This weekend I went to the Best of Portugal Festival in Brussels. Magnificently sited at the arcaded head of Cinquantenaire Park, the festival took place in glorious sunshine on Saturday (and welcome cooler temperatures on Sunday) – watched over by the female charioteer of the Cinquantenaire Arch.
In the Festival’s 8th year in the European capital, the Best of Portugal was championed by dozens of food stands and artisanal offerings, headed up this year’s special guests the city of Santarém, whose well-established food scene has been making new waves recently with an exciting gang of talented chefs hitting headlines there.
I spoke with the delegation of Santarém, who glowed with pride as they spoke of the region’s award-winning agricultural heritage and food festival. They immediately led me to a stall where I could learn about bunho, a local craft using woven macheia or bulrush reeds. There are only two living bunho professionals left and Santarém is working to train new artisans to preserve this traditional skill. The natural furniture, armchairs and stools, instant visual appeal is surprisingly giving and comfortable — and versatile. You can turn stools over and have a planter, or a fruit bowl. I could have sat there sipping my glass of white wine for hours.
Music kept spirits high and a large crowd of people danced in front of a lively stage, even as temperatures rose. Energetic euro pop classics were delivered to an enthusiastic welcome, followed by Portuguese folk and rock anthems. You could well believe yourself at an annual festa in a town in the beating heart of Portugal. Delicious smoke and aromas came from ribs and gambas, grilled mackerel and tortillas. People ate and chatted amicably at long tables under the shade of parasols.
Several wines from Portugal’s many wine regions were showcased, including of course Ribatejo wines from Santarém’s vineyards like Quinta da Ribeirinha. Stalls of sausages and cured meats from native pigs provided more temptation for the eye and stomach. Queues of punters flocked the Super Bock stands.
Over the weekend, 50,000 visitors were expected. It’s no surprise. The festival has built up a reputation in Brussels, and is supported by the large and well-loved Portuguese community. The yearly event has international appeal too, promoting Portuguese exports into Europe’s gateway and drawing in over 3000 interested visitors on its Facebook pages alone. And in such an ideal, central location, curious bypassers can drop in from a leafy afternoon at the park, and find themselves at an all-day party.
The sun was going down and the music hotting up again for the night as I made my way home. Before I left, I made sure to top up my supplies of sustainable Landscape Farm olive oil, the best olive oil I’ve ever tasted. Jorge Cancela, the farm owner was there, serving samples of delicious regional cheese with Landscape’s beetroot pickle, or small toasts with irresistible melon and orange jam. He gave us an update on his baby donkey, Flora, and a free packet of Santarém oregano. The fragrance and flavours of Portugal came home with me.