Now in its 11th year, Peixe em Lisboa takes place over 10 days, with cooking classes, wine pairings, chef demonstrations and tasting dishes provided by top Portuguese restaurants. Rupert Parker investigates
The culinary scene in Lisbon has undergone something of a renaissance recently with young chefs taking advantage of the high quality produce available here and putting a new spin on traditional cooking. The city is one of the few European capitals situated close to the sea and therefore it’s fitting that fish is a big deal here.
In Portugal there are said to be over 1000 recipes for Bacalhau, the dried cod which the locals seem so fond of, but the fresh variety is in plentiful supply. Right next to the sea is Mercado da Ribeira, the city’s main market which opened in 1892. It went through a period of neglect but has now been transformed into a foodie hangout. It contains some of Lisbon’s favourite food shops and restaurants, but still sells stunningly fresh fish, alongside meat and vegetables.
Ten minutes’ walk away is the historic Pátio da Galé, on the edge of one of the city’s most emblematic squares where Peixe em Lisboa took place last time I was here. It’s now moved to the Pavilhão Carlos Lopes, originally designed for the Rio de Janeiro Expo of 1922 in Brazil, but reconstructed in the Parque Eduardo VII in the north of the city. Inside there are gourmet stalls selling cheeses, jams, olive oils, sausages, sweets and wine but I’ve here for the fish.
Lining one wall are ten popup restaurants of distinguished Portuguese chefs including João Bandeira, Paulo Morais, Kiko Martins, Alexandre Silva, and André Magalhães. Dishes are reasonably priced from 2-13€, with most hovering around the 7€ mark, and you order what you want and eat in the communal dining area. There’s also a huge choice of matching Lisbon wines from the bar on the other side.
I start with a plate of Sea Urchins from Ribamar, served raw, actually still alive. No sauce is necessary and the orange “corals” are smooth and creamy, a cross between caviar and oyster. Their slight sweetness is perfectly balanced with the saltiness of the liquor inside the shell and I even enjoy the black part which apparently is partially digested seaweed. These have kick-started my appetite so I go back to the stand and order razor clams, lightly grilled with garlic, tender, tangy and delicious.
I head over to the Loco Restaurant booth and chat to Chef Alexandre Silva who has one Michelin star. He tells me that he’s booked up months ahead since he has less than 20 covers so this is a great opportunity to sample his food. I get his mussels, served with finely diced apple and celery. The acidity of the fruit is complemented by a dash of chilli and I can see why people are flocking to his restaurant. Risotto with squid ink, scallops and seaweed is also one of my highlights.
The festival is also an opportunity to sample dishes from new restaurants. Taberna Fina is the latest venture from Chef André Magalhães, the man behind the popular Taberna da Rua das Flores and I enjoy the food so much that I make a booking in the restaurant. Varanda, located in the Ritz Four Seasons Hotel, is the restaurant where Pascal Meynard has been cooking for over 10 years, but he still keeps his French influenced flavours.
I’m not familiar with Ibo, but apparently it’s in a converted salt warehouse facing the Tagus River. It’s named after an island in Mozambique and mixes the flavours of Portuguese and Mozambican gastronomy. A dish of scallops in beurre blanc with lime and apple makes me want to try more and the tuna looks startlingly fresh. It’s quickly seared then served, almost raw, with Portobello mushroom cream and pickles.
Every day there are workshops, fortunately with English translations, and I’m sad to miss the presentation by Ana Ros, from Slovenia who’s just been crowned the world’s best female chef. I do get to see London’s Andrew Wong who demonstrates how to make noodles just out of flour and water. It’s kitchen magic not least, because by continuously stretching the dough, he ends up with the thinnest strands of pasta and at every moment you think it’s going to break.
José Avillez is perhaps the most famous of the new Portuguese chefs and his Belcanto restaurant has had two Michelin stars since 2014. His empire has now expanded to 15 restaurants and he talks us through some of his greatest dishes from his 2007 sea bass to his 2017 ceviche of clams, duck breast, tiger milk and peas. While he’s showing us pictures of his food, two of his chefs are preparing a soup from fish trimmings, red mullet sea bass, and clams, mussels, prawns in white wine. They serve everybody in the room and it’s easy to see why he’s been so successful.
Galicia in Spain is noted for its seafood and so it’s fitting that Ivan Dominguez from Restaurante Alborada in A Coruña turns up to show what he can do. He has a Michelin star and his menu is just a list of ingredients and diners don’t know what they’ll be getting, or paying. His methods are certainly unorthodox. He takes a live lobster, and tears off its head and claws, then attacks the tail with a blow torch. He extracts the meat and serves it with the claws and the head juice. His goose barnacles, baked in a thick meringue shell, are a great hit among the audience.
Portugal claims to have the best fish in the world and on the evidence of my tastings, I can’t disagree. They really try to get the fish off the boat into the market as soon as possible and, as a result, you get to eat it in its best possible state. Raw fish from Japan, particularly in Sushi, is world famous, but I’m thinking that Portuguese seafood needs to be better known. Shrimps, oysters, clams and scallops are all up there with the best but it’s worth a trip just to sample those delicious sea urchins. Add the creativity of young Portuguese chefs and you’re in for a culinary treat.
Peixe em Lisboa is a yearly event, normally in April.
Visit Lisboa has information about the city.
Four Seasons Ritz Hotel Lisbon makes a comfortable base
Alma features the cooking of Henrique Sa Pessoa with one Michelin star.
Feitoria features the cooking of João Rodrigues with one Michelin star.
TAP Air Portugal flies direct from Heathrow and Gatwick.
The Gatwick Express is the fastest way to get to the airport from central London.
The refurbished Travelodge Gatwick, with its new SuperRooms, is convenient for those early morning flights.