Some years ago, I went to Lisbon and sampled some pretty good Portuguese wines. I especially remember a Quinta do Vallado Duoro Tinto, an elegant, full-bodied red wine with a lingering finish. Along with a friend I roamed around Lisbon, listening to fado, consuming enormous amounts of seafood and wine and capitulating at nights to the mournful strains of fado. Lisbon is a tiny city, by Mumbai standards, at least, but it is a pretty one. Among the things that left an impression on me was the Alheira. The Algeria is a horseshoe-shaped, smoked Portuguese sausage, and it was among the dishes on my table at the Casa do Leao, perched high on a hilltop and located inside the castle of Sao Jorge, in Lisbon. It was garlickey, pastier than most sausages I’ve had and pleasantly crumbly.
They say food is a lot of things, apart from sustenance. It is memory, culture, history and geography, but, in the case of the Alheira, it was, once upon a benighted time, also about resistance. The Alheira was invented by Portuguese Jews during the Inquisition, and the lack of chorizos hanging in their smokehouses easily betrayed them. In a piece on virgiliogomes.com, the eponymous writer quotes Francisco Manuel Alves, the abbot of Bacal, in Portugal: “Because they were not allowed to eat pork as imposed by their faith, they (the Jews) imagined a sausage that, although it was similar to the sausages that at the time were the main food of the people, did not contain forbidden food.” And, that’s exactly what they did: reimagined the sausage using chicken, game meat and beef to avoid persecution. So, the sausage they invented looked like a chorizo, and it used any meat other than pork, lots of bread, garlic, paprika (for seasoning), and it was smoked.
Eventually their deep fried goodness led to them being an integral part of Portuguese cuisine, and the Portuguese, of course, made them with pork. Apparently, the best Alheira around today is the Alheira de Mirandela, which is served deep-fried and with an egg on top. In 2011, the Alheira de Mirandela was voted one of Portugal’s seven gastronomic wonders.