PortugalCultural tourism is booming, and travelers are increasingly seeking out the culinary experiences so important to authentic cultural exploration. Last week, Tom and I traveled to Estoril, Portugal to learn more about food travel as a part of a destination’s branding and services, and what this might mean for us as a writer-photographer team forever “traveling on our stomachs.”

We were in town for the World Food Tourism Summit (WFTS2015), hosted by to Aptece, the Portuguese Culinary Tourism and Economic Association. The agenda reflected the growing importance of food tourism around the world, with a diverse and impressive roster of speakers. They identified trends behind shifts in travel markets, as well as ways for travel providers to meet changing demands.

Outside the conference venue, we had plenty of opportunity to engage in our own culinary explorations. The Summit was timed to let participants enjoy the wildly successful Street Food European Festival installed on the esplanade below the Estoril Casino, sample the creations of Lisbon’s top chefs at the annual Peixe em Lisboa (Lisbon Fish & Flavours food festival), and of course, take advantage of Lisbon’s vibrant food scene.

At Peixe em Lisboa, we tried two dishes from authentic Mexican restaurant, Las Ficheras: a black tortilla with baby octopus, squid and mussels, Cascabel chili mayonnaise and sprouts; and Panuchos, crucy corn tortillas with black bean puree, avocado cream, marinated red onion, radish, coriander and marinated fresh fish. Wine was a full-bodied red from the José Maria de Fonseca winery, on the Setúbal Peninsula.


The Summit

Innovation consultant Luis Rasquilha kicked the Summit off with a run-down on megatrends affecting culinary travel: an explosion of older travelers, globalization and heightened environmental interests, to name just three. These, coupled with a new inter-generational reality and concerns about health and well-being, present opportunities for country and regional tourism boards, and for local and international tour operators. They also pose challenges in serving a new food travel demographic, especially for smaller producers and restaurants.

“Don’t give me products, give me experiences!”

As several speakers stressed, it is more important than ever to place the client at the center of food travel experiences. If, as Ian Yeoman declared, “Real food is the new authenticity,” then Kathy Dragon‘s assertion that farmers and producers are now the stars is spot on. When Greg Richards asked, “How do we link food, landscape and culture?” his question was a very practical one.

One project that has addressed this question is Russia’s Gourmanism Food & Travel Club. Identifying food tourism as the most important trend now, Julia Egorushkina described a program to bring culinary travelers to rural Siberia. There, clients engage with locals in a slow-travel mode that gives them time to absorb culture along with the foods they enjoy along the way.

Dinner at Casa Miradouro Santar in Portugal’s Dão Valley, hosted by owner Xandi Matos, gave us a chance to savor local flavors in the company of new friends. It was an exquisite evening, filled with conversation and laughter, served up in the kitchen of a historic Beira Alta home.

 “The stomach is a fast track to the mind!”

Branding expert Carlos Coelho reminded us of the importance of food in engaging our senses to create memories. He described how countries build “stomach share” and challenged and inspired Portugal “to re-write the national cookbook”–advice that is just as valid for other countries. Matt Goulding of Roads & Kingdoms asserted that “food is becoming bigger than the body,” and shared the guiding principles behind his forthcoming guidebook for the gastronomic tourist. Rice Noodle Fish, to be published later this year, will tell powerful stories, showing food from all angles to a new breed of traveler.

Nothing feels and tastes more like the sea on your tongue than mussels just brought ashore, and steamed before your eyes (and nose!) with a good dousing of white wine and herbs.Great food memories become an indelible part of a traveler’s personal foodscape.

 “To the brain, a story is the same as the experience it describes.”

Storyteller Jodi Ettenberg stressed the importance of telling a story to get people invested in a brand, and how stories deliver authentic travel experiences to readers. Her tips to travel providers–work with bloggers who are a fit for your brand, tell compelling stories, and aim for long-term relationships–are just as valuable to those of us helping destinations tell their stories.

Welcome to my bakery! In Portel, Alentejo, Maria Lurdes Estura, founder of Casa dos Sabores Regionais, welcomes visitors to her family’s bakery.

Chefs on the Summit program spoke of their experiences with reality television, and how they have leveraged public exposure of their personal brands to build awareness and engage food travelers in local gastronomy.

In a Summit panel discussion, Christina Batista, Henrique Sá Pessoa and Ligia Santos spoke about their engagement with food lovers online, on television and in training kitchens.

 “Link food, landscape and culture”

In order to build a culinary destination, Greg Richards explained, “Improving your reality improves your brand.” He exhorted destinations to use food as a way to create a sensory landscape, to include locals and their foods, and to aim for authenticity and innovation. Tourism providers in several countries are living this axiom, and shared their experiences with us. In a lively discussion, Kenny Dunn of Eating Europe talked about the popularity of food walks for non-foodies, noting that “everyone enjoys good food.” Smart San Sebastian’s Iñigo Galdona countered with “We are ALL about the food.”

Thanks to our guide Ruben Obadia, organizer of a two-day pre-conference food tour in Portugal’s Alentejo region, we had an opportunity to sample oil–and olives– from a really, really old tree in the olive grove at Horta da Moura, near Monsaraz. The oil, named 2450 (yes, the tree is certified to be that old!), was smooth, spicy and served beside the venerable tree itself. Now THAT’s a link between landscape, food and culture!

Interested in seeing how a major food event is launched in fun-loving Portugal? Take a look at this teaser video of the Summit opening (2:35) from Canadian journalist Leslie Yip:


The Street Food Festival

Just outside the conference venue, the Street Food European Festival brought Summit participants and locals together for a food truck extravaganza. More than 60 mobile restaurants provided living proof of what food journalist and co-founder of the British Street Food Awards Richard Johnson calls a free-styling, engaging way to re-learn food culture. We joined the happy crowds queuing for prize-winning vegan plates, suckling pig sandwiches and sushi, and delighted in superb coffee and port-tonic sundowners. Even with two trips through the rows of trucks, there was no way to sample everything!

Food trucks are increasingly popular in Europe, and more than 60 of them offered Festival attendees street foods from diverse food cultures across Europe.


Peixe em Lisboa

This food festival puts some of Lisbon’s best-known chefs front and center, working from tiny pop-up restaurants and offering cooking demonstrations for 10 fishy-delicious days each spring. Tom and I sampled foods and wines in the exhibition area, and enjoyed a progressive dinner in the pop-up restaurant zone with plates from several great Lisbon kitchens.

Chef Justa Nobre of the highly regarded O Nobre in Lisbon is a passionate advocate of Portuguese culinary traditions. At Peixe em Lisboa, we sampled two dishes from the O Nobre kitchen: yummy couscous with shrimp and filet of pompano with garlic rice, before watching a hands-on cooking class in one of the festival’s demonstration kitchens.
The crowd at Peixe em Lisboa was mostly Portuguese when we visited on a Saturday evening, and it was a pleasure to enjoy a Saturday night out with the locals, doing what they do so well–celebrate good food!


Our take-aways

For Tom and me, the World Food Tourism Summit, with several great sidebar attractions, proved to be much greater than the sum of its parts. The Summit’s slate of speakers from around the world delivered clear messages about how food travel is evolving, along with ideas for meeting new traveler demands and growing culinary/cultural brands. A pre-conference food tour to Alentejo enabled us to go behind the scenes in Portugal’s gastronomic heartland. Best of all, we had ample opportunity to meet like minds–and stomachs–at Summit events and on our own time.

At WFTS2015, we learned that we are prime-time travelers (active, curious boomers), digital immigrants (born before 1990), and that our demographic is trending as a travel market. It was also exciting to see that the way we’ve traveled all along is now seen as the wave of the future.

What a time to be foodies on the road!

Travel writer Nelson Carvalheiro introduced his forthcoming book at the World Food Tourism Summit. I look forward to trying the recipes from the book, to be released later this year!


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To see all our travel stories from Portugal, click here




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