If you are a vegetarian you will starve to death in the country areas of northern Portugal. Most dishes are built around meat. Pork is the most popular, followed by beef, but surprisingly chicken does not feature prominently on most menus and is often absent altogether. Teetotallers may also have a hard time. On the several occasions when we ate without ordering wine – choosing instead tea or Coca Cola or (horror of horrors) water – we were met with glances of polite incredulity.
When you sit down in a café or restaurant in Portugal a couvert instantly appears. This is a small basket containing chunks of fresh bread and floury, crispy-crusted rolls. Sometimes it is accompanied by butter, cheese and olives. You nibble on this while your meal is being prepared.
Here are some of the dishes we ate during our six days of hard walking through northern Portugal from Porto to Valenca. I have ranked them from best to worst.
① Alheira sausage on a bed of spinach This wonderfully savoury dish was prepared by Teresa at the Quinta das Alfaias in Fajozes just north of Porto. It was a served as an entrée before the equally savoury but more conventional main course of grilled dourado fish and roast vegetables. The alheira is a large U-shaped smoked sausage that – Teresa told us – contains many different meats, but no pork. It was originally invented in the middle ages by the beleaguered Jews of Portugal. To protect themselves from the Inquisition they pretended to be good Christians. They convinced the Inquisition (who – being religious fanatics – were none too bright) that there was pork in the alheira sausage. It was a sausage-based, life-or-death, strategy for the Jews. By eating alheira they saved themselves from torture. They also enjoyed a fine delicacy, had a quiet laugh at the expense of the Catholic Church and ultimately made lots of money when alheira sausages became popular among the “real” Christian population. The interesting history of the delicacy gave it extra tang as we devoured it. Teresa served the alheira finely spiced and chopped on a bed of shredded, lightly blanched spinach. This dish would ornament the menu of any restaurant in the world. ✭✭✭✭✭
② Melon with cured pork We encountered this surprising entrée at the otherwise totally undistinguished Restaurante Imperio do Minho in Ponte de Lima. The melon was of the pale-fleshed, honeydew variety, only much better than the honeydew melons of Australia: fresh, dense, juicy, sweet and smoothly textured. It was cut into chunks and surrounded on the plate by thin-cut slices of dark, slightly salty, cured pork. The combination of melon and pork in this dish was unusual and delicious. ✭✭✭✭✩
③ A “pilgrim’s menu” Many restaurants and snack bars along the Camino offer what they call a “pilgrim’s menu” which is usually a bit cheaper than other main items on the menu. The components of a pilgrim’s meal vary from establishment to establishment. Here is one such meal that we ate at the spacious Casa Cecilia restaurant between Gaia and Arcos. The meal started with a bowl of thin and fairly tasteless vegetable soup. This was followed by a main course of chicken schnitzel served with rice. The chicken was rather oily but reasonably succulent. Its coating was batter rather than bread crumbs but the coating was neither soggy nor overly dry. The rice tasted hard or under-cooked by comparison with the norm in Asia, and it came mixed with sweet raisins. The raisins were not seeded, so from time to time the teeth grated and crunched on these small hard seeds. The meal concluded with a refreshingly delicious baked apple served whole and flavoured with sticks of cinnamon protruding from the core. This was straightforward, honest fare, and something of a bargain at 8.50 euros (about $13 Australian) including a Coke (for me) and a small bottle of apple juice (for Emmy). ✭✭✭✩✩
④ Cozido a Portugueza When we entered the small “Restaurante Pedra Furada” in the village of Pedra Furada south of Barcelos it was 1.00 p.m in the afternoon, we had walked around 10 kilometres, and we were hungry. We were given an effusive welcome by Antonio, the proprietor. After placing a basket of breads on the table he returned with a glass of chilled red wine for me. (Emmy – being more cautious and abstemious – stuck with apple juice.) Drinking red wine cold was a local tradition, Antonio told us, and so was the lunch dish he was about to serve. Half an hour later a platter of Cozido a Portugueza was carefully lowered onto the table. At first it looked innocuous… like an ancient burial mound that concealed a mysterious interior. Around its foothills there were jagged boulders of boiled potato and long ridges of boiled carrot. The slopes and summit were thickly clad in vegetation… it looked like boiled kale but is known locally as couve cabbage. When we cleared some of this away we found what was indeed a kind of burial ground, a jumble of pork chunks and slices of pork sausage. The chunks came from various parts of the pig: there was muscle meat with thick fat clinging to it, there were bony joints with meat to be winkled out from nooks and crannies, and there were bacon-like rashers. Some chunks were boiled, others seemed to be fried or roasted and were pretty greasy. Lurking among them there were diagonal slices of at least two kinds of pork sausage.
The couve kale disappeared quickly and we levelled quite a lot of the potato and carrot. But we did struggle with the meat, and when we rose from the table much of it was still awaiting excavation. The Restaurante Pedra Furada is described as “award winning” in John Brierly’s Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino Portugues. As we hoisted our backpacks on to our backs and stepped out onto the road, we wondered: who bestowed the award? ✭✭✩✩✩
⑤ Francezinha I saw Francezinhas on the menu in most of the snack bars and cafes we visited in Portugal and I was determined to try one. I got an opportunity at the “Churrascaria Maritone 2” restaurant and snack bar in Tuido, just south of Valenca, where francezinhas were a house special (labelled Francezinhas a casa on the menu).
This dish is an outrage. It makes the food at McDonalds or KFC or Red Rooster look like Michelin three-hats haute cuisine. It makes damper and billy tea look like a gourmet banquet. It is probably called francezinha so the Portuguese can blame the French for it. It is a crime against humanity and a gross violation of human rights.
I am going to describe the francezinha that I had for lunch as unemotively as I can, so you can rest assured every syllable of my description is accurate and unexaggerated.
A francezinha is a kind of steak sandwich, but to say it is a steak sandwich is a grave insult to steak sandwiches. Between the two slices of bread in my francezinha there was a (very tough) slice of roast beef. Under that there was a layer composed of sliced Portuguese chorisa sausage. Further down there was layer of sliced ham, and under this a layer of sliced pork sausage. At the very bottom there was a thick slice of cheddar-style cheese. There was no sign of any vegetable matter (apart from the bread, of course). An egg was cracked over the top of all this and it was covered with a thick tarpaulin of mozzarella-style cheese before being placed in a kiln (sorry… kitchen oven) to melt the cheese and fuse the egg to the top of the bread.
Stick with me, dear reader, I haven’t finished yet. When the stack emerged from the oven it was doused very liberally in a kind of thickish, mildly spicy, brown sauce, like a combination of tomato sauce, barbeque sauce and Lee and Perrins HP sauce. The whole lot was served in a high-sided, flat-bottomed bowl. The francezinha appeared like a yellow hippopotamus wallowing in a mud hole.
I worked very seriously on taste-testing this abomination but managed to eat less than a quarter before feeling slightly ill and giving up. I turned with gratitude to the big side dish of rather thin and soggy potato chips that came with the main dish, but this too remained 90% uneaten when we made our escape from the restaurant.
“Zero stars” is much too generous for the francezinha, but what rating can I give it below zero? Hmmm, after careful thought I have decided to award it five “black holes”. ●●●●●