For a little French girl she was less than trim. You might call her a fat lass. You’d certainly be a fat lad if you indulged in her more than once a week. But I’d gone all the way to Porto on the Atlantic coast of Portugal to find her and if her looks weren’t everything it might just be love at first bite.
After all, this time last year I was further south in Lisbon nibbling away at the pasteis de nata, what looks like a scorched custard tart, to find culinary heaven.
But it was not to be with the Francesinha, which is Portuguese for ‘little French girl,’ the speciality sandwich of Porto and the surrounding area. Take two slices of lightly toasted bread and fill it with a triple layer of roast beef, ham and spicy sausage, sprinkle cheese on top and bake it, then serve it up with a sauce of tomato and beer with, very often, a fried egg on top and chips on the side. And, no, I have not made that up.
I bought one in the Pimms Café Restaurante on the Rua do Infante for under 10 euros. I knew vaguely about it, that it was supposed to be the Portuguese answer to France’s croque monsieur toasted cheese and ham sandwich.
I love tracking down local and regional food specialities which the rest of the world does not know about or has forgotten but often there can be more fun in the finding than the eating.
It was with great joy I discovered the last maker of polony sausage in Wombwell, which became ecstatic delight when it turned out the company was founded by a butcher called Harry Potter. My spirits plunged a little southwards when I tasted it. You can read all about this stalwart of Barnsley funeral teas here http://wp.me/p5wFIX-52
The Francesinha was not unpleasant. It was a good cheesy, meaty chew. The chipolata-sized sausage was spicy, as was the sauce. I listed the ingredients I knew to my wife and the man at the next table broke off from canoodling with his girlfriend to say: “Sometimes they put whisky in it.”
I don’t think there was whisky in this. “Tomato, beer, meat and salt,” said the owner of Pimms who asked me what I thought of it. I suspect by meat he meant stock or essence. I must have been less than enthusiastic because he disappeared after that.
Cafes and restaurants in Porto compete to have the best Francesinha and guard their sauce recipes fiercely. I’m told you can buy bottled sauces for it. There are fish and vegetarian versions but it is the triple-decker sensation of beef, sausage and ham, rounded off with cheese and a buzz from the sauce which make this what it is.
Chips are usually served on the side. The Francesinha Especial comes with a fried egg on top. Now that adds up to a lot of calories.
The dish, invented in the 1960s, has so far not spread much outside Porto but they are proud of it. I wonder if it could catch on in Sheffield?