In the Portuguese Alentejo, castle walls surround Serpa with a sense of majesty, as if announcing you are about to enter some place special -- and you are. Serpa's stone streets of monumental architecture and whitewashed homes are magical to wander, with heart-stopping views of the green-gold heartland and Guadiana River along your way. Invariably, all roads in the town of 16,000 lead to a pleasing square containing something of interest: a church, a clock tower, an archeological museum, a museum with over 1,500 watches, and of course, restaurants and cafes.
On the theory that there's no such thing as a bad meal in Portugal, we randomly chose O Alentajano in the center of town for lunch. Guidebooks characterize menus like O Alentajano's as "typical,'' a sad choice of adjective, since any food that's local and typical of its place -- especially a place like the Alentejo -- is special. So it was here.
Serpa's most famous food is a cheese made from sheep's milk with a natural rind covering a flesh whose creaminess is next to godliness. Serpa cheese is available everywhere in Portugal, but why not order it at the source? The cheese spread so beautifully on slices of crusty, dense Portuguese bread that in no time we were full. Wanting something light, we noticed a waiter spooning soup into a patron's bowl and said,
"We'll have that.''
What a tour de force is bread soup: a comforting, nourishing meal invented out of the Alentejo's historic poverty, or its abundance of wheat, or both. The tureen of bread chunks soaked in chicken stock, garlic cloves, and olive oil was finished just before serving with eggs, broken and stirred into the brew.
We liked the soup so much that we ordered a variant made with dogfish -- its Portuguese name, Sopa de Cacao, has a more pleasing ring. As pig snouts are to pork, dogfish is to seafood: a small variant of shark that anyone and his brother can catch and toss in a pot. With olive oil, bay leaf, coriander, oregano, and balsamic vinegar stirred into the stock, the flavor is mouth watering.
O Alentajano is located in the center of town next to the city council building.
As we left by one of two town gates, an English-speaking local pointed out the palace of the Counts of Ficalho built into the castle wall, peering down from its lofty height. "It's just a façade,'' said the woman. "They couldn't afford to keep up the place, so they live in a few rooms.''