3 years, 10 months ago
Yawning baby pandas are all very cute, but if you wanted the undying devotion of millions of followers back in the 13th century you really had to go for the big guns. Step forward St. Anthony of Padua. Legend has it that Saint Anthony (plain old Tony at the time), heartily sick of the lukewarm response to his sermons in Rimini, took to the sea shore in a holy fit of pique claiming he’d be better off preaching to the fishes than his disinterested flock. Turns out he was right. The fish (particularly sardines) loved him. Thousands upon thousands of them were witnessed rising out of the water, enthralled, mesmerised, swaying, nodding (no evidence exists, but if that’s what they say rapturous 13th century sardines got up to, who am I to argue?) And it clearly did the trick for Saint Anthony, he went on to be Patron Saint of matchmaking, lost things and Lisbon.
The Portuguese capital was Saint Anthony’s birthplace so while Padua might get to hold on to his relics, Lisbon lucks out on local boy made good’s early adopters: sardines. Every year the Feast of Saint Anthony (aka. Lisbon’s Sardine Festival) is celebrated across the city from the 12th to 14th June with a frenzy of salting, grilling and consuming vast numbers of the fish: large, delicious and quite probably the best you’ve ever tasted.
But it’s in Alfama – Lisbon’s oldest quarter – that sardine fever really gets a grip over the 3 day festival. ‘Got a grill, get grilling’ seems to be pretty much the rule here and there’s almost nowhere to escape the tantalising aroma of crispy skinned, meltingly tender, completely delicious fish cooked to perfection outside homes and restaurants all day and well into the night. This isn’t haute-cuisine – rock-salt and boiled potatoes are the only additions to the fish – but the sardines themselves are so heroic there isn’t a technique yet mastered that could elevate them any higher.
Renting locally? Chances of getting pulled into a Sardine Festival street party in Alfama run pretty high. If the delightful cooking smells aren’t enough to point you in the right direction, listen up for the melancholy strains of Fado. This is the traditional soundtrack for the Feast of Saint Anthony and Fado bands and musicians often accessorise with a statue or two of the Saint himself (or Yoda, just because) while they play.
I won’t try to tell you that Fado’s ‘party music’, it’s not (for a taster try ‘Conció del Mar’ or ‘Maria Lisboá’ on Spotify). But remember you’re in Alfama, Lisbon’s ancient and evocative quarter. The streets are narrow and winding; steep staircases climb perilously; spindly, balconied houses in ice-cream colours meander down the hillside; and it’s Portuguese so the people you’re partying with are some of the most warm-hearted, romantic and charmingly sentimental in the world – now listen to Fado again and tell me it’s not perfect!
But good as they are, it’s not just sardines, sardines, sardines for the three day Sardine Festival. It is the Feast of Saint Anthony after all. And, apart from his thing with fish, he’s also the saint of lost things and, more importantly, matchmaking.
While you’re walking about, take a moment to lift your eyes to the pretty, wrought iron balconies all over Lisbon. If you look hard you’ll see potted Basil plants with love poems attached, gifted by besotted suitors during the festival in the hope of winning their true love’s heart. You’ll almost certainly come across weddings – quite a few weddings probably, since mass-marriage is another big festival tradition. And if you should spot an upended statue of Saint Anthony with his head buried, don’t touch – he’s to stay where he is until he does his job and finds a good husband for the girl who interred him.
Then there’s the ‘parade’, of course. No festival’s complete without at least one and Lisbon’s doesn’t disappoint. The length of the city’s huge and glamorous Avenida de Liberdade is consumed by festivities, balconies and terraces are hung with streamers and strings of lights and lanterns and everyone’s eating, drinking, making merry and paying lots of attention to Saint Anthony – which is what kicked off the whole thing with the 13th century sardines in the first place.
But summer’s not short on food and drink-themed festivals this year. So if you can’t make Lisbon for sardines, here are few other options to save you from starvation.
Foodies Festival, Clapham Common, London is one of the most popular ‘Foodies Festival’ UK events. This year there’s a Children’s Cookery Theatre, Tea Dance Tent, Real Ale & Cider Farm and a daily Chilli Eating Challenge to make the London locals red in the face. 6th – 8th June www.foodiesfestival.com
Haro Wine Festival, La Rioja, Northern Spain is the one where everyone wears white t-shirts that get drenched in Vino Tinto during the traditional Batalla de Vino to celebrate the Feast of San Pedro. It’s all a bit wild and there’s plenty of wine for drinking as well as chucking around in the Rioja region. 29th June www.haro.org
Isle of Wight Garlic Festival might be named for the delicious, pungent bulbs grown on the island but with a giant fun fair, music, entertainment, endless food and drink and thousands of visitors, there’s plenty of non-garlic stuff going on too about the Isle of Wight. 16th and 17th August www.garlic-festival.co.uk
The Big Feastival, Oxfordshire is hosted by Jamie Oliver and held on Alex James’s Farm near Kingham. Oliver provides the food acts and Alex James gets back to his pre-cheesemaking days with the music line-up. 29th – 31st August www.jamieoliver.com/thebigfeastival
De Rollende Keukens, Amsterdam can be translated as Rolling Kitchens and it’s Amsterdam’s homage to street food with a definite Volkswagen Camper Van c. 1969 vibe. 28th May to 1st June www.rollendekeukens.nl
Taste of Dublin, Iveagh Gardens is all things edible from Ireland in one lovely location. If you’re thinking of celebrating Bloomsday in Dublin on June 16th this year, you could get some in some ballast for the big pub crawl at Taste of Dublin from the 12th to 15th. www.tasteofdublin.ie