When Tom and I traveled in Portugal last year, we gloried in its varied landscapes, magnificent sunsets, and vibrant history. We visited cities bedecked with art, old and new–much of it depicting culinary traditions, from salt production to baked goods, as well as seafaring traditions. In our quest for authentic Portuguese flavors, we thrilled to regional food specialties and wines from north to south and back again.
The Portuguese have played a surprisingly central role in introduction of foods and food preparation techniques around the world. Chilies to India and Sri Lanka? Tea to England? Oysters to France? Tempura to Japan? These were just some of the culinary mementos left behind by Portuguese sailors, priests and merchants as they explored the globe long before backpacks and RTW tickets made food adventurers of us all.
The terroir advantage
For all the variety and quality of food offerings in Lisbon and Porto, Portugal’s “culinary truth” is in the countryside. It emanates from home kitchens and village tabernas, and from the festivals that bring people together throughout the year. It is in the varied landscapes of Portugal, and through the legendary hospitality of the Portuguese people, that Tom and I have begun to discover the small producers, the passionate and innovative creators of a new food order for the country.
In Lisbon, we enjoyed several meals at the cozy Taberna Rua das Flores. On repeat visits, we had a chance to speak with owner-chef André Magalhães. He told us that the most important trend on the Portuguese culinary scene today is a return to simplicity, “putting real value on the plate.”
In Portugal, as elsewhere, some of the best dishes were born of scarcity in home kitchens, with economic hardship fostering creativity and culinary innovation. “Interesting culinary developments come when people have to figure out what to do,” Chef Magalhães explained. He cited Alentejo, where an inventive kitchen features foraging and nose-to-tail dishes, and where black pig is a big protagonist.
Chef Magalhães believes that unique terroir and traditional products are what make Portugal’s cuisine special. “Old-time producers are still active, so we all have access to excellent products,” he explains. “The regional character of ingredients, combined with huge geographical differences across regions, translate directly to food.” Our experiences to date have been mainland-only, but reveal surprising diversity.
There is much to be discovered, but for a non-local it can take some digging, not to mention trial-and-error. Wine tourism is relatively well-developed, the food trails less so. Most tourism offices are not yet set up to point a traveler to off-the-beaten track eateries, so foodies traveling independently must be prepared to find their own way. Word of mouth can help (thank you Trip Advisor!), as can a personal network of local foodies.
Vegetarians face another challenge, as meat-free foods are not at the forefront of Portuguese culinary excellence. There are some yummy vegetarian offerings (check out what Epicure & Culture has to say ), but unless a traveler includes seafood or fish in their diet, this one is tough going.
Looking to the future
Portugal’s first National Food Travel Congress was held last October in Figueira da Foz, and we were invited to share our experiences with participants. The Congress brought together travel authorities, food producers, entrepreneurs and others involved in food tourism. On the agenda: building local pride in Portuguese cuisine, collaborating to broaden access to regional food experiences like ours, and targeting untapped markets.
Now, the Portuguese are taking the dialogue up a notch, and we are happy to be back in Portugal this week, attending the World Food Tourism Summit in Estoril.
What next, Portugal?
Portuguese-American David Leite, cookbook author and publisher of Leite’s Culinaria, credits the world for making Portuguese ingredients and dishes its own. “Five hundred years ago, Portugal discovered the world,” he said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. “And now the world is returning the favor.”
Even better, the Portuguese themselves are beginning to recognize the quality and uniqueness of their food products and cuisine. It’s just a small step from such understanding to becoming a world-class food travel destination.
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Thank you to Aptece, the Portuguese Culinary Tourism and Economic Association, and Turismo de Portugal, for making our travels in Portugal possible. And thanks to Taste of Lisboa for organizing our home-cooking evening!
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To see all our travel stories from Portugal, click here.