When I went to Lisbon in May 2011, just after the country was forced to ask for financial rescue, I had found a depressed mood and people would have voted the conservatives into power a month later, out of lack of alternatives. My 3-week stay this month found a different situation. On Friday the 7th, just before the Portugal World Cup qualifier and at the peak of audience, the prime minister Passos Coelho spoke on TV to announce the latest and most draconian measure: a 7% increase in social security contributions equal to nearly one month of salary per year. Moreover, revealing the distributional effect of austerity policy, employer contribution were cut by 5.75%, as a measure to create jobs – as if employers would then start recruiting, with internal demand collapsing and no sign of a industrial policy.
The day after all bars and local restaurants in Lisbon (those where you can still eat for 5 Euros) had the TV on live economic news and people were watching in silence. But this time something clicked. The following Saturday mass protest demonstration occurred in the whole country (we witnessed those in medieval Evora): between 600,000 and 1m people on the street, which means nearly 10% of the population (think of 4-6m in a country the size of the UK, France or Italy). This Saturday, the government had to withdraw the measure: it is the first clear people’s victory against austerity.
Passos Coelho had been trying to be ‘more troikist than the troika’, in his excess of zeal to show that ‘Portugal is no Greece’. At the same time as Spain was trying to show that it is no Portugal, and Italy that it is no Spain. Southern European solidarity, regrettably, does not exist, and leaves individual countries with no negotiation power with financial institutions. But this government failure may be a turning point: resistance is possible. Let’s see if the national demonstration in the UK next 20th of October will imitate the exploit - although the British government so far has been skillful at picking its targets and fragment resistance, contrary to the Portuguese measure of social contributions increase for all, which angered the whole population at the same time.
And how does Portugal look like in the middle of this? After a lively conference in Lisbon and a few days rest in the Sagres area (the only unspoilt area of Algarve), we crossed the whole country from South to North, using the back roads, to finish in stunning Porto. Despite losing our way a couple of times, or maybe thanks to that, we encountered so many beautiful spots off the beaten track, without tourists but under uninterrupted sunshine, in agriculture Alentejo as well as in the mountains of the Serra Da Estrela and the Douro Valley. Emigration (a longstanding limit to Portuguese development since the time of colonialism) is up again. Easy to understand, with unemployment at 15%, falling wages and fast rising costs. The country is much more expensive than just a couple of years ago: the VAT on restaurants has gone up from 10 to 23%, and all tariffs (public transport, motorways, petrol) have gone up massively.
It is still a wonderful country, though, and wine and food quality have not been affected. You can still find a lot of good wine for less than 3€/bottle (is cheap alcohol an intentional troika policy as in Belorus?) More upmarket, we tasted the 2009 Vintage Port and it is really promising... let’s hope that when it comes to its best in fifteen years it, austerity will be a distant memory to drink at. Portuguese food is a well-kept secret. Not as varied as the Spanish one for geographic reasons, but extremely well crafted, starting from the unsurpassable sweets but including cheese, offal & pulses, and varied, rich fish soups (even if not as fine as bouillabaisse and brodetto, I must say).
In contrast to Spain, Portugal is only timidly starting to experiment with ambitious modern cuisine. We tried 100 Maineras in Lisbon, where the chef imitates the Rocas brothers in Cataluña in proposing a nine-course menu of nostalgic gastronomic deconstruction: sardines, bacalhau, suckling pig, Asian colonial inspiration, and even crisps in the shape of washing lines. Although all good and sometimes spectacular, and relatively humbly priced at 47 Euros (5.22 Euros per dish, that is), it did not really convince, and the puddings were particular boring. I don’t think it is because the chef Ljubomir Stanisic is actually from former Yugoslavia and the nostalgia is therefore artificial: it is not me who will underestimate immigrants! Nor because of the ingredients, after all not so different from the Catalan. It made me wonder why conceptual deconstructing cuisine works so well in Spain, France, UK, Austria, but not in Portugal – nor in Poland, where at Tamka 43 recently my Polish friend could only laugh. Maybe it is because ambition looks fine in imperial countries, while in peripheral ones it looks misplaced (I know, Portugal was actually the last European countries to let its colonies go, but its empire was so poor that it hardly counts). Or maybe because Portuguese and Polish traditional cooking is actually very skilled and, unlike the Austrian, British and Spanish ones, it does not need to be revamped?