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Lisboetas can’t get enough of fish and seafood, and the annual Peixe em Lisboa festival celebrates that love with an abundance of food-centric activities.

The main event every year finds a handful of Lisbon’s top restaurants competing against each other to see who can create the top fish dish. There is also a food market with some 70 displays and daily events and workshops. It’s a chance to taste some sublime culinary creations and to meet creative local chefs and small-scale food producers from different regions.

Like every other year, there’s also the pastel de nata contest, with 12 bakeries from across Portugal facing off in order to see which one makes the country’s best egg custard pastry.

Festival director Duarte Calvão, a food writer and journalist, suggested to us that the star of this year’s event might actually be the humble horse mackerel, an abundant and popular fish along Portugal’s coast. “Every year we have less sardines in the ocean but horse mackerel is a great fish with great qualities and we’re going to show it,” he said.

Among the set menus on offer (the reasonable prices range from 5-12€) from Lisbon restaurants, chef Bertílio Gomes from Chapitô – a local restaurant that’s part of a complex that also includes a circus school – has a lovely mackerel starter with cucumber and avocado.

André Magalhães brings his famous Picadinho de Carapau (minced horse mackerel salad) from his restaurant Taberna da Rua das Flores, and José Avillez is serving up his amazing ceviche of Algarve prawns– two beauties of freshness on a slice of lime, one of the simplest and best dishes from his restaurant Mini Bar.

One of the best entries of this festival could be the sole with clam xerém (a traditional maize dish from the Algarve similar to polenta) in vinegar, created by João Pedrosa from Ibo who has reached an amazing balance of flavors with this dish. And although it has been featured in all nine editions of the festival, the delicious fish and seafood soup by Ribamar – a restaurant in Sesimbra (a town south of Lisbon) – continues to be a standout.

Over at the festival’s food market, tinned fish is (not surprisingly, this being Portugal) well represented. Manná, a company from Olhão in the Algarve region that was founded in 1954, caught our attention with its cans of sardine roe in olive oil.

And although this is a fish festival, we couldn’t help but be seduced by some of the food market’s non-maritime offerings. Not far away from the canned fish displays we saw the stand of Licor de Basto and its old-fashioned and stylish bottles of fruit liqueur. Owner Eusébio Maria told us that his grandmother taught him how to create his unique liqueurs, which he now produces with fruit grown on his family farm in Cabeceiras de Basto, an area in northern Portugal.

“This drink used to be drunk in the early morning as a tonic or elixir. It’s all 100 percent natural,” he explained while pouring this thick drink into a tiny liqueur glass. “We have a small production and it needs a 12 month maturation period.”

Also not to be missed at the food market is the vendor selling the presunto bísaro from Bragança, a lovely ham that is cured for 24 months. The ham from this breed, native to northeast Portugal, has a mild and sweet flavor, the result of the bísaro’s fondness for eating chestnuts, abundant in that part of the country.

We ended our visit sampling the amazing artisanal sheep milk cheese made by Monte da Vinha from Vimieiro, in the Alentejo region. The creamery was started by Joana Garcia, a lawyer turned cheesemaker. She clearly has found her calling. One of her cheeses was so soft and creamy that it poured onto bread like honey. Who would have expected that at a festival devoted to fish, one of the highlights would be cheese?

Peixe em Lisboa, which takes place in the courtyard of the 18th-century Pátio da Galé complex, runs until April 17. Check out the events and information here: www.peixemlisboa.com/en

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Published on April 11, 2016

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