Driving through an endless savanna where mounds rather than hills rolled lazily toward infinity, a travel article I’d read in The Guardian a couple of years ago popped into my head. It was called ‘A foodie tour of Portugal’s Alentejo’ and claimed that Portugal’s largest region was being touted as the new Tuscany. At the time I read it I’d skimmed over the ‘new Tuscany’ bit, focussing instead on its take on Alentejana gastronomy.
A couple of weeks ago we spent a week in Tuscany, visiting Florence, Siena, and Pisa. It was hardly enough time too gain any sort of real insight, but heading back into deepest Alentejo provided the opportunity to indulge in a spot of compare and contrasting. Trying to find the ‘new Tuscany’ article again on Google, I noticed that since The Guardian article there had been a number of subsequent travel pieces referencing the same claim. Some attributed it to The Guardian, some to Condé Nast. Most said it had come from the New York Times. I’d read an excellent article in the NYT about Alentejo which had compared it to Tuscany but only in the following sense:- “As in Provence and Tuscany, food and wine bond families and strangers alike.”
Travel is subjective – one person’s all inclusive hell is another’s all inclusive paradise; historic streets lined by architectural delights can be magical places to wander, or a deadly dull destination with nothing to do. And classing Alentejo as the new Tuscany is most definitely subjective. To try to objectively explain why, I’ll set the scene with a couple of descriptions from external sources.
Tuscany according to Insight Guides
“From the glories of Renaissance Florence, with its wealth of artistic treasures, to the golden landscape and hilltop towns of the Tuscan countryside; from the terraces of the Chianti and Montepulciano vineyards to Pisa’s notorious Leaning Tower and Siena’s scallop-shaped piazza: this is a region that has fed the imagination and delighted the senses of countless visitors for many years.”
Alentejo by the official Portugal tourism website
“To the north, the pastures of the marshlands; in the vast interior, unending flatness, and fields of wheat waving in the wind; at the coast, wild, beautiful beaches waiting to be discovered.
The vastness of the landscape is dotted with cork oaks and olive trees that withstand time.”
One of the above mentions a golden landscape, the other talks of fields of wheat waving in the wind. There’s a clear similarity. Driving for hours through an unchanging Alentejo countryside, we remarked how the land resembled an immense, golden quilt; thirsty, wheat-coloured dry grasses broken only by evergreen cork oaks, silvery olive trees, and occasional jade ponds where rusty cows and lithe horses gathered for water. On paper, Alentejo might share similar natural aspects with Tuscany – olive groves, vineyards, and even a few cypress trees. But on the ground the difference is as clear as the cloudless Alentejo sky. In the last couple of months we’ve stood on lofty battlements on numerous Alentejo hilltop towns, gazing in awe at plains which stretch to infinity and beyond. Where Tuscany’s soft-focus landscape could have been designed especially for an artist’s canvas, Alentejo’s is a vast, untamed wilderness mostly devoid of people. But, to be fair, at Elvas we commented to one another that one small section of the view from the castle looked Tuscan.
Historic buildings aplenty; a bewildering maze of streets careening anarchically around towns located inside protective walls; strategic hilltop positions. Yup, Alentejo and Tuscany share these features as well… but then they’re also found in other European locations, Provence’s villages perchés for example. However, even if you were drugged, blindfolded and dropped into the likes of Monsaraz, Marvão or Castelo de Vide there would be no mistaking any for Tuscany. Where Mediaevel Tuscan towns mirror the earthy shades of their surroundings, Alentejo’s are blindingly white; sunglasses essential protection for exploring their winding, cobbled streets. Both offer architectural banquets for the eyes, but ones with quite different flavours. Alentejo boasts some of the most outstandingly picturesque towns I’ve set eyes upon.
In Alentejo, flat caps and checked shirts are de rigueur for the men. In Tuscany…
The travel article which may have instigated the comparisons with Tuscany focused on Alentejo cuisine and the richness of ingredients, touting it as a foodie destination. I suspect the Tuscany comparison was simply a travel writer’s ‘pitch’, hoodwinking an editor by presenting them with an angle which felt different enough to get given the green light. But the pressure to come up with a ‘new’ angle in the world of travel writing can occasionally mean some poetic licence regarding accuracy. There’s a very good reason gastronomic comparison with Tuscany might not have been written about before. Tuscan cuisine is sublime, rural Alentejo’s might be good quality but it is mainly unsophisticated, country fare.
In Tuscany we ate in traditional restaurants whose menus differed but whose dishes invariably included delicately seductive sauces; these were places we could go back to numerous times before we exhausted the dishes which appealed. When we stayed for four months in Alentejo we virtually stopped dining out after the first couple of weeks. We enjoy gastronomic diversity and like to eat meat only now and again as part of a balanced diet. Alentejo’s hinterland is a meat-eater’s paradise where the food is hearty, prices are low, and portions are generous. It’s a region which will satisfy the appetites of many visitors, but possibly not those ‘foodies’ the article was aimed at. This visit we ate out twice; the first notching up sarapatel, (seasoned offal stew), bacalhau dourado (shredded salt cod with onions, egg, and potatoes) and secretos de porco preto. There are Alentejana dishes we thoroughly enjoy, but only every now and again as the food is generally too heavy for frequent consumption. The second time we dined out was because it was our last night and we felt we should. It was good quality fare, but the hefty dose of meat (wild boar stew, Iberian pork steak) hung around like lead weights in our stomachs. When it comes to wine on the other hand, I prefer Alentejo’s to Tuscany’s Chiantis and Montepulcianos.
Ultimately, it isn’t fare to invite comparison between Italian cuisine and that of rural Alentejo. Both have their merits, but are universes apart.
And that’s where the problem of comparing regions in two different European countries fundamentally lies. Alentejo doesn’t need to be touted as the new Tuscany, it has its own strong and fascinating personality. Go seeking Tuscany and there’s a chance you’ll be disappointed. Travel there with an open mind and there are wondrous surprises to be uncovered.
One final comparison, travelling back to the coast from border country where Alentejo meets Extremadura, we paused at Elvas for an explore and a snack lunch consisting of a typically gigantic tosta mixta with a couple of drinks. We nearly ordered two tosta mixtas but the owner of the pastelaria talked us out of it, insisting one was enough. A similar lunch in Florence a couple of weeks previously cost a whopping €30. In Elvas I coughed up €4.70.
Alentejo is so not the new Tuscany.