Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, Santarém’s award-winning Gastronomy Festival is a landmark event in the Portuguese gourmet calendar. Every autumn, restaurants from all over the region, country and territories showcase here, as well as vineyards and producers. In fact, the Festival has been designated as part of Portugal’s national cultural heritage and recognised as a key driver for sustainable development. It’s also damned sexy: it revolves around food for a start. Plus it takes place in the Casa do Campino for God’s sake – an architect-designed complex that once served as a stable to the region’s Ribatejo cowboys.
We are proud the Santarém National Gastronomy Festival is currently rated among the top 25 food festivals in Europe and my goal would be to make it into the top 10.João Leite, City Councillor of Santarém
This year soft jazz, ambient lighting and low-slung white sofas on the verandah welcomed us. We arrived at a moment of calm, between the lunchtime and evening crowds but the buzz was still palpable. Within minutes, traditional dancing from the Boticas region had broken out among whoops and cheers. The atmosphere was contagious. I went crazy and bought a pair of handmade leather boots – the elusively perfect ones I’ve been hunting for months. Yet I was still only in the entrance area, which was filled with mainly non-food offerings like hand-blown glass; leather; hand-painted pottery; beautiful notebooks; jewellery – and a central area where media interviews, cultural performances and show-cookings take place.
Next came the foodie zone, starting with cakes and confectionery: boxes filled with Pão de Ló – a soft gilded sponge cake made for the King in the 15th century. Gaze upon jars of jewel-like bee pollen and liquid honey. Baskets of nuts, beans and pulses cascade around you. It’s a harvest from heaven.
Pass into the restaurant area and irresistible aromas of seared beef, garlicky sauces and sweet onions hit the nostrils. At this point I should tell you, despite complaining just minutes before of still feeling full after a long and delicious lunch, our photographer’s willpower cracked. He ordered some slow-cooked chicken and rice. We sat down and the waiter brought us a large earthenware pot filled with enough stew to feed a family of five. I too was allegedly full. I too can confirm it was excellent.
I spoke to economist and university professor João Leite, City Councillor of Santarém, about the Festival and his ambitions for it. When people look back in another 40 years’ time, what would he like his legacy to be in terms of the Festival? “I want to promote encounters between traditional cooking and high-end gastronomy,” he told me.
One of the best chefs in the world right now is a Portuguese chef, José Avillez. And he’s been here at the festival. I want to bring together our culinary traditions and our gastronomic talent for people to enjoy.João Leite, City Councillor of Santarém
By now, hungry customers were flocking to various restaurant tables. Of course, bacalhau or salt cod was on nearly every menu, prepared in all sorts of ways. One of the great things about the Festival is that it’s a meeting place for all sorts of great dishes and cuisine styles from far and wide. Where else could you eat clams prepared by Taberna Açor, all the way from Punta Delgada in the Azores, alongside stuffed rooster or wild boar with chestnuts, from Afinidades a restaurant visiting from the hot springs of Caldas da Rainha? ÉLeBê restaurant from Porto too was drawing a crowd with its Porto-style Tripe – a sausage, tripe and white bean dish said to date back to the Age of Discoveries.
It seems that very same Portuguese sense of adventure, the halo-effect of the Gastronomy Festival and Santarèm’s place at the heart of the country (so accessible thanks to its proximity to Lisbon), are coming together to create something exciting. Santarém’s flourishing food scene can be experienced at several destination restaurants across town. Fascinating museums, churches and guided visits tell the city’s story, from Roman times through the Moors, the Spanish Iberian conquest and independence and – clearly – new chapters are still being written.