Why you should care
Because you know you shouldn’t, but God, you want to.
The francesinha, or “little French girl,” is something of gastronomic anomaly — although that doesn’t stop the nonvegetarian residents of Porto, Portugal’s northern “capital,” from savoring the coma-inducing bliss this sit-in-your-stomach-forever dish tends to produce. It’s an anomaly because the gargantuan sandwich is almost impossible to eat with your hands.
When picturing a francesinha, imagine a croque monsieur — the delicious baked or grilled French ham and cheese sandwich — that got extremely angry, hulked out into a muscle-bound edible behemoth and was then doused by the attendant cook with a zesty beer-and-tomato sauce to prevent any further, monsterlike growth. Daniel David Silva, a Portuguese emigrant returning from France, is often credited with creating the francesinha in the restaurant A Regaleira in the 1950s; some suggest that Napoleonic troops roaming through Portugal in the early 1800s might have laid the sandwich’s culinary foundations.
Frederico Santos Carvalho, a longtime Porto resident and foodie extraordinaire — inducted into the Serra da Estrela Cheese Brotherhood (traveling Europe, sampling regional cuisines) for his epicurean passions — says the francesinha is more than a “typical dish from Porto. It’s an identity icon.”
Two francesinhas a month is probably safe.
While recipes differ, the “little French girl” is customarily a stack of fresh sausage, tender beef, several different kinds of ham and a mountain of cheese atop fresh bread. Roasted pork loin or a fried egg (buried by the cheese, or perched on top of it) can be added for good measure, just in case anyone frets the chef is skimping on the protein. Then it’s all smothered in a thick sauce, which can vary depending on who’s preparing the particular caloric titan you happen to be carving up.
Carvalho reckons two francesinhas a month is probably safe — assuming you aren’t actively seeking to shorten your life span — although many Tripeiros (or tripe-eaters, a nickname for Portuense that harks back to the 15th century, when prime cuts of meat went to the military, while the masses ate tripe) often indulge in more, especially during futebol season. “It’s almost a tradition to eat a francesinha at the end of FC Porto [the revered local soccer team] matches in Dragon Stadium,” Carvalho tells me.
Ana Patuleia Ortins, author of Authentic Portuguese Cooking, and daughter of a Portuguese emigrant, has her own take on how to prepare a francesinha. Making the sauce a day or two ahead is helpful, she says. While beer is a common ingredient, Ortins’ sauce recipe includes brandy. She suggests prepping the meats in advance, and having everything ready to assemble for when the animal parts are cooked, as well as using a shallow bowl to cradle the sauce. Since the francesinha isn’t a hand-held sandwich, Ortins explains, the serving bowl “makes the use of the fork and knife easier when cutting into it.”
If cooking isn’t for you, then a visit to A Regaleira, or another francesinha hot spot, like Bufete Fase or Cufra, just might satisfy your cravings. Carvalho says a few vegetarian and seafood francesinhas are now on offer too, although I suspect most die-hard francesinha fans will remain loyal to the hearty, meat-laden versions that stick to the ribs for days on end.