Oporto's cheesy love affair
For most people, the specialty of Oporto, the hard-charging capital of northern Portugal, is Port wine. In my book, though, it’s a shameless protein bomb called the francesinha, or “little French one.”
There’s really nothing French about it, unless you credit the story that a local guy adapted the French toasted ham and cheese sandwich croque-monsieur to the Portuguese taste. I’m skeptical. Toasting aside, the cheese isn’t even inside the sandwich, as in a croque-monsieur, it’s melted on top. Plus the whole thing is covered with hot beef gravy.
It’s a bit like that Kentucky treat the Hot Brown Sandwich, invented 85 years ago at the Brown Hotel in Louisville. But the Hot Brown is an open-faced turkey and bacon sandwich (plus ham, sometimes) covered with Mornay sauce and run under a broiler. The francesinha has sub sandwich tendencies -- it always contains at least five meats. A typical mix would be mortadella, roast beef, garlic sausage, salpicão (a cured sausage like salami) and ham. And it’s covered with melted cheese and beef gravy, not with a cheese-flavored white sauce. A lot of Portuenses prize the gravy even over the sandwich. It usually has some tomato in it, giving a reddish tinge and a bit of tang.
As for the cheese, it’s not runny, like a Mornay sauce, but elastic, like melted Jack. It tends to form sturdy strings when you cut the sandwich -- obviously, this is a sandwich you have to eat with a knife and fork -- and they can make a francesinha embarrassing to eat. (If you can’t manage to cut a string with the side of your fork, the best thing is to ensnare it in the tines and rotate the fork until the cheese snaps.)
This Oporto specialty has been spreading elsewhere in Portugal. I found a little dive called O Rei das Francesinhas (The King of Little French Ones) in the ancient university town of Coimbra, where the local specialty is properly chanfana, goat stewed in red wine. (Which, by the way, is unbeatable if you like goat dishes such as birria. A good chanfana is almost impossibly rich and meaty -- meatier than roast beef, meatier than oxtail. Almost impossibly goaty too; as gamy as Satan’s armpit.)
The most elegant francesinha I’ve had was at the Oporto landmark Café Guarany. The gravy was 100% beef, no tomato, the sandwich came garnished with an exquisite prawn impaled vertically on a toothpick, and a crescent-shaped bowl of French fries was set discreetly beside the plate. (Fries are the only vegetable likely to intrude on this animal-protein experience.) Among the meats Café Guarany used was a dark red link sausage that they would only describe as German. The result was a symphony of smoked and cured-meat flavors wreathed in plush gravy and melted cheese.
You could drink one of the sharp, fruity local wines with this assemblage, I suppose, but everybody seems to prefer bock beer served in oversize wine glasses. The leading brand is Supérbock (accented on the second syllable, because the name is a pun on the adjective supérbo) -- you see clever posters advertising Supérbock all over the place; for instance, showing a medieval castle made of cheese rounds with cans of Supérbock at the corners serving as turrets. It’s a mouth-filling beer, good and malty like any bock but hoppier than you’d expect.
So here’s the phrase to remember when you’re in Oporto. Memorize this: “Uma francesinha, por favor, e uma cerveja bock.”
-- Charles Perry
Photo: Charles Perry