Five of Europe’s top chefs coming together to create a special menu for a decadent gastronomic celebration is always going to be a good thing. Replicate this 20 times and it can only be something even better. And that is exactly what is happening in the Rota das Estrelas – an eight month long culinary festival taking place in venues across Portugal until mid November.
On set dates Michelin-starred chefs will be coming together from across the continent in some of the country’s top restaurants to create special menus designed to not only showcase their own talents, but the very best cuisine that the country has to offer.
The festival kicked off last weekend (March 16) at the Cliff Bay hotel in Madeira, home of the island’s only Michelin-starred restaurant Il Gallo d’Oro. Over four nights (March 16, 17, 20 and 21) the charming French-born Benoit Sinthon, head chef at Il Gallo d’Oro, and his team hosted 11 other chefs, who together created four different, themed menus.
Among those cooking on the first night was Britain’s Nigel Haworth, holder of one Michelin star and executive chef at Northcote in Lancashire. Nigel may be best known in the UK for his appearances on the BBC’s The Great British Menu where, in 2009, he won the honour of cooking the main course of a Lancashire hotpot at a celebration homecoming banquet held to welcome back troops from Afghanistan. There were no Lancashire specialities to be found on the opening night’s menu however, despite its theme of Signature Dishes. Instead Nigel had chosen to prepare a lobster dish that had already proved a winner on the menu at Northcote. But, as Nigel explained, choosing the dish was no easy task, for not only did each chef have to select their dish several months in advance but to make things even more difficult. He said: “I had no idea what the other chefs would be
cooking so I chose this because it is light. I also chose ingredients I knew I would be able to get. The lobster was a blue lobster from the Atlantic.” With its warm climate and rich volcanic soil Madeira has a wealth of top class ingredients on offer and that morning the chefs had travelled together to the island’s famous Mercado do Lavradores to see what was on offer. Nigel said: “The fruit was wonderful – mangoes with a coconut flavour, passion fruits shaped like bananas or that taste of lemons – there are so many different types of passion fruit it’s crazy. And the fish market was amazing.”
I was lucky enough to attend the opening night banquet and it soon became clear why these chefs are regarded as being at the top of their game. From the very first course, one of Chef Benoit’s creations which appeared on the menu simply as “Ocean Flavours” through to the finale of two desserts dreamed up by Il Gallo d’Oro’s pastry chef Yves Michoux, there was plenty to challenge and delight the palette. One of my favourite dishes was the creation of Hans Neuner from the the 2-starred Ocean in Portugal. His langoustine, “feijoada” - a traditional Portuguese bean stew, veal tongue and basilicum was a very sophisticated version of the classic “surf 'n' turf.” I love lobster so Nigel Haworth’s wild lobster, scorched leeks, warm caviar and lobster toast. I love lobster so this dish was always going to be a winner for me. The first taste of the leeks was a smoky, slightly bitter, flavour from the scorched outside that I think worked well with the lobster. The lobster toast was Nigel's posh version of prawn toast. However this had none of the chewiness or cloying greasiness of the Chinese takeaway favourite - instead the lobster was light and soft and melted in the mouth, with just a slight crunch from the sesame seed coating.
Each course was accompanied by a Portuguese wine selected especially to enhance the flavours of the dish and it really showcased the variety and quality of the country’s vineyards and wine makers.
The rapturous applause that greeted the chefs as they paraded through the dining room at the end of the meal was testament to the quality of the dishes and there could be no doubt that the evening was a success. But with so many chefs all working in the kitchen, each focused on showcasing their signature dish to the very best of their abilities, producing the banquet was not without its challenges. Nigel said: “As soon as we had finished out own dish we had to get out of the way as quickly as possible because there were so many other people left to cook.” But despite any difficulties that they may have encountered there seemed to be genuine warmth between the chefs as they embraced each other at the end of the meal. Although many had worked together before (participation in Rota das Estrelas is strictly by word of mouth recommendation and invitation only) for others they had only met 24 hours before but to the onlookers they could have been a team that had been working together for years rather than hours. This camaraderie was really borne out by Chef Diego Guerrero (El Club Allard, Madrid) who despite not cooking until the following evening chose to spend the evening helping in the kitchen rather than dining in the restaurant saying: “The kitchen is where I feel most comfortable and where I belong.”
The first Rota das Estrelas was held three years ago and since then has gone from strength to strength with more and more chefs from more and more countries getting involved and it is hoped that in the future it will grow still more to include restaurants in Spain.
Over the next eight months the select group of international gastronomic superstars will be travelling to Michelin-starred establishments throughout Portugal each time creating special tasting menus which will showcase the very best that Portugal has to offer. Also participating in Rota Das Estrelas over the coming months will be Hans Neuner (2 Michelin stars, Austria), Aimé Barroyer (1 Michelin star, France), Albano Lourenço (1 Michelin star, Portugal), Ricardo Costa (1 Michelin star, Portugal) and Vincent Farges (1 Michelin star, France).
Now the gastronomic festival will travel through Portugal calling at Tavares in Lisbon on April 20 and 21, Arcadas Restaurante , at Quinta das Lágrimas, (Coimbra) on May 4 and 5, the Ocean in the Vila Vita Park Hotel (Algarve) on May 19 and 20, The Yeatman in Oporto on June 14 and 15, Largo do Paço Restaurante, in the Casa da Calçada (Amarante) on August 17 and 18, Feitoria in the hotel Altis Belém (Lisbon) on September 7 and 8, Vila Joya (Algarve) on October 19 and 20 and finishing at the Fortaleza do Guincho (Cascais) on November 16 and 17.
This is the third year that Rota das Estrelas has taken place, and each year it has grown to incorporate more chefs and more venues. The idea was originally dreamed up as a showcase for Portugal’s cuisine, but it is hoped that in the coming years it will continue to expand to also take in some of Spain’s top restaurants.
For more information about Rota das Estrelas visit www.rotadasestrelas.com.Emma was hosted by the Cliff Bay Hotel (www.portobay.com) and the Madeira Promotion Bureau (www.ap-madeira.pt)