The Stars Route, Portugal
I don’t know where to start – there are just too many options. Caviar on one table, fish stew on another. In another room there is juicy veal and I’m sure I spotted a chocolate fondue somewhere too.
Perhaps I should think backwards to work out where to start… it’s probably too early for the fondue. Or perhaps, for the sake of this story, I should go back a day and explain.
Just 24 hours earlier I had flown into the Portuguese island of Madeira. The landing itself was quite unique with a runway basically cut into a cliff – on one side is water and on the other is mountains. There was a small shuttle bus waiting to collect me from the airport because I have been invited here to experience the launch of the Rota das Estrelas (The Stars Route) food festival.
So I jumped into the bus with the others who had been on my flight.
“Are you guys also with the media,” I asked innocently.
“Oh no,” they replied. “We’re some of the chefs.”
And so, as we drove to the Porto Mare Hotel where we’re all staying, I started to hear a little bit about what they were planning to prepare at the festival this week. Considering most of them have been awarded a Michelin star, this was actually quite an interesting conversation.
And so that brings us back to now, at the launch of the festival. It’s being held at Blandy’s Wine Lodge, a centre for winemaking on the island since 1840. Amongst the old barrels and shelves of bottles, each chef has a station set up where they’re cooking and preparing their food in front of the guests. Ricardo Costa is serving the caviar, Joe Barza is cooking a lamb confit, Migual Laffan is working on his fish stew and Vitor Matos has pork on offer. There are also desserts, a table of cheese, pate and more.
I try each of them one by one, starting with the chefs I met the day before. They each explain their dish to me and serve me up my own plate. Although I appreciate good food, it’s actually the explanations that I am most impressed with. I love hearing the stories behind why they’ve chosen a certain type of food and how they’ve prepared it to make it unique.
Each dish has been expertly matched with a particular wine. They’re displayed on upturned barrels next to the mini-kitchens and the producers are on hand to answer any questions you might have. I’m told by one woman about the fruity tones in the white wine I’m about to try. Another man doesn’t laugh when he tells me the grapes are grown in the mountains and I point out the label is from the Douro Valley. “It’s just a name for the region,” he replies as he pours and I politely suggest he puts a bit more in.
Each portion is small enough that you never quite get full and always want a bit more. It’s perfect for someone like me who wants to try everything and then go back for more of my favourites. By the end of the evening, I’m feeling quite satisfied.
Luckily I get to do it all again two nights later.
The Cliff Bay, Madeira, Portugal
This time the festival is being hosted at the Cliff Bay Hotel – home to Madeira’s only Michelin-starred restaurant (Il Gallo d’Oro). Most of the same chefs are back but with a few additions. This time they’re all making something different, though. It’s like when your favourite television series returns but with a great new character!
The venue is larger and lighter than the old wooden winery. It creates a different atmosphere and opens up new opportunities. One of the chefs uses the hotel’s kitchen as a serving station. There’s an easy flow between the rooms and to the terrace.
Once again, the portions are just the right size to try a bit of everything. Benoit Sinthon has prepared feijoada, Henrique Sa Pessoa has made risotto, Alcino Marques has cooked pork. Amongst it all I also find sushi, caviar, oysters and some magnificent desserts.
This first week of the Rota das Estrelas food festival, hosted by Porto Bay Hotels in Madeira, is just the beginning. Over the rest of the year there will be six more hosts across Portugal – in Lisbon (twice), Porto, Cascais, Amarante and Montemor-o-Novo. Food from the country and chefs from across the world will bring their award-winning meals to the people.
It’s not often you get this many of the world’s top chefs in the one room cooking for you. The food is some of the best I’ve ever eaten and it just keeps coming and coming. I honestly thought the biggest problem was knowing where to start. Now I realise it’s knowing when to finish.