Because central Portugal has maintained its traditional small-scale agriculture, the quality of its produce is superb. Succulent lamb and baby goat are used in chanfana, a hearty stew that is seasoned with paprika, garlic, bay leaves and piri-piri, doused with red wine and slow-cooked in clay pots. Lafões veal is raised in a lush valley intersected by the Vouga and Douro rivers and comes from local cattle derived from the Iberian Mirandesa and Arouquesa breeds.
Central Portugal is also an interesting destination for cheese lovers. Serra da Estrela is a semisoft cheese made from the milk of Bordaleira and Churra Mondegueira sheep. Once the milk has been heated, salted and curdled using thistle extract, it is shaped by hand and aged in humid, chilly cellars to create a unique flavor that is both sweet and slightly sour. This cheese is a traditional Portuguese food with an international reputation. Other cheeses to sample include requeijão Serra da Estrela, a mild fresh cheese made with unpasteurized sheep’s milk. Used in local pastries, puddings and cakes, it is also eaten with a sprinkling of salt and pepper, or as a dessert garnished with honey and nuts or with abóbora de doce (sweet pumpkin jam).
Historically, central Portugal has a sweet tooth, and there is an ancient tradition of pastries and confections made in convents. Perhaps the most famous is pastéis de Tentúgal. These fragile rolls of flaky dough filled with egg custard were invented by Carmelite nuns during the 16th century in the town of Tentúgal, a few miles west of Coimbra. Try them at O Afonso in Tentúgal or at Pastelaria Briosa in Coimbra. Briosa, a charming pastry shop and tearoom, also specializes in pastel de Santa Clara, a pastry filled with almonds and sweetened egg yolks made at the Santa Clara convent in Coimbra.