A festival that celebrates the most elemental cooking technique in human history…fire
Across the country of Portugal, in small and large towns, a wide variety of festivals take place year round to celebrate the most amazing range of topics, like music, religion, sardines, sculpture, chocolate, gay pride, and wellness – and that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Ever since moving here, we have been longing to attend some of these events to gain a deeper appreciation for the culture, history, and community of this fascinating country. Unfortunately the pandemic put them all on hold shortly after we got here.
Happily, that dry spell was broken last weekend, but the festival we attended wasn’t one devoted to a religious figure or rooted in a centuries-old event or tradition as you might be thinking. This one was established in 2018 and makes music and cooking over an open flame its celebratory focus.
And, the way we came by the tickets was completely unexpected.
In May of 2020 Won reached a milestone birthday, however, due to a pandemic-related lockdown that was in place at the time, we weren’t able to celebrate in any meaningful way. With slim resources at my disposal, I did the only thing I could think of…I spent three days putting together a visual PowerPoint presentation on how wonderful I thought he was and presented it to him on his birthday. Hey, no judgment! I had retired less than a year before and fell back on a skill I happened to be very good at. Besides, he was very touched…so there. Since my PowerPoint presentation (as good as it was) left a lot to be desired in the category of “milestone gift,” we agreed to splurge on a special trip that would take place later that year. (Remember when we all thought the pandemic was going to be over by the end of summer 2020? Talk about naïve. 🙄)
His real milestone birthday present was going to be a day long trip through the Douro Valley on a sumptuous, fully restored, historical train. The train, built in 1890, was used by the Portuguese head of state to host visiting royalty and dignitaries until it was retired in 1970. The “All aboard!” call was supposed to have happened in September of last year. Unfortunately, the pandemic reared its ugly head forcing a cancelation of the entire season. Rather than request a refund, we rebooked for September of this year. Guess what? Yup…they had to cancel again! Aaarrgghhh!!! We decided to dig in our heels and rebooked for September of next year. This trip better live up to our expectations after all this!
As a way to apologize for the disappointment of this year’s cancelation, the team at The Presidential Train offered us each a complimentary 2-day pass to the Chefs On Fire event which was set to take place on September 18 and 19 (the very weekend we were supposed to be in Porto for the train trip). We were unfamiliar with this event, but decided to accept. And, I’m glad we did. It was terrific!
IMPORTANT: Before you read any further, I want you to know that there are pictures of fish and animals being cooked. Given the nature of this event, it was difficult to avoid. If you are sensitive to those types of images or this topic in general, I completely understand and encourage you to exit out now, but sincerely hope you will return next week.
Chefs on Fire involves 14 chefs, multiple fire pits, and many unique structures for cooking exclusively with fire. Live music acts perform periodically over the course of both days. In addition to the food prepared by the chefs (which is included in the purchase price of your ticket), you can buy products from a variety of booths offering unique cocktails, wine, beer, chocolates, espressos, freshly baked breads, special merchandise, and much more. There is even a tightly controlled, adult-monitored area just for kids that includes games, face painting, and crafts to keep them engaged and having fun.
One most interesting booths we found was, Yako & Co. Yako is based in Porto and was a key sponsor of the event. All the chefs were wearing their leather aprons. So cool! I was impressed to learn they also sell vegan “leather” and denim aprons, as well as aprons for kids. Love that.
Each ticket we received included 10 servings of food from the featured chefs and five beverages (water, wine, or beer). If we wanted to take advantage of the items being offered in the special booths, we could add money to the wristband we were assigned.
The event is dedicated to being green – there is no plastic and the equivalent value of the wood used goes toward planting trees the following year. It is also a fundraiser for the local fire department (5,00€ from each ticket goes to the Estoril Fire Department as well as the value of any money unspent on the wristbands). Pressed paper plates, bamboo utensils, and Riedel glassware were provided. Yes…every single one was glass and I never heard or saw one break.
Upon arrival to the event I was initially annoyed, but then very happy and pleased to learn, that everyone who attended (with the exception of very young children), had to show a negative COVID test to gain entrance to the event. We had no idea this was required when we showed up, but they were fully prepared. Just across the street was a COVID testing site. Our tests were completed in about 20 minutes and they were totally free since we are registered with the SNS (national health service). By the way, we are allowed four free tests per month through the SNS. Pretty cool.
Both our tests were negative and, because they were valid for 48 hours, we didn’t need to retest the second day. This allowed us to remove our masks, if we wished, once inside the gate. Our wristbands held the details of our ticket packets. They were scanned when we entered or left the venue (which you could do as often as you liked) as well as every time we “purchased” a meal or beverage. This was done using a mobile device. The event provided an app for download that kept a running summary of how much you had consumed so you could easily track your balance. It was great!
Ticket options ranged from 95,00€ for an adult one-day pass (an adult was anyone 12 years and older). This included 10 servings of food, 5 beverage servings (Selecção 1927 beer, Trinca Bolotas wine, or water), and 5 musical performances. A 2-day pass for an adult was 160,00€ (20 servings of food, 10 beverages and 10 musical performances). Tickets for children between the ages of 6 and 12 were 25,00€ per day and included 3 servings of food and 2 beverage servings. Children under 6 were admitted for free. The event ran from noon to midnight on both Saturday and Sunday.
Having no preconceived idea of what to expect, we were pleasantly surprised. The event took place at a permanent fairground called Fiartil located in Estoril just a five minute walk from the Estoril train station. It was absolutely charming the way they decorated the area. There was an eclectic mix of tables, chairs, and stools that looked like they were salvaged from old businesses and estate sales, which was perfect for this green-focused event. Covered bales of hay were available for those who wanted to listen to the music. A variety of fun lampshades were strung across the stage providing a whimsical feel as they swayed gently in the breeze.
The space had a funky, vintage vibe and included areas tucked in here and there inviting you to sit and chat with friends. One such space was a Victorian-era wrought iron bed with an end table and lamp. I loved the old rusty bicycle propped against a tree, the simple swing enticing young and old to enjoy, and the long, community table running right down the middle of the open air space. The use of big glass jugs and fresh vegetables as decoration could be seen everywhere. In a way it felt like a big backyard BBQ at your best friend’s house.
The atmosphere, in addition to feeling fun and convivial, also felt ethereal at times as the smoke from the fires wafted through the space.
It was great fun to watch the chefs at work too…
The food was really good and included a wide variety of options – chicken, pork, fish, and lamb. I suppose that shouldn’t be a surprise, because the chefs that were there represented some of the best restaurants in Portugal. We also enjoyed a delicious cold tomato soup and two different deserts (one used corn cooked in multiple ways as the theme and the other was coconut ice cream with grilled figs).
But, the best part of the entire experience had to be the people. I loved that it was multi-generational and included loads of hip and cool people too. It was amazing to see the love, camaraderie, and fun that everyone was having – even the chefs and the support team were having a great time.
We are already planning to return next year (assuming the dates of the festival don’t conflict with our long overdue train ride up north 🙄). And, now that we have been, we know what to expect and what to do to make the most of it. We’re also hoping we’ll be able to go with friends and family of our own next time. Wouldn’t that be just the best?! Plus, I won’t have a broken toe to slow me down. Oy!
If you are curious to get a better feel for what the event is like, a documentary was done after the 2019 festival took place. It was incredibly similar to the one we just attended. To view that, click here. Won and I watched it last night and really enjoyed it.
I am very happy to report that Portugal will have 85% of its population vaccinated by the first of October and the numbers are looking very good right now. As a result, COVID restrictions are being lifted and more festivals and events will be allowed to take place at full capacity. I can hardly wait for the next one! And, when we do go, I promise to tell you all about it. Until then, please stay safe, stay healthy, and stay in touch.
From Portugal with love,