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This article appears in Volume 24: The Slow Issue.
Through the windscreen I catch sight of the whitewashed village of Monsaraz, its castle gloatingly balanced at its apex. A discreet signpost signals our departure from the main highway. Drawn away from the mystical town that now rests just beyond our view, we zip along a byroad until our wheels are slowed by cattle grids.
Surrounded by barrocais – huge outcrops of rock dotting the landscape – the entry to the São Lourenço do Barrocal estate is deliciously unkempt. The grounds are skirted with twisted, truncated olive trees spanning some 60 hectares, which bow and feign in the direction of the main estate as our car continues up a narrowing path to the central monte.
A former agrarian village, today São Lourenço do Barrocal is a working winery, olive grove and hotel. Opening in late 2015, the low-lying farmhouse hideaway is the work of former investment banker José António Uva. Returning from London determined to reinvigorate his family monte – taken away when Portugal was nationalised and returned in disrepair following the country’s liberalisation – José spent two years at the estate living in the outhouse adjacent to the pool and dreaming up plans for its development. As the eighth generation of the same family to have lived at São Lourenço do Barrocal, José readily recalls a childhood suffused with endless tales of its 1940s heyday. From then until now, he tells me, “everything and nothing has changed”.
In the lobby old photographs suggest a life of social gatherings – beach holidays, al-fresco dining, jubilant birthdays and drawn-out weddings. Tin boxes of letters are crammed like Tetris blocks and mounted on the walls. José explains to me that trying to understand what served for which purpose was an arduous task in the early stages of restoration. “Letters, legal documents and receipts all had to be sifted through before deciding what should be kept and what could be transformed.” Over an eight-year period José collaborated with award-winning architect Eduardo Souto de Moura on the estate. Together with a biologist, an historian and a geologist, a sense of the strata of the place was slowly established. “It was about adjusting rather than changing the space,” José says. Imposing small-scale interventions, José committed to living off the land. Time paved out 14 years of renovations, José’s family grew by three and the roof tiles alone took as many years to gather (over half-a-million baked original brick tiles were used.)
Arriving at this rejuvenated farm retreat brings with it a feeling of homecoming. A golf buggy swiftly collects our bags and we teeter close behind, walking along the cobbles at a leisurely pace. We are guided to the southern buildings, traditionally used to house animals and strategically positioned downwind of the northern buildings, formerly the farmer’s lodgings. Inhabited since Neolithic times by sedentary tribes, São Lourenço do Barrocal was once the epicentre of the prehistoric culture of central Alentejo. In the 19th century it grew to become a thriving farming village providing enough livestock, grain, vegetables and wine to sustain up to 50 resident families year-round. With its own chapel, schoolroom and bullring, it was not only a centre for farming and trade but also a tight-knit community.
As 6pm approaches we make our way to the vegetable garden where we meet our chef for the evening and begin to forage for our dinner. Here the seasons rule above all else and we learn about the garden’s strict planting calendar while wandering through raised beds of organic crops. Beetroots are cut at the root and lettuce at the tusk before being placed in the chef’s weighty wicker basket. By now cows have gathered at the perimeter of the vegetable garden – as I’m told they do most evenings – casting judgemental glances over our hoard.
Doubling back to one of the farm-view cottages we unpack our basket and set to work on dinner. We start by preparing a simple cod and chickpea dish followed by a medley of fava beans with regional sausages and fresh strawberries. There’s a rhythm in shelling the fava beans – as an inexperienced yet eager sous-chef I peel far too many pods. The extras are cast aside and a smashed clove of garlic is fired into the pan, quickly echoed by olive oil and a dash of salt. The rural fare is simple – honey, vinegar, oil and herbs are the staples of most dishes.
Dinner is served on the back porch of the house on a picnic table flanked with thick mantas Alentejanas (local woollen rugs). Wine tasting on the cottage’s terrace sees us sample a range of house-fortified wines – the hotel’s manager, Ana Faustino, explains that the winery is an integral part of the hotel and the estate’s regeneration. “More than a century ago, São Lourenço do Barrocal’s founder helped to foster the region’s reputation for winemaking, planting many thousands of vines after recognising the area’s outstanding terroir.” Handpicked grapes form the basis of limited-edition bottles foraged from ten-year-old vines, which are sold at the hotel and selected shops. A dessert plate evaporates over the course of an hour – first from the heat and then via our nibbling forks.
Returning to our rooms on a lukewarm summer evening, moonlight floods the cobbled courtyard. Celestial bodies accompany me on my short walk back through the hushed monte. Reaching my room, I turn the lock twice and step inside. From my window I can still see the moon beaming through its own circumference, its dog-eared outline marking the day’s end.
My alarm is set for 8am but I pre-empt its call. Walking out into the morning I feel like the sole resident of the estate. Hearing hushed chatter and a baritone hum from the kitchen brings a great sense of comfort and of work. The dulcet tones of chattering French girls louden on my approach to the restaurant, where a large kitchen table bellows with a generous spread of meats, cheeses, breads and fruits. A whole honeycomb teeters on the corner. I sample the rosette ham and orange slices dusted with cinnamon and finished with a sugary crunch before ordering a coffee and sitting for a while at the outdoor picnic tables that are dappled with light from breaks in the trellis overhead.
Our plan for the afternoon is to go by horseback to Monsaraz, the castle town in the high hills. I am armed with some key Portuguese words: lento, confiável and cavalo (slow, reliable and horse) in preparation for riding one of the estate’s Lusitano thoroughbreds, the oldest saddle horses in the world. However this plan is quickly subverted in favour of a carriage ride due to the challenging terrain and our incompetence. Taking a less-trodden path we head out into the estate with Pedro, the head horseman. About 30 minutes into our ride we pass throughways of wheat fields, thistles and wild flowers, which lead to a river with untamed horses visible in the distant corner of my eye.
We pass a lake where cattle graze amid the large barrocais that defy gravity in the centre. “Pare,” asserts Pedro – an instruction for both the horse and for us. We stop, unpack our picnic and settle under the shade of an oak tree as endless brown packages appear from two small wicker baskets – veal and mushroom sandwiches, fluffy quiche, partridge escabeche, fresh strawberries. This, we realise, is what is meant by a “leisurely lunch”. After feasting we spread out on woven rugs and rest for a while. A long, loud bleating rouses us from our snoozing – Pedro and his steed have returned. On our way back through the estate’s peripheries the scenery changes from flaxen to hues of olive green with flickers of mauve from bulbous thistle heads.
On returning to the estate I make an immediate advance for the Susanne Kaufmann Spa Barrocal, identifiable only by an enamelled sign and a small vase of lavender on the corner step. Inside there is something quite monastic about the surrounds. I am guided to a private treatment room and gestured to the massage table. A spritz of lavender washes over my face as the therapist presses down on my sternum, then flexes my feet. An hour passes. A citrus fragrance wafts past my nostrils and with that the massage ends.
Later that evening the tinkering of silverware precedes our entering the hotel’s farm-to-table restaurant. Alentejo has a refined, rustic look, with stripped-wood tables and a timber-clad bar. On the far side of the room a series of custom-made shelves displaying objects found when the building was first cleared out offer hints to the family’s make-up, a sort of generational history told through heirlooms – a miniature chair, a shoe, a cushion loaded with hat pins, hedge clippers and, just left of the centre, a small red vocabulary book opened at page 294/5 with “familia” (“family”) circled in biro.
Deeply rooted in Alentejo’s traditions, the food is focused around time-honoured dishes. Tradition and authenticity are at the root of everything here. Hand-thrown tea lights radiate flecked light across the tables as we order sautéed vegetables with green-pea purée, poached egg, tuna ceviche with avocado and passionfruit, and a cheese pudding with homemade pumpkin jam. Digesting our meal and the day’s activities I start to get a real feel for the hotel, the land and the family’s relationship with both.
I ask José for his response when people ask him to describe this place and am met with a long pause. “I don’t know how to translate it other than to say it is our shared experience of this place and how we can live in today’s age. It’s not melancholy, neither is it nostalgia – it’s just shared.” Sharing in this place for only a few short days, I feel both melancholia and nostalgia for it even now.
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