Discovering Monchique. Mountains of Taste

Discovering the local delicacies of the Monchique hills

Sitting on the terrace of Dr. Jean Ferran’s home, at an altitude of 850 metres, the highest peak of the Monchique mountain range is just a short stroll up the hill from his garden. The 68 year-old Frenchman was a GP and homeopathic doctor in France before he moved here in 1982 and settled on the mountain with his late wife Anna. Together they built up a property rental and management business in the area, in which he is still actively involved, but which is today managed by his daughter Anne-Marie.

Jean Ferran however, is best known around the Algarve as the Bailli Provincial of the Algarve chapitre of Chaîne des Rottiseurs, the global association for gourmets. So, who better to advise us on the gastronomic delights of the mountain range that Jean calls home?

V Life magazine joined him for lunch at Tasca O Petrol, a humble yet famed eatery in the foothills of the mountain close to the village of Marmelete, a restaurant that is very popular with chefs, amongst them VILA VITA Parc’s own Hans Neuner from Ocean restaurant who is a regular. This is the home of real country cooking with a menu featuring predominantly pork dishes. When we joined Jean to discuss over lunch the culinary delights of these hills, we started with a mixed plate of appetisers featuring the ear, liver, black pudding and chouriço sausage, amongst other delicacies, of local pigs. Next came cozido de couve (cabbage stewed with different cuts of pork meat and innards), a portion of the fabulous assadura (grilled slices of Iberian black pig) and roast pernil (shoulder of pork), with crispy crackling and roasted new potatoes. The menu does feature lamb, chicken and even a few fish dishes but this restaurant is all about celebrating the pig, in true nose to tail fashion. The restaurant is run by the Nunes family; brother Pedro and Oswaldo and sister Nélia who is the chef.

Jean told us how the Monchique mountain range has long been famous for its pork products, celebrated every year at the Feira dos Enchidos, a pork and sausage festival held in March.

Monchique’s ham is one its most celebrated products, cured in salt with a mildly salty flavour whilst traditional sausages such as chouriço and morçela are equally important to the gastronomy of these hills.

We visited the pig farm and sausage factory of Sítio da Serra de Monchique, set high in the hills above the town. The facility is not open to the public but the owners are rightly proud of the high quality standards and traditional techniques employed here. A certified producer of the Iberian black pig, they have an impressive smoke room where thousands of sausages hang curing with a log fire burning on the floor. The legs of the pig are cured in refrigerated chambers for salting and further dry curing. Outside, the pigs are reared in spacious pens, happily immersing themselves in pools of mud, just as pigs love to.

Back down in the town, the company has its own butcher shop where the cured meats and sausages are available for sale, along with fresh cuts of the Iberian black pig.

Monchique is also famous for its chicken piri-piri restaurants but many of these are tourist traps. The chicken itself is no different to that found at restaurants on the coast, but there is something special about the crunchy salads and delicious potato chips made from local mountain produce, coupled with the views, that make a chicken lunch on the mountain a favourite weekend excursion for many coast dwellers.

Less known, and very difficult to buy locally, are the top-quality fungi that grow in Monchique’s oak forests, specifically chanterelles and Pied de Mouton (hedgehog fungus) mushrooms. In a tiny backstreet in Monchique town, the local mushroom king José Páscoa receives the mushrooms picked by locals on the hills and from here they find their way to speciality shops and gourmet restaurants around Europe.

However, if there is one product that can truly be considered part of Monchique’s cultural identity, it has to be medronho, the result of the age-old art of making aguardente (firewater) from the berries of the red arbutus bush (also known as wild strawberries). During the months of October and November the berries are picked and then fermented naturally before starting the distillation process the following spring, using traditional copper stills called alambiques.

Jean, who is a member of the Monchique Medronho brotherhood (Confraria do Medronho Os Monchiqueiros), arranged for us to visit Monte da Lameira, the distillery of João Paulo Nunes, set in a valley on the northern face of the hill near Alferce. Here, the distilled spirit is aged in chestnut barrels resulting in a slightly tinted and particularly smooth medronho. The alcohol content is close to 50% and he also produces a less potent liqueur version of the drink, known as meloso, which is sweetened with local honey.

Production techniques have changed little from generation to generation but since João took over the distillery from his father, production has become regulated and governed by laws to ensure that health and safety standards are adhered to.

Well worth visiting is Loja do Mel e Medronho (the honey and medronho shop) on the main square in Monchique town. Opened in 2011 as a joint venture between the associations of Monchique honey producers and medronho producers, the shop sells a range of medronhos from the various licensed distillers in the area, the photos of whom are displayed in the shop alongside the respective bottles. Local honeys on sale include an unusual variety made from the bees that pollinate the red arbutus bush, hence known as medronho honey. There are also compotes of various local fruits, including the medronho berry of course. This humble shop, with a traditional alambique outside and its brightly coloured tile façade, offers an excellent introduction to these traditional products.

After our tour of these gastronomic highlights of Monchique, we finished off the day with coffee on Jean’s terrace. From up here, the Algarve below us seems almost surreal, like a colourful tapestry spread before us. The folk of these hills have a pride in their lofty home, and a love of their local produce that makes every trip up here a very real pleasure.

(Text by Patrick Stuart. First published on VLife Magazine #6)