Memory chapel near the Our Lady of the Cape Church in SesimbraAt the beginning of the 20th century, Portugal’s fishing industry was centered in what is now the Peninsula of Setúbal. The sardine factories have moved elsewhere since then, and nowadays the district’s ports–along with a stunning coastline and the hilly countryside–serve tourism. After traveling around Portugal for several weeks, Tom and I chose Setúbal as our base for exploring new territory within easy reach of Lisbon. 

The view from our room high above Setúbal, beckoning us to the sea, and to marvelous seafood.

Seafood, seafood, seafood

Attractions of Setúbal city include a pedestrianized Old Town and a hilltop fortress, with a view over the Sado estuary. The main draw for Tom and me, though, was the seafood, such as choco frito (fried cuttlefish) with excellent local white wine, in one of the many restaurants with outdoor terraces lining Setúbal’s Avenida Luísa Todi.

One of our biggest culinary surprises of the entire trip also happened here, in the form of locally cultivated oysters. The ones we sampled did not come from a restaurant, but were minutes-old fresh from the hands of Célia Rodrigues, a scientist helping develop Portugal’s nascent oyster industry. “The bivalves are part of the country’s gastronomic patrimony!” she says. To prove her point, Célia opened a few for us, and served them with just a splash of lemon. They were every bit as tasty as promised.

The Portuguese do not traditionally fancy oysters, but Célia Rodrigues and her colleagues at Neptuno Aquacultura are trying to change that. We spent several hours learning about her efforts to introduce cultivation standards and grow the market, locally and internationally.
Oysters cultivated by Neptuno Aquaculture, Setúbal Peninsula: divine! Sunset wine cruises on the Sado River are catered by regional wineries, and offer local gastronomic products, including oysters like these.

The many wines of Setúbal

After more than a month in Portugal, we knew to expect good wine at good value, anywhere in the country. What came as a bit of a surprise for us, though was the number and variety of wines produced in such a small wine-growing area as the district of Setúbal . When we stopped in at the Setúbal Tourist Office, we were met with an entire room stocked with wines just from Setúbal! Who knew?

The wine estates of Setúbal produce red varietals from both national and international grape blends. Whites are made with predominantly the traditional Palmela white varieties. The well-known Moscatel de Setúbal is a fortified wine in a lightly sherried style, ranging from semi- to fully sweet.

Follow the Setúbal Peninsula Wine Route–headquartered in Palmela– to discover the products of wineries in the municipalities of Palmela, Setúbal, Montijo and Alcácer do Sal. Alternatively, head for the Tourist Office on Avenida Luísa Todi for sampling, and to purchase your favorite.

Azeitão cheese, at the source

Azeitão is an unpasteurized sheep’s milk cheese hand-crafted at the foot of the Arrabida Mountains in the regions of Setúbal, Palmela and Sesimbra. Production began when a shepherd brought his sheep to Azeitão from Serra da Estrela, along with a recipe for making that region’s cheese. Azeitão is made with the same techniques as its famous kin, but is produced in rounds weighing no more than 250 grams. The curds are thickened with vegetable rennet derived from artichoke thistles and the cheese has an affinage of 20 days. To qualify for DOP designation, Azeitao must be creamy and buttery, an outcome requiring cold humidity to achieve.

We visited wine and cheese producer Alcube, in the Setúbal region. Its cheese is creamy, with a little spicy bitterness from the herbs that flourish in the Arrabida microclimate. It may not be DOP, but it’s delicious!Artisanal cheesemaker Filipa has been making cheese for 12 years. She calls it “food engineering”. At Alcube, production is small leagues, about 100 kilos per day.

Seafood in Sesimbra

At Bar do Peixe on Meco Beach, the emphasis is on startlingly fresh seafood, superbly prepared. Fancy clouds just made our lunch there that much more special.
Three preparations made our meal: crab salad, grilled limpets and as our main course, red snapper with attitude.
The Best Chocolate Cake in the World. Yes, that’s its name! This bad boy gets its overall sloppy aspect, as well as its crunch, from meringue. It’s made from the zillions of egg whites set free by the making of “conventual sweets” with all those yolks.

Santuário de Nossa Senhora do Cabo Espichel

We took time out from our gustatory pursuits to take in some of Setúbal’s dramatic scenery, following a circular route that took us through the Arrábida Natural Park and back to Setúbal city along the peninsula’s southern coast. With Taste of Lisboa as our guide, we visited Cape Espichel on Setubal’s southwest coast.

The cape is a place of dramatic beauty. In a country known for its stunning coastal vistas, the cape delivers a special punch from its windy promontory: spectacular cloud formations above precipitous cliffs. Its original function was defense, but in 1701, the Church of Our Lady of the Cape Espichel was built, its sanctuary flanked by lodgings for pilgrims.

Lodgings for pilgrims at the Church of Our Lady of the Cape Espichel. The church’s interior is a celebration of Portuguese baroque, from the main altar, to a vaulted ceiling with its Assumption of the Virgin painted in “trompe-l’oeil”, to the throne on the main altar. Everywhere, altarpieces with twisted columns and wood are decorated with polychrome depictions of saints. The 15th century Ermida da Memória (Chapel of Memory), perches on a nearby cliff.

If you go

  • Take the train into Lisbon. It is easy, inexpensive and free of any worries about navigating Lisbon traffic or finding parking there.
  • Book wine cellar visits in advance.
  • Enjoy one-stop shopping. At the Tourist Office, and at the headquarters of the Setúbal Peninsula Wine Route in Palmela, visitors can purchase wine, make tour reservations, and purchase not only wines, but also regional cakes, honey, jams, jellies and Azeitão Cheese.
  • From May to September, join a sunset wine cruise on the Sado River, and sample not only regional wines, but also local gastronomic products, including oysters, catered by Neptuno Aquacultura.
  • For an in-depth, guided exploration at the culinary offerings of Setúbal Peninsula, consider a private experience with Taste of Lisboa or another provider.

* * *

Our thanks to APTECE, Portugal’s Food Travel Association, for bringing us to Portugal, and to Taste of Lisboa for a marvelous introduction to surprising Setúbal!

To see all our travel stories from Portugal, click here.


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