Açorda is a typical simple Portuguese meal, which is made from a handful of basic ingredients: eggs, bread, olive oil, garlic, cilantro, water, and salt. It’s the iconic soup of the Alentejo region of Portugal, which sweeps across from Spain to the Atlantic, right through the center of the country. Like so much cozinha pobre (rural fare), açorda is the very notion of frugality itself. Soup really doesn’t come much easier than this!
In times gone by, a large pot of water, flavored with cilantro, would be set to boil, into which large hunks of bread would be placed, and then eggs would be cracked into the water to poach. It was a frugal way of filling hardworking peasant bellies with something warm and nourishing, which would keep them going for several hours at a time!
These days, açorda – or sopa Alentejana as it’s also known – while still adhering to basic frugal principles of using slightly stale Alentejano bread and cheap and plentiful eggs (at least, they are cheap and plentiful if you’re a Portuguese aldeão who keeps hens!), is somewhat more flavorsome, thanks to the cilantro, garlic, and extra virgin olive oil pesto which is added after the eggs are poached.
What is Alentejano bread?
Apart from eggs, bread is the key ingredient in this açorda – specifically, the rustic bread, pão Alentejano. Pão Alentejano – sometimes simply called alentejo – is a sourdough which has been through a long fermentation process to give it its distinctive sour taste. It has a crisp crust and a soft, somewhat holey crumb, similar to its British counterpart, the cottage loaf (although cottage loaf is made with yeast, not a sour leaven).
If you can’t get pão Alentejano, or you don’t fancy making it yourself, you can use sourdough – either homemade or from your local baker – which is a day or two old. Or even pane Toscano. Both work equally well, in my experience.
Portugal’s Alentejo Region
From pretty little whitewashed houses perched on hilltops looking over wheat fields, olive groves, and vineyards, to wild forests and golden sand dunes, the Alentejo is generally accepted as one of Portugal’s most unspoiled regions, and is home to several nature reserves and 40 miles-long beaches. In fact, the Alentejo’s beaches are regularly featured on lists of the best beaches in Europe!
Due to the abundance of food and drink produced in the region, the Alentejo – which simply means “beyond the river Tejo” (Tagus in English) – is often referred to the bread basket of Portugal. In addition, thanks to the proliferation of cork oak (sobreiro), the Alentejo is also the biggest producer of cork in the world. Quite handy, given that the region is also responsible for half of all the wine produced in Portugal!
Variations of Açorda Alentejana
According to some schools of thought, açorda is the very soul of the Alentejo, so deeply rooted in the region’s cultural and gastronomic heritage is this soup. At its simplest – as we have made here – it’s a broth which is flavored with herbs, and served over bread and eggs. However, it can be so much more. For example, it may be flavored with pennyroyal instead of cilantro – there are even those who claim that this is how açorda was originally made.
In coastal areas of the Alentejo, such as Estremadura, açorda may have fresh or salted cod (bacalhau), hake, shad, or shrimp, clams, and other seafood added, while inland, rabbit, cured sausage (linguiça), or bacon might be used instead. The river fish, bogas, can also be added to açorda, and other aromatics may include paprika, parsley, and bay leaves.
In his book, Alentejanando, author Joaquim Pulga states that authentic açorda must be made with cilantro, garlic, olive oil, green peppers, cod, poached eggs and bread… and then goes on to say that actually, you can leave out the eggs, peppers, and fish if you really want to!
For vegetarians, there is a version which uses tomatoes, another with green or red bell peppers, and yet others with soft ewes’ and goats’ cheese. Again, aromatics, particularly with the tomato version (which hails from Moura), include bay leaves, paprika, and parsley, as well as onions. Some people also add potatoes for even more heartiness!
Such hearty açordas as these are generally eaten as the main part of a meal, and often referred to as migas (which simply means, “crumbs”, and alludes to the use of bread in the soup). They’re not dissimilar to the Tuscan ribollita.
How to Make Açorda Alentejana
Leaving aside the variations, the ingredients for basic açorda are very similar; however, the methods of making the soup differ somewhat. Of course!
Some cooks say you should never cut the bread for açorda, that it soaks up the broth and flavorings better if it’s torn. Some prefer to make a pesto from the garlic, cilantro, and olive oil, and mix it to the poaching water.
Others lightly pound the aromatics, which they place into the bottom of the serving bowl, with the bread and egg on top, ladle in the water from poaching the eggs, and then add the olive oil and seasoning last.
Some make a mixture of garlic and cilantro (or pennyroyal) so coarse that the leaves are merely bruised, and mix this in with the water before adding to the egg-topped bread.
And there are those who fill their bowls with broken bread, so it becomes a much heartier migas-type dish.
According to Portuguese cook Maria de Lourdes Modesto, herself from the Alentejo, the correct way to make açorda is to use cilantro and pennyroyal, and crush them with garlic and salt. You then add this mixture to a serving dish, and drizzle it with olive oil, then add the water from poaching the eggs. Maria says to use a piece of bread to stir these ingredients together, then taste and season, and only then should you add the bread, diced or torn into pieces, to the broth. She advises adding the eggs to the broth or serving them on individual plates, separate from the soup.
As you can see, there is no one right way to make açorda – although I am sure there will be many folks who will tell you that their way is the right way. The best advice I have been given however, is from the mother of one of my Portuguese friends, and that is to make it according to your own taste!
- 6 eggs
- 8 cloves garlic
- 1 bunch cilantro (or pennyroyal or mint, depending on taste)
- 6 slices alentejano bread (stale), or thick rustic bread baked over a wood fire
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 8 cups water
In a mortar, crush the garlic with a pestle.
Add the cilantro leaves and olive oil gradually to form a paste.
In a pot, bring the water to a boil over high heat. Season with salt and pepper.
Reduce the heat to medium.
Break the eggs over the pan and poach them for 3 minutes.
Remove the poached eggs with a slotted spoon and place them on a plate lined with paper towels.
Pour the cilantro and garlic paste into the egg-cooking water and stir well.
Prepare 6 bowls. At the bottom of each bowl, place a slice of bread and a poached egg.
Pour the garlic and cilantro broth, adjust seasoning and serve immediately.
Açorda de camarão, with shrimps
Açorda de marisco, with seafood
Açorda de bacalhau, with salted cod
Açorda de peixe com couve, with fish and cabbage
Açorda de coelho, with rabbit
Açorda de tomate, with tomato