Located in the most western part of Europe, there’s a little country, and no it’s not Spain if you’re wondering. It’s smaller but as rich in culture and in history as any other country, it is Portugal. A country whose history is heavily influenced by food, going from never ending sieges defeated by throwing bread at the enemy lines to navigating the most treacherous of the seven seas in search of best spices coming from the unknown world.
But today we are not here to talk about such feats, today I’ll take you on culinary journey to the town of Vinhais, where one of the largest smoked meats festivals, in the country, is held.
Situated in the northern part of Portugal, just 4 km away from the Spanish border, we find the town of Vinhais, although with small population of only 9,000 inhabitants, it’s been holding the biggest festival of smoked meats in the country for the last 40 years, the “Feira do Fumeiro”, which translates to smokehouse fair in English.
Starting off in 1981 with its first edition, the festival has grown exponentially over the years having around 80,000 visitants every year, and with no sign of decline in these numbers. The festival lasts for 4 days allowing you to experience the best the region has to offer, from small stands selling the most varied cheeses and smoked meats, traditional and regional cuisines where one can enjoy the regional wine and food; to horse shows, bull wrestling and at night musical concerts.
However, as you may have guessed already, the prized jewels of this festival are the smoked meats. Here you’ll find the most delicious, varied, smoky, cured meats you’ll ever have the pleasure to taste but among them, there are select few that stand out.
The alheira, a sausage that within itself holds various types of meat from pork and veal to poultry, to these you add olive oil and regional wheat bread, which is then boiled and smoked to create an utterly delicious sausage perfect for a hearty meal, whether you boil it alongside with potatoes and other vegetables or decide to have a cheat day on your diet and fry it with some chips and a nice fried egg, it is something to die for!
The Chouriça doçe de Vinhais, or sweet smoked sausage, is a must have! Although made from contrasting and peculiar ingredients such as pigs’ blood, honey, nuts, and bread, one may find it odd how these ingredients make up for such an amazing dessert. Boil it or roast it and you’ll have the most pleasant aroma coming from your kitchen, serve it on a plate and slice it to surprise your family and friends because believe me no one expects for blood and honey to mix so well.
The Presunto, better known as Iberian ham to foreigners, cannot be ignored either. A majestic pork leg cut from the best fed pigs, it is then massaged and greased to be further smoked for not less than 12 months. Although it is a bit too salty for some people, have a thin slice and pair it with some buttery sheep cheese and you’ll have the perfect afternoon snack.
To finish off this small presentation of specialties we have the Salpicão de Vinhais, the sausage king of Vinhais, made from the tender meat of young piglets, seasoned with wine, salt and bell pepper, it is smoked only with firewood obtained from chestnut or oak trees. This smoked sausage is perfect to make an omelet, the smokey taste with traces of wine blends flawlessly with the egg.
If you don’t take my word for it, every year the festival holds a competition to reward the best Salpicão made that year, maybe you’ll take the word of the champion.
However as curious as you may be, you may ask what makes the smoked meats of the “Feira do Fumeiro” so special? Why are they so sought for in Portugal?
The ingredients that are used to prepare a dish are incredibly important. We are bombarded with stories from chefs on how they pursue only the best ingredients to produce and cook only the most outstanding dishes. By now the answer shouldn’t be a surprise, the ingredients used in the confection of the smoked meats are important, but one stands out above all – the meat, and the pigs where it’s taken from.
The meat used to create these delectable and savory treats is made only with the meat taken specifically from pigs properly identified as Bísaros. From Celtic origins and currently disseminated mostly in the northern Portuguese territory, this breed almost went extinct in the 90’s. Thankfully due to local efforts and EU protection, the number of producers went from just 21 in the 2000’s to 150 in 2020. Thanks to them we can still enjoy their meat.
The pigs and piglets are (and must be) raised following the ancient and traditional customs of the region, which means the pigs not only have a close relation with their owner but are given an outdoors space where they can roam freely. These pigs are only fed with natural products, such as chestnuts, oatmeal, and cabbage. This method not only makes for sustainable and environment friendly practice, but at the same time it greatly influences the meat since it provides flavour and minerals to it.
In efforts to preserve this flavourful breed, the festival holds a competition to reward and remunerate the most Bísaro of Bísaros, meaning the swine that has best qualities of this breed, characterized by long ears, and arched back, wins. Unfortunately, the pig itself doesn’t win anything and most likely is still turned into sausages and ham, nonetheless should you feel pity for our meaty friend, you can always buy him as your new pet.
Despite all the good things I’ve said about this festival, the past two years were harsh. Covid-19 hit Portugal hard, and all social events were cancelled. Lockdown was mandatory, as it was the case in most countries, we were locked at home and left to attend our business within.
Be that as it may, the town hall and the organizers of the “Feira do Fumeiro” didn’t stand down, with much grief in their hearts due to not being able to bring the festival to the people of Vinhais and the country. An online platform in support of the festival was created and it’s open since the 1st of February of this year (2021). It allows the visitor to learn about the product they’re buying and who they are buying it from.
Thankfully next year, you’ll be able visit the real festival and enjoy it in person. Take a stroll through the stands and chat with people, they will happily tell you all about their products and give you a taste; hear the folklore musicians walk through the festival, playing with their hearts and smiles wide open; sit down and try the local cuisine and enjoy the wine while chatting with other visitors or simply enjoy it by yourself and absorb all the best the Portuguese culture has to offer because deep down Portugal is made of amazing food and amazing people.