Text by Paola Corini
Photographs by Luca De Santis
Arraiolos, Alentejo, Portugal. Our Alentejo trip always begins when the Frenchmen François and Jean-Christophe arrive home at Villa Extramuros on a day at the start of April. The first year when our little car hired in Lisbon made its way through the gate of the property, through grazing sheep, olive trees and cork oaks in the brightest of suns, the grass was already hay-coloured. A few minutes later, we were in the swimming pool.
Today we’re wearing a woolly jumper and the fire is lit, the cats are on the sofa in the living room, the castle of Arraiolos is cloaked in rain clouds. This year our countryside is so green that it looks like Scotland, François would chuckle.
o fall in love with inland Portugal is also to choose its dryness. But the memory of this cold spring at the Villa would be no less heart-rending. Above all, the bad weather authorized us to decide dinner time straight away, strictly prepared by our host, in great Portuguese or rather Alentejan style. So, succulent, rustic and light at the same time, calorific but no less graceful for it, in short a triumph.
Farewell Atlantic Ocean, Lisbon is behind us, here we deliberately take the road towards the Spanish border, towards the gentle mountains, rivers and woods.
The precious hams and shoulders with an aromatic aftertaste, as they say à la “montanheira”, risotto sprinkled with fresh coriander, the roast of porco prieto, or black pig, the milk and egg yolk flan cooked in a big round terracotta baking tray, a sweet of monastic origin that we ask them to bring back to the table at breakfast. That’s out of the question though, tomorrow it’s warm pastries with custard, fresh strawberries, sheep’s cheese, homemade honey. We open a bottle of good wine. “We only drink when there’s something to celebrate: this evening it’s the arrival of our guests”. We talk about Paris, the Estremadura bullfights, which are nearer to us than Lisbon, the places in Uruguay to visit as long as they remain so quiet.
This year there are two new arrivals: the 1960s cottage hidden in five hectares of olives, where you find a fresh baguette and coffee in the post box in the morning as the start of breakfast. There’s a French touch here, but above all there’s a savoir-vivre, an ability to plan, furnish and host, that’s all-European. We leave these little refuges as if it were a single sequence shot in a film, saying farewell first to the most beautiful country villa we know, then the old village of Arraiolos, the urban life of Lisbon, the cheer of Spain next door, Portugal.