo, visiting wineries, olive oil producers and Lake Alqueva.

Alentejo Bakery
Portel Castle in Alentejo, Portugal, was built in the 13th century by João de Aboim.
Alentejo Bakery
Rooftops of Portel, Alentejo, seen from the xxx castle on the hill above the Alentejo town.
Alentejo Bakery
Buildings along a quiet street leading up to the Portel castle.
Alentejo Bakery
Hotel Refúgio da Vila is a 19th century manor house, with 30 comfortable rooms and suites. The hotel serves as an excellent base for touring the Alentjeo countryside.
Alentejo Bakery
At Casa dos Sabores Regionais in Portel, Alentejo, I felt like part of the family.

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Thank you to Aptece, the Portuguese Culinary Tourism and Economic Association, and Turismo de Portugal, for making our travels in Portugal possible. I am excited to be on the progam for Portugal’s upcoming First National Food Travel Congress in Figueira da Foz later this month, where the experiences I value as a food traveler will feature in my presentation.

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To see all our travel stories from Portugal, click here

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