In numerous posts over the past couple of years, we've reminded the readers of Flavors of Brazil that the roots of Brazilian cuisine rest on the combination of three culinary traditions - the original tradition being the Native American or Indian one. It existed in the lands that would become Brazil long before the arrival of Europeans, and it still strongly influences Brazilian food culture today, particularly in the north of the country. The second tradition, the European tradition, was carried to Brazil by explorers, colonists and immigrants, particularly from Portugal. Its influence is felt most strongly in Brazil's south and south-east. The final tradition is the African, particularly important in north-eastern Brazil, and which came from Africa in the memories of slaves captured on that continent and transported to Brazil.
These three traditions date back to the very beginnings of Brazil and combine in all sorts of felicitous fashions to shape traditional and contemporary Brazilian cuisines alike. But these influences are not just something of the past. They continue to this day bringing new ingredients, new cooking styles and new recipes to the constantly-evolving world of Brazilian gastronomy.
One good example of this constant re-invention of Brazilian culinary influences is the recent arrival in Brazil of a Portuguese sandwich called the francesinha. Unlike many other Portuguese-influenced Brazilian dishes, like those made with salt-cod (bacalhau) or those which date back to the convent-confectionaries of 16th and 17th century Portugal, the francesinha only recently arrived in Brazil. It couldn't have come over with colonists and explorers, since it was only created in the 1960s, in Porto, Portugal. And it's only been in the first decade of this century that it has shown up on menus in this country, where it seems to be rising meteorically in culinary consciousness.
The francesinha (meaning little French girl in Portuguese) was invented by a Portuguese chef who had lived in Paris in the 60s and who was returned to Portugal enchanted by the beauty and style of French women. He was equally enchanted by a hot ham-and-cheese French sandwich called croque-monsieur. When he returned to Porto he used the croque-monsieur as a base for his inventive tribute to French womanhood - the francesinha. His sandwich was an immediate sensation and other bars and restaurants, first in Porto and then throughout Portugal, began to serve them, often modifying the original recipe with new ingredients and side-dishes. Today, almost every bar and lunch spot in the country has some sort of francesinha on offer.
With its diminuitive name (little French girl) one would think that the sandwich would be light and delicate. Nothing of the sort. A francesinha is a meal-and-a-half in a sandwich and finishing one leaves room for very little else for a long time. A nutritional study has found that the average francesinha packs a walloping 1200 calories once you add in the almost obligatory side of french fries.
So what makes a francesinha a francesinha? Basically the sandwich begins with two extra-thick slices of heavy, rustic peasant bread. Between the slices lie slices of sausage, ham, roast beef and cheese. Once the sandwich is plated another slice of cheese is placed over the top piece of bread and then francesinha sauce (a rich beef gravy made with beer, a touch of Port wine, and a good dose of piri-piri peppers) is poured over the sandwich, soaking the bread and the contents. The comes the final touch - a sunny-side-up fried egg on top of it all and plenty of french fries on the side. There you have it - 1200 calories of bread, meat, melted cheese, beer, wine and french fries - a francesinha. Brazil's latest gift from the mother country; the delight of Brazilian gluttons and gourmands and the despair of nutritionists and doctors throughout the country.
If you're brave enough to face down a francesinha, we'll tell you how to make one, including the special sauce, in our next post.