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Beyond the Sea

Portugal has one of the most diverse cuisines on earth

Beyond the Sea
Image: Greg Elms/Getty

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AS we ascend the marble staircase to the banqueting hall at the National Gastronomic Festival in Santarém, 40 miles north of Lisbon, my guide Manuel says: “There are five guys I know who make this their annual holiday.” Every day for a fortnight, a different region shows off its produce at an epic themed lunch, meaning you can eat your way around Portugal in 15 days.

It’s a great way to armchair travel the lesser-explored Iberian country and get to grips with its food culture, one that remains mysterious to many of us despite Portugal’s proximity to Britain.

Most people have heard of bacalhau (salted codfish), but that’s about it. In fact, this land of traders and seafarers, where Spanish, Moorish, Jewish and Asian influences meet, has one of the most diverse cuisines on earth. What it lacks in refinement, it makes up for in fine produce,
from hams and cheeses to rival those of Italy, to Maronesa beef, Alentejano pork, beans, pulses, the freshest fish and seafood, sweet pastries and exotic fruit from Madeira and the Azores.

Today it is the turn of the Oeste region to dazzle with its bounty. At each table, a paper menu shaped like a windmill reminds us that the West includes the blustery coast north of Lisbon, known as the ‘land of sea and vineyards’. Lunch begins with a glass of Espumante Loridos, an extra-brut sparkling wine, and ends with ginjinha do Oeste, a fiery fruit grappa.

With the aperitif come petiscos (Portuguese tapas) that include gossamer-thin slices of smoked pork, marinated olives, cogumelos com entremeada (mushrooms with diced pancetta), cheese with honey and pine nuts, plus wedges of moist yellow broa (cornbread). The polvo grelhada (grilled octopus) that follows is stickily caramelised, basted in garlicky olive oil and served with batata a murro (‘bashed’ potatoes). Now there is little room for pernil de porco no forno (leg of pork, crisped to golden perfection in the oven), but I soldier on and even manage a Moorish-influenced dessert of aroz doce (sweet rice) with honey.

Staggering from the table, I try to imagine how Manuel’s friends must look after two weeks of this. “They’re enormous,” he says, laughing, before leading me downstairs for yet more food on the Concurso de Petiscos — an indoor avenue of tasquinhas, or bars, each serving three dishes typical of their region. While lunch tickets are costly and hard to come by, the miniature portions served here cost just a few euro and are the reason why people flock to this festival each October. With a glass of wine in hand, they can sample the best of Portugal’s larder.

At the tasquinha representing the Serra de Estrela, the mountainous central region where ski resorts and snow-covered peaks surprise most visitors, I taste the famous Serra air-dried ham. Brushed with colorau (paprika, salt and spices) to form a patina like weathered brick, it is hung for three months and then smoked for a day over azhevinho (holly) wood. Better known still is queijo da Serra, ewes’ milk cheese fermented with the creamy sap of the cardo (thistle).

Other tasquinhas to try are those of Tras-os-montes (‘beyond the mountains’), in the north-east corner of Portugal, where Lamego ham is produced; Minho, in the far north-west, for caldo verde (a soup of potato, onion, kale and sliced chouriço) and light, fresh Vinho Verde wine; the Alentejo, ‘the bread basket of Portugal’ east of Santarém, for acorda (a bread-based soup) and the famous stewed pork with clams; and the Ribatejo, around Santarém itself.

To understand the Ribatejo better, I visit the Mercado Municipal, Santarém’s tiled and colonnaded fresh food market. Outside, porters are unloading sacks of turmeric, cumin and coriander. Inside are displays of feijao (beans), eaten on the coast with squid or cuttlefish and all over Portugal with tripe and in feijoada (pork-based stew).

On the flat, fertile plains of the River Tagus, corn and cabbages are grown on a vast scale, matched only by the region’s pig production. Wine is another strength, as I discover at the Quinta Vale de Fornos vineyard near Azambuja.

Even in the Azores, an archipelago of nine Portuguese islands in mid-Atlantic, I am struck by the diversity of produce — and in a single dish. In Furnas, a small town on São Miguel island that sits inside the rim of a volcano, I learn to make cozido das Furnas, a one-pot stew of pork ribs, beef, chicken, red chouriço, black pudding, white cabbage, green cabbage, carrots and yams.

“The hard part is the shopping,” quips Luis Arruda, sous-chef at the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel in Furnas, who runs cozido cookery classes. “Once in the pot, the stew cooks itself using the heat of the volcano.” There is indeed more to Portuguese cuisine than codfish.

National gastronomic festival

This year’s culinary extravaganza takes place from 15 October to 1 November at Santarém’s Casa do Campino tourism complex. It’s a pretty rustic affair; when I was there, tractors were still on display from the National Agricultural Fair in June. Lunches showcase regional fare, but the Concurso de Petiscos (‘Avenue of Snacks’) is where to head for small plates of everything from feijoada de leitao (suckling pig stew) from Beira to horse mackerel escabeche from the Algarve and tripe (if you must) from the Alentejo. Admission is €2.50. Campo Infante da Câmara, Santarém. T: 00 351 243 330 330. www.festivalnacionaldegastronomia.com

Top 5 food finds

Pasteis de Nata
These sweet custard tarts, slightly burnt on top, are best at Lisbon’s azulejo-adorned Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, founded in 1837. Rue de Belem 84.
www.pasteisdebelem.pt

Vila Joya, Albufeira
Portugal’s only two-Michelin-starred restaurant is located in this Algarve resort, combining local fare with French haute flair. T: 00 351 289 591 795.
www.vilajoya.com

Queijo Sao Jorge
Tangy, peppery cheese from Sao Jorge in the Azores, available at Michelin-starred Portuguese restaurant Viajante in London. Patriot Square, Bethnal Green. T: 020 7871 0461. www.viajante.co.uk

Ginjinha
In the Ouest region, this fiery synthesis of ginja berries (sour cherry) and high-octane alcohol — a favourite liqueur of many Portuguese people — is served in a small, edible chocolate cup.

Pasteis de bacalhau
Literally ‘codfish cakes’ or ‘codfish pasties’, this is salted codfish in a pastry crust, deep-fried like a beignet and best eaten at a beach kiosk with an ice-cold Sagres beer.

Three Portu-eats

01 Quinta Vale de Fornos, Azambuja: Follow the River Tagus south-west from Santarém and you come to this 18th-century farmhouse surrounded by vineyards. Napoleon’s soldiers lodged here during the French occupation and old wine presses, racks and barrels add to the sense of history. Part of two wine tourism trails — the Rota do Vinho do Ribatejo and the Caminhos do Ribatejo — the quinta offers tours and tastings. I loved the tasting guide for its 2005 Syrah, with ‘notes of resin, fruit drops and varnish’ in the aroma and ‘oak toast’ flavours. 2050-365 Azambuja. T: 00 351 263 402 105. www.valefornos.com/en

02 Mercado Municipal, Santarém: With its ornate portico, arches and round windows, this fresh food market — built in 1930 — looks more like a convent. On walls and in alcoves, blue and white tiles (azulejos) depict scenes from Ribatejo life. Produce here provides a snapshot of local agriculture: cabbages piled shoulder-high, beans and golden maize, grown here with an intensity comparable with the North American corn belt. Rua do Mercado, Santarém.

03 Caldeiras da Lagoa das Furnas, Azores: On Sao Miguel island, Furnas is the place to master geothermal cooking. Cozido das Furnas (see main story) is not a dish for the faint-hearted — or for vegetarians — but visitors can learn to make it at the Terra Nostra Garden Hotel. In the morning, vans from restaurants in the vicinity head for the smoking fumaroles next to the Lagoa (lake), bury their pots and collect them six hours later when the volcano has done its work. In the town, the locals also cook milho cozido (boiled corn) in a hot volcanic spring. Archipelago Azores can offer this experience. www.azoreschoice.com

Published in the May/June 2011 edition of National Geographic Traveller (UK)