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.
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.
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.
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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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