Sausages – The food that helped fool the inquisition

By Phil Egginton

Sausage is a type of food known all over the world in its various forms. However, some forms of Portuguese sausage have their origin not just as a food but in helping to save lives.

“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition” is a popular and oft-repeated line from the 1970’s comedy show Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The Spanish Inquisition of the 15th and 16th centuries was originally intended to identify heretics among those who converted from Judaism and Islam to Catholicism.

As a consequence, in 1492, Spain expelled its Jewish population and many thousands fled to Portugal. King John II of Portugal initially granted them asylum but quickly ended up deporting many. Following his death in 1494, the new king, Manuel I restored freedom to the Jews. However, in 1497, under pressure from Spain, he decreed that all Jews had to convert to Christianity or leave the country without their children. Subsequently, the Portuguese Inquisition, officially known as the General Council of the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Portugal, was established in 1536.

Practising Jews or Jews who had pretended to convert to Christianity, known as Cristãos Novos or New Christians, were paraded and many then burnt at the stake in Lisbon if discovered. Disguising themselves as these New Christian converts, Portugal’s secret Jews went to considerable lengths to hide their true religion.

For example, they wrote Hebrew prayers in Christian prayer books and added Hebrew words to Christian ritual. In the mountains of northern Portugal, the locals preserved pork sausages to see their families through winter. These sausages were hung prominently outside in large meaty coils. However, the Jews did not eat pork and could be conspicuous for their missing sausages. So local Jews developed a bread-based sausage, a variety that is known as alheira. This would deceive any local informers, who would otherwise betray them to the Inquisition for not eating pork.

The Jews of northern Portugal’s Trás-os-Montes area made their sausage with bread and chicken; It is now one of Portugal’s best-known sausages called Alheira de Mirandela. This is now protected in EU law as a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) foodstuff. Alheiras were traditionally grilled or roasted and served with boiled vegetables. Nowadays, they are often fried and accompanied by chips and a fried egg.

Another variety of Portuguese sausage with similar origins is farinheira. It was also created by Portuguese Jews during the inquisition. Farinheira is made with flour, pepper, paprika and wine. It is cured by smoking. Some farinheiras have PGI status, such as Farinheira de Estremoz e Borba from Estremoz / Borba and Farinheira de Portalegre from Portalegre. Farinheira is served in traditional dishes like feijoada and can also be eaten on its own, roasted or fried. Although it resembles a chouriço sausage, it is never cooked sliced since its dough-like content would pour out of the skin during cooking.

Phil Egginton is a journalist and photographer and now lives in the Algarve.


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