Celebrating The Food of Portugal


Celebrating The Food of Portugal
By Thomas Swick

Through a major food festival for locals and then a self-guided one in Lisbon, a visitor eats his way through the best of Portuguese food and wine.

Seafood of Portugal

The haunting sounds of fado flowed from speakers outside the Festival Nacional de Gastronomia.

"That's Ana Moura," Pedro informed me. "She was born here in Santarém."

Not even in the doors yet, and I'd learned the name of a new (at least to me) fado singer, and the correct pronunciation of the town's name: "San-ta-ray.'

The city overlooks the Tagus River about 40 miles northeast of Lisbon. It is sometimes called "The Gothic City," because of the numerous churches and convents built in that style. It is also the center of Portuguese bullfighting. And, since 1980, it has been home to the country's annual gastronomic festival (held in buildings close to the bullring).

I had been to Portugal twice, and always enjoyed the food. But it had been overshadowed by the music (both times I returned home with a new CD), the architecture, the fading Old World languor of Lisbon (yellow streetcars climbing ancient hills), and the unfailing sweetness of the people. Portugal was one of those rare countries that made me feel more like a guest than like a tourist.

Now I was back, in my new role as gourmand.

My guide Pedro delayed our entry into the festival to say hello to Virgilio Gomes, a food writer from Lisbon. For two weeks every fall, he told me, Santarém becomes his home.

Just inside the doors we found booths displaying not food but regional crafts: jewelry, linens, wooden utensils. One booth contained items — handbags, hats, even dresses — made from cork from the Alentejo region.

An opening led past a coffee bar and into the main building, where tables clustered around makeshift kitchens, each one representing a different region of Portugal. These pop-up restaurants were cozy but not fancy, reflecting the spirit of the country. The cobblestone floor and, in places, the fake brick walls (occasionally decorated with travel posters), provided a warm touch in an otherwise impersonal hall.

Every year one foreign region is invited to participate in the festival, and the guest this year was Galicia, Spain. We headed there for the start of our peripatetic lunch. There is an old Portuguese saying that goes: "From Spain, neither good winds nor good marriages come." But food, evidently, is another story.

Standing at the counter, we were served steaming blood sausages cut into small pieces, shrimp in garlic sauce, octopus sprinkled with sea salt, and the famous pimientos de Padrón — small green peppers fried in olive oil and sprinkled with coarse salt. Most are mild but every once in a while you get one that's hot, making the dish a kind of culinary Spanish Roulette.

Food of Portugal

From Galicia we moved south to Peniche, a fishing town on the coast north of Lisbon. Here at Estelas seafood restaurant we stood at the counter again and ate more shrimp, grilled sardines, mussels with chopped vegetables, roe molded into small strips, lightly fried sting ray (large, delicious chunks of white meat), and tiny clams in a heavenly broth of olive oil, garlic and coriander, which we sopped up with thick slices of bread. This last dish is called amêijoas à Bulhão Pato, after the 19th century Portuguese writer. As "in" Galicia, we washed everything down with a glass of wine from the region.

We walked a short distance to O Costa, the restaurant representing the north of Portugal, where we ate alheira, the tasty non-pork sausage that was created by Portuguese Jews to avoid detection during the Inquisition. (More than an entry into a culture, food can also be a lesson in history.) This was followed by cubes of pineapple (to counteract the fat of the meat) and then, though we weren't all that hungry at this point, a couple of small, perfectly grilled steaks that were so tender we could have cut them with a butter knife.

This being a weekday, the hall was active but not crowded, and everyone appeared to be Portuguese. This was a national festival in the truest sense. As a rare foreigner, I felt privileged not just because of the wonderful foods I was eating but because of the glimpse I was getting of an event seldom seen by outsiders.

Cheeses and Dueling Nuns

From the restaurant area we moved to a wing that resembled a farmers' market, with stalls selling cheeses, meats, and desserts. We tasted Queijo Amarelo da Beira Baixa, the celebrated cheese, made from a mix of sheep and goat's milk, that comes from the central region of Portugal bordering Spain.

Cheese wheels in Portugal

The dessert cases glowed with rows of yellow pastries. The Portuguese do wonders with egg yolks and sugar; in fact, Pedro told me, nuns from different convents would try to outdo each other in the creation of sumptuous sweets. The nuns from Santa Clara in Santarém used egg yolks, sugar and almonds to make what they called Arrepiado ("goose-pimply") because that's how they wanted the bishop to feel after he had tasted it. There was also an interesting, not-so-sweet carob cake from the Algarve.

I needed a nap.

In the evening, I met up with Pedro and we returned to the festival for the daily cooking demonstration. Each day of the festival, a different food is highlighted; tonight it was rice. The guest chef, Henrique Mouro, worked the stove on the stage while Virgilio stood to the side with microphone in hand, asking him questions and giving historical and culinary information. Mouro runs the popular Lisbon restaurant Assinatura (Signature).

More than fifty people, most of them culinary school students, sat in folding chairs and watched as Mouro poured the juice from oysters into the pot of boiling rice, chopped parsley, and grated a slab of tuna roe. Throughout the process, students asked questions; one that got a laugh was: "Are there any openings in the kitchen of your restaurant?"

When the rice was cooked, Mouro ladled portions onto empty oyster shells and then topped each hillock with a bivalve and a slice of lemon. Members of the audience lined up for samples. The rice had the creamy consistency of risotto and the briny taste of the sea. This was a kind of exemplary amuse-bouche.

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