Emma Higgins finds nose-to-tail eating has been the norm in an isolated part of north east Portugal for centuries
It’s after the fifth plate is put down on the table that I wonder if the meat onslaught will ever end. Two kinds of steak, three varieties of sausage and bacalhau (Portuguese salted cod) for good measure. Once the smell, salty and smoked, starts finding its way to my nose, however, I’m sure that we’ll make a very good go of it.
I’m sitting with Anabela, David and João, all from Portugal’s Trás-os-Montes region in the country’s far north east. It’s February, raining and cold outside, which makes the blazing fire in this rural restaurant all the more inviting. I feel a million miles away from the classic sun-and-sand picture of Portugal.
Trás-os-Montes (which translates to ‘behind the mountains’) is one of the most isolated parts of Portugal, which has cultivated a survivalist way of cooking and eating. In times gone by, the road links between Trás-os-Montes and the rest of the country were poor, so the locals had to make the most of the ingredients they could source close by and use every edible part. A modern Trás-os-Montes menu still reflects these traditions.
Fumeiros — smokehouses — became a signature part of the landscape, providing a way for locals to preserve meat for future use. With the opening up of the province to the rest of Portugal in the late-20th century, there are fewer fumeiros but smoking meat is still inherent in the region’s food culture. That’s clear from the plates in front of me — chouriço is piled high in chunks, oozing scarlet juices, next to a serving of salpicão, another sausage made with pork loin, wine, garlic and paprika. There’s also alheira, a pork-free sausage prepared with poultry instead of pork, thought to have been invented by Jews in Portugal masking their faith when it was outlawed during the Inquisition.
Many families in Trás-os-Montes own pigs, my fellow diners tell me. “When we kill the pig in our village, we use all of it,” David explains. “Sometimes I throw scraps to our dogs, and my mother shouts at me because we use all the leftovers in our chouriço. When we have prepared all the meat,” he continues, “we share it by putting on a feast for everyone in the village.” These communal dinners are held regularly within villages, but there are also larger events that bring the whole region together, such as the Vinhais Festa do Fumeiro, a smokehouse festival, and the Festival do Butelo e das Casulas, an homage to the region’s signature meat-stuffed pork intestine.
Low income and scarcity of food might be an old problem in Trás-os-Montes, but sharing takes top priority regardless. Anabela, David and João nudge plates towards me to encourage another bite. I can’t refuse, and dive my fork in for more.