Portugal’s cultural heritage is manifest in gastronomy, wine, music, handcrafts, legends and tales, fairs, and popular festivals: priceless gems that make the Portuguese, well, special.
Portuguese traditions are revealed in rich cuisine with nods to Mediterranean and Atlantic flavors and ingredients. Influenced by the Age of Discovery, the use of spices, sugar, and other products quickly became part of the local cuisine, thanks to the Portuguese trade ships from China, while England was busy getting addicted to tea (no wonder the food in the UK leaves much to be desired).
Since wheat has always grown very well in Portuguese soil (though it can be more challenging in the north), each region has had time to perfect its own type of bread, which has created a diversity in baking and pastry-making that Portugal has become famous for. (Read more about that here.) Suffice it to say, gluten-free and Atkins are not in the Portuguese vocabulary.
Similarly, traditional vineyards and wine-making were influenced by several civilizations, starting as early as 2,000 BC by the Tartessians, into the seventh century by the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, and finally by the Romans, who began exporting it back home up until the fall of the Roman Empire. For a country that has historically been most famous for its Porto and Madeira, Portugal has since gained well-deserved notoriety for its white, red, and green table wines, and its most famous grape variety, the Touriga Naçional.
Fish and Meat
Cod is the “faithful friend” at the table of the Portuguese. There are a thousand and one different ways of cooking cod, and it’s particularly common during festival seasons. One of the many iconic symbols of Portugal is the dried codfish body: salted, splayed, and beheaded sitting in piles in the supermarkets and cut into pieces, should you ask, by a tiny chainsaw blade. Strangely enough, this fish does not come from Portuguese waters. It is imported from Norway. It’s said the sailors who were out exploring the world became addicted to this fish and brought it home. It was only a matter of time before the rest of the country was hooked as well. Today, one of the most traditional methods of preparation is the style bacalhau á bras.
Sardines are the other most common fish eaten in Portugal. These, unlike cod, are eaten fresh, crisped to perfection on makeshift grills and, during festivals, eaten on a piece of bread. The national average of sardines consumed per person is 12 pounds (six kilos) per year. It’s a good thing that this fish can be caught all along the 805 km of Atlantic bordering the southern and western sides country. Hungry? Check out our Atlas-approved recipe.
Aside from fish, Portugal has a love affair with sausages. (Easy, now.) Bucho, cacholeira, farinheira, morcela, morcela de arroz, linguiça, chouriça, and salpicão are just a few of the varieties found here.
However, none have such an interesting history as the alheira. It was created by cristãos novos (new Christians) — Jews who became Christians, often by force, from the 15th century until Marquês de Pombal made a law eliminating any distinction between new and old Christians in 1772. Most of the cristãos novos secretly kept their customs even though society believed them to have been well-integrated with Christian ways and, of course, eating habits. Because Judaism forbids the consumption of pork, they invented a sausage using poultry (like turkey or chicken) that looked just like the pork ones. These fake sausages were hung in plain sight: at the window, on the door, and on the sides of shopping baskets. The most famous alheira is from Mirandela, a town in the northeast region of Trás-os-Montes, where’s it typically served grilled and accompanied by boiled potatoes and other vegetables. In the south, it’s served fried, with french fries, a fried egg, and a salad.
In Porto, besides the famed francesinhas, there is another traditional dish. In 1415, King João I, in order to supply the ships taking over Ceuta (a moment that defines the beginning of the Portuguese discoveries), asked the people of Porto for as much food as possible. All the meat the city had was cleaned, salted, and packed up on the ships to feed the explorers. Entrails (chitterlings) was all that was left, so the people had to get creative with that. And that’s how Tripas à moda do Porto (chitterlings Porto style) appeared. Though we actually like it, Atlas recommends that you pass on this one if you happen to have a weak stomach.
Fado (translated as “destiny” or “fate”) is a musical genre that can be traced to the 1820s, but it has much earlier origins. It is characterized by mournful tunes and lyrics, often about the sea or the life of the poor. Its themes include destiny, disappointments in love, the sense of sadness and longing for someone who has gone away, misfortune, the life of sailors and fishermen, and, last but not least, saudade — one of those beautiful words untranslatable to other languages. Saudade is a kind of longing, conveying a complex mixture of mainly nostalgia, sadness, pain, happiness, and love.
There are two main varieties of fado, named after the two cities where it was traditionally sung: Lisbon and Coimbra. The Lisbon style is the most popular, while Coimbra’s is considered more refined. Modern fado is popular in Portugal, and has produced many renowned musicians including Amália Rodrigues, Carminho, Mariza, and Ana Moura.
The cante alentejano (polyphonic song of the Portuguese region of Alentejo) is similar to American gospel music in that it’s based on the need to uplift people’s souls through song. It focuses on the often harsh life in the fields of Alentejo, a predominantly agricultural region that’s arid in the summer and blistering-cold in the winter, and uses somber tones to reflect the desertion caused by poverty and the search for a better life.
Both genres are now recognized by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Portugal’s handcrafts highlights are lace, hooked rugs, tapestry, ceramics, jewelry, glass, and tiles. Tiles, for example, have been used in the majority of Portuguese construction since the Muslims brought the techniques for baking and glazing in the eighth century. You can learn more about the history of their creation as well as the progression of popular imagery at the Azulejo Museum in Madre Deus.
Portuguese traditional jewelry is now mainstream in fashion: filigree earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and more are made in the north of the country and can either take a modern twist or be based on the earliest recorded filigree artifacts dating back to 2,000 BC. One of the more iconic designs is that of the Brincos à Rainha, lace-like dangling earrings (shown in the above photo) that were adapted copies of the collars worn by Queen D. Maria I during her reign from 1750 to 1807.
The most famous shape for filigree jewelry is the stylized heart: the symbol for love, charity, and brotherhood. Taken one step further, the symbolism came to represent the hearts of saints, usually depicted surrounded by flames outside their chests. At the end of the 18th century, the cult of the Sacred Heart of Jesus introduced this symbolism to Portugal and it caught on — in jewelry and in the construction of the basilica at Santa Luzia in Viana do Castelo. The distinctive flourish that sits atop the heart is actually a stylized version of the flames. The reason for the twist in the tail of the heart, however, remains a mystery.
Legends and tales
One of the most popular Portuguese symbols is the galo de Barcelos (Barcelos rooster), the figurines of which you can find scattered in the windows of almost every souvenir shop in town. So what makes these colorful roosters so special?
The legend says that the people of Barcelos, looking for a suspect for a crime committed within their borders, accused a Galician who was walking through the town. Before he was hanged, he asked to see the judge to claim his innocence, but the judge opted to indulge in a feast instead of hearing his side of the story. Somehow the Galician gained an audience with the judge as he was dining. The man pointed to the roasted rooster on the table and said, “My innocence is as certain as the fact that that rooster will stand up and sing as you hang me.” Apparently, the rooster did crow and the man’s life was thus saved.
Fairs and Popular Festivals
During the summer, in the month of June, festivals dedicated to three saints, known collectively as Santos Populares, take place all over Portugal. These festivities are possibly related to Roman or local deities from the time before Christianity spread throughout the region. So as not to lose a perfectly good party, Christianity eventually “substituted” the Catholic saints for the pagan gods, and the festivities continued. These three saints are Saint Anthony, Saint John, and Saint Peter. Beer, wine, and traditional bread with sardines are obligatory.
Saint Anthony is celebrated on the night of 12th to 13th of June, especially in Lisbon (where he was born and raised), with Marchas Populares. For this tradition we don’t need to look far in the past. On June 5, 1932, a newspaper published a photograph of Oliveira Salazar’s “first smile,” saluting the people from the balcony of his office at the Ministry of Finance. In the same newspaper, the first Marchas Populares contest was announced. Among other festivities, several marriages known as casamentos de Santo António (Marriages of Saint Anthony) are held. These days, these marriages are paid for by the city.
Saint John is celebrated in many cities and towns throughout the country on the night of the 23rd to 24th of June, especially in Porto and Braga, where (of course) sardines and caldo verde (traditional kale-like soup) are eaten, and plastic hammers that are used to pound on another person’s head for luck are indispensable.
Saint Peter’s festival happens in Póvoa de Varzim, where bonfires, parades, and dances (and, more recently, raves) go on all night on June 29th. The parades feature, among other spectacles, the tricana poveiras — women wearing very tight fisher-woman outfits and high-heeled shoes who walk sensually swaying their hips left and right. Each neighborhood is represented by a different color, which can be seen in the colors of their dresses and the flags carries by the fishermen.
Some traditions, however, are now considered by many Portuguese to be cruel and despicable.
A large number of the population enjoys bullfights, and some of them would prefer touradas de morte, bullfights where the bull gets killed in the arena (which is forbidden in most of the country, but still done in one or two small cities). You can see the less severe bullfights at Campo Pequeno, but beware, even though the bull lives through the fight, it can still get a little bloody.
If that’s not enough, we have saved the worst for last.
A village called Mourão near Bragança uses tradition to justify burning a live cat. This tradition on the Noite de São João involves locals placing a cat in a clay jar and hanging it on a pole wrapped in straw, which is then lit on fire. The fun, apparently, is in watching the string holding the jar burn and seeing the cat and container crash to the ground. The crowd bursts into frantic applause when the singed cat bursts forth from the box and runs away to hide…and curse mankind.
So, should all traditions be preserved? There are those who believe that traditions are a true representation of our ancestors and there are others who think culture should make humanity more sensitive, intelligent, and civilized, and that blood, violence, cruelty, and all that disrespects life shouldn’t be considered art or culture.
And sometimes we seek tradition where it doesn’t exist. In downtown Chiado, there is the pastel de bacalhau, a cod cake that is being made with cheese from Serra da Estrela. This cake was only just created recently and has no history to it whatsoever, but it is being peddled to tourists as if it did. Although there is contention about what should or should not be preserved, one thing is certain: folk traditions bring in a huge financial contribution from tourism and this effectively helps support our economy.
All the civilizations that have settled in this territory and all those with whom the Portuguese discoverers made contact have made our cultural heritage a heritage of the world. That in itself is worth celebrating, but please don’t burn a cat to do it. I’m pretty sure they hate us already.