Blood in the gills: the new wave of Portuguese cuisine

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This is NOT for the faint of heart. That is the core message that the duo Ana Músico, a journalist and a specialist in food communication, and Paulo Barata, a photographer, decided to convey when they launched the culinary festival Sangue na Guelra (literally, blood in the gills) five years ago. As they declare on their website, “Blood is experimentation. It is creation. Blood is new; is fed up with the things that work. It's punk. Blood is inspiring and challenging. It likes to break the rules, to risk and try again. It is plural, inventive, and restless. Blood is knowledge and thinking.”

The name of the festival derives from a Portuguese idiom indicating a brave and audacious person who is not afraid of difficulties even when it means going again received wisdom. The annual gathering of chefs, producers, culinary professionals and local food enthusiasts has turned into a laboratory to assess new ideas, to discuss current topics, and make projects. It is the place when the young blood of Portuguese gastronomy gathers to set the course for the future, without discounting or disparaging tradition. As a matter of fact, Maria de Lourdes Modesto, TV celebrity since the 1960s and an iconic figure on the local scene, opened the last edition of the festival.

To indicate the strength of the connection between the new wave and the past, when it came to writing a manifesto that would distill the essence of this new spirits sweeping through the Portuguese food world, there was little discussion about defining Portuguese cuisine. Músico and Barata, the authors of the text, and the chefs they collaborated with to brainstorm and draft it, felt that the local culinary tradition had a clear identity that did not need to be spelled out and defined. All involved had no doubts about what Portuguese food is, its symbolic ingredients, and its quintessential techniques. Instead, they decided to reflect on four themes that they felt characterized Portuguese cooking – salt, bread, fire, frying, exploring what the spirit and the attitude of chefs should be in the future to stay relevant, creative, and above all, to continue cooperating and sharing their individual experiences and knowledge.

The Manifesto 0.0 (“zero, a number that alone is worth nothing, that waits for the others”) for the Future of Portuguese Cuisine starts with a declaration of love and pride for the local identity and gastronomic traditions, “the reflection of our territory but also of the peoples and cultures that have influenced it from centuries to the present, contributing to its richness and diversity.” At the same time, the signatories clarify that they “promote the freedom to create and to explore new paths, new dishes, new flavors” and that “the kitchen is cerebral, interventional, creative, subversive.” However, “creativity can not be an end in itself; it must be aware and informed and express a new contribution to the kitchen.”

Sustainability and a close relation with the territory appear paramount for the forthcoming efforts. “We respect the seasonality of the products and the biodynamic cycles of Nature. We encourage the responsible and sustainable consumption of products and species of animals, land and sea. We recognize the value of small producers, of native and local products, fostering sustainable methods and seeking to recover forgotten but unique products from our territory.” At the same time, chefs and food operators have a responsibility toward the generations to come. The signatories “demand the right of all children to know the identity of our kitchen, to learn how to cook tasty, healthy and quality food: this is as important as learning to read and write!”

Finally, the manifesto ends with a rallying cry for all stakeholders in the food scene to participate in the shares efforts around local gastronomy: “We challenge all cooks, consumers, producers, suppliers, businessmen of the sector, journalists, researchers, critics, artists, thinkers, to become agents of change and promotion of Portuguese cuisine!”

Of course, now the real works begins. After all, the manifesto has been the labor of love of a relatively small number of individuals, as full of energy and enthusiasm as they may be, like in the case of chef Pedro Pena Bastos, with whom I discussed the manifesto during a dinner organized for the Experiencing Food: Designing Dialogue conference in Lisbon. It remains to be seen if more stakeholders will adhere to the principles and the practices that the manifesto spells out. At any rate, it is an important exercise at a time when relatively peripheral cuisines are vying to step into the limelight of the cosmopolitan food landscape that is emerging across borders and continents. The manifesto, a form of expression perfected by the art avant-gardes of the early twentieth century, seems to exert a certain fascination among contemporary chefs. It is meant to express disruption, novelty, and a call to arms of sorts. It worked for the New Nordic Food, which constitutes an important example and precedent. Which regional or national cuisine will be next to ascend to global fame?