It is in northeastern Portugal, in the regions of Trás-os-Montes and Beira Alta, that alheira, a traditional homemade sausage, that typically represents Portuguese family and popular cuisine, is originally from.
This sausage has crossed the mountains and is now ubiquitous in Portugal in supermarkets and casual restaurants. It is a quick and easy meal on the go.
The horseshoe-shaped alheira is smoked and mainly composed of poultry, bread, olive oil, garlic and chili pepper. A rather spicy sausage!
The name alheira, derived from the Portuguese word alho meaning “garlic”, used to refer to all types of sausages seasoned with this ingredient.
The Marranos, Jewish people of the Iberian Peninsula forced to conversion and hiding
In 1492, the Church of Spain began a fierce persecution of the Jews, forcing them into exile. They found refuge in Portugal for a time but the king, wanting to marry an heiress of the Spanish throne, finally followed the example of his neighbors, ordering either the expulsion or the conversion of the Jews to Catholicism. Some of them converted while others continued to practice their religion secretly. These were to be called the marranos, a pejorative term derived from the Spanish word meaning pig.
The Jews do not eat pork, and at the time of the Inquisition in Portugal, they were easily spotted because unlike the Portuguese Christians, they did not make smoked sausages that were drying, hanging in the smoking rooms. So to avoid being noticed and denounced, they invented a sausage made from other meats such as poultry, veal, duck and game, mixed with bread to give it a good texture.
Over time, this recipe was adopted by Christians who sometimes added pork and nowadays, the alheira is not necessarily kosher.
Protected Geographical Indication (PGI)
The most famous of the alheiras is Mirandela alheira in Trás-os-Montes, which was considered one of the seven wonders of Portuguese cuisine in 2011, alongside pastéis of Belém and the sheep milk cheese Serra da Estrela.
Two types of alheira received a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI). Alheira de Vinhais and Barroso-Montalegre. They distinguish themselves by a slightly different composition but it is not easy to notice the difference for a novice.
In Portugal, you will also find “the poor alheira”, which is a cheap version intended for the poor class; and a more expensive version of regional productions, composed of more noble ingredients such as game.
Since smoking is a traditional food preservation technique that has the additional benefit of enhancing the flavor, many countries have developed smoked sausage recipes.
Portugal also produces other types of smoked sausage, including farinheira, made from pork meat and fat, raw wheat flour, garlic and paprika and linguisa with pork, also seasoned with garlic and paprika.
Bread and broth
Traditionally, bread and broth are the two important ingredients of alheira, which is rather unusual for charcuterie.
The composition of the broth varies according to the meat used and the recipes. However, the use of the chicken is essential to the flavor of the broth. It must be tasty and very fat.
Sourdough bread was often prepared at home, usually made from wheat, but in Trásos-Montes, it was made from rye or corn.
It must have a dense crumb and be thick. The idea is to get the bread to absorb as much broth as possible. The best is to let it stale a few days then slice it very thinly.
The meat is carefully boned, chopped with a knife, or shredded. It can be noticed in the alheira.
A good sausage stuffing depends on the consistency and temperature of the mixture. When the stuffing that needs to be homogeneous is still hot, it is easier to fill the casings. When cooking, poke the sausage in several places with a toothpick to prevent it from exploding.
According to tradition, sausages were left to dry and smoked for several days over a fire pit and then kept in a grain bin.
The alheira is usually grilled on warm embers or roasted and served with vegetables such as turnip leaves cooked with garlic and potatoes, and drizzled with olive oil.
It can also be stewed and wrapped in cabbage leaves. Nowadays, it is often fried and served with eggs and French fries but these very fat sides are probably not the ones that highlight the flavors of this sausage the best.
- 2 lb wheat bread
- ½ lb beef
- 5 oz. ham
- 1 large hen
- 1 lb streaky bacon
- 15 cloves garlic , peeled
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 1 bunch parsley
- Dried sausage casings
- ½ lb bacon
- ¾ cup olive oil
- Chili powder (according to taste)
- Soak the dried casings in cold water for 4 hours.
- Add the beef, streaky bacon, ham and hen in a pressure cooker with plenty of water to obtain a very fat broth at the end of cooking.
- Add the garlic cloves, bay leaves, cayenne pepper, parsley and salt.
- Cook for 1h30.
- Remove the meat and reserve the broth.
- Remove the skin from the hen and debone it.
- Mix the fat part of the streaky bacon. Finely chop the remaining meats and the chicken.
- Wash the casings several times in cold water by changing the water several times.
- Cut the casings into sections of about 8 inches and turn them upside down. Set aside.
- In a large salad bowl, cut the wheat bread into very thin slices.
- Add the olive oil to the broth and heat. Barely cover the wheat bread with broth, cover with a cloth and let stand for 15 minutes.
- Using a wooden spoon, mix the bread and broth well.
- Add all the chopped meat and hen, mixed streaky bacon and paprika and mix well.
- If the mixture is too compact, add a little broth. The mixture must have the consistency of a thick soup. Adjust the seasoning if necessary.
- Fill the reserved sections of casings with an sausage stuffing funnel.
- While filling, the stuffing should be still hot. The procedure is more difficult to accomplish with a cooled stuffing.
- Tie both ends of each sausage securely with food thread.
- Place the sausages in a smoker or in the refrigerator for 2 days. The use of the heat of a smokehouse to dry alheiras is the most appropriate, as it makes the alheiras tastier.