If the Portuguese generally love summer, there’s one month that excites Lisbon locals and visitors the most: June! This is when Lisbon hosts the city’s largest street party, dedicated to Saint Anthony. Santo António, as he is locally known, is the patron saint for the recovery of lost things, love and marriage. And, in the Portuguese capital, he’s somehow become synonymous with grilled sardines too!
Here in Lisbon, the festival of St. Anthony is widely known as the Santos Populares, or “popular saints”, a designation that in the city of Porto is associated with St. John, or São João, in Portuguese. In Lisbon, the popular celebrations reach their peak on the night of the 12th of June, but they truly do keep Lisbon entertained all month along. During this time, you can expect a colorful parade to happen down Avenida da Liberdade. Somehow akin to Brazil’s carnival, and locally known as marchas populares, this event has the city’s several neighborhoods compete to stand out thanks to their costumes and choreographies. Besides this popular festival, a few lucky couples get to be married at Lisbon’s Cathedral, where the municipality hosts a mass wedding known as casamentos de Santo António, which is broadcasted on national TV, thus honoring St. Anthony’s link with love and marriage.
But the main attraction for the general public are indeed arraiais, that is, outdoor gatherings with music, dancing and lots of street food, that take place in some of the most iconic areas of Lisbon, such as Alfama, Mouraria, Madragoa, Bica and Graça.
If Lisbon’s street food scene is not huge during the rest of the year, at least during the Santos Populares we can feast on a lot of savory and sweet treats, as well as drinks, while enjoying the picturesque and hilly alleys of the city.
Grilled sardines are the obvious choice of food during St. Anthony’s festivities. As this is a seasonal fish locals love but that is only available fresh during the warmer months, there’s a lot of expectation surrounding the beginning of sardine season. As such, when sardines are finally available, you will certainly get to see them a little all over the city. Restaurants will serve them very simply seasoned with coarse salt and grilled with sides of boiled potatoes, salad, or roasted pepper salad with a vinegary marinade; or you can eat them out on the streets on the go, traditionally presented atop a slice of bread. During the Santos Populares parties, Lisbon tends to get so packed that it’s often hard to find a seat in one of the improvised street stalls that, amongst other foods, keep grilling sardines over charcoal thus perfuming the historical areas with a very particular smoked fish scent, which lasts for weeks! As the fish sits on top of the bread, the soft crumb absorbs the juices and fat from the sardine. The local ritual would be to first eat the fish around its bone (leaving the head behind is optional!), perhaps with a little aid of your fingertips if you’re a newbie at this kind of method, and once you are done with the fish, enjoy the bread that is now moist and tastier. Wash it all down with a chilled beer and you can almost start calling yourself a Lisbon local!
Sardines are so associated with this time of year and the Santos Populares festivities, that St. Anthony’s festival is often simply referred to in English as Lisbon’s Sardine Festival. The fish is indeed ubiquitous, not only in edible form, but also symbolically, in townsquare decorations, crafts and even merchandise such as the eye-catching sardine hats some vendors and party-goers wear to highlight the spirit of this event. But, when it comes to food, there’s more than sardines to be had in Lisbon during June’s commemorations.
These are the foods you must try in Lisbon during St. Anthony’s street parties:
Bifanas | Pork Sandwiches
The bifana is unofficially Portugal's national sandwich. It consists of tender pork steak tucked inside a crusty bread roll, optionally drizzled with mustard to taste just before you dig in. In eateries which specialize in this kind of Portuguese “fast food”, like the legendary As Bifanas do Afonso (Rua da Madalena 146, 1100-340 Lisbon) or O Trevo (Praça Luís de Camões 48, 1200-283 Lisbon) which was further popularized by Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, the pork would normally be slow cooked in a sauce prepared with lard, white wine, paprika, bay leaf and heaps of garlic. Technically, there is no one way of cooking a bifana, once the concept widely translates as cooked pork steak with bread. So during Lisbon’s street parties, you can expect BBQ bifanas, where the meat is seasoned beforehand, but later grilled over charcoal, just like sardines. This kind of bifana is still succulent, smokey and very satisfying if you feel like your hunger isn’t completely put to sleep by eating fish. Most food stalls will have mustard to add if you like your sandwiches saucy and with some extra tang, but don’t expect fancy dijon or grainy mustard here. A typical bifana will only be complete with intensely yellow regular mustard, coming out of a squeeze bottle.
Couratos | Pork Rinds
Portuguese food is rooted in peasant cooking, and that translates into a zero waste approach in the kitchen, or nose to tail use if the subject at hand is pork. Traditionally, we consume pork skin in a variety of preparations, such as pork cracklings deep-fried to crispy perfection, or torresmos, which include both skin and fat, and which can also be fried or compressed into a sliceable block somehow similar to a mortadella, to be cup up and used in sandwich making. The kind of pork rind you should keep an eye out for during Lisbon’s street parties are couratos. These consist of thick pig’s skin, which is grilled and served inside a bread bun, just like a bifana. To prepare couratos, the chunks of skin are firstly charred to burn remaining hair that may still be attached to the edible leather. Afterwards, flavor is infused via a marinade that usually involves garlic, bay leaf, salt, white wine and paprika, noting that red pepper paste, a very common item in Portuguese grocery stores, works better than paprika powder. After soaking up some flavor, the couratos are ready to hit the grill, to be enjoyed by those who don’t shy away from the type of sandwich which was once upon a time more popular, but that still packs a lot of taste, interesting texture, and some of the country’s food history too. Mustard is also optional but customary!
Chouriço Assado | Roasted Chorizo
If you are going to spend time setting up a charcoal grill outdoors for the sake of grilling sardines, you might as well make very good use of it and cook some pork too. Besides bifanas, grilled chouriços are also a common meaty delight to be enjoyed during the Santos Populares. In fact, these paprika infused Portuguese cured sausages can either be prepared on the grill or, depending on the business, on a clay tool that goes by the name of canoe, which has specifically been designed for the purpose of chorizo roasting. When cooked on a canoa, chouriços are placed on the little clay grill, over alcohol, which is set on fire to char the meat with a direct flame. As the skin of the chorizo becomes toasty and its fat starts to drip, it’s time to put off the fire and enjoy slices of chorizo, most commonly eaten with bread, to help soak up with the drippings that are packed with flavor. Unlike other individual servings like those of sardines on bread or bifanas, this is a beautiful appetizer best shared with friends, still leaving plenty of room to try the other bites available in town.
Salgados | Savory Portuguese Fritters
Salgados is a Portuguese umbrella term which refers to the local range of savory fritters, usually prepared with meat or fish. In Lisbon, the most beloved of these fritters are pastéis de bacalhau (known in the north of Portugal as bolinhos de bacalhau), oval-shaped cakes made with a dense batter of shredded salt cod, mashed potato, eggs, onions and parsley. Still in the world of sea flavors, rissóis de camarão will make those into crunchy bites with a creamy filling happy, as they consist of golden fried turnovers with a center of prawn infused béchamel, including little chunks of the seafood. Rissóis can also be filled with minced meat (rissóis de carne), shredded suckling pig (rissóisde leitão) or, less commonly, mixed vegetables (rissóis de vegetais). If meat is what you are craving, ask for croquetes, Portuguese croquettes most usually made with beef, but that can sometimes also be taken to the next level by adding Portuguese cured meats that enhance their flavor with intensity, extra fat or smokey overtones. Last but not least, samosas, known locally as chamuças, complete the range of most common salgados you’ll find in Lisbon’s food stalls and, generally speaking, all over Portugal. Even though technically an Indian food, samosas are very much a part of Portuguese snacking habits, since they were introduced in our country via the Mozabicans with Indian ancestry who started settling here after the end of our dictatorship in the mid 70s, when the last remaining colonies of Portugal in Africa, including Mozambique, finally became free countries. Because the Indians who made it to Mozambique and eventually to Portugal were of Goan descent, a former Portuguese territory in India, the usual samosas you’ll find in Portugal are stuffed with meat. This is explained by the fact that Goa was a Christian territory, precisely because of the Portuguese influence. And, to the contrary of the rest of India, where Hinduism was by far the dominant religion, highly linked to vegetarian eating habits and to spiced potato and green peas samosas, in Goa beef was common and meat samosas were the default ones.
When you eat salgados during the Santos Populares, don’t expect them to be served warm. In fact, even when you visit local cafes and snack bars, these are often kept already fried and on display behind glass counters, to be consumed at room temperature with a nice cold drink!
Caracóis | Snails
If you thought eating snails in Europe was a very French thing to do, think again! Here in Portugal, particularly in the region of Lisbon and towards the south of the country, caracóis are an in-demand delicacy enjoyed throughout spring and summer. As the Sardine Festival happens during this time of the year, and caracóis are associated with the habit of drinking rounds of cold beer, of course snails had to make it to the traditional menu of Santos Populares! While not as common for sale in street stalls, you’ll find braised caracóis in cafes, snack bars and taverns all over the city. The snails aren’t as slimy as those who have never tried them may anticipate. They are cooked until soft with olive oil, tomatoes and herbs, thus tasting more of the seasonings than of the actual creatures. If you are ready for something chunkier, ask for caracoletas, the bigger and fatter relatives of caracóis, more similar to French escargot, even though prepared in a different manner.
Caldo Verde | Collard Greens Soup
Because not everything was going to be fish or meat (or gastropod molluscs…) during Lisbon’s Sardine Festival, there is at least one serving of vegetables that can be enjoyed, in the form of soup. Caldo verde, often wrongly translated as “Portuguese kale soup”, consists of a base of potato puree soup, with shredded collard greens. Caldo verde was born in the Minho region in the north of Portugal in the mid 15th century, and it is now-a-days intrinsically connected with popular festivities a little all over Portugal. This is a fairly humble recipe, vegetarian in its inception but customarily served with a slice of chouriço directly on the bowl. Despite its simplicity, caldo verde won a spot on the podium of the 7 Wonders of Portuguese gastronomy, alongside Mirandela IGP Alheira (a popular cured sausage), Serra da Estrela DPO cheese, seafood rice, roasted suckling pig Bairrada style, grilled sardines and the uber popular Portuguese custard tarts, aka, Pastel de Belém, which you can actually learn how to make during one of our experiences here at Cooking Lisbon! If you play your cards right, you can enjoy at least two of Portugal’s most iconic food items during the Saint Anthony’s celebrations in Lisbon!
Arroz Doce | Sweet Rice Pudding
It is common knowledge that the Portuguese have a big sweet tooth, so naturally you can find several sweets during the Santos Populares parties. If some use alcohol as fuel, others may prefer sugar, or even a combination of both. A lot of the street food stalls you’ll find across Lisbon during these festivities are seasonal businesses set up by the residents of the neighborhoods where the gatherings take place. This is the perfect timing to shine with recipes that usually make their families happy, but that can now help sweeten the party for everyone else too. Amongst several home-made desserts, arroz doce, or Portuguese rice pudding, is one of the most typical during these events. Many cultures around the world have their own version of milky rice desserts, but they all vary from place to place. In Portugal, arroz doce is creamy yet thick, yellow because of the addition of egg yolks to the recipe, and very cinnamony too! If you want to indulge in a sweet ending on the streets of Lisbon, order a serving of arroz doce and a shot of ginjinha, the traditional sour cherry liqueur from the town of Óbidos, popular with locals and visitors here in the capital.
Farturas & Churros | Sweet Fritters
There’s no street party in Portugal without churros and farturas. This is not (yet) contemplated in the local law, but if you look around during Santos Populares and other similar events across the country, it could almost be! Because of the Latin diaspora in several parts of the world, namely North America, churros tend to be quite well-known. The bigger relative of these sticks of leavened fried dough are farturas (pictured above), which are thicker and thus more spongy than crispier churros, first fried in long spirals of dough, only to be cut into individual portions after being cooked. In both cases, the dough is deep-fried and then it can either be coated with sugar and cinnamon, or filled with custard, chocolate or jam. No matter how you take your churros or farturas, these ought to be fried on the spot and served warm.
If you are visiting Lisbon during the Sardine Festival, we hope you get to try not only grilled sardines, but also all the other treats which are typical during these festivities. Don’t forget to wash it all down like a local, with plenty of beer, wine or sangria. Have fun and… bom appetite!