Meet Portugal’s ‘rockstar’ chefs and winemakers making sustainability sexy

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When it comes to the climate crisis, it’s easy to throw your hands up and feel powerless to make a difference. However, if you’re passionate about exploring the world – and food – you can find opportunities to affect change wherever you visit. And, have fun doing so.

As a journalist living in Portugal, I’ve seen more and more food and beverage businesses pivoting to support sustainability, whether that’s big companies switching to renewable energy sources and investing in future-proof infrastructures, or small independent changemakers sourcing ingredients locally and committing to zero waste.

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Putting Portuguese food and sustainable cooking on the map

Most notably are a small band of ‘rockstar’ chefs and vintners who are making it easier than ever for foodies to make sustainable choices, taking initiative and getting seriously creative with all that they produce. 

London-based Portuguese chef Nuno Mendes, a Michelin-starred gastronomic genius, is putting his beloved home cuisine and passion for sustainable cooking firmly on the map. He recently opened Lisboeta, a three-story restaurant in Fitzrovia, to huge fanfare, calling it a love letter to his home. But how does the restaurant celebrate its heritage without the ingredients racking up air miles?

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With a little creativity, Mendes insists authentic results can be achieved

I have to wear two hats.” Mendes says. “We have a responsibility to try to make sure we reduce the carbon footprint of the food we cook while bringing visibility to products from Portugal and showcasing their uniqueness. It’s a balancing act.” 

With a little creativity, Mendes insists authentic results can be achieved using local suppliers and creating new flavours. “I work with British farmers and producers, making Portuguese food with those ingredients. It then becomes its own thing,” he says. For Mendes, nothing is sacrificed by making sustainable choices. “It’s a no-brainer. It’s more exciting because you’re walking in uncharted territory,” he continues.

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Providing a narrative that can be relayed to customers

Fellow chef Bruno Caseiro, one of Mendes’s most impressive protégés, is co-owner of three Cavalariça restaurants: in central Lisbon; celebrity hot spot, Comporta, western Portugal (Madonna, Shakira and Christian Louboutin are regulars); and, most-recently, an outpost has opened inside a 14th-century palace in Évora in the heart of Alentejo.

Now that we have three restaurants under our group, the principle remains the same; we search in each of the regions for partners and producers that can help us keep true to what we believe in,” says Caseiro, referring to the restaurant’s ethos of achieving the highest quality while reducing its carbon footprint. He also strives for transparency, relaying the narrative of what they do and who they do it with back to the customer.

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The wine world in Portugal is immense

You can also make a difference with the wine you order alongside your petiscos (Portuguese tapas). Sustainable varieties contain fewer chemicals and tend to hail from ecologically-sound vineyards, where the producers are socially responsible, too. Happily, Portugal is full of ‘green’ makers with an interest in conservation.

Caseiro explains: “The wine world in Portugal is immense. Two of our restaurants are based in Alentejo, one of the most important wine-producing regions. The other is in Lisbon, also a booming area. That gives us a lot of options to choose from – some big, some small – but all of them with a story to tell,” he says. “Since we opened, we have been trying to approach more natural, low-intervention, organic winemakers, using the likes of Serra Oca’s orange wine or the Alfrocheiro em Talha de Argila from Herdade da Anta de Cima.”

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You’ll find the 12-seater food-to-table Food Circle dining experience

At Sublime Comporta, a magical eco hotel in the stunning seaside parish of Comporta, you’ll find the 12-seater food-to-table Food Circle dining experience, presided over by executive chef Hélio Gonçalves. Hidden in a cork forest, you can watch closely as over 300 types of herbs, vegetables and edible flowers are freshly plucked from the gardens and then used in ancient cooking rituals. The wines are carefully selected from the Setubal and Douro regions, and beer is locally-made using rice from the surrounding paddies. 

Former Time Out Lisbon food editor, Inês Matos Andrade, adds “Sustainability is a wide concept that goes beyond using local and organic produce. An organic certificate alone does not consider several other approaches, like regenerative agriculture or a holistic view of the business, such as gender equality, fair salaries, and labour conditions.”

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A trendy urban mushroom farm

Andrade suggests travellers to Portugal with an interest in sustainability should visit artisanal space Comida Independente, located in Lisbon’s Santos neighbourhood, which sells over 700 ingredients from 150 producers, all of whom they have personally visited. “It’s a wine shop and grocery store that has played a very important role in taking natural, organic and biodynamic produce from across the country to the general public.” 

Suppliers also play a pivotal role in allowing chefs to work in a sustainable fashion. Natan Jacquemin founded NÃM, based in the district of Marvila, as both a circular economy project and a trendy urban mushroom farm. He outlines their mission to “transform waste into an opportunity, not a problem.”

The business turns 36 tons of coffee waste per year into an organic fertiliser, growing delicious mushrooms that NÃM then sells to bakeries and restaurants throughout the city. You can taste them for yourself in the adjoining cafe.

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He personally selects everything that makes it onto my plate

Jacquemin says, “Using local waste to produce healthy food is a very direct and concrete way to tackle climate change. We reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfill, generating compost to enrich the soils and also the produce.”

I sample the spoils two blocks away at Marvila’s best neighbourhood pizza joint, Refeitório by Chakall, (formerly Refeitório Senhor Abel). While I enjoy a ham and mushroom pizza, chef Roberto Mezzapelle explains what drives his choices. “I’m motivated by the context in which we’re all living nowadays and all the questions regarding the environment – which I think are far more important than the financial ones.”

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Miss Cena tends to Guerra’s kitchen garden twice a day

Another chef who’s hyped about these changes is Hugo Guerra, owner of Lobo Mau situated in the Santa Cruz neighbourhood. Trading late night partying for early starts at his local market, Guerra personally selects everything that makes it onto the plates. Guests can wolf down the likes of shrimp hot dogs, beef brioche and pastéis de massa tenra (traditional Portuguese pastries).

“I try to respect nature’s rhythm,” Guerra says. “I can easily find vegetables year-round from local producers and fish from our waters. I change the menu seasonally. I also believe that character can be found in creativity, in the familial relationships we have with employees, suppliers and customers,” he suggests.

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A fitting nickname for this essential neighbourhood character

For Guerra, this centres on proximity to one community member in particular; his honorary ‘Godmother’ known as ‘Miss Cena’. A 90-year-old woman who lives above Lobo Mau, Miss Cena tends to Guerra’s kitchen garden twice a day, tackling several flights of steep stairs to reach it. She refuses help – or payment – more concerned that her lemons, oranges, peaches and passionfruit go to good use.

Guerra also uses Miss Cena’s spinach, cabbage, coriander and herbs wherever he can, plucked from the space above his kitchen window. Particularly impressive is her chayote (squash), which is also a term of endearment for special people in your life, and a fitting nickname for an essential neighbourhood character. 

Miss Cena is testament to how simply we can all do our bit to support sustainability, regardless of our circumstance or age. As are the chefs reframing the industry. Proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Or the main course. 

Flash Pack’s Portugal adventure visits hidden culinary spots, the verdant rolling hills of the Douro Valley, and the UNESCO world heritage site of Sintra.

Got a story or adventure that could inspire a solo traveller like you? Tag @flashpack on social or email [email protected] to be featured.

Images: ©Eleonora Boscarelli, Courtesy of Sublime, Lobo Mau, Refeitório by Chakall, Flash Pack & Adobe Stock

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