Why Portugal Should Be Next On Your Bucket List
It has one of the coolest capitals on the planet and a cuisine to match. What’s not to like?
Casas No Tempo, Montemor o Novo, Alentejo. Photograph by Mr Nikolay Ivanov, courtesy of Casas No Tempo
What comes to mind when you think of Portuguese food? Piri-piri chicken? Custard tarts with wobbly centres? Maybe, if you really think about it, grilled sardines? For too long, we’ve all missed out on the rich, nuanced, fascinating and varied food from Spain’s next-door neighbour, which goes way beyond chicken and tarts to beautiful cheeses, elaborate one-pot dishes and undiscovered wines. We’ve gorged on tapas without stopping to consider petiscos, Portugal’s sharing plates, or its seafood and extraordinary spicing, which is a legacy of six centuries as a maritime superpower. Portugal’s food is long overdue a moment in the sun, especially dishes from Lisbon, the region of Alentejo and Porto, where cooks and chefs are busy preserving old food practices before they are lost for ever, while fusing modern techniques with traditional flavours.
In London, for the past couple of decades, you had to schlep to Lisboa Patisserie on Golborne Road in W10, or its friendly rival Cafe O’Porto on the other side of the street, to get a pastel de nata, or to the Portuguese delis and restaurants at the Vauxhall end of Wandsworth Road and South Lambeth Road. (The chicken chain Nando’s may play on the Portuguese nature of its cuisine, but it’s actually South African and partly to blame for misrepresenting fiery piri-piri chicken as the national dish.)
While the food world gobbled its way through the rest of the planet’s cuisines, Portuguese food was left out, lacking an English-speaking celebrity chef to be its ambassador, in the UK at least. All that changed when Mr Nuno Mendes started cooking dishes from his hometown, Lisbon, at Taberna do Mercado in London’s Spitalfields market in 2015. Best known for avant-garde cookery at Michelin-starred Viajante and the Chiltern Firehouse, it was a surprise to hear he would be dishing up salt-cod croquettes and Portugal’s famous tinned fish in a very simple space. Except, of course, he isn’t. Each dish is a riff on the rustic Portuguese original. The tinned fish isn’t tinned but sous-vide, the bifana beef sandwiches are elevated to being the very finest of their kind. This year, it was joined by Bar Douro, a tiny but brilliant little bar/restaurant in a railway arch in Southwark, owned by Mr Max Graham, the son of one of Portugal’s biggest port-producing families. Mr Leandro Carreira, best known for sell-out Portuguese pop-ups and residencies, will open his Portuguese restaurant just a few streets away this autumn, hopefully marking the end of our strange and unjustified antipathy for Portuguese cuisine.
Left: pastéis de nata (custard tarts). Right: sunset in Barrio Alto. Photographs by Mr Steven Joyce
New Yorkers have had a Portuguese ambassador for slightly longer. Anyone craving roasted octopus, mackerel escabeche or Portugal’s glorious egg-enriched rice pudding has been able to visit Mr George Mendes’ Michelin-starred Aldea since 2007. In 2015, he opened Lupulo, a lower-key tavern-style spot, where he grills deep red carabinero prawns and serves clams cooked in herbs and Portuguese wine. (You could also hop across the Hudson to Newark’s Ironbound district, historically a Portuguese neighbourhood and home to dozens of authentic Portuguese shops and cafés.) In late 2016, Taberna 97, owned by Portuguese sisters Mses Patricia and Raquel Sanguedo, opened in the East Village. Unlike Mr Mendes’ high-end venues, they went for a more homely feel, with traditional dishes served on terracotta plates, and painted tiles, chosen by their father and shipped across the Atlantic, on the walls.
What to pack
In Portugal itself, the food scene is booming, especially in its major cities. Lisbon has four one-Michelin-starred restaurants (Alma, Loco, Eleven and Feitoria) and one two-star (Belcanto). Porto has three one-star restaurants (Antiqvvm, Casa de Chá da Boa Nova and Pedro Lemos) and one two-star (The Yeatman). The country has its own gaggle of telegenic celebrity chefs. Perhaps best known beyond the border is Mr José Avillez from Belcanto, but Messrs Henrique Sá Pessoa, Ljubomir Stanisic and Kiko Martins are all chasing behind him, with TV shows and books. Mr Stanisic is the new host of the Portuguese version of Mr Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares.
Over the past decade, Portugal has finally emerged from the long shadows cast by economic and political turmoil, despite the global economic downturn. While it is still by no means wealthy, its relatively low cost of living (37 per cent lower than London) has helped the food industry, as has the fact that even in the leanest times, workers would eat their weekday lunch out, with wine, at the local independent, usually family-run taberna. This vibrant restaurant culture, combined with the upmarket openings, has made Lisbon one of the foodiest cities on the planet. No wonder tourist numbers are up 10 per cent, year on year.
Mr Ansel Mullins founded Culinary Backstreets (“the global guide to local eats”), which offers food-and-walking tours of the coolest, edgiest and most interesting cities in the world. The tours began in Istanbul, but today cover places such as Rio, Mexico City, Tokyo and now Lisbon. Why choose here? “From market stalls to neighbourhood restaurants, corner cafés and sweet shops, this city has a fiercely independent, stubborn soul that is a real pleasure to experience,” says Mr Mullins. “It also has a fascinating history and it feels like we’re reaching a crossroads as Lisbon emerges from Europe’s backstreets into the spotlight.” His aim is to shine a light on the lesser-known sides of the city. “Our goal is to make sure that the heroes of this story, in the kitchens of the mom-and-pop spots around town, aren’t forgotten in the shuffle,” he says.
Páteo at Bairro do Avillez. Photograph by Mr Rodrigo Cardoso, courtesy of AnahoryAlmeida
Ms Célia Pedroso is a food writer, Lisbon tour leader and author of Eat Portugal. She has a theory as to why Lisbon, which has featured in practically every travel magazine’s must-visit-in-2017 list, is so alluring right now. “Lisbon has been cool for a long time,” she says. “People just didn’t know about it. People in the trade highlight that the tourism board changed its strategy and started to work a lot more with journalists and bloggers, getting media and social media interest, but also the instability in other countries made more people visit us and then more media interest followed. The increasing number of direct low-cost flights made it easier for people to travel here, too.”
What to pack
As well as visiting cities and established destinations such as the Algarve, visitors are beginning to explore this small country’s lesser-known regions. Alentejo takes up about a third of Portugal, running through the centre and south. It remains quietly unspoilt, dotted with cork forests, farms, tiny medieval towns, wineries and olive trees, and the occasional low-rise boutique hotel. Lisbon’s wealthiest residents have weekend houses in the area, along with international creatives such as artists Mr Anselm Kiefer and Ms Farida Khelfa and designers Messrs Christian Louboutin and Philippe Starck. In Comporta, an hour-and-a-half by car from Lisbon and with 25 miles of blindingly white beach, visitors can stay in anything from luxe wooden beach huts to super-modern villas with views of its lush rice paddies and citrus groves.
Even the Algarve has unknown pockets, such as the wild western coast with its surf-ravaged beaches, while visitors to Porto can explore the Douro valley, through which the river that once ferried barrels of port bound for London meanders.
Left: jacaranda trees on Rua de São Bento, Lisbon. Right: caldeirada (fish stew). Photographs by Mr Steven Joyce
Portugal’s new popularity isn’t just about food or tourism. Comparisons have been drawn between Lisbon and Silicon Valley, Berlin or London’s Shoreditch because of its attractiveness to startups, the tech industry, creatives and entrepreneurs. Rents are about 75 per cent lower than in London and, unlike London, there are still dozens of empty 18th-century blocks, 20th-century warehouses and abandoned, graffitied industrial spaces ripe for a makeover.
What to pack
Those who don’t want to take on their own building can choose from a raft of new co-working spaces. Second Home, founded by tech scenester entrepreneurs Messrs Rohan Silva and Sam Aldenton in Spitalfields, London, recently opened a rather gorgeous co-working space filled with greenery and mid-20th-century furniture in a huge vaulted area above the food market at Mercado da Ribeira (which remains separate from the rackety food hall created by TimeOut in the other half of the building). “We truly believe in the power of progressive architecture and have created a workspace environment that is supporting creativity, job creation and entrepreneurship, which I hope is helping to catalyse the growth of Lisbon’s creative economy,” says Mr Aldenton. Many of the co-working spaces, Second Home included, expressly seek to be part of their local communities. Another, Impact Hub, is directly aimed at entrepreneurs who want to create “a more sustainable reality”, while “Second Home Lisboa is the purest possible expression of our ambitious social mission”, says Mr Aldenton (Second Home has funded building a school in Nairobi, Kenya).
Mr Fernando Mendes founded Portugal’s first co-working space, Coworklisboa, at LX Factory, a set of derelict factory buildings that have been turned into studios and boutiques, in 2010. “Lisbon struggled for decades with being an old and forgotten city in Europe,” he says. “Our only richness was the people, food, safety, sun, beaches and culture, and that wasn’t appealing enough to tourists or the tech startup scene. Ironically, this is exactly why Lisbon has turned out to be the new European El Dorado. Incubator and co-working spaces have flourished since 2010 and the fact that we are very open to foreigners has helped create a perfect match between the new entrepreneur wave and Lisbon as a smart-creative-entrepreneur city.”
Costa da Caparica, Praia de Saúde. Photograph by Mr Steven Joyce
Coworklisoba’s first members were mostly Portuguese, but today they come from all over the world. “The early adopters were developers and web designers, along with a few translators and small companies,” says Mr Mendes. “More than 1,500 co-workers later, they are now coming from all over the world, bringing what is the key factor at any good co-working space – diversity. More than 50 per cent are now from abroad, from Australia to South America. They choose Lisbon because the city worked hard to position itself as an open hub for creativity and innovation.”
What to pack
Perhaps the clearest example of Lisbon’s new status is that Web Summit, the self-styled largest technology conference in the world (or “Davos for geeks”, as Bloomberg puts it), moved to the city last year from its original home in Dublin. Speakers at the 60,000-capacity event in November will include the CTO of Amazon and the CEO of Intel. And, once they’ve finished pontificating about the future of the internet, they will be spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing somewhere to eat.
Lisbon: Recipes From The Heart Of Portugal (Hardie Grant, £25) by Ms Rebecca Seal, with photography by Mr Steven Joyce, is out now