We are already so used to the sensational press. Sometimes we even doubt the news itself. Despite the habit, every time something disturbing comes up, we ask ourselves whether there is any truth in the content or what the underlying interests are.

We were all taken aback by the article published in the 6th March 2007 edition of the “Público” newspaper1 with the headline and subtitle being: “Quality of the alheiras (Portuguese bread sausage) is worrisome where food safety is concerned” and “Bacteria responsible for spontaneous abortions found in 60 per cent of the industrial lots analyzed by Portuguese scientists”. The news presented in this manner, leads us to think we are experiencing news terrorism. In order to understand the full message one has to read the article to the very end. And, after all, the bacteria found are eliminated after being cooked. Well, nobody eats raw alheiras!

Why have such alarming titles? And even more serious is that five days later a TV channel broadcast the same news headline in the news trailer.

Is it somebody who does not like alheiras? Or could it have been a slip up on the choice of the headlines? A newspaper like “Público” should not have to resort to these sensationalist means. Or is it to force the readers to read the whole page?

Even ASAE made a confirmed statement saying “The study is based on criteria in Ireland and considers alheiras to be product fit to be eaten”. “The truth is that the alheiras are submitted to a thermal treatment before they are eaten raw. And the temperature makes the world of a difference.” Just as well that ASAE2 set our mind to rest.

Naturally there is indignation on behalf of the alheira producers and the Transmontano3 inhabitants in general. This is unnecessary alarmism and not very educational. The press of that Region reacted and alheira producers from both Mirandela4 and Vinhais5 offered to give interviews on the misinformation.

The curious thing is that not only was there a reaction to the threat from the Region, but also from other national media. They also wanted to clarify this episode. I will only quote António Mega Ferreira6 who in his Chronicle of the magazine “Visão”7 dated 15th March, refers to a telephone call where the person he is talking to asks him: “Can you believe it that now they want to ban alheira”. He explains how he tried to transmit total calm about the issue. But straight afterwards he went running to buy alheiras before some “staunch defender”, possibly overcome with an excess of zeal, could withdraw them from circulation. I’m glad to state that the alheiras transmontanas, “undoubtedly, the best”. How many other cases like these must have happened? The victimized alheira continues to be a tasty snack and a good dish, which is a consolation to many people.

After all what did the scientific report say? A bacterium was detected. Lysteria monocytogenes , that can also be found in milk, in cheese, and other food. What happens is that the bacteria are eliminated by high temperatures. Therefore, if the alheira is well-cooked, the bacteria are killed.

I feel like suggesting that this is the message that should be contained in the headlines mentioned above. Or simply say “The dangers of an undercooked alheira”.

Once again, concerning this matter I feel like writing a manifest on how to cook the alheira. Or rather, to write about the way the Lisbon restaurants should prepare it.

The alheira is usually, in Lisbon, served fried, after which the skin is removed. It is served with French fries and they even serve a fried egg to go with it. Nobody in Trás-os-Montes eats alheira prepared that way. And we begin by a need for food balance. They are also never eaten in summer.

We all know the harm caused by some food, namely the alheira, on cholesterol. Therefore, if the basic food is already heavy, it should be prepared in a lighter way, such as grilling it, but never frying it. To make matter worse, the French fries are another big mistake, and the fried egg is the culmination of the bomb.

I grew up eating the alheira as a main dish, prepared in a frying pan with no fat. The alheira is pricked with a fork and lets off its own fat. That fat in the frying pan is what is going to cook the alheira. When the alheira bursts, and this is what restaurants fear because it spoils the presentation, but to me the best part of the alheira is how the inside oozes out and becomes crispy. Then it is always served with cabbage sprouts which are either boiled or sautéed with a little olive oil and garlic.

As a snack, we simply put it on a grilling plate or on a barbecue grill in the fireplace, turn it over so that it cooks on all sides, and then cut it into pieces.

I was very happy to see, recently, that the alheira filling is being used in new culinary manifestations. From chamuças8 made out of alheira, alheira açorda (see my texts about açorda) mushrooms stuffed with alheira, crispy alheira, scrambled eggs with alheira and green asparagus, to alheira rice with sprouts, alheira risotto , and even alheira ice-cream on thin slices of mango. All of these are formulae to glorify the alheira and this should challenge restaurants other than those in Trás-os-Montes.

But, how did this sausage come about? Is it a poor cousin to the noble pepperoni or the chorizos of the Region?

According to the famous Francisco Manuel Alves9, the Abbot of Baçal, necessity is the mother of invention, and because the Jews were a permanent target during the Inquisition, “…because they were not allowed to eat pork imposed by their faith, they 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.” The Abbot of Baçal even called the alheira the Jewish chorizo. Manuel Mendes10, called it “chouriça da resistência” (resisistence chorizo) also refers to the origin of the alheira in the Fifteenth Century, the need for Jews and New Christians to consume the sausage, but without pork. The alheira contained various meat types including game meat. In fact, today there are alheiras that are made entirely out of game meat.

This idea of associating the emergence of the alheira with the Jews settled near the border zone, so that they could easily escape to Spain, seems to justify the practice of the alheira being suited to the cold transmontana land. At the turn of the Fifteenth Century and beginning of the Sixteenth Century, they were allowed to cross the borders due to being victims of persecution. The Portuguese and Spanish crowns tolerated the infiltrations. The Jews were workers; they owned fortunes and were necessary traders.

But how long was the alheira made without pork? As from when did they start introducing pork? There are no records. However, my friend and fellow countryman, the History of Food researcher Armando Fernandes, promises in the near future to disclose a new theory to clarify, or cast doubts on the history of the alheira. I wonder if he is going to be able to convince us of the legend of the alheira?

While we are waiting, we will make the most of it and enjoy and appreciate the marvels of the alheira.

© Virgilio Gomes

Photo ©Jacinta Fernandes

1 Daily newspaper published in Portugal (back to the main text)

2 ASAE is the Authority for Food Control (back to the main text)

3 Transmontana is from Trás-os-Montes the region of northest of Portugal (back to the main text)

4 Mirandela is a city in Trás-os-Montes (back to the main text)

5 Vinhais is another city in Trás-os-Montes (back to the main text)

6 Important Portuguese writer (back to the main text)

7 Visão is a weekly magazine published in Portugal (back to the main text)

8 Chamuça is a traditional small fried cake from India (back to the main text)

9 Francisco Manuel Alves (1865-1947) important writer about history, archeology and regional habitudes of Trás-os-Montes (back to the main text)

10 Manuel Mendes (1906-1969) a Portuguese artist and writer (back to the main text)