This article was written as I hiked for 16 days along Portugal’s northern coastline while doing the Camino Portuguese, a popular pilgrimage route. It was an amazing experience from a food and fresh produce perspective, as Portugal’s cuisine is a celebration of fresh, locally sourced ingredients that are bursting with flavor.
During my 220-mile hike from the Sé Cathedral in Porto to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela (Spain), I had the pleasure of indulging in the many culinary treasures Portugal has to offer.
As a modern-day walking pilgrim, I passed through cities, wealthy seaside resorts and laid-back rural villages. This provided me with the privilege of experiencing the wonderful people of Portugal and their culture and habits up close and personal.
From a food and agricultural point of view, there were two things that struck me right from the start of the journey: the high prevalence of informal fruit and vegetable patches and the low prevalence of fast food restaurants. During my hike, I tried to find a connection between these two extremes.
As I walked, I learned Portugal has a rich culinary culture that emphasizes traditional, homemade meals using wonderfully fresh ingredients. Who needs super-sized hamburger/taco/fried chicken takeout meals if nature’s treasures are grown right on your doorstep?
The country’s fertile lands and favorable moderate climate allow for the cultivation of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables that are integral to their dishes. The freshest and sweetest tomatoes, crisp lettuce, juicy oranges, succulent figs, leafy greens and a wide variety of herbs are some of the key ingredients that add vibrancy and depth of flavor to Portuguese cuisine.
What sets Portuguese cuisine apart is not only its use of fresh ingredients, but also its commitment to keeping food simple and allowing the natural flavors of the ingredients to shine. It is not about complicated techniques or heavy sauces, but rather about highlighting the quality and freshness of the ingredients themselves.
This approach to cooking is deeply rooted in Portugal’s cultural and historical heritage, with many traditional recipes passed down through generations, preserving the country’s culinary traditions and connecting its people to their agricultural roots.
Portugal is also a country that boasts a deep-rooted love affair with fresh seafood. For centuries, the Portuguese have relied on the sea as a vital source of sustenance. As a result, seafood has become a staple in Portuguese cuisine, gracing the tables of both humble homes and upscale restaurants.
One dish that exemplifies Portugal’s love for fresh produce is salada de polvo, or octopus salad. The dish I enjoyed at a spectacular tiny restaurant just outside Vila do Conde saw tender octopus combined with a medley of fresh vegetables, such as tomatoes, onions, cucumber and bell peppers, tossed in a vinaigrette made with olive oil, vinegar, and different fresh herbs. This refreshing salad is a perfect example of how simple ingredients can come together to create a burst of flavors that are both vibrant and delicious.
What sets Portuguese cuisine apart is not only its use of fresh ingredients, but also its commitment to keeping food simple.
Another popular Portuguese seafood dish I love is caldeirada, a fish stew made with different types of fish, accompanied with potatoes and loads of vegetables such as carrots, tomatoes, capsicums, garlic and onions flavored with fresh herbs and white wine. This hearty and flavorful stew that I ate in Viana do Castelo was a true celebration of Portugal’s love for seafood and its abundance of fresh produce grown by local communities.
Last, but not least, fresh herbs, such as parsley, cilantro and mint, are essential in Portuguese cuisine. They are used to add aroma and depth of flavor to many dishes, from marinades to dressings to sauces. Portuguese sauces, like molho verde and vinaigrette, are made with herbs, vinegar and olive oil and are often used to enhance the natural flavors of seafood.
So, does this culinary landscape have other benefits than just pure enjoyment?
Well, Portugal has the second-lowest prevalence of cardiac disease in Europe. This is largely attributed to the Mediterranean-style diet that includes a high consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes, fish and olive oil, and moderate consumption of wine. This diet has been associated with numerous health benefits, including a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Its emphasis on healthy fats, such as those found in olive oil and fish, along with a variety of antioxidant-rich fresh fruit and vegetables, is believed to help protect against heart disease.
As a hiker, my eyes are always open to people being active in nature. Because of Portugal’s mild climate, the country is also known for the extensive outdoor recreational activities of its population, such as walking, hiking, surfing and cycling. All along the coastline, we came across outdoor gyms supplied by the local government. In such a natural setting, it is almost impossible not to want to exercise and be healthy!
So, the bottom line is that a healthy diet with lots of fresh produce, coupled with regular physical activity is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease as it helps to maintain healthy weight, lower blood pressure, improve cholesterol levels and manage stress. The fact that Portugal also has relatively low smoking rates completes the picture.
What did I learn from my seaside hike in this lovely country? First, the joy of being immersed in nature was a powerful reminder we don’t always need to make drastic changes in our lives to find peace and clarity. Sometimes, all it takes to reset our lives is to be reconnected with nature, breathe fresh air and eat healthy food.
And while my legs are tired from the many kilometers that I covered on the Camino Portuguese, my head is again clear, my mind revitalized and body brimming with energy.
Keep exploring, keep hiking, keep discovering!
Nic Jooste is an independent advisor on sustainability in fresh produce. He is based in The Netherlands.