The Santo António Festival, when Lisbon Comes to Life | Culinary Backstreets
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For a few weeks during June, large swathes of Lisbon turn into one extended outdoor cookout. It’s the festival of Santo António, Lisbon’s favorite local saint, and the city celebrates his memory by way of grilling up copious amounts of sardines, so much so that during this period the scent of sizzling fish rolls through the streets of the city’s historic neighborhoods like a bank of fishy fog.

In these old-time neighborhoods, the festival also provides residents a chance to play caterer to the masses, with seemingly every local with a halfway decent charcoal grill setting up shop outside their home and grilling sardines for the revelers partying in the streets. The whole scene is a complete departure from the more staid rest of the year and it often feels as if these neighborhood grillers live for just this time, allowing them to play the role of guardians of Lisbon’s most important social tradition (one which took a brief break this past week in honor of the victims of the devastating forest fires that recently hit Portugal).

This may be even more true for Lisbon’s numerous neighborhood associations, sleepy social clubs that joyfully come to life during the festival, setting up their own grills, filling up jugs of sangria and breaking out the cotton candy.

One of those clubs is the old Vendedores de Jornais Futebol Club (Newspaper Sellers Football Club), or VJFC, which is still operating in the Madragoa neighborhood despite the fact that its namesake team no longer exists. Located next door to a former convent, the small association was founded 1921, initially as a club for newspaper sellers known as ardinas, itinerant hawkers who would walk up and down the streets of Lisbon’s central neighborhoods. In its glory days it had the honor of having as president Gago Coutinho, a daring pilot who led the first aerial crossing of the South Atlantic, flying from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro in a tiny seaplane in 1922. In the 1960’s, the club earned notice when it became a three-time winner of the “Queen of the Parades” trophy, an honor given to the neighborhood association with the best Santo António festival street song and dance routine. More recently, VJFC became famous for hosting blowout rock concerts – even serving as a launching pad for A Ferro e Fogo, one of Portugal’s best known hard rock bands – but complaints from the neighbors put an end to that.

These days the association has an almost forgotten air about it, a place for neighbors to meet up for a drink and the occasional social event. That, of course, changes come June and the arrival of the Santo António festival, when things at VJFC start operating at a much different pace.

Eduardo Fidalgo, the association’s secretary-general, tells us June means hard work, with smoky, late night shifts for the staff. On the day we arrive for a visit, he is busy washing snails that he will cook later in that evening. “I have to do the shopping, stay at the bar and organize everything,” he says.

Out in the courtyard of the association’s building is Madragoa local João Sequeira, a VJFC member since he was eight-years-old and one of its sardine grillers since he was sixteen. During Santo António he comes straight to the association after work to get the charcoal going for the night’s cooking. The grill he works on is nothing more than two barrels cut in half (although he has a fancier compressed air “pistol” which he uses to get the coals red hot).

It often feels as if these neighborhood grillers live for just this period of time.

“My belly is boiling”, João tells us while flipping sardines with expertise and trying to ignore the extreme heat coming from the fire. On June 12, the Santo António festival’s main night, he grilled around 700 sardines, preparing each one with a pinch of salt between the gills for flavor and a sprinkle on the fish’s skin to keep it from sticking to the grill.

Working next to João on a different grill is his colleague Chabi, another Madragoa local. There’s blood sausage, chouriço, burgers and ribs on Chabi’s grill. “It’s for them,” he says, smiling and pointing at a table of tourists, apparently intimidated by assertive scent of the sardines.

As the night rolls on, the music coming from the VJFC’s building gets louder (no neighbor dare complain during this time of year), the courtyard grills get smokier and João declares the charcoal to now be perfect, throwing peppers directly onto the hot coals to roast.

There are still a few hours to go until things shut down at 2am, but João and company seem content to keep working and grilling hard. After all, they’ve been waiting for this moment all year long.

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