The Unlikely Origins of Portugal’s Beloved Alheira Sausage

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Written by: | Last updated on February 13, 2024 | Est. Reading Time: 2 minutes
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Alheira, a smoked Portuguese sausage known for its unique garlic flavour, is one of Portugal’s most famous traditional dishes. In 2011, it was celebrated as one of Portugal’s seven gastronomic wonders, a testament to its cherished place in the nation’s cuisine. This sausage is a staple on Portuguese menus, often accompanied by a fried egg and fries.

The name, derived from the Portuguese word “alho” for garlic, hints at its flavourful character. Notably, alheira sets itself apart from other Portuguese sausages by traditionally not using pork, although many modern versions include it.

The most esteemed alheiras, particularly those from Mirandela in Trás-os-Montes, as well as from Beira Alta, are renowned for their quality. Recognised with the IGP (“Indicação Geográfica Protegida”) certification, alheira from Mirandela is safeguarded as a traditional product, ensuring it adheres to precise production standards.

Beyond its taste, alheira’s popularity is deeply rooted in its compelling history. The sausage was ingeniously crafted by Portugal’s secret Jewish community during the Inquisition.

Facing the harsh choice of death or conversion in 1497, these Jews, especially those in Trás-os-Montes, sought ways to covertly maintain their faith while outwardly conforming to Christianity.

Under the guise of converted Christians, the clandestine Jewish communities of Portugal took extraordinary measures to hide their faith, incorporating Hebrew prayers into Catholic prayer books and blending Jewish vernacular with Catholic practices. Remarkably, one such community in Belmonte succeeded in preserving its religious traditions in secrecy for over four centuries.

Their solution included the creation of alheira, a sausage made from various non-pork meats such as chicken or rabbit, seasoned to mimic the taste of pork, thus avoiding suspicion by blending in with the culinary customs of their Christian neighbours. The jews proudly hung these sausages where they could be seen, suggesting they had converted to Christianity.

Despite its origins as a means for Portugal’s secret Jews to disguise their dietary practices, the contemporary preparation of alheira has evolved. Today, many variations include pork or pork fat, diverging from the original pork-free recipe. Game-based sausages made from wild boar are particularly popular. However, you’ll also find vegan versions that taste very like the traditional recipe.

vegan alheira
Vegan Alheira from Pingo Doce © Portugalist

Therefore, those seeking to enjoy alheira in its traditional form should verify ingredients when purchasing or ordering in a restaurant.

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James Cave is the founder of Portugalist and the author of the bestselling book, Moving to Portugal Made Simple. He has visited just about every part of Portugal, including Madeira and all nine islands of the Azores, and lived in several parts of Portugal including Lisbon, the Algarve, and Northern Portugal.