A Realistic Perspective on Food Festivals

I’m an opinionated person, specially when it concerns food, and this might be a post that you will either understand and relate, or disagree and hate. Tough cookies.

So this past April I went to my first food festival in Estoril, after my first day of tasting some tasty (and not so tasty) things, plus snapping a few shots, I posted my first opinion (gave up on part two for now). The first comment I received was from some angry spanish dude saying that I was paid to write and diss some stands, besides approving and congratulating others. Whatever you wish to believe, that’s fine by me (thank you to whoever thought I am a paid journalist though, you are very kind).

So, back to the point. Food Festivals, Street Food Events, Food Trucks and Social Media Obsessions – the key words I am about to use a lot.

If you are a keen foodie, an epicurean and gluttony lover, you have gone to many festivals (if not all of them), specially after the boom Portugal felt this year.

Positive points:

  • New businesses have a chance to get known and gain new customers, profit and some inspiration to keep growing;
  • New food ideas, combinations and experiences for locals to have some fun;
  • Social media engagement (Zomato, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the recent Periscope);
  • Thousands of instagram photos about what you ate here or there (more followers – whether you are a professional epicurean or the owner of the food truck business);
  • Commensality takes on an outdoor version of appreciation;
  • Wide range of food typology for every taste;
  • Local food and gastronomical heritage;
  • Cute trucks with interesting concepts;
  • Touristic engagement by offering gastronomical experiences.

Negative points:

  • Street food becomes too competitive;
  • Street food is no longer a “street” experience – it turns into a shopping reality;
  • Too much too choose from, long queues, lack of places to sit and enjoy the finger food;
  • Cupon run event with no refunds (not every event uses this method);
  • Too pricey, once you add up everything you have eaten;
  • After going to a few festivals, all seem the same;
  • Lack of stock and disappointed clients who really went to try a certain dish;
  • Lack of higiene/quality control factors that can lead to food poisoning (this happened in Portimão this year);
  • Fast food turns into a praise for slowness wannabe (this is just wrong);
  • Porta-potties (lack of higiene, again – can you imagine going to the toilette and not washing your hands before eating?).

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Some vegetarian dish I was unhappy to buy – spent 20 minutes in line to have a curry dish they no longer served and handed me this instead (without even informimg).

I dare say, this is a controversial topic for me to write about, because Street Food is not what it’s suppose to be. I get the point about wanting it to grow, but none of this has particularly helped ease these businesses in running a daily work through the metropolitan areas (except for social media). For me, a good experience should be me walking down a street, seeing an interesting food stand, and because I am hungry and wondering where to have a bite, end up supporting the local truck who puts some TLC into cooking whatever they have to offer.

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A take on the Portuguese tinned sardine – on a simple piece of bread, tomato sauce and rocket. This was unexpected, and delicious.

Like any business, novelty or product, the business life span will saturate sooner or later, leaving a future hole that will need to be filled with the next big thing. It also seems to be something that’s happening all over Europe – when in Bologna, I went to the Finger Food Festival – and my experience was as disappointing as the ones I had in Portugal. The only benefit I got from attending was the fact that I did eat the best cannoli ever (big pro by tasting national goodies). But was it the best one in Bologna, or Italy per se? Possibly not. But I was a happy tourist for that moment in time.

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In foreign countries like the US and UK, street food is much more independent, based a little bit everywhere – events, local festivals that aren’t even about food in the first place, and the random corner where usual workers will always wonder by during their meal times. Twitter info based, these businesses can thrive with regular customers, not only the by-passers that are just curious to Instagram the fancy hot dog they ate, after having a burger and a waffle from neighboring stands. In third world countries, street food is culture and the day-by-day thing, not a trend where people gather.

As everything in business, specially food trade, novelty is key, sustainability is a must. Sometimes, when things are done only to make money (like selling those burgers every two minutes because you have way too many customers waiting impatiently), quality is compromised, and experiences upset.

None the less, it’s an enjoyable experience (when not having to endure weekenders, and big crowds), but not the type you will want to go every single time. After a few gigs, I would rather spend my money at my favorite restaurant, even If I don’t get to instagram the meal and gain another follower.

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Food Fest in Lagos

My suggestion? Make the law easier for local food trucks to travel and sell their food in certain spots around the town, next to a beach, near an event. Help these businesses grow in a natural, sustainable way, across the country. Heck, the world. Oh, and please don’t make me wait another half an hour for a lousy burger.

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Casa Vale da Lama Eco Resort – Pizza Time

In Vale da Lama there is an Eco Resort. Charm full, peaceful, plus, they have a Pizza gathering every so often Saturday through the warm summer evenings. You should call to reserve ahead of time – and make sure you don’t do it the day before, otherwise you will risk not being able to go.

Once you get there, and even if you get lost on the way (I did, at least twice), you will feel at home. Random tables, cozy benches, down to earth puffs, and several relaxed people waiting for a very delicious evening. As long as your stomach can handle as much pizza as it possibly can, you won’t ever leave this place hungry, I even had to stop eating the everlasting flow of pizza, because I just cannot leave a place without having dessert.

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So, here’s the deal: you book, you arrive, you pay the 8€ that allow you to eat as much pizza as humanely possible, you buy a drink and you are seated to whichever table was assigned to you and your company. In case of small groups, you also get to know other individuals that will be seated next to you – it’s all about sharing a space, having a few laughs, eating pizza. What else cold you possibly want to enjoy on a summer saturday evening?

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The pizzas, from what I gathered, are a mix of available ingredients: mushrooms, eggplant, onion, peppers, cucumbers, feta cheese and fresh herbs.

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Besides the comfort food, the setting, the people, the whole event is an amazing experience. Whoever is preparing the pizza’s have the best mood ever – because pizza making is fun, ain’t it? Plus, you get to make a bunch of hungry people happy. That’s awesome just by itself.

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Happy people – happy food!

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The music is also fantastic! Kudos to the DJ for sharing some good tunes. This weekend coming up you can hear some live music from Mariana Root – it starts at 9:30pm. 

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Even the Pizza People show their moves!

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Even if you are not into much socializing, and want to gaze up at the vast star printed sky, you can enjoy such an event on many of their available chairs, puffs, even hammocks. On this night, I saw a shooting star.

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The dessert: carob brownie with figs. You’re not gonna find a more traditional dessert like this one, with regional and sustainable ingredients. That’s what this place is all about – eco friendly fun and life.

Visit Vale da Lama Eco Resort event here, where you can find details for this Saturday, the 19th, and contact to make your reservation. More info on their accommodation, events, get to know them through their website here.

Alqueva Part 2 – The Food

I am not a travel writer, I am a cook and a food enthusiast. Nevertheless, I think I might start sharing my adventures around a few places, but I assure you it will always include food. If I’ve never been down this road before it’s because of:

A) Up till last year I was a mear culinary student (students don’t usually have much resources to travel – well, me at least).

B) Being from the Algarve, my only time off (summer) was spent working.

C) Surely, through any spare time I could find, I would cook and photograph and plan how to write a blog.

Anyhow, a year has passed, I gained (some) professional experience, saved up (some) money and decided to, instead of enrolling into a masters degree or something that would pin me down (financially and geographically), take interesting short-term courses to enrich my mind, body and soul (oh, and don’t forget, my belly) – I will surely post these whenever I start my adventures through wherever I go. You will find out soon enough! For now, here goes take 1.

This year, my parents were so kind I was actually invited to go on a four day trip to Alqueva. Check out my intro, aka Part 1 – The Trip!

I was bewildered (because they usually travel without the kid) yet grateful for the opportunity. Grabbed my bikini, Anthony Bourdain’s – A Cook’s Tour, my camera and hasta la vista world, here goes Mel to enjoy some silence, on a boat, in Alentejo.

I blame my mother for getting me into this post in the first place (in a good way obviously): besides introducing me to great travel writer such as Bill Bryson and handy Lonely Planet books, I think she knew I knew I had what it took to write an interesting point of view about our adventures on a boat through this unique place in Portugal. Heck, the world! She is also the best travel planner I have ever known. She does it at least twice a year and already has a first-name basis relationship with international airports and airlines (just kidding – but, if this were true, I wouldn’t be the least surprised).

Before you start mouthwatering on the other side of the screen, let me give you some basic info you might find useful:

  1. Amieira Marina is where you rent the boat. They provide a map, a big one. If you lose it, there is one stapled to the inside of the boat. Plus, GPS system is easy to get used to. Big big plus side? You don’t even need a boat license! You get a two hour tops lesson on how to drive it, float it right and, eventually, not sink it.                                            IMG_6923
  2. They provide elevator trolleys so you don’t have to carry heavy baggage. Yes, this means take as much food and booze as you possibly can.
  3. Kitchen completely equipped – even a BBQ you can set up! Stove and oven are gas run. Portable water and separate dam water taps (non consumable). Good sized fridge and regular freezer, plenty of cute plates and bowls, tea towels and table cloths, complementary basket with an Alentejano bread loaf and cured goat cheese. Now this is quality of life people! The only thing I could complain about was the amount of time the fridge took to cool my drinks (very hot, can’t blame floating technology) and the lack of sharp knives. I suppose my cooker self should have anticipated such a fact. Now I know never to travel without my kit again.
  4. PET FRIENDLY! Yes, for a small fee of 40€ you can take your dog. Make sure you buy a float jacket ahead of time and spend your peaceful moments teaching him how to fetch the tennis ball into the vast waters. Just tell him it’s a big pool – it worked for us!

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So, as you can imagine, I was the private chef on the boat! I basically cooked and served whatever my dear mother thought we needed most. I can assure you, we could of survived another week, easily and comfortably, without starving. Here you have it:

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Petisco lunch: veggies from our farm (cherry tomato, cucumber, green pepper, onion and cilantro with a balsamic + red wine vinegar combination), assorted deli such as Presunto, honey roasted ham, Queijo de Azeitão, healthy seedy crackers, bread, tinned preserved fish and, of course, beer! A 15 minute gathering of ingredients so we could make the best of our first day, with little hassle.

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Do you like my smoked mackerel cracker bruschetta?

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Waking up to this? Could get used to it, easily.

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Breakfast with a view! Eggs, cheese, portuguese bread and butter. Some preserved asparagus – ovinhos com espargos is a very traditional Alentejano tidbit.

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Stopped in Campinho on our second day where we found a park with tables, benches and embedded BBQ’s through the so called park. Plenty of friendly families who shared their burning coals so we could make a grilled veggie salad and some chicken breast marinated with pimentão doce (paprika), bay leaf, olive oil, salt, pepper and white wine.

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Once we arrived at Monsaraz, so much art and unique features. First of all, if you want to go here, talk to Amieira Marina. They know a guy who knows a guy that owns a B&B who will gladly pick you up at the nautical club (where you will have to park your boat) in his private car so you can have a nice meal, a stroll and will even take you back. For half the price that a regular taxi would charge, this is the best solution as taxi’s will usually come from far away and will rip you off with a 60€ trip (even if it’s 20 min back and forth).

Dinner at Templários Restaurant:

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Charcuterie plate with top notch cured pork.
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Cabrito assado com batatas – young goat roasted in the oven till tender, with likewise accompanied potatoes.

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Octopus with olive oil and cilantro.

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Back in Aldeia da Luz, our final day. This town was completely rebuilt somewhere else – they even moved the cemetery and respective carcases. Otherwise, the town council wouldn’t have agreed with the move. Check out their museum for some historical facts.

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Traditional Bakery Sign. Got there just in time (before 1pm as it shuts for lunch till 3pm) to buy a loaf and some almond and egg cream pastries.

Translation: The bakery belonged to the parents of the current owner, who still baked bread in a traditional brick oven. When he inherited the bakery, he continued to bake bread in the traditional way, only ceasing to do so when the family moved to the new village. Here you can find regional Alentejo bread and cakes. The bakery owners are Albertina and Manuel Godinho.

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Alentejano excursionists arguing what they were going to have for lunch. Out of both options shared through what seemed to me loud roars of hangry (for more info about this human state, click here) they stood for at least 10 minutes discussing the pros and cons of choosing:

  •  carne de alguidar: when we make chouriço, we put everything in a bucket, season it well with salt, pepper, vinegar, olive oil, bay leaf and paprika, but instead of stuffing the chouriço we can also make a meal out of it. It actually goes by the name of bucket meat.
  • Churrasco – our grilled meat, you can call it our barbecue but without the american sauce. Simple is best with a tad of lemon juice topped after being grilled, to cut the strong flavor of the fat and smoke drenched meat.

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Our last evening on the boat.

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Preparing some roast veggie salad and local chouriço to put on the grill for our last floating meal.

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Once back home, I couldn’t help myself by making a friendly petisco with my edible souvenirs. I brought three cheeses:

Cured sheep milk cheese – Sapata from Reguengos de Monsaraz

Cured sheep milk cheese – Lactobelavista from Rio dos Moinhos

Mixed sheep and cow milk cheese – Belqueijo from Nisa

I also brought back a black pig chouriço. Let’s just say it was too damn yummi, it didn’t survive before the photoshoot.

All in all – one of the best trips ever. Four days isn’t enough to cover the amount of territory you can explore. The people, the food, the peace and quiet, the warm still waters and the everlasting floating. After two days, I would step on land and feel like I hadn’t stopped floating – this is normal and a pretty cool thing to experience!

Alqueva Part 1 – The Trip!

My very first “alentejano” experience was twenty years ago – I was a mear four year old waking up to the godawful sound of a pig being murdered. I hated every bit of it: the sqwelling, the blood, the smell of burnt hair, the guts held in buckets through the hallway floors. The years passed by and I learned to appreciate it. After all, it always ended up in a fiest (literally speaking).
Returning to Alentejo brought back those memories, and while I read Anthony’s experience, I couldn’t help but laugh and be thankful that my nanny dragged me along during her weekend visits to Odemira. Childhood trauma apart, it just made me become a little more portuguese than I already was about to become. This time, I didn’t see swine torture, but I was introduced to something much more mind blowing about this part of the country.
Just to get you started, Alentejo in the summer is known for it’s hotness, the umberable kind that will make you want to look for shade and never think about sun bathing again. It is just that hot. After being in the Algarve for most of my life, being hot never seemed to be a problem – you have the sea, the fresh breeze, the not so hot heat. In the countryside you won’t find salted water, maybe a river now and then. But now Alqueva has Europe’s biggest artificial lake. For more info about historical facts and why the dam was constructed, consult wikipedia’s wise knowledge here.
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The most peaceful sunset I have seen in all my existence.
So this was the trip – renting a boat, sailing what once was vast pastured land. The most peaceful experience I have ever had since I could remember. Ghostly territory, non urbunized islands, stranded trees, slightly sloped bays and plenty of still waters.
This was such a cool idea, I just have to tell the world about it and recommend it to everyone.
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Getting to know small villages, local living, plus, far away from busy civilization and mass tourism confusion – this is what this trip was all about. This one is Estrela – no restaurants, one simple café and you can’t find packaged orange juice anywhere. When I asked what this was all about, while I had been shopping for it because my mother needs it more than she needs coffee in the morning, a lady simply answered “If we want orange juice, we will squeeze oranges”. True wise words, natural is best!
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Monsaraz view from this quaint B&B. Amazing and unusual town – I highly recommend visiting this unique spot.
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Aldeia da Luz scenario – One of the villages that had to be reconstructed because of the increase in water altitude.
While we were wondering the hot and haunted roads of this recent location, we found a table to sit down and have a refreshing mini (a small sized beer – 25cl to be precise). Checking out the inside of the so resembled tavern, I realized that for snacks, men were standing around the counter, with peeled boiled potatoes, some slices of fresh tomato, a few peanuts and each one of them had their own pocket knife to nibble. Wow, I need to get one myself! Astonished yet lights flickered in my mind as I started to understand what Alentejo’s lifestyle is all about – simplicity, at best, and humble practices gained by generations of getting by with whatever was available.
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When my dog found a stray goat, and followed him just to watch.
Next – Part 2 – The Food!