Adventure is in the Portuguese DNA. Or so says Jose Avillez, whose Lisbon restaurant, Belcanto, is a pioneer of avant-garde Portuguese cuisine. At the two-Michelin-star Belcanto, and elsewhere in his ever-expanding empire that includes the more casual Cantinho do Avillez and food hall-inspired Bairro do Avillez, he is continuing a journey that started more than 500 years ago, when Portuguese explorers brought home exotic ingredients and strange recipes, and shared their own products and cooking techniques with those they met in faraway lands.
“I’m curious by nature and I love discovering new cultures,” he says. “At Belcanto, I offer haute Portuguese cuisine. But at other restaurants, such as Cantinho do Avillez, I offer a Portuguese-inspired cuisine influenced by my travels abroad. But my main source of inspiration is always Portuguese cuisine, which is very rich and varied. The traditions, ingredients, flavours and influences are always on my mind.”
Take Belcanto’s reimagining of the dish cozido, or Portuguese pot au feu, a classic peasant dish of meat and vegetables boiled together as a stew. Avillez pinpoints one, central ingredient – cabbage – and boils part of it in a stock of vegetables, veal, sometimes cured meats, and sausages. Another section of the vegetable he purees; another he places on a charcoal grill, just for a minute to pick up smoky flavours. To serve, he places a blob of the puree topped with a sprig of fresh mint in a bowl, then adds the chargrilled cabbage scattered with chunks of pork jowl. The stock is spooned over the top.
“For this dish, we went looking for the essential. We worked on the incredibly rich flavour of the cozido’s broth, the cabbage, and evolved it to a dish that represents all the flavour of a Portuguese pot-au-feu,” he says.
Avillez is not the only chef who is bringing a fresh vibrancy to Portuguese food, and transforming Lisbon into one of Europe’s most exciting dining destinations. From hushed Michelin-star showpieces to lively neighbourhood tavernas, a wave of creativity is sweeping through. With Portugal’s comparatively reasonable prices, food lovers from around the world are flocking to the city. No longer is the cuisine considered only heavy and hearty – it is light and exciting, too.
Andre Magalhaes, of Taberna da Rua das Flores in the bohemian Chiado district, says that bringing a new energy to Portuguese food is not just an exercise in culinary creativity, it is a cultural necessity.
“As daily eating habits and routines change, so (too) should we try to look at traditional cooking under a new light. Traditional recipes have been concocted through trial and error and enriched by empirical knowledge handed down from mother to daughter, from artisan to apprentice,” he says. “I so value such traditions that I believe that, in order to keep those flavours and techniques alive, we need to update the way in which we deliver them to our guests.”
While the Portuguese in the 16th century left a strong culinary imprint on the cuisines of Japan, China, Malaysia and India – traders introduced chilli to India and took tempura to Japan – so, too, did its people benefit from the cultural exchange. Cooks in Lisbon, one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, had access to ingredients from all over the world. Acordas, bread-based soups that the Portuguese inherited from the Moorish presence in the Iberian Peninsula, is one example of this multicultural food heritage that Magalhaes updates.
“Acordas are originally simple doormen’s fare, usually just stale bread, garlic, aromatic herbs, olive oil and hot water. Traditionally people added freshwater fish and, later, salt cod and eggs,” he says.
“I like to enrich acordas with new layers of flavour and texture by using fish or seafood stock, seaweed, emulsified herbs and oils, shaved raw mushrooms, and so on. I also like to revisit old fish and seafood pot recipes and sort of deconstruct them.”
The sizzle in the pot
Seafood has always been a big part of the Portuguese diet, and Portuguese-style grilled sardines are world-famous. Pork is another source of great pride for the Portuguese, as are wine, cheese and olive oil.
Many of Lisbon’s finest chefs are – like all great chefs – fastidious about ingredients. Joao Rodrigues, the culinary talent behind one-Michelin-star Feitoria in the Altis Belem Hotel & Spa, says ingredients “are everything”. He started a project called Materia, which aims to shine the spotlight on, and connect chefs with, the producers of Portugal’s finest ingredients.
“The idea is to democratise knowledge so we can help other chefs and create sustainability for the producers,” he says.
The project also includes collaborations with international guest chefs invited to cook a one-off dinner using only Portuguese ingredients.
For Rodrigues, it is the social and cultural aspects of food that are most interesting. “I try to understand tradition, without being a hostage of it. You have to dig into history so you can think of the future,” he says.
Ingredients are king also for Antonio Galapito, who opened the stylish, high-ceilinged Prado in an abandoned fish factory in Baixa in 2017. The young chef is strict about using only seasonal Portuguese produce.
But he has a different take on bringing new life to his homeland’s cuisine. He says that traditional Portuguese food should remain unchanged.
“We just need to create a new style, a style built on produce and technique from Portugal, so in 20 years, we add value to the tradition by creating more tradition, not changing it,” he says.
His menu at Prado is international, rather than rigidly Portuguese, in focus.
Some of Lisbon’s dishes may be retelling tradition, while others channel the spirit of adventurers past by making new culinary magic from a blend of cultural imports and Portuguese classics. Others, still, may be writing new tradition with Portuguese ingredients and techniques. All these different approaches make Lisbon’s dining scene varied and vibrant.
“There are many chefs contributing to putting Portuguese food on the map,” says Avillez. “New restaurants and food stores are emerging and betting on high-quality Portuguese products. The culinary scenario is getting very interesting. Portugal is becoming a reference. I think we’ll have an interesting future.”
“I try to understand tradition, without being a hostage of it. You have to dig into history so you can think of the future,” – Joao Rodrigues, chef of one-Michelin-star Feitoria
Red shrimps and black pigs
Ferran Adria, celebrity chef behind the former world’s best restaurant El Bulli, has said that seafood from Portugal’s Atlantic waters is the planet’s best – and he is Spanish.
In addition to world-famous Portuguese sardines, the toothsome giant red shrimp, also known as carabineros or scarlet shrimp, caught off Portugal’s south coast, is found on menus across Lisbon in various delicious guises.
At two-Michelin-star Belcanto, they are served head and tails separately, but both to be eaten, sprinkled with rosemary ashes (rice cooked with rosemary and squid ink, which is smoked, dried, fried, powdered and smoked again), while at one-Michelin-star Feitoria in the Altis Belem Hotel & Spa, they use a classic duck press to crush all the flavourful juices from the shrimp heads to make a sauce that is spooned over the sauted tails.
Pork is another product for which Portugal is famed. Chaves, up in the north, is one ham-happy heartland, but it is the semi-wild Iberian black pigs that grow fat on a diet of acorns from cork oaks in the country’s southern Alentejo region that are the true prize. The cured ham made from this indigenous species, known as presunto, rivals the best from Spain or Italy.