It seems unquestionable that the ‘açorda’ [ɐ'sordɐ], a sort of Portuguese bread panada, is a gift which we owe to the Arab presence in our lands.  It also seems that it is a subsistence dish, most probably born out of food crises. The fact that it reached our days lays on its easy confection and most of all on the simple mixture of basic ingredients. Bread always was, and still is, a structuring element of our nourishment.

When we analyse the sources, the cookbook, of the Arab’s presence in the Iberian Peninsula we find many soups to which bread was added, roughly crumbled or coarsely cut. This seems to be the origin to the açorda in our country. To name it açorda though only seems to occur in the southern part of the country. It is never associated with the bread soups that are still cooked in the Beiras or Trás-os-Montes regions.
And then we have the strongest variation of açorda, a soup no more but a reference dish in Portugal. No one along the coast line will consider giving up the various fish and shellfish açorda.
In the Arab cook treatise, Kitâb-al-tabîj, an anonymous text from the 10th and 11th centuries, you will find the bread panada mentioned for the first time. In another treatise, of Ibn Abd al-Ra’uf, the bread panada is also mentioned. It goes by the name of Tarid [thari:d] or Tarida, its Arabic name. It means coarsely crumbled bread, to which garlic, coriander and hot water are added. Looking in Arabic dictionaries one will also find the name Ath Turdâ, meaning soup containing bread.
But the most famous treatise of those times dates from the 13th century. That would be Fudalat al-Khiwan… and was written by Ibn Razin Tujibi between 1238 and 1266. Translating from the French, its title would be something like “Delicacies for the table and the best kinds of food”. In this book there is a chapter dedicated to Panades (soops with bread) just after the chapter dedicated to bread. One finds 25 Panades recipes majorly enriched with meat, from chicken to pig, finding pigeons, lamb or suckling-lamb in between.  Also, three recipes appear in there filled under milk and these all end up with sugar and cinnamon. It seems to me that they belong in the sweets section. It is curious however and I would like to point out that there is a recipe for an aphrodisiac Panade.

When one goes through today recipes from the North-African countries, the fact that one doesn’t find the famous bread soups comes as a surprise. Is it due to the changing in the bread making? And this due to the French influence during the first half of the 20th century?

It does seem though that our açordas appear to be born out of the use of making bread soups and of its later transformation.

As I mentioned in the beginning, bread is still a structuring element of our nourishment. In the past bread would have to be taken to its very last crumb for its value of permanent support to consumption. Its use in soups would be a solution for older and dried out bread. It would mean its integral absorption.

In Portugal the first mention to an açorda seems to appear in one of Gil Vicente’s1 plays, “Farsa dos Almocreves (The Farce of the Muleteers)”: “Thy voice is so fat / it sounds like an elephant / that is full of açorda”. And none of the actual body standards and aesthetics had yet been established!

We all know that soups were a dish of importance able to supply a whole meal. The bread fulfilled its mission on thickening it. The chestnut had a limited regional use and the potatoes was yet far from making its appearance.

In “A Arte de Cozinha… (The Art of Cooking…)”, the first cook book to be printed in Portugal, in 1680, Domingos Rodrigues, its author, states a clear difference between broths and soups. The latter were always cooked with bread or had bread added to them in the end.  Sometimes, and it would be a current term, soups would designate the bread slices over which cooked ingredients, especially meat, would be laid. It’s also Domingos Rodrigues who features three sweet soups, always containing bread, sugar and cinnamon.

The following book to be published in Portugal was the “Cozinheiro Moderno, ou Nova Arte de Cozinha… [the Modern Cook or the New Art of Cooking...]”, from 1780, by Lucas Rigaud. It has a more selective approach to cooking and attempts to give way to the French trend. It still mentions several soups for most of which confection starts with the bread preparation.   Hence the designation of soup always being associated with bread.
I didn’t find the word açorda in our first two cook books. Could it be that this term was only used for domestic cooking?

In 1876 João da Mata publishes its “Arte de Cozinha [The Art of Cooking]” especially addressed to professionals.
There you will find the açorda with codfish, a bread soup Portuguese style and several other soups with bread. The açorda’s recipe here is not a soup but a very similar açorda to those made nowadays.

This book flows easily into the 20th century and it will be the guide book to the contemporary professionals.
Only with Carlos Bento da Maia and his “Tratado Completo de Cozinha e Copa [Complete Treatise for the Cook and the Confectioner]” will the açordas come out as a cooking preparation, with eleven recipes, clearly detached from the many soups with bread. Those were the times when restaurants started to appear and regional cooking gained importance. Nevertheless, French cooking kept being followed by many since it still was the only one accepted as haute cuisine.

The presence of regional Portuguese cooking in restaurants was taken as a positive action from the 40’s on. The legal imposition that made regional cooking obligatory in the Pousadas de Portugal2, open on 1942 and thought as elite places, took many restaurants to follow their lead.
In 1936 “Culinária Portuguesa [Portuguese way of cooking]” was published by António Maria de Oliveira Bello. This is finally a book in praise and defense of regional cooking. Seven recipes of açorda can be found in it. The same author had already published a recipe of Garlic Açorda Portuguese style in his book “Culinária”, in 1928. This was a soup where bread is the main ingredient, over which were laid fried or poached eggs previously prepared on the side… Keeping in mind that this is the one açorda that remains in the regional cookbook as a soup, could it be that the açorda in the Alentejo style came from this recipe?

In 1940 “Volúpia” by Albino Forjaz de Sampaio was published. This is, in my opinion, the first gastronomy book in Portugal. In his description of gastronomical Portugal the author does mention the açorda. He even presents a recipe in verse by the poet José Inácio de Araújo: “The Portuguese açorda”, where he classifies it as a Portuguese invention, strengthening nourishment and capable of defeating the moors.

But what is the reality of the açordas in the Portuguese cuisine? We first have the açorda/soup of which the açorda in the Alentejo’s way is the best example. Then the glorified açorda as a whole dish and the enormous variety of recipes from the Douro, all the Atlantic coast with fish and shellfish, from Beira to Alentejo with codfish, and the Alentejo with pork meat and sausages.

The concept of açorda as garnishing or a side dish should also be retained, of which we may savour an excellent example in Shad served with its own soft roes’ açorda. And we will always have wonderful açordas as long as we keep the quality of our bread. New recipes and more inventive can be created. One can soak the bread with chicken broth and then add the shellfish. What cannot be changed is our bread.

We will certainly be forced to change small gestures on the finishing of some açordas, such as the one shown in the photo above. For food security reasons the pleasure of witnessing the raw egg-yolk being incorporated at last minute is not possible anymore. What a shame!
As for bread soups - these will be addressed in a fore coming text.

Photo: ©Adriana Freire

1 Gil Vicente (1465-1536) is considered the father to the Theatre in Portugal and one of the greatest play writers ever. His plays, satirical, farces, comedies and tragic-comedies, made a mockery mostly of social themes. These were played in Court in the wakening to the Renaissance world. The “Farsa dos Almocreves (the Farce of the Muleteers)” was written in 1527. (back to the main text)

2 The Portuguese chain of hotels Pousadas de Portugal included luxury hotels built in architectural or natural heritage places, and was owned by the state until recently. It was launched as a ‘national’ tourism quality product, which included restaurants in each building where regional food was served, dignifying Portuguese gastronomy. (back to the main text)