Reinventing traditional portuguese food in the sustainable city of Lisbon
Urban gardens, as we define them today, have always existed. Nowadays it has become one of the most important practices for food sovereignty and economic independence, issues that touch on some of the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN.
In Lisbon, since the II century, the Romans and then, later on the Arabs, were the first ones to implement and to develop this practice, by having small vegetable gardens used as subsistence agriculture. ‘Almoínhas’, a word derived from Arabic, is still used today when we want to refer to those green areas.
Alongside history this local solution has played an important role in overcoming several crises (earthquakes, plagues, etc.). Today, Lisbon is a capital with many villages inside of a city and several green areas, all interconnected providing local solutions, delicious food and happy producers.
Come with us and discover the Lisbon of then and get to know our new Food Tour in Lisbon: Traditional and Countryside Food Tour in a Sustainable Lisbon!
What is sustainability?
The concept of sustainability was introduced in 1992, during the Earth Summit celebrated in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (United Nations) and started to be adopted by world leaders, becoming a primary issue in the last decade.
Sustainability in the most basic definition is recognized as a mechanism in which natural resources can supply human needs in a certain period of time, without compromising the well-being and needs of future generations. In other words, sustainability looks for a balanced and continuous human-resource-environment relationship.
Well then… What makes Lisbon a sustainable city?
Lisbon’s sustainability over the centuries
Sustainability has worked in Lisbon, for centuries, through cultures and generations. Plans for the development of the city (economic and infrastructural) were based on the modern sustainability principles, even if these language terms were not being used yet.
Literature points that the phoenicians (~1200 B. C.) were the first inhabitants to settle in the wealthy city of Lisbon. Rich in water, good for crops; especially vineyards, with unique sun exposure and weather conditions, Lisbon was always a desired port (the main reason why so many cultures tried to conquer it).
Over time, the city became famous for the abundance of fish and mollusks as well as the seizing of the discards of fish to produce garum (a sauce made from fermented fish guts and salt), one of the most important trading products during the Lusitanian development (Roman occupation).
Historians mention that during the Roman occupation there used to be vineyards all around Lisbon, as well as roof gardens, where the high classes used to enjoy wine, grapes and olives. Romans also built an underground network of chambers and transportation channels that allowed them to gain territory from the river, creating a sustainable water transportation system and supply, storage of salt and fish and even a local heating system (vapour).
But, it was not until the Moorish occupation that Lisbon (named then Al-Usbuna) became a city of orchards and gardens between VIII and XII centuries. In the beautiful neighborhood of Alfama (which our food tour explores) where the Arabic medina was located, you can still find some indicators of this. The most important ones are, how close it is to the river, how it is built uphill, with almost all the facades addressing south, so the front gardens (urban gardens as we would say today) could seize the sunlight and retain stormwater. All this resulted in an excellent system to produce food and have water throughout the whole year.
With the Christian expansion came the crusades and the rise of the kingdom of Portugal. The Moors were defeated and expelled (1147 a.C.), and the city got a new name: “Lixbona” (which derived into Lisboa-Lisbon), which in the old galego-portugués language means “good light,” making a reference to its unique brightness and nearly 270 days of sun per year!
But there is more! The tiles to keep houses fresh and safe during heat waves ever since the XVI century, the preservation of green areas for recreative parks and communitary orchards inside the new neighborhoods during the past century; among others, worked to overcome plagues, to survive invasions, to rise after earthquakes, tsunamis, fires, wars, scarcity, even injustice and economic crises.
With the rise of the kingdom and its expansion, social differences, scarcity and poverty grew in the city. In the neighborhood of Mouraria, the Moors were confined, as well as the Jews, and other African and Asian cultures. These communities practiced sustainability at its best; they used most of their space to produce fruits, vegetables, cereals, spices, to raise chicken and produce eggs, all for self consumption or to be sold in the markets.
Today Mouraria is the most eclectic neighborhood in Lisbon, attractive for its cultural richness and hidden gems. A place where you can still find some of the orchards built by its inhabitants; old and modern ones, and of course consume and learn about their products as you will discover in our new food tour (link)!
Through time, the city has been characterized by its orchards, gardens, parks, greenhouses and the local fish and vegetable markets, some of them still operating, like Mercado Da Baixa. This was the first vegetable and fruit market located in Praça da Figueira, inaugurated in 1855.
There is also the world famous market, “Mercado da Ribeira,” or Time-Out Market, that was renovated in 2014. The area in which it is located, used to be one of the fish, vegetable and spice markets that flourished in the XVI century during the Portuguese expansion, and today it is the biggest food market in the city!
Curious fact: Lisbon’s residents are often called alfacinhas by many portuguese people, this expression comes from the word ‘alface’, that means lettuce (Al-khass in arabic), this expression was adopted by the people from Lisbon’s surroundings that used to work in the cereal fields and sheep farms, where the soil and weather conditions made it almost impossible to grow fresh fruits and vegetables; therefore, the expression alfacinha refers to the greenhouses and fresh crops inside Lisbon, the ones that could actually grow lettuce!
Urban Orchards and green cities around the globe
There are many cities around the world that practice urban agriculture and display beautiful sustainable projects:
The chinampas in Mexico used to be an ancient form of agriculture developed and practiced by the Aztecs in the Texcoco Lake (now, almost completely occupied by Mexico City). It consisted of placing floating and mobile crops all over the lake. The chinampas can still be seen in Xochimilco, during trips in small-to-medium sized ships called trajineras.
Another example of urban agriculture, primarily green roofs and urban orchards are well seen in Berlin. Germany is one of the most important developers of modern green urban infrastructures, and pioneers in the use of pre-existing infrastructures to adapt green areas such as green roofs, rooftop greenhouses and urban orchards.
In North America, urban agriculture developed as a response to the economic crisis and poverty levels, consequences of war and social conflicts, since the 19th century, allowing communities and families to quadruple their income by growing and harvesting food in their backyards or gardens. In addition, during the decades of the biggest Belic conflicts (1910-1960), the United States had urban gardens that were managed collectively.
Today, you can find important communities like Denver Urban Gardens, and several important urban garden projects in Chicago in order to tackle community needs. Companies like Gotham Greens (US), and Luffa farms (Canada), take urban agriculture to a larger scale where their projects go from single residential adaptation of urban orchards and greenhouses, to the installation of green roofs and integrated rooftop greenhouses over industrial constructions and business towers.
In most of the countries in Central and South America, it has been reported that nearly 20% of the food in highly populated cities is provided by urban agriculture, which is also claimed to be of cultural relevance and reinforcement in the perception of sovereignty.
What about Lisbon today ?
Lisbon green Capital 2020
In 2020, Lisbon won the European Green Capital Award. After a panel of experts evaluated cities around Europe, the Portuguese Capital City was found to be the leader in, “urban sustainability.”
Some of the reasons why Lisbon earned this award is due to the use of bicycle lanes and the renewal of sidewalks, public infrastructures and the efficiency of the transportation system. So, if you are not in a cycling mood, hop on one of the city’s many trams, buses, trains, or funiculars.
If you choose to go by car, Lisbon has one of the greatest/biggest networks of electric vehicle charging stations in the world. Furthermore, we have seen a remarkable reduction in CO2 emissions, water and energy consumption, in some cases by 50%. Besides, many parks throughout the city offer respite to its residents, but also counteract pollution. The supreme jewel is undoubtedly Monsanto, but the entire city is littered with little parks and hidden gardens.
As part of several celebrations, on January 12th a total of 20,000 trees were set to be planted in parks located in Alto da Ajuda, Santa Clara, Areeiro/Marvila and the green corridor of Monsanto. And, yes, I was there with some friends!
All of these philosophies and practices are getting more and more collective attention and individualized. A sense of environmental care and green practices turn citizens into active change agents.
One of the most progressive and relevant sustainable features in Lisbon is still urban agriculture. Public or private greenhouses and diverse urban orchards that, apart from being recreational places, compose the local production and consumption, representing an accessible way to ensure different benefits, both private and public. Like the availability of fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs in a shorter food supply chain. Furthermore, studies show the psychological wellness provided by these elements in a city, notably during the lockdown times we are presently living!
Urban gardens in contemporary Lisbon
Today, urban agriculture is gaining more followers in Portugal’s capital city. This year Lisbon City Hall reported 732 parcels of urban orchards spread over 19 parks in the city and in individual projects. The expectation is to facilitate or adapt at least one more hectare by 2021.
Here we mention and recommend some of the urban agriculture projects in Lisbon:
Park “Eduardo VII” greenhouses : as you explore Lisbon, you will find at the beginning of Avenida Liberdade, a very big garden that goes uphill, with a beautiful pattern carved in the trees, and by looking at the end of the garden, you can find the massive flag of Portugal waving; that’s parque Eduardo Séptimo, as you walk up, in the left side you can find perhaps the most beautiful greenhouse in the city: the Estufa Fria (cold greenhouse). Local people love to go to this greenhouse complex to walk around, read, or just chill. Depending on the time of the year you can find different activities that are held there. Yet, these are not commercial greenhouses, which means that none of its vegetation is for consumption or sale.
About 15-20 minutes away from Lisbon’s historical center, you can choose from a variety of options like the Communitary Orchard, Bela Flor in Campolide (where you can even learn how to grow bonsai!), the “Alface” orchards in Benfica, the Orchard Park in Telheiras, or the Orchards in Bela Vista.
These urban gardens are all operated by local people and supply some of the markets, shops and restaurants around the city.
One of the most incredible projects, that I have the pleasure to work with, is located in Mouraria, since 2007. With the support of an environmental agency (GAIA), locals built a communal urban garden. Today, the project has a communitarian kitchen that offers delicious and creative meals elaborated by chefs with urban garden products.
A sustainable and delicious Food Tour with us
We wanted to combine delicious food and inventive chefs with urban gardens and Lisbon’s history while also honoring everything we take from the earth to eat, whether a vegetable or an animal. And how do we do this?
Concerning animals, by eating all their parts. Sounds a bit rude for some, probably, but it’s sustainable and can be delicious. A long time ago our ancestors, the generations of our parents and grandparents were used to this. That’s the origin of some products and recipes. Take as an example, the well-known chouriço (chorizo), which was invented initially to preserve food during several months – when there were no fridges – by using some parts of the pig that now we name as ‘less noble’, such as the intestines, blood, or the entrails. This is now a very popular product known worldwide and one you can taste, from a small production, on our 17 Tastings Food Tour.
But there are many other similar products or recipes!
Traditional Portuguese cuisine has several examples of dishes that honor the food in this way. Some of them seem lost in our grandparents’ recipe books, in the stories of locals. We can find them when we travel to Portugal’s countryside and discover fantastic and hidden local restaurants – one of my biggest passions! But, if you don’t know all the corners and secrets of Lisbon, you can have a hard time finding them in common Portuguese restaurants in Lisbon.
We wanted to change this!
Having this in mind we created The Ultimate Sustainable Lisbon Food Tour, a Lisbon food tour where we stop at small restaurants (tabernas) or urban garden restaurants, run by chefs who bring the unknown gastronomic & wine heritage from Portugal’s countryside (namely the opportunity to taste the rare talha portuguese wine) using their roots in an original, contemporary yet, genuine way. We will discover the typical gastronomy of Alentejo – to which I am a super fan – but also, dishes from the central and northern areas of Portugal.
Resuming, it’s all about traditional Portuguese food reinvented by chefs who want to honor their heritage and what Lisbon has to offer them.
So why not to add this Lisbon food tour in your Lisbon things to do list, for your next trip?
Delicious food, sustainability, transmission (generational & cultural) and passion are the central axes in a walking group where we explore Portuguese cuisine in four different places, while meeting the locals and tasting good wine!
Discover some secret food from Portuguese cuisine and a fascinating gastronomic, human & urban landscape!
Article by :
Sílvia Olivença (anthropologist and food guide/CEO at Oh! My Cod Food Tours)
Samuel Garciamoreno (biologist, social scientist and food guide at Oh! My Cod Food Tours)
All photos by Silvia Olivença and Mariuz Kiepura