Meet the rockstar chefs and winemakers making sustainability sexy in Portugal

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When it comes to the climate crisis, it’s easy to throw your hands up and feel powerless. But as a journalist living in Portugal, I’ve seen more and more restaurants and bars, food and drink businesses, pivoting to support sustainability. Whether it’s big companies switching to renewable energy or small independent changemakers sourcing ingredients locally and committing to zero waste, green shoots are emerging…

Most notable, 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.

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Nuno Mendes is putting sustainable cooking on the map

Michelin-starred Portuguese chef Nuno Mendes is putting his beloved home cuisine and passion for sustainable cooking firmly on the map. He recently opened Lisboeta, a three-story restaurant in London, 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?

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

Fellow chef Bruno Caseiro, one of Mendes’s most impressive protégés, is co-owner of three Cavalariça restaurants: in central Lisbon, celebrity hotspot Comporta 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, 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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Quality can be achieved while be cautious

But the growing movement towards gastronomy doesn’t stop with food. 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 winemakers 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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The wine world in Portugal is immense

At Sublime Comporta, a magical eco hotel in the seaside parish of Comporta, you’ll find the 12-seater 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. 

“Sustainability is a wide concept that goes beyond using local and organic produce,” former Time Out Lisbon food editor, Inês Matos Andrade, tells me. She suggests travelers to Portugal with an interest in sustainability should visit artisanal space Comida Independente, located in Lisbon’s Santos neighborhood, which sells over 700 ingredients from 150 producers, all of whom have been personally visited and approved. “It’s a wine shop and grocery store that has played a very important role in bringing natural, organic and biodynamic produce from across the country to the general public,” she adds. 

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In Comporta, you’ll find the 12-seater ‘Food Circle’ dining experience

Of course, suppliers also play a pivotal role in allowing chefs to work in a sustainable fashion. Natan Jacquemin founded NÃM, based in the Lisbon 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.”

To do this, the business turns 36 tons of coffee waste per year into organic fertilizer, 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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They want to transform waste into an opportunity, not a problem

“Using local waste to produce healthy food is a very direct and concrete way to tackle climate change,” Jacquemin says. “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 neighborhood pizza joint, Refeitório by Chakall. 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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Questions regarding the environment motivate Roberto Mezzapelle

Another chef who’s hyped about these changes is Hugo Guerra, owner of Lobo Mau situated in the Santa Cruz neighborhood. 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.

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.

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

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, fittingly, is also a term of endearment for special people in your life. 

Miss Cena’s story is testament to the fact we can all do our bit to support sustainability, at any age and regardless of circumstance. As the chefs of Portugal show, it’s never too late to usher green shoots into the light. 

Flash Pack’s Portugal adventure visits hidden culinary spots and the wine-making Douro Valley.

Got a story or adventure that could inspire a solo traveler 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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