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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Portugal Culinary Festival Fetes More Than Just Cod

SANTAREM, Portugal -- Portugal reputedly boasts 1,001 recipes for salted cod, the national delicacy, but that is far from being the sum total of its culinary traditions.


Sunseekers in the southern Algarve, used to spending the summer living on sardines, other fried fresh fish and Vinho Verde, would be surprised at the range of gastronomic delights available away from the sea and the sand.


In order to foster greater awareness of the country's traditional cooking, the town of Santarem in central Portugal -- famous for its bulls and horses -- has been staging an annual "gastronomic fair" for the past 16 years.


For 18 days, around 150,000 visitors pay to savor dishes ranging from a rejoada de porco a minhota -- a rich pork dish from the northern Minho region in which the pork is marinated in wine and garlic for 24 hours -- to Portuguese stew, Azores-style.


The latter should really be cooked in a muslin gauze hung inside one of the geysers that dot Terceira Island in the mid-Atlantic archipelago, but that would be asking too much.


"Our cooking is richer and more varied than that of the French even if a lot less well-known," said Carlos Abreu, local director of tourism and the main force behind the fair.


Abreu estimates that around 900 different recipes, representing the best Portugal has to offer from the northern Tras-os-Montes to the southern Algarve regions, are on offer during the festival that runs from Oct. 17 to Nov. 4.


For Antonio Dias, 30, the festival offers a unique chance to publicize his restaurant back home in the Estrela mountains.


In two weeks, he will serve 2,000 people -- two to three months worth of business for his village restaurant inland from the northern city of Coimbra.


Abreu says the festival was launched in the early 1980s in part as an experiment in tourism to attract both domestic and foreign visitors.


But it was also intended as a call to arms to defend against a feared invasion of fast-food outlets and North American-style eating habits as the Portuguese became more prosperous.


Whether the festival can claim any credit or not, the Portuguese seem highly resistant to the fast-food fad that has taken root in many other European countries.


"Fast foods are still not that popular, even among the young," said Jose Antonio Amorim Cruz, head of studies at the National Health Institute in Lisbon. "It must be a cultural thing."


Lisbon boasts plenty of hamburger joints and sandwich bars, but they don't seem to have a noticeable impact on the lunchtime trade at the restaurants and eating houses which are packed.


But is such eating good for you?


Cruz says Portuguese cooking probably ranks among the healthiest in Europe because it is generally still low on fats and relies on plenty of vegetables.


He is less happy about wine consumption. The Portuguese have almost as many varieties of wine as food, and they drink most of it themselves. "There is no doubt that wine consumption is too high," he said.