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Thursday, June 2, 2016

A hotdog with a history

Our young Spanish hostess at the cottage where we are staying, Marta, said her reaction was the same as mine when she first tasted Alheira, the Portuguese sausage I didn't know I was waiting for all my life.

Two weeks earlier, tired after walking uphill for six hours, our small group of travelers was thirsty and hungry, too. We stopped in the only open cafe, Pappas Zaide, in the village of Provesende, high in the Douro wine valley. The owner and her helper took one look at us and asked, since it was late in the day and the kitchen was closing, if a few tapas and wine would be alright. We were relieved to not be turned away. In about 20 minutes they set out cold drinks, wines, cold meats, cheeses and bread, olives and a platter of crisp, fried slices of sausage. We consumed the tapas like plague locusts, stopping only long enough to ask them to prepare us two more servings of the sausage, which we all liked but could not remember ever having tasted before.

That's how love is, immediate and bewitching: The cooks among us started deconstructing the internal workings of the sausage as though we had unearthed an ancient timepiece.  "It has pork!" "No, it's got chicken!" "Wait, is this bread?" 

It turns out our family and friends tour of Portugal has been marked by discoveries of fabulously warm people, natural beauty, history, art, fine port, muscatel, red and white wine, music and singing, but the heart loves what it loves. For me, the magic began with the sausage named Alheira.

The restaurant owner at Pappas Zaide, Grazza, patiently explained how she prepares Alheira, starting with cooking poultry, beef and pork together with onion and spices, adding bread to the blended meats, then smoking the sausage for two days. At Pappas Zaide, they fry the sausage and slice it, but in our next encounter with Alheira, we had it sautéed and the meat was chopped more finely. We approved. Our third time to have Alheira was at the outdoor restaurant at the Fado museum in Lisbon's Alfama neighborhood. The casing was removed and the sausage was then deep fried and served as a curled link surrounding a fried egg in a copper bowl straight from the grill. We approved some more.

At each place we had Alheira, the recipe was altered. But it would be days before I learned of Alheira's important origins.

Serving us a plate of Alheira taken from the wood-fired grill just after arriving here at the cottage, David, our host, explained that Alheira was a life-saving invention for Portuguese Jews. During the Spanish Inquisition, many Jews left Spain for Portugal.  Over time, the persecution spread to the cities, so many Jews fled to the countryside. The military would travel into villages to search for Jewish families, which they could identify as suspicious and different from Catholic homes, because there were no hanging sausages in the doorways of Jewish homes. In an effort to fool the military patrols, Jewish cooks created the first porkless sausage, Alheira, containing beef, poultry and bread substituting for pork. They hung links of Alheira outside their doorways, making their homes appear the same as any other. Not every food can claim a creation story of such importance.

Nature talks to us through our senses

The light. On this still day the light is like a canopy of Mother Cabrini church blue. A sparrow flits from the roof to the garden. Planes pass overhead landing and leaving Lisbon making sharp contrails that linger into soft reminders. The ocean is azure blue with flecks of topaz and diamonds.

The audio soundtrack.  I perceive in stereo chittering birds calling to each other from one end of the grove of pines to the other. There's a triller. Now one that whistles. This morning we heard the grouse but could never spy them. The calls are varied. I can patch together a pattern, but it vanishes as soon as it appears. Chittering, trilling and loudest of all, insistent high-pitched scrapings from babies in their nests calling for their lunch.

Aromas. Our host gallops across the yard from the garden with a large red onion and a beet he presents for a future salad. Fresh from the earth's embrace they carry aromas born in the marriage of the garden to the sun and rain.  On our walk we passed the heated pine and inhaled the musky perfume. We retraced our steps to pause under the shade to drink in the perfume again, but it had flown away. Wild Spanish lavender, thyme, honeysuckle, other herbs unknown call out their aromas as we brush past them with our shoes, our socks and pants legs. From the stove herbs mingle with our rotisserie chicken leftovers from lunch to make new aromas predicting soups to come.

Touch. The sharp, impenetrable gorse that clumps like boulders along our path keeps all but the lizards from entering. The rocks are rough, save for the ones we saw far below us,  big as watermelons, tumbling to smoothness in the ocean's tango dance with the shore, flirting in her dress of scalloped hem.  Silty sand along the paths of our walk from our cottage to the cliffs above the ocean, sand that wizards I've never thanked in person not long ago transformed into the face of this device of ones and zeroes with which I write, my finger tip firm as it taps making corrections five times every three words  drunk as I am with pleasure.

Taste. Dark and potent coffee, water, clear and cool, fresh sheep's cheese on village made bread that your teeth have to tug at to convince admittance.